Environment and jobs alliance launched in the Hunter

A metal worker. Photo: Hunterjobsalliance.org.au

Electric buses, retrofitting buildings, green aluminium smelters, offshore wind generation and mine rehabilitation are among the job creation ideas being proposed by the Hunter Jobs Alliance (HJA), which was launched in Maitland on November 5.

The alliance calls for “full employment, good union jobs, a thriving and healthy living environment, an equitable society, a stable climate and renewable prosperity”.

Motivated by the observation that a “jobs versus environment” debate is dividing workers, Steve Murphy, former New South Wales and now national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), initiated the alliance last year.

Murphy reached out to the Hunter Community Environment Centre (HCEC), Lock the Gate Alliance and the Nature Conservation Council via the Labor Environment Action Network to explore opportunities for collaboration.

A series of meetings between environmentalists and unions nutted out a jobs plan for the region, which currently hosts the world’s largest coal port.

The NSW branches of the AMWU, Electrical Trades Union, Australian Services Union, NSW Teachers Federation, Independent Education Union, Nurses and Midwives Association have come on board, as have the United Workers Union, Community and Public Sector Union, National Tertiary Education Union, Hunter Workers and Unions NSW.

The jobs plan has a focus on three immediate priorities: transitioning the Tomago Aluminium smelter from coal to renewable energy; retrofitting Hunter schools and houses with renewable technologies; and repurposing the 150 million tonnes of coal ash waste from the Hunter’s four coal-fired power stations as building material.

While private sector support is encouraged, the plan identifies large-scale public investment as a key component of developing new industry, supporting communities and providing jobs.

Retrofitting the Hunter’s 264,000 schools and houses with energy-saving solar units and batteries, for example, could employ 10,000 people a year for five years, starting immediately.

Rehabilitating the 22,400 hectares of former mine land could create 2627 jobs and building 8000 “zero emissions” buses in the Hunter for Transport NSW would create 160 jobs over 25 years.

According to HCEC coordinator Jo Lynch, coal-ash recycling is one of many examples of how government can back new industries in regional NSW.

Good environmental outcomes and jobs can co-exist in the Hunter and across NSW, she told Green Left. The HCEC has been campaigning for government support to recycle coal ash into building materials. Such an industry would help clean up large dump sites and reduce the pollution from coal ash run–off into waterways.

The potential of good union jobs may well win the necessary public support and ensure the region retains control over the big decisions, which will inevitably have to be made as the coal industry winds down.

The HJA intends to “bring workers, environmentalists, business and government together to discuss the region’s future” together at a summit in the Hunter in March 2021.

[Steve O’Brien is a member of Socialist Alliance and delegate to Hunter Workers.] 

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