Hot water leads to sustainable jobs

Issue 

There has long been support across Australia for sustainable job creation. With new environmental technologies being created at a rapid pace, green jobs have been created in installation and retail — but what about sustainable manufacturing?

There is now a push for sustainable jobs that consider the future of communities where local jobs are reliant on coal, such as Morwell in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley.

Early this month, Earthworker, a movement to establish sustainable worker-owned cooperatives, held a public forum with expert speakers on worker-ownership, the sustainable economy and innovation.

The event’s organisers hoped the night would broaden the discussion around caring for our environment through the creation of more “green collar” jobs, and they were not disappointed.

The national manager of a new “customer-owned bank”, Steven Lynch, began the discussion. The new bank, called bankmecu, is a leader in the emerging breed of credit unions and cooperatives that are backing green initiatives.

Employee Ownership Australia’s Angela Perry, The Australia Institute executive director Richard Denniss and Earthworker founder Dave Kerin also spoke.

Denniss said cooperatives were not new — they work, so “why can’t we all cooperate?” He said industry superannuation investment could aid new cooperative initiatives.

Perry discussed the worker-owner model and the benefits that flowed from democracy in the workplace.

Speakers painted the picture of a new economy emerging in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, which is still causing shockwaves worldwide.

We need to shift the public debate beyond the old “environment-versus-jobs” debate and there are now real examples of green job creation in a range of industries.

Earthworker has a dream to create a “green collar” job revolution in Australia, and has been working with a range of union and church-based organisations towards this goal for several years.

Earthworker is working to establish Eureka’s Future workers’ cooperative in Morwell to help workers find new opportunities in sustainable manufacturing with products like solar hot water units.

It is currently fundraising to buy a manufacturing licence. With strong support from the community, this funraising campaign, endorsed by a range of union leaders including ACTU President Ged Kearney, has reached its fundraising goal of $10,000. Once there are sufficient orders they will be ready to make solar hot water units under licence.

Carly Hammond, the Strategic Partnership Manager with the Australian Conservation Foundation, is enthusiastic about the initiative. She believes business is changing and “the forum showed an appetite for new ways of doing business, a true triple bottom-line approach where people and the environment are equally important as making a profit.”

Hammond believes unions can play a big part. “The discussion about and support for the Earthworker cooperative underscore the opportunities for the union movement to lead in building a better economy,” she said.

These budding initiatives signal a new kind of political economy emerging worldwide. New social enterprises in the US, such as the Green Worker and Evergreen cooperatives, are changing the game.

The world’s most successful worker-owner cooperative in Basque Spain, Mondragon, has signed a ground-breaking agreement with the United Steelworkers union in US and there are hopes for union-worker cooperatives spreading across the US as large corporations leave communities behind in a scorched-earth fashion.

The fact no Mondragon worker-owner lost a job in GFC-ravaged Spain has provided inspiration for bottom-up business building in the US.

Kerin spoke of his frustration at the necessary but sad role that unions now play when manufacturing shuts down, that is fighting for a fair redundancy deal for workers.

He highlighted hope by revisiting the historic “Green Bans” by the Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF) in the 1970s. Actions by union members stopped areas such as the Vic Markets from being knocked down and being lost from the community. Kerin wants this same spirit to imbue the creation of new worker cooperation.

Kerin spoke of new migrants being employed by Earthworker cooperatives in the future and also Australia’s first people thus ensuring that opportunities are created for all Australians.

For Julian Waters-Lynch, the facilitator of proceedings, this signalled that the political and ideological fault lines of the 20th century are becoming increasingly obsolete. “We need to work together in new ways to reimagine alternatives, in our working and personal lives as much as our politics, now and into the future,” she said.

It is hoped the enterprising work of Earthworker will be part of a broader endeavour to change the nature of our political economy. But, as one older BLF comrade was overheard saying, that will not happen without a fight.

[To contribute to Earthworker, click here.]

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