How should mining union respond to the coal divestment movement?

Issue 
We need to clearly differentiate between the interests of workers and those of the coal industry.

Newcastle is a major centre for coal exports. When Newcastle City Council flirts with any hint of fossil fuel divestment, expect controversy.

On August 25, the council approved a policy giving preference to “environmentally and socially responsible investments”. This was supported by Labor and Greens councillors, and opposed by Liberal and independent councillors.

The council was immediately condemned for supposedly undermining the coal industry. Critics included Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the Hunter Business Chamber, Labor Right MP Joel Fitzgibbon, and the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) Northern Mining and NSW Energy District.

This was not actually fossil fuel divestment — just a baby step in that direction. The Labor mayor tried to hose down controversy by reassuring the coal industry and workers that Newcastle Council supported them and was not divesting.

Conflict within Labor about environmental policies is not new. Of concern here is the response of the local CFMEU District, which suggests that they will strongly oppose even a symbolic step away from coal by employing the “jobs versus environment” argument.

The local CFMEU District called on Labor councillors to reverse the decision. While criticising the council’s lack of consultation, they also labelled the decision “an example of self-indulgent, gesture-politics that puts working class people last. ... [Labor councillors] should not attempt to out-bid the Greens on who can destroy more blue-collar jobs”.

Greens councillor Therese Doyle told Green Left Weekly that the CFMEU had been “duped by coal corporations”. She hoped that, given their strong tradition of “defending industrial and community rights”, CFMEU members would “demand a sustainable future for themselves and their children”.

Greens councillors would have preferred that the council’s policy actually called for fossil fuel divestment.

The Newcastle Trades Hall Council took a broader view of the controversy. While affirming that it represented workers in a range of industries including coal, it stated that it supported “alternative investment that generates growth and employment opportunities” and refrained from criticising the council. Trades Hall secretary Daniel Wallace told Green Left Weeklythat after the steel industry closures, the council recognised that diversification was good for the region.

Today the Hunter Valley has a diverse range of industries. Coal mining, while very influential, is a minor employer with only 5% of local jobs in the coal industry.

Many supporters of the CFMEU would be disappointed by the stance of its Northern Mining District. We face a climate change emergency and all countries need to transition from coal quickly. Renewable energy is likely to displace coal soon. Ignoring this issue will not make it go away. However, affected communities do need justice.

Just Transition recognises that communities affected by the inevitable transition from coal will need new jobs, such as in the manufacture of sustainable technologies, like wind turbines and solar components, and new skills. It stresses that affected communities and their trade unions need to have a strong voice in the transition process.

Judging by the attack on the Labor–Greens dominated council, it appears that the CFMEU’s Northern Mining District is not planning for a life after coal. This does not help the futures of workers and communities who currently rely on coal jobs. It also ignores the health and wellbeing of communities affected by pollution and land degradation from coalmining.

We need to clearly differentiate between the interests of Hunter Valley workers and those of the coal industry. The industry has been willing to create division and distrust in the region and to ride roughshod over community concerns about health, environment and the loss of valuable farming land. The interests of local workers, however, are in the future wellbeing of their communities.

Some in the CFMEU are more proactive. Luke van der Meulen, president of the Victorian division (based in the Latrobe Valley) and a former Greens candidate, is a long-term advocate of Just Transitions. CFMEU General President Tony Maher recently endorsed Labor’s proposal for 50% renewable energy on condition of substantial financial assistance for affected workers.

Fossil fuel divestment campaigners 350.org also strongly promote just transitions, and hosted the national Just Transitions speaking tour by Bob Massie earlier this year. Newcastle Trades Hall secretary Daniel Wallace, for example, spoke at Massie’s Newcastle meeting.

A just transition to a low-carbon society needs to be planned and driven by workers and their unions. The free market will not provide social justice. It requires a strong role by government. Workers’ cooperatives for manufacturing sustainable technologies are also emerging. An example is the Earthworker Cooperative, driven by union activist Dave Kerin.

The CFMEU Northern Mining and NSW Energy District could be part of the solution, and could help drive a just transition for the people of the Hunter. Because coal is not the future of humanity.

A rescission motion against the new investment policy, initiated by Liberal councillors, failed at an extraordinary meeting of Newcastle Council held on September 8.

[Andrea Bunting is a member of Socialist Alliance and Climate Action Moreland, which campaigned with 350.org for Moreland City Council to divest from fossil fuels.]

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