Jim Casey: 'We need to build the social movements'

February 18, 2016
Jim Casey is running for the Greens in the federal seat of Grayndler.

Jim Casey, until recently the secretary of the Fire Brigade Employees Union in NSW, has been preselected for the Greens candidate in the seat of Grayndler in Sydney. I interviewed Casey for Green Left Radio on February 5.

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Last week Anthony Albanese, who is the Labor MP for Grayndler, lambasted you for being a socialist.

Albanese said, in his tirade, it was unfortunate the Greens had been captured in New South Wales by people who have a history in the Socialist Party of Australia or the International Socialists or the Socialist Workers Party and want to use the green banner to advance an agenda that is about anything but the environment.

Is that true Jim? Are you just pretending to be concerned about climate change when you are helping put out massive bushfires?

[Laughing] Yes, the bottom line is I am in deep cover. I went underground years ago.

Actually this is just not credible. I have two immediate responses. One is that most socialists I have met are environmentalists. It is consistent with a socialist world view to understand that the environment is something we have to co-exist with and that the commodification of that is every bit as dangerous to the species as the commodification of our labour power.

But the second thing, and the reason I have joined the Greens, is that my experience of climate change through firefighting made me aware that this is something that needed more explicit political emphasis. That is why I am where I am. It is a nice attempt at a smear but that is all it really is.

Who would have thought Labor would try to smear socialists?

Yes, hold the front page. But I have to say I would expect it from some of the Uglies in the NSW Right but this bloke is from the Socialist Left. That is a slightly new development.

You were at the national convergence of people campaigning against coal and coal seam gas (CSG) at Kurri Kurri in 2013. You were the only union leader in attendance. Anthony Albanese certainly was not there. I remember you remarking at the time that more unionists should be involved in the movement to drag the economy away from fossil fuels to renewables. What role can unions play in making that transition happen?

I think it is quite a delicate question. Regarding the Beyond Coal and Gas Convergence, I want to give an honourable mention to [former NSW Labor leader] John Robertson [who promised to ban CSG exploration and extraction in the Northern Rivers if Labor won the election]. He is from the right of the ALP and when you see people from the more conservative parts of the broader labour movement reaching out like that it should be acknowledged. More power to him. Certainly the left of the Labor Party was conspicuous by its absence at that event.

But more broadly, leaving aside the Labor Party and its apparatchiks, the labour movement's engagement with this was always going to be fraught. There are really strong unions full of committed, serious unionists whose livelihood are entirely tied up with old dirty industries.

For example, unions such as the CFMEU mining division have a very good position on climate and a pretty good position on coal. But they will always suffer from the fact that, regardless of the rationality of climate issues in the longer term, to someone who is facing the immediate threat of a job loss, there are not many arguments that will take precedence. They will always think: “I'll worry about the planet once I've sorted out my mortgage and my kid's education”. It is actually a reasonable position.

It is a delicate question and there are sections of the movement that will be more responsive than others. I think the challenge is to make sure that front and centre is the issue of just transitions. The parts of the movement that are more divorced from the immediate economic changes associated with transition — public sector unions are a good example — need to be raising questions about what do you do for the men and women who currently work in dirty industries.

It is not enough to say there will be jobs in windmills. I think it really needs to be quite targeted. For example [Greens MP] Adam Bandt has been working in the Latrobe Valley looking at what jobs the people who currently work in dirty brown coal power stations could do in the future. That is exactly the template for what needs to be done. Why would anyone trust a politician who talks about nebulous jobs to come sometime in the future? We need detail and we need to fight for that detail, and we need to make sure that people are going to have that transition with dignity.

Gareth Bryant submitted a study as part of the Greens' Reboot Future conference in 2014. Among other things he argued that large-scale public investment in renewables is an essential part of effective action on climate change and generating jobs in those areas where they are needed like the Latrobe Valley and the Hunter Valley. What do you think of that?

Yes, I think he is on the money. Look at the golden age of capitalist expansion in the US, where the railway barons were stretching out the infrastructure across the continent, which would allow American capitalism to thrive. Some of it was purely private sector, but there was also intervention by the state to allow it to happen. They provided military support when it was needed, financial support and other help.

The argument was that in order to create the conditions for the US economy to thrive there needed to be some kind of directed state intervention.

In exactly the same way, whether you are talking about transitions to something post-capitalist or not what is clear is that we need clean and renewable energy sources in the medium to longer term and if the state does not provide the impetus for that no one else will.

I think it is quite possible that far-sighted sections of the business community can see the need to move [to renewable energy] but, because they are all in competition with one another, they cannot be the one that takes the financial hit of laying out the first round of investment.

It is not necessarily the top-hatted monopoly capitalist saying I don't care. You can have the most far-sighted people in the world running Fortune 500 companies, but their shareholders will crucify them if they start dropping money on something which will not allow them to maintain market share and profit levels.

In a capitalist sense the state can make decisions in these circumstances for the entire economy and the entire capitalist class. They have the capacity to transcend those internal divisions. This is what Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard did in the global financial crisis. If you speak to anyone, apart from the Liberal Party, they recognise that Rudd and Gillard's actions allowed the Australian economy to weather the GFC. Private industry, by definition, could not have done it.

We've seen the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the US in the past few months. I saw recently that 84% of Democrat voters in Iowa aged 18 to 29 voted for Sanders. This is unprecedented. Do you think the idea of socialism is experiencing a renewal or rebirth?

I wish that were the case, but I am not sure. I think it is more likely that what is going on is just a level of genuine disenchantment so that people are open to alternatives. I look at Corbyn and Sanders and I feel joy. Don't get me wrong, I think it is wonderful to see.

But the thing that worries me, and the thing we need to keep in mind, is that we are not seeing a corresponding spike in union density or in industrial unrest or in wins for our side. We are seeing an environmental movement that continues to grow but many of the other social movements are stagnant or going backwards.

Part of me is concerned that changes in voting patterns reflects the desire to see something different but there's a lack of confidence in [people believing in] their own capacity to act.

The challenge for Corbyn and Sanders and for other progressive forces is to understand that half their role is to build the social movements they come from. If you don't do that, you might win the battle of the election but you'll lose the war overall.

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