New union-environment coalition in SA

Issue 

By Emma Webb

ADELAIDE — The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) Building Division and the Conservation Council formally established the Coalition of Unions and Environment Groups (CUE) on June 5, World Environment Day.

CUE aims to bridge the gap between the union and environment movements; provide a forum for dialogue between unions and environment groups; promote a cohesive union-environment response to development proposals; facilitate an ecologically sustainable industry base through joint liaison with government, industry and the grassroots activist base of both movements; utilise common ground between the two movements to advance positive social change; and ensure a sustainable future.

Ben Carslake, state secretary of the CFMEU, told Green Left Weekly his organisation had "a fairly close relationship with individuals in the environmental movement", including members of the SA Conservation Council, the Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth.

"We have had a more formal relationship with the Conservation Council, as an umbrella group, and this led to an initial meeting where we decided that May 1 was a good time to launch a structured [union-environment] organisation rather than just rely on individuals or specific groups."

"Pressures of time" prevented this, and they decided to postpone the launch until World Environment Day.

The links between the CFMEU and the council were established saving parklands and the Tennyson sand dunes, Carslake said. Both organisations also worked on the campaign to stop the bridge to Hindmarsh Island.

Green Left asked Carslake which other campaigns CUE would be working on. "At the moment we've got the Wirrina tourist resort and also the Mount Lofty development, along with various proposed marinas. There is always something some smart developer wants to do at the expense of the environment or heritage or Aboriginal people."

Carslake recalled that, a few years back, thousands of people mobilised to stop a marina from being built at Sellicks Beach; this led to the CFMEU imposing bans. "The Labor Party came out and said they had stopped it. But it was the movement of conservationists, unionists and local people that stopped that development.

"[It's people] that identify the problems. Hopefully they can be discussed in this new organisation. I think that 95% of the time the union and environment movements will agree with each other."

Is CUE a response to the recent woodchipping debate? Carslake replied that the construction, not the forestry, division was part of the CUE. While the forestry division hasn't been very sympathetic to calls to end logging in old growth forests, Carslake said he'd like to see it discuss the issues with the Conservation Council.

Carslake said that his division is also trying to make contact with other unions and conservation organisations nationally and internationally. Carslake said that "the CFMEU will be taking these sort of ideas" to the forum of the World Federation of Free Trade Unions.

To educate its members, the CFMEU intends to use the Conservation Council's resources and information on job sites and in the union journal.

Carslake said that this approach had worked well in the past. "Quite a few years ago when we helped stop Marineland — the jail for dolphins — being built, some of our members thought we were crazy. But after we talked it through on the job, it was pretty much accepted."

Carslake is also hopeful that CUE will raise awareness among environmentalists about the power of unions and the need to have workers on side. "CUE can help the environmental movement understand that workers are battling all the time and are concerned about risks to jobs."

While the ACTU and Australian Conservation Foundation have signed a green jobs and industry charter, Carslake sees CUE as a little different. "Those initiatives are fine, but we are much more grassroots orientated; you've got to be able to relate to people and communities. CUE is more than a policy; it is an activist coalition."

Asked whether such a coalition would consider forming an alliance to run candidates in state and federal elections, Carslake said that it hadn't been discussed.

"I'm very sceptical about parliamentary politics. While I know the Greens and Democrats and some people left in the Labor Party have done some good things, I think we'll go for a more grassroots activist approach. Out of that you never know what will happen!", Carslake concluded.