One of the best received speakers at the recent climate rally in Newcastle was Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) organiser Mark Cross.
This is not to dismiss the powerful words spoken by the bushfire survivors, Aboriginal activists, youth leaders and environmental experts who also addressed the 2500 people in Newcastle’s Civic Park on January 10.
All the speeches, chants and songs were moving, justly angry and poignant.
Cross, however, was an unexpected voice. He was representing a union often portrayed as a climate change denying one or, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison likes to assert, criminals who all need to be jailed.
Cross kicked off by acknowledging the extraordinary firefighters, volunteers and activists that had stood in front of “these almighty flames that could have possibly killed hundreds of us”.
He called on the construction industry “to follow the likes of Synergy Scaffold, Salex Linings and Crane Contractors who are continuing to run trucks and supplies to the South Coast … and to stand right beside our union and its members as we go about rebuilding this country”.
This was good, but what he said next was probably unexpected: “Climate change is a real issue in this country. We can no longer ignore it. What we need to do is to ensure a just transition of jobs for workers out of that fossil fuel industry.”
Cross went on to highlight the need for Australia to manufacture the components for wind farms to make a just transition a reality.
This is a union branch that understands that protecting workers’ jobs and protecting the environment go together.
Cross’s speech and the small, but visible, contingent of workers who had arrived from work and who were proudly holding CFMEU flags, was in sharp contrast to the union movement’s relative absence from the recent climate rallies, which have largely been led by young people.
One reason might be because union leaderships are still falling in behind the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ “re-elect Labour at all costs” strategy, which effectively ignores the seismic shift in public opinion around needing to take action on climate change.
The planet, and communities being affected by climate change now, cannot wait while Anthony Albanese and the Australian Labor Party get their act together.
Instead of talking up coal exports, Labor should be advocating a cut to coal production as part of a transition away from fossil fuel exports.
Lowering production and raising coal prices, the short-term result, could help generate revenue to fund a just transition for affected workers as we make the shift away from coal to renewables.
Labor, like most unions, is failing to respond to the new community outlook generated by the drought and bushfires.
Even if the drought worsens, the New South Wales government has flagged that it will favour the continuing operation of mining and coal-burning power generators in the Hunter region.
As people realise that we are seemingly expected to eat coal, the idea that the coal industry and coal-powered electricity generation be placed under public control as part of a just transition becomes very reasonable.
Therefore it was positive to see a union making links with, and earning respect among climate activists — some of whom initially asked the hi-vis clad, union flag-carrying CFMEU contingent whether they were at the right rally!
Newcastle CFMEU members knew where they were and why they were there: supporting communities with practical solidarity and recognising that the real problem lies with government support for the fossil fuel industry.
Let’s hope we see lots of CFMEU members, as well as workers from a range of other unions, at the next climate rally and student-led climate strike.
A strategy to promote union participation in the climate movement will draw us one step closer to finishing off PM Scott Morrison and moving to a sustainable future.
[Stephen O’Brien is a unionist and member of the Newcastle Socialist Alliance.]