Who is really protecting power industry jobs?


Tony Maher, national president of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union, says "green jobs" is a "dopey term". Quoted in the September 14 Australian, he said: "By mid-century we'll be using twice as much coal and a lot more steel and plastic and concrete that aren't the flavour of the month with environmentalists and green groups."

He said: "A coalminer or a power station worker isn't going to leave their job on $120,000-plus with well-regulated shift arrangements and decent conditions to install low-wattage light bulbs or insulation."

Has Maher heard of climate change? With the latest dire forecasts that global temperatures could rise by up to 5° Celsius this century if CO2 emissions continue unchecked, we have no choice but to head for zero emissions as fast as possible. Meanwhile, "clean coal" is yet to power a single light globe anywhere.

But Maher is not just out of touch on the climate science. Assuming he is not just acting as a swindler for the coal companies, he seems to completely misunderstand renewable energy. He also seems out of touch with the membership of his own union.

On September 9, I chaired a meeting in the Latrobe Valley town of Morwell, just next to Hazelwood power station. The meeting was called by the group organising the "Switch off Hazelwood" protest. It was called "Clean energy or coal? What future for Latrobe jobs?"

The 20 or so workers from Hazelwood who showed up never questioned two basic points: if they could get good jobs in the renewable energy industry they would be happy to take them, and that "clean coal" would not come online in time to save their jobs — most predictions give it 20 years to come into fruition, if it works at all.

They also knew they would need new jobs before too long. Victoria's power industry privatisation in the 1990s destroyed not just thousands of jobs but also plans to upgrade the state's power generators. The plans for a new coal power station at Driffield to replace Hazelwood were abandoned.

A new, more efficient replacement may have provided some security for Latrobe jobs, albeit still burning coal. Now, Hazelwood management is making offers to the government to close the plant under the emissions trading scheme. Where does that leave the workers?

Since the Latrobe Valley is unsuited for wind or solar energy harvesting, the best prospects for green jobs are in manufacturing components for wind and solar plants, and related infrastructure like rail transport.

It is important to note that government assistance, including investment and perhaps ownership, is likely to be needed to get this manufacturing industry running. Like most hi-tech industries, renewables are highly concentrated in ownership and manufacturing tends to be done on a large scale. A genuine push from government to convert the grid to renewables is needed, regardless of whether the manufacturing and generation facilities are owned publicly, privately or co-operatively.

Public ownership is essential in at least one part of the transition: a fair outcome for coal and power workers. New industries set up under the ownership or regulation of a state power company could re-train and re-deploy the workers without changing their pay rates, years of service or entitlements.

According to Greenpeace's August 2009 report Working for the climate, the renewables are Germany's second-largest industry, second only to automotive. It also notes that "for the first time in 2008 both the United States and the European Union added more capacity from renewable energy than from conventional sources". And it points out that ongoing maintenance jobs in wind are four times as many as in coal power.

There is plenty of scope for this industry to grow in Australia, and climate change means it has to. This is an opportunity for unions to act to create new jobs and save the livelihoods of workers in precarious situations such as at Hazelwood. It could also provide a job-rich transition for the whole coal industry.

The Socialist Alliance hopes that unions will take this challenge head-on: the future of our planet and the future of many both depend on it.