Workers and environmentalists need a new alliance

June 7, 2008

Like many others, I cut my activist teeth during the Franklin River campaign of the early 1980s. Like thousands of others, I joined the blockades in south west Tasmania and, like hundreds of others, was arrested for my troubles and spent a week in Risdon Jail.

After close to a decade campaigning to save forests in the Otways, East Gippsland and south eastern NSW, by the mid \'90s, a number of forest activists decided to shift our focus to government. But as the timber union was sufficiently anti-green and the ALP proved to be as wedded to woodchippers' money as the Coalition, that shift became pointless.

At the time, the two parallel movements — the unions and the greenies — essentially viewed each other as the "enemy", despite the real enemy being the governments' sanction of logging operations and profit-hungry corporations. Meanwhile, the contractors struggled to make payments on their equipment.

Today, we see the same dynamics unfolding although the conflict is over coal, not forests. We could be drawn into another lost decade of blockades on coal mines, ships and power plants if not for the climate scientists' warnings that we have a few short years — 2015 at the very latest — to turn around greenhouse gas emissions.

As the climate change movement is increasingly targeting coal, we are already in the trenches with the mining division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), which is siding with the coal industry.

If our focus is coal, the unions are unlikely to shift. Equally, the rising direct action climate change movement sees coal as the main target (because it is such a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions). This pits the environment movement against workers, potentially making unions the enemy again — and real dialogue all but impossible.

Is there another way? We can learn from the approach deployed by the Earthworker alliance of the \'90s. Seeing the fraught relations during the forests' debate, it sought to concentrate instead on sustainable energy and fibre. If the climate change movement were to adopt a similar strategy it would have to focus on energy savings and renewables, rather than coal.

Energy efficiency

Many researchers suggest that we can make relatively easy, but deep — between 30-45% compared to existing emissions — greenhouse emissions reductions through energy efficiency measures. The key point is that these cuts would be "job rich" and could be achieved with the technology we already have (as opposed to commercially untested "clean" coal). They usually pay themselves off in a matter of years, and don't push serious problems onto future generations as "clean" coal and nuclear energy would.

In addition to energy efficiency measures, we need a thriving local renewable energy sector, which would also produce thousands of new jobs.

Climate scientists say that rich nations like Australia will need to reduce greenhouse emissions by anywhere between 80-100% compared with current rates. To do this means we have to change how we plan our cities and agriculture.

We need to move towards more compact urban dwellings and with less reliance on cars. We will need to get smarter at harvesting water and generating energy from low-impact sources within cities. We will need a rapid retrofitting program of commercial buildings, public housing and private residences, as well as profound changes to the way we build new housing stock.

But to do all this, we need real collaboration from the unions — initially from those who stand to gain the most from such a job-rich transition such as the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, the CFMEU (especially the construction and energy divisions), the Electrical Trades Union and the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union.

We need unions to take the lead with the progressive part of the environment movement to frame a series of political demands that could include: rebuilding our energy infrastructure to harness renewable energy; vastly improving public transport, pedestrian and cycling infrastructure; building fast rail links between Australia's major cities; electrifying the rail network (and then running the trains on new renewable energy); and building carbon-neutral buildings and retrofitting existing buildings.


The two movements can work on developing a political agenda flowing from agreed demands. Apart from creating many thousands of jobs, considerable economic activity and large cuts in greenhouse emissions, we will also generate a real working relationship between the green movement and the trade unions. This will, in turn, allow us to tackle the hard issue: what to do with the coal industry.

Once workers see that jobs in energy efficiency and renewables are a real option, the natural fear that comes with facing restructure will be lessened.

If we can work out a transition strategy for energy sector jobs, we can ensure job security for workers in the coal industry. Just one large renewables factory in the Victorian Latrobe Valley would greatly facilitate a transition for energy workers.

We need greater support for job training and retraining, and apprenticeships in the renewable energy and retrofit industries with a commitment to existing workers that none will become unemployed.

We would aim to create jobs, especially through apprenticeships in emerging industries. This would mean that over time the coal industry would scale down as younger workers move directly into low-carbon industries.

How do we begin this process? It may seem unrealistic, but those of us who are trade union members and environmentalists have to demand as much from our union leaderships.

Unions have to act on the historical opportunity presented by a major shift to energy efficiency and renewables which could yield tens of thousands of new jobs.

A just transition

Without unions how can the restructure that is coming be job rich? Ultimately, the agenda of most large environmental groups is to protect the environment, not jobs. We need radical action focused on the notion of a just transition.

Initially, we could set up state-wide working groups bringing unions, green activists, academics and researchers together to hammer out agreement on our campaign "asks". Friends of the Earth has already created drafts of these policy goals.

This could be followed by an education program within unions and environmental groups about why such a "just transition" approach is not only possible, but necessary.

We then need concerted political action to make sure state governments do take action on energy efficiency and renewables. If we get this far, we will have broken out of the current political impasse on the question of coal. We will have helped create thousands of new jobs across Australia and stopped this country from being a radical over-emitter of carbon dioxide.

The climate science clearly shows that the rich nations must take a lead in deep and binding cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. A strong alliance between trade unionists and the environmental movement will mean we can do this while creating massive job opportunities and building community cohesion in the face of the changes that will come with global warming.

[Cam Walker is the national campaigns coordinator for Friends of the Earth. This article is based on a paper to the Climate Change/Social Change conference, organised by Green Left Weekly, in Sydney, April 11-13.]

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