Workers' control and the climate emergency

December 9, 2009

In September, the Victorian district committee of the mining and energy section of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union (CFMEU) adopted the recommendations of the Crisis in Power report written by Dave Kerin.

Kerin is an organiser with the CFMEU mining and energy division in Victoria's Latrobe Valley. Eighty-five percent of Victoria's electricity is produced in the Valley, including from some of the most polluting coal-fired power stations in the world.

Crisis in Power, released on September 9, proposed the development of a business plan for solar-powered hot water systems, run on a social enterprise model and supported by the union.

The report argued this could be the basis of profitable renewable energy manufacturing in the Latrobe Valley, a vital initiative in times of accelerating climate change.

Crisis in Power also argued Australians wanted "ecologically and economically sustainable, green collar, manufacturing jobs".

The second key proposal was that the project be run as a "social enterprise", along the lines of a workers' cooperative.

The report argued that, within a mixed economy, a social sector made up of workers-controlled enterprises would provide a space for "needs-based manufacture and economics based upon the rights of workers and their communities".

Green Left Weekly's Margarita Windisch spoke to Kerin about the proposal.

* * *

Where did the idea for a solar-powered hot water system factory run by workers come from?

It was 10 years in the making. It started with an organisation called Earthworker, designed to bring the green social movement and the workers' social movement into an organisational structure that could deal with the question of environment and jobs.

We regarded the environmental crisis as a class question. A group of unionists from the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and the Plumbers Union developed a solar, wind and water industry plan.

One of the unionists had the idea that, when you got to [a certain level of productivity] you set up another factory to meet the demand.

We wanted a strong social sector that could link with labour movements in other countries and could look at the manufacture of renewable energy technology.

One of our collaborators owns the private company Everlast, which makes tanks for hot water systems. A union secretary once asked the owner why he would want to cooperate with unions to set up a cooperative.

He replied: "I turn on the TV every night and see factories closer, our skill base shrinking and it makes me sick and I don't see any other group able to change that."

What do you mean by developing social enterprises and building up the social sector or?

It is a sector of a mixed economy that's owner-controlled by the people and produces for the needs of people and not the profits of the few.

It looks at the social capital that superannuation represents and ultimately takes up the question, within the labour movement and society generally, about our collective capital.

When superannuation first came in it was defined as part of the "workers' wage", and indeed there was general agreement at the time. Superannuation now in Australia represents 75% of the capital investment market in this country, almost totally reliant on the 9% workers' contribution.

Now that's post-capitalist. It's just that our politics, our property relations and the way we do things generally hasn't caught up with the fact.

Are there any current examples of social enterprises?

I don't think you could go past Venezuela. We have seen a massive turn to democratising the economy in all sorts of forms, a mixture of state and social enterprises, a state under workers' control, but also still with a capitalist sector.

Unlike the capitalist world, which has never allowed that to happen, Venezuela is quite at ease with the situation, because the leadership is confident that where you do have a truly social sector, with all of the creativity and energy unleashed in competition with the private sector, people will choose the social sector.

Do you think workers-controlled factories could function in Australia?

Well, look at rail. You get information coming in from other workers. It gets collated and the data gets pushed out and workers make decisions about how to use that data. The workers already run rail. The supervisor is there to make sure you don't knock off too early.

There are also developments within capitalism, such as computer technology, that lend themselves towards something capitalism can't provide — a participatory democracy. The workers couldn't be more ready to run this world.

Capitalism is now at the stage in history that Marx predicted it would finally reach, where it couldn't run the world. We see it totally dependent on militarism and war.

Once, capitalism used militarism to capture resources. Now war is the resource.

Combine that with the climate crisis and it means that if we don't have a social sector that people can participate in, then all we offer at the end is protest at what capitalism is not doing, rather than a transitional path forward for what workers need to do.

What stage is the solar hot water systems project at?

We're aiming for the first factory to be running by the end of 2010. We've got artists working pro bono on designing a place, a creative space that you would want to be in.

So far we have a social sector plan with significant investment from the mining and energy section of the CFMEU in Victoria, even though the union is not getting any jobs out of it.

The union knows we are confronted with a climate emergency and it recognises that we need to face this problem as a class, not as a miner or an electrician.

What does the union's membership think of its investment?

There is still great debate in the unions going on about this, but that's a good thing. Some people are ringing up saying "fantastic", others are thinking it might be part of the global communist conspiracy on climate change. Our bosses have done a tremendous job and spent lots of energy scaring people.

But the thing about leadership is that you have got to give the practical lead and then the debate occurs around that. You can't have the debate about whether we do it or not. That's not leadership — that's giving leadership up.

Will the project create jobs?

At the moment, about 3% of Victorians have solar hot water. If that got to 30% by around 2025, it would be roughly 57,000 installations a year.

When the factory is at full capacity, and we're producing all the components, it will create about 50 jobs at 500 units of production per month.

At that point, we set up another factory. We want to get a model running in Gippsland and then look at Geelong. We have strong ties with Geelong Trades and Labour Council secretary Tim Gooden.

We also want to go inner-urban with installers, so we can do all the installation with cooperative workers.

The idea with a social sector is that it takes care of your housing, child care etc.

What we want to do in the Latrobe Valley is get that model up-and-running with a view to bigger projects. We want to do it in the New South Wales Hunter Valley as well.

We want to start manufacturing the energy-producing goods: biomass, wind generators and solar collectors.

Will you try to get other unions on board?

Yes, especially the AMWU, in terms of manufacturing, but ultimately also the plumbers and the ETU. They're dear comrades of ours. We've developed a two-hour training module for organisers, shop stewards and activists that we take everyone through. We want to initiate it in 2010.

Wouldn't your model be very costly?

The problem with renewable technology is that people usually can't afford it. We would also have a finance cooperative, which would provide the funding for the factory, but also purchase the goods.

So, there will be a guaranteed market for the factories.

Then we'll do equitable leasing agreements that will allow people a rapid uptake of those goods. The workers will make a surplus out of the power that comes into the grid. That's where we want to head.

But to get the model in place that workers can see is the important thing and solar hot water is the place to go.

You have also had a meeting with the Venezuelan ambassador about this project.

Yes, we have initiated discussions with the Venezuelan government, which we want to continue. We want that same factory to go into Venezuela and then Cuba, and to other countries where labour movements will agree to social sector investment.

It is crucial that we link the workers' movements globally. With capitalism in decline, but highly armed, we run the risk of demoralising people. We must provide new economic space for workers, space that is democratic and ecologically sustainable.

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