Labor and some unions should stop equivocating about the Adani coalmine.
In the movement to stop Adani’s Carmichael coalmine Australia is experiencing a social movement of generational significance.
It brings together people of all ages, but particularly very large numbers of young people. It includes Aboriginal people, farmers, churches, anti-poverty organisations, international aid agencies, doctors and other health workers, environmentalists, social justice campaigners, tourism operators, large and small businesses, workers from diverse industries and their unions. It attracts international solidarity.
The Australian union movement faces a choice: which side of the struggle do we want to be on? Do we want to be on the side of all these people and groups, those calling for a new way of doing things, for a concerted national effort to build a sustainable economy with decent jobs?
Do we want to side with the young people who want a future free of environmental devastation and the conflict that will result from it, the young people who are the future of political activism?
Do we take seriously our stated commitment to justice for Aboriginal people, or does this extend no further than feel-good acknowledgements of country at union meetings? Do we support Aboriginal land rights?
Or do we throw our lot in with those who support Adani’s mine?
Do we side with the global multinationals who refuse to pay their fair share of tax, who hate unions more than they love coal, who would automate every job they could, who ran a deceitful campaign against the Kevin Rudd government’s mining super profits tax which, remember, was supposed to fund an increase in workers’ superannuation?
Do we side with these multinationals that threaten us every time we want to get more of a share of our natural wealth? Do we side with the white shoe brigade that has always infected Queensland governments of any stripe, and that has convinced the Premier and Prime Minister that there is only one form of economic development possible in regional Queensland, that mining is all that country Queenslanders are good for or good at?
Do we really side with the Malcolm Turnbull government, that bizarre combination of Christian or free market fundamentalists and climate change deniers fondling lumps of coal in parliament. Those who set up the Trade Union Royal Commission and the ABCC, who are hell-bent on destroying unions and offering our members up as human resource sacrifices on the altars of their big business mates?
Do we side with Adani, a company whose environmental destructiveness is equal to its contempt for the communities and workers from which it extracts profit? Do we care about the way Adani exploits local communities and its workers in India, and are we happy to import that way of doing things into Australia?
Which side of history do we want to be on? The side of those who want to wring every last drop out of a failing economic system that is based on the exploitation of labour as much as the exploitation of the environment. Those who want to cut taxes for themselves at the same time as they cut penalty rates for the lowest paid.
Or do we want to be on the side of those who believe that it is possible to end the exploitation and destruction of the environment, to build a fair, decent, sustainable economy, to restore to Aboriginal people control over their lands?
The choice must be made, and it is stark. Climate change is happening faster than previously thought. The potential for planetary disaster, making human life on Earth very difficult, is no longer the stuff of science fiction.
The burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of global warming. Coal is one of the dirtiest fuels. To have any chance of keeping climate change manageable, with minimum damage to Earth’s ecosystem, the burning of fossil fuels, particularly coal, must be ended as soon as possible.
It is no longer possible for unions to say they accept the science of climate change but not be prepared to act on it. This is worse than climate denialism: at least the deniers have their delusions as an excuse.
It makes no sense for unions to support an economic model that is based on subsidising digging stuff up and shipping it overseas, while manufacturing industries are left to rot and tens of thousands of jobs in tourism and hospitality relying on the Great Barrier Reef are put at risk.
It is suicide, in a struggle to define the nation’s future, to support the very political and economic forces that seek to destroy us.
The climate disasters that are already upon us, and those that are still to come, do not distinguish between industries or workers or unions. Climate change is the business of all unions.
Coal miners dig up coal. They have a long and proud history. But fire fighters fight the bushfires provoked by global warming. Nurses treat the victims of cyclones and heatwaves. Teachers and lecturers train people for new jobs and new ways of seeing and doing things. Electricians install solar panels. Farm workers grow our food in our changing climate.
Workers suffer from higher electricity bills because of a government that wants to stymie the arrival of new ways of generating power because it threatens the profits of their mates in the fossil fuel companies.
No one pretends it is easy. That’s why climate change should be a movement-wide concern, and not left up to any one union or group of unions. We are all in this together or we die separately.
No worker will be immune to the climate catastrophes that await us if we don’t act now. The rich and their friends in government will do everything to protect their interests and to trample on the interests of working people in the process. Why should unions support them now to build this disastrous mine, when we know what they will do to us when the heat is really on?
The choice is clear: which side are we on?
[Colin Long is the Victorian secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union.]