To defend jobs, unions must take lead on climate emergency

October 11, 2019
The transition to a new economy requires an 'all of society' dialogue and unions need to actively involve their members.

Some unions have been rightfully criticised for sending mixed messages to members regarding the September 20 Climate Strike.

Despite the Australian Council of Trade Unions endorsing the protest, many unions did not organise members to attend, and there were few workplace meetings or union journal articles discussing the climate crisis.

The Rail Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) was seemingly one of the unions that endorsed the Climate Strike, with its logo featuring on the School Strike 4 Climate website. On the day, RTBU flags were highly visible at the Sydney strike, although union officials were noticeably inconspicuous.

RTBU debate

However, a few days after the Climate Strike, the RTBU leadership released a statement in the union’s newsletter RTBU Express stating the protest had not been “formally endorsed by the Executive of the [RTBU]...”

It explained: “A number of members advised that they would be attending and asked if the RTBU were going to take part. Subsequently, a number of our staff including officials who have strong personal views decided that they would attend.

“Some members have since raised the legitimate issue of whether people should have attended the rally as representatives of the union without properly discussing it with the membership first. That’s a valid point, and one which we have taken on board.”

The issue of discussing such decisions with members is a valid one. However, the union has rarely consulted the membership on any issue, including during enterprise bargaining agreement negotiations.

Instead, this statement is a cop-out for a union that for years has argued that by voting for officials, members are handing over power to elected officials to make decisions in their best interests.

The real issue is that there appear to be differing views between members who work in the public transport sector and in the freight sector, particularly those carting coal or other fossil fuels.

The RTBU statement notes: “A recent post we put up about some of our members and NSW Branch staff attending the School Strike for [sic] Climate Change really sparked some debate among our membership…

“Of course we are 100% supportive of our members who work in the coal industry and rely on the industry to make ends meet. That support is unwavering and always has been — we’re sorry if the photos we posted in any way made people feel that this wasn’t the case.

“We will make sure that in the future the impacted delegates are first consulted on any decision to attend rally [sic] that may affect our members.”

Unions should support their members in the coal industry. But this must include also supporting their long-term interests.

Jobs in the coal industry are precarious — there is no use pretending otherwise. Being supportive means being realistic and finding solutions for those affected by the impact that the climate crisis is having on various industries.

Five years ago, as a delegate on the RTBU’s national executive, I tried in vain to get the union to consider raising the issue of a just transition for workers in the advent of a move away from coal. I was adamant that this would affect union members and that there would be no way of avoiding it.

At the time, the national executive committee told me they were not interested and that such ideas should not be brought to the executive committee. They voted to not hear me.

Times have now changed: the climate crisis has put this and other issues into sharp focus. The union now has to confront the issue of coal haulage, whether it likes it or not.

Lessons from Europe

The RTBU could do well to look to Germany and attempts there to reduce carbon emissions by 55% by 2030. While such targets are too moderate compared to what is needed to stem climate catastrophe, Germany’s government is at least set to spend $60 billion over four years to phase out all coal-fired power stations.

Other measures have also been taken, such as reducing the cost of rail and bus travel to get people out of cars, and a huge investment into renewables, which are now the main source of power generation.

Transitioning workers from old, dirty industries to the new renewable economy is still a major concern. However, if this is not handled well, many workers will be left unemployed.

Other ideas that have emerged from Europe include:

• The need for a public authority, which includes union representation, to oversee the transition;

• Promoting new sustainable industries to diversify jobs and the economy;

• Retooling old plants for new industries and remediation of old sites, both of which are labour intensive in the short term; and

• Ensuring new industries are situated in the former coal mining regions where unemployment will be highest.

The transition to a new economy requires an “all of society” dialogue. Unions need to actively involve themselves in this discussion or they will be left behind.

Transition at home

A transition program here should look at issues such as opposing expensive motorways at the expense of public transport. There is also the issue of privatising public transport for profit, while the number of private cars on the roads continues to rise exponentially.

Issues of education and re-education of workers need to be carefully thought through for transitioning terminal operators and train drivers to an economy that does not need to transport coal.

There will, however, always be the need to cart other goods by rail. Therefore we should fight to extend rail networks in regional centres and metropolitan areas.

We need to take most of the polluting road transport off the roads and put freight onto rails.

While some jobs in the road transport sector may disappear in the long term, news jobs will be created in the rail sector (though automation and new technology may eventually curtail jobs there too).

Sooner or later, the transition away from transporting coal by rail will occur as the coal industry is forced to wind down operations. Unions like the RTBU and mining unions should be at the forefront of dealing with the challenges this will pose to their members.

Denial will not stop the process of transition to the renewable economy. Dialogue with union members and the community needs to start now to prepare for this eventuality.

The climate crisis is a union issue that affects workers the world over, whether that be due to falling living standards, drought, famine, rising sea levels, killer heatwaves, the possibility of wars, or forced displacement.

This is not just an argument about jobs but about the existential threats facing life on Earth.

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