Lessons From The Election Part 2: Unions And The Environment Movement

Lessons From The Election Part 2: Unions And The Environment Movement

There has been significant debate over both the role of unions and the environment movement in the 2019 Australian Federal Election. Godfrey Moase argues the two need to work more closely if we want to see action on climate change.

This is the second part of a two part series on lessons for social movements following the 2019 Australian Federal Election. Read part one here.

It is easier to criticise than to create. And so the task of working out how to effectively apply the lessons of the federal election is a much harder one than drawing out those lessons in the first place. This is doubly so when one is attempting to grapple with how to navigate the intersection of the crises of both organised labour and the climate. I do not, therefore, presume to have the answer about resolving such problems. If I can contribute some ideas that assist workers and communities to engage in deeper thinking and take the action required to make such thinking real, then I will have achieved about all that is possible in the circumstances. 

I have spent the last 15 years, most of my adult life, in the union movement. I was a workplace delegate, an organiser, a lead organiser and now a union leader. The advice and strategy I lay out here is predominantly aimed at how the union movement can act to help resolve the climate emergency. I don’t pretend or claim to have any special knowledge, experience or expertise when it comes to other movements. 

The first and foundational element of any effective union strategy is to have faith in people and confidence in their ability to win when taking action collectively. This is a simple truth but one that often needs repeating especially in the context of a disappointing federal election result. It is not a faith born of naivety but one that springs from necessity. 

Lessons From The Election Part 2: Unions And The Environment Movement

Other than retreating into fantasy, we simply have nowhere else to turn except to each other. For forty years now, we have been waiting, asking or begging the political and corporate elite to deal with the problem of global heating. They have failed. The multigenerational and global nature of this failure forces us to ask the question — do our elites even have the capacity to stabilise our climate? What I am suggesting is that the failure goes beyond the scale of a lack of political will on their part, and instead reveals the very limits of elite power to fix the problems they create themselves through systems of exploitation and extraction. The elites, the capitalists or the establishment — whatever you want to call them — they cannot fix the climate crisis. Only people taking action together can do it. 

This faith must be rooted in a genuine love for people and our natural world. For it is this love, which allows one to see through a person’s present fears, insecurities and doubts to the fully-realised person they can be. The fate of the external struggle to reach a just society and a safe climate is both dependent on and impacts the internal conflict each of us has to be the best versions of ourselves we can be. 

This love has real social implications. It distinguishes a truly transformative or revolutionary strategy from a faux-populism that panders to where people are at today, and therefore, condemns them to being forever trapped and dependent within relationships of domination. No one political party or civil society group has a monopoly on this sort of faux-populism. It could be seen in the ubiquitous Palmer billboards with his exhortation to “Make Australia Great”. It was there with Pauline Hanson telling people that she was saying what they were thinking. Scott Morrison positioning himself as the defender of the great Aussie ute against Labor’s plan to apparently make everyone drive a Toyota Prius was yet another example. It is also in evidence when unions post pictures of all white workers on social media and claim to be standing up for “local jobs”. 

All of us, myself very much included, are scarred by capitalism. That’s why loving people is not the same as pandering to them. For what the latter assumes is that people are not capable of substantially healing and developing, while the former sees people as capable of learning and growing. It is the difference between flattering people and feeding them more of the myths that sustain an unjust order, or alternatively being prepared to start with a loving honesty regardless of the consequences which may follow. Leadership means being prepared  to tell the truth even if runs the risk of losing support. 

Lessons From The Election Part 2: Unions And The Environment Movement

The truth, in this instance, is that the rate at which we spew carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere must be rapidly scaled back. 98 NUW workers, and their families, in Dennington are losing their jobs later this year because Fonterra is closing down a dairy factory in south-west Victoria, in part, due to persistent climate-induced drought. This is part of a coming wave of climate related job losses. The ILO estimates that 80 million full-time jobs globally will be lost by 2030 due just to the heat-stress related to increasing global temperatures. 

There are also real costs in properly tackling the climate crisis. Whole industries must die and be reborn. There are consequences to this truth-telling. Cordelia lost everything telling King Lear her truth while her sisters, Regan and Goneril, reaped the rewards of flattery. Moreover, for Shakespeare there was no happy ending for Cordelia. Truly believing in the sovereignty of the people means running the risk of incurring their wrath. It means being prepared to do the right thing even if there is no immediate prospect of a happy ending. The desperation of our situation calls for such levels of radical sacrifice. 

Faith, love and sacrifice are, therefore, the foundational elements for a coherent union strategy on climate. For the people as a whole, however, to take control and finally sort this climate mess out once and for all, they need to be able to learn the full extent of their powers and how to wield them for the common good. Such learning takes place in community, or a state of communion, with other people. As the election results in Warringah and Indi make clear, where there’s community there is hope. 

The capitalist order, however, both profits from and simultaneously leeches away the bonds that bind people to each other. The barren soil that is whipped up from our lands swallows whole communities. Entire towns run dry while a few connected people profit from selling fake water rights. The scars we etch into the natural world runs through our hearts and minds. Social loneliness, economic precarity and anxiety are the near universal conditions of contemporary human experience. Only in encouraging and supporting people to form new connections with each other can this be overcome. 

This means a sustained focus on supporting workers to organise new connections in their communities is critical. This happens on two levels for the art of community organising is the process of connecting pre-existing communities and encouraging the formation of new communities. 

On the former level, unions are only going help remake Australia if we can act in solidarity and co-operate with other social movements. The flip side of this is that union leaders need to lose the corrosive tendency to see other movements and civil society groups as being in competition with the union movement. This is nothing other than internalised neoliberalism which imprisons organised workers from exercising their full power and potential. Such concern about competition springs from a lack of confidence both in unionism and the capacity of workers to win through taking action together, and is above all symptomatic of a broader crisis of labour. Instead, unions must welcome the participation of churches, civil society groups and the broader environmental movement in struggles of wage justice, job security and broader worker welfare. In turn, the union movement, from the shop floor to the union office, needs to burst out of the narrow lane of wages and conditions of employment. Organised workers are capable of remaking, and reordering our society and the living world it is embedded in.

Connecting pre-existing communities and movements, however, is not going to be enough. Social isolation and loneliness is a chronic problem that ultimately stems from the way we produce and reproduce Australian society. Too many Australians suffer from capitalism on their own, denying them the opportunity to connect with the common and overlapping experiences of others in their communities. This means people often blame themselves for suffering from the consequences of broader social processes like unemployment, debt or some other perceived failure. Alternatively, they blame others who are oppressed by the same processes. It is these conditions which encourage the spread of noxious and regressive forms of politics. To counteract this tendency, unions must invest in creating spaces of connection outside of individual workplaces. This is a community where workers (unemployed, injured, retired or precariously engaged) can connect, find comradeship and learn together. Such groups, more immediately, offer participants the chance to draw strength from each other along with the opportunity to concretely make changes in their local communities. Prioritising the organising necessary to help people form communities and rebuild trust in each other might not seem like exciting actions or revolutionary changes but they are the boringly necessary precursor to such things. 

Organising for ownership is the third piece of the strategic puzzle. Rudolf Meidner, the Swedish trade unionist and labour economist, wrote that “we cannot fundamentally transform society without also fundamentally changing ownership.” Resolving the climate question means nothing less than a fundamental transformation in social relations and such relations are inextricably linked to who owns what and what obligations come with such ownership. 

This is why the Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) approach is one of the most globally coherent union orientations towards energy production and consumption, especially in relation to the climate. TUED holds the position that a shift to sustainable forms of energy production must happen in tandem with a shift towards the social ownership of energy by workers and their communities. In this manner the false “jobs vs environment” dichotomy is overcome as workers have the job of ensuring energy is produced in a way that is consistent with maintaining a healthy natural world. Under such a framework, workers also have the power to make sure they do not bear all of the cost of the energy transition. 

This risk is a clear and present factor in residual hostility to renewable energy. It is a real fact, although not an eternal truth, that organised blue-collar workers in the fossil fuel sector earn much better wages and conditions of employment compared with similar workers in renewable energy installation and maintenance. There is nothing inherent in the value of the work that makes it so but it does reflect the relative power of workers in the fossil fuel and renewable energy sectors. 

A market-based transition to renewable energy effectively makes workers pay the bill for the capitalists’ waste. A transition within an energy democracy framework provides for a fair distribution of social costs and rewards. Moreover, it can catapult the process past the speed that a private market operates at and towards the velocity required by our climate. 

Lessons From The Election Part 2: Unions And The Environment Movement

Building worker power in renewable energy, therefore, is a necessity. It can only be achieved, however, as part of a broader union movement commitment to organising for worker ownership. There are those who would argue that unions are essentially irrelevant to worker cooperatives and then there are those who argue that cooperatives are detrimental to unions. These perspectives are both wrong.

Cooperatives and unions are the bricks and mortar which the working classes can use to rebuild society anew. Cooperatives are where workers can learn to exercise the responsibilities of leadership and unions are the means through which workers can collectively struggle to win the opportunity to exercise leadership. 

Cooperatives, embedded in a network of class-conscious worker organising, are prefigurative examples of a socialist society that lies beyond the event horizon of dangerous climate change. I believe that an economy based around worker cooperatives instead of traditional corporations would unleash a flowering of human capacity and potential. The wage labour relationship limits, stunts and injures people every day. I have seen warehouse workers injure their backs only to be placed on the scrapheap of Australia’s sorry social security system. I have seen workers shut down for making suggestions about how to better manufacture a product or perhaps even worse the productivity benefits of any suggestion pocketed by the boss. Conversely, I have also witnessed how even the effort to establish a cooperative can bring forth abilities that were otherwise hidden or held back. 

In the lead up to Christmas 2014, Ingham Poultry announced that it was planning to shut its turkey processing facility near the town of McLaren Vale just outside of Adelaide on the Fleurieu Peninsula. The local workforce, especially with the recently announced shut down of the Australian car industry, and the turkey farmers did not have a lot of other options. A group of the workers and the farmers got together to campaign to re-open the factory under the operation of a joint worker-farmer cooperative. The combined pressure of the workers, farmers, and community won feasibility study funding from the South Australian government to work up a realistic business plan for the venture. One NUW member who was a turkey boner at the factory, Rick, stepped forward to act as the project officer. Rick cut up turkeys day in and day out for a living. He wasn’t the union delegate but it turned out he was a leader. 

Rick helped to shepard the project from just an idea to being feasible. He worked with business development consultants to assist them in completing the study. He liaised with farmers, workers and the community to keep everyone up to date with the project. He lined up exporters, distributors and customers, including a major national buyer. Rick helped put in place most of the ingredients for a thriving enterprise that would keep decent jobs in the community and provide a quality product that could add to the gourmet produce of the McLaren Vale region. Investment funds, however, remained a missing piece of the puzzle. As it was not a corporation, the cooperative venture, would not qualify for more substantial industry funding from the South Australian government. This was despite the South Australian Labor government being highly proactive at the time investing in other locally-based manufacturing enterprises as the state reeled from the impending closure of the Holden plant in Elizabeth. No private bank or even industry superfund would lend to the fledgling enterprise without a government guarantee or security. The cooperative enterprise development infrastructure was just not yet in place to nurture the flowering of this project. There was nothing more that could have been done at the time. Rick had to go and find casual labour picking grapes in order to support his family. 

Not every struggle succeeds but there are always lessons to be drawn from them. What I had witnessed was how a cooperative structure could support the development of a person who would otherwise have been pigeonholed as just a manual labourer. Social change, especially of the scale required to bring about a safe climate, does not come from the so-called elite. It comes from ordinary people taking an opportunity to step up. The widespread roll out of sanitation hugely lifted life expectancy. Universal primary education dramatically lifted literacy rates. And so it will go with the next economic and social transformation, the next great leap will come from the Ricks of the world not the Elon Musks. 

Traditional forms of shop floor organising must also be part of any coherent union strategy on climate. Currently, workers pay for climate change with their sweat. Working in heat and extreme temperatures is becoming more and more of an industrial issue. Early last year, I visited a small manufacturing workplace in Melbourne’s west where workers wanted to join the union because their number one issue was that they didn’t think their management respected or looked after them during hot weather days. Farm workers, manufacturing workers, warehouse workers, aged care workers, educators, and anyone who works outdoors face pressing industrial and ethical questions as the mercury rises on extreme heat days. 

Moreover, even with Australia’s authoritarian rules around industrial action any worker is entitled to stop work in order to deal with an immediate threat to health and safety. Heat and working conditions, therefore, provide an opening with which to normalise industrial action once again. Such economic disruption can bring forth the real but too often hidden costs of extreme weather. This won’t happen by accident. It will require real leadership, planning and equipping shop floor leaders with the tools to win. 

Some action around heat will need to be swiftly carried out on the day of and in the hours of extreme weather. Others will become the subject of collective bargaining as procedures and processes are sought within union contracts. It is possible that some of the latter efforts to bring the question of climate, safety and energy into the realm of union contracts will violate the limits to workplace democracy placed in the Fair Work Act (2009). This matters not. This industrial struggle is the basis on which rules and industrial limits can be challenged. 

The strategic orientation to winning a safe climate and a just society, for unions, therefore resembles something of a triangle or an ancient Macedonian flying wedge. It has three points in the formation and a clear culture which pervades throughout the movement. The industrial or shop floor struggle forms the lead point. In this instance, I am proposing that the focus on struggles around heat can be the entry point, although by no means is this supposed to be exhaustive or limiting in anyway. If I have spent little time on it is because it is something that I find to be self-evident. Community and ownership organising sit on either flank of the industrial struggle. The idea is that each pole or point supports and makes stronger the other two points in a manner that is far stronger than a singular focus. 

A faith in workers’ capacity to win and make the world anew combined with a real love of people and place is, I propose, the animating culture which can give workers, shop floor delegates and union organisers the strength to take up and continue with the struggle.

I have deliberately shied away from a discussion on policy in this strategic overview. Radical, hopeful, and transformative policies are required to grapple with this moment. The label of a Green New Deal or some other name to group diverse and strong policies together might well be useful. No doubt ambitious claims will be necessary. In the dialectical interplay of dialogue and action, however, the concrete policies and demands of a Green New Deal can begin to take place, and do so in a way that percolates from the bottom up, as workers are taking action. In this manner it will be social movements, including unions, that will provide ideological guidance and ultimately the viewpoint that progressive parties of all stripes will need to adopt if they are to win government. The deep change required to solve global heating emerges in our communities and is subsequently ratified by parliaments. 

There is no need to wait for the next federal election, and we do not have the luxury of wasting such time anyway.