Unions, Aboriginal rights and the climate movement

We are living through a very important time for the climate movement. There is obviously endless bad news, with unprecedented bushfires burning millions of hectares of eastern Australia, killing dozens of people and destroying thousands of homes. The fire season has been driven by a drought that has also left much of NSW without drinking water. While these events demonstrate that the climate crisis has decisively arrived (although of course climate change has already affected some communities for decades), they are also expressions of our broken political system and warped economic priorities. Fire agencies and national parks staff have been cut for decades, leaving fire management up to RFS volunteers and crisis response to local volunteers. Aboriginal land management initiatives, including traditional fire management that reduces the spread and intensity of wild fires, have also been underfunded and ignored for a long period of time despite demonstrating a way forward. The water crisis in western NSW, driven not only by climate change but by chronic mismanagement of the Murray-Darling river system in the interests of corporate agribusiness, has left many towns without safe drinking water and reliant on water donations organised by charities and community volunteers. This summer has shown us that, even in the face of worsening climate emergency, state and federal governments are doubling down on their support for the fossil fuels that are driving climate change; that they will only fund essential services like firefighters if dragged into it with public pressure; and that much of the work of responding to the climate disaster will be left up to communities themselves. 

But the climate strikes have brought not only an awareness of the severity of the climate crisis but, more importantly, of the need for collective action in the face of it to a huge audience. This was unimaginable only a few years ago. Most excitingly, the younger generation of climate activists have been extremely willing to pursue connections with Aboriginal community activists and with the trade union movement, a dialogue that, to my knowledge, has never really existed in this country before on anything like the same scale. At the Sydney climate strike, speakers to the over 100,000 students and workers included Gadigal traditional owners, a Gomeroi high school student from Gunnedah talking about her community’s struggle in the face of the Murray-Darling river crisis, and Garawa/Yanyuwa community leaders from Borooloola in the NT speaking about their struggle against the environmental and cultural vandalism of mining on their country. Representatives from the ETU and the MUA also brought the union movement’s support to the demonstration, talking about the need for public ownership of the new renewable energy infrastructure that we need and the creation of good, secure union jobs in new sustainable industries. Seeing a climate demonstration combine Aboriginal and trade union perspectives in this way was incredibly powerful for me as a unionist and long-time community activist in support of both Aboriginal rights and the environment, and demonstrates what I feel is the way forward for the climate movement.

The largest demonstrations for a generation, with over 300,000 people participating nationwide, the climate strikes have put this politics on every screen and every kitchen table in Australia for the first time. This energy is bringing large numbers of young people into activist groups of every kind – from long established groups like the 350, AYCC and ASEN to newer groups like Extinction Rebellion and the Climate Justice Collective (CJC). Many new participants in these spaces have spoken to me about their deep sense of urgency, their frustration with the passivity of conventional politics and the personal satisfaction they’ve gotten out of engaging with this surge of climate movement energy. But many have also expressed a desire to learn more about the history of progressive movements in this country – after all, people have been trying to change things for a very long time. Others have expressed a desire to come to grips with the difficult economic issues involved in a transition away from fossil fuels, since we need something credible to say to communities concerned about the impact this might have on their livelihoods.

This understanding of history and of the economic context is vital for allowing us to think about strategy – after all, those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. Karl Marx once said that people make our own history, but not in circumstances of our choosing – in other words, we have to come up with ways to play the field on which we find ourselves. The history of our movements is also a tremendous source of guidance and inspiration. We come from long traditions of ordinary people standing up for justice, often in very difficult circumstances. So let’s examine some of the economic and political context around the climate movement in Australia, as well as the history of collaboration (and tensions) between the environment movement, unions and Aboriginal communities, which we need to understand if we want to win.

Aboriginal communities – the original environmentalists

As a background to any discussion of climate and environmental justice in Australia, it is important to acknowledge that Aboriginal nations managed this continent sustainably for an unbelievably long time before the modern environment movement even existed. Far from being a result of technological backwardness, this was achieved through a complex set of land management practices and a sophisticated knowledge system about what can be highly variable and challenging environments. Traditionally, Aboriginal land ownership was organised with the underlying biophysical environment in mind – unlike colonial Australia, in which the state boundaries reflect arbitrary political choices made by wealthy landowners in the 19th century.

Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu has brought to a mainstream audience what Aboriginal communities have always known: that they were not nomadic hunter gatherers, but rather managed their country in a planned way and built villages, farmed crops and altered the environment to meet their needs. What is amazing about this is that Aboriginal people managed to transform the land in ways that actually promoted biodiversity; in many ways, Australia’s incredible diversity of plants and animals is a legacy of this management.

Aboriginal fire management demonstrates this very clearly – Aboriginal people used fire to create delicate mosaics of habitat for different plants and animals, which both ensured food and resources were abundant and prevented the large-scale damaging bushfires we experience today. The invasion of Australia by the British is ultimately the root of all our environmental problems, whether land clearing for grazing, the over-extraction of water from river systems, or the legacy of mining. 

This is relevant to the future as much as the past. Aboriginal people today have begun to reassert their place in managing their country through a range of land management initiatives. Some communities have developed Aboriginal bush care groups or native plant nurseries, while others have negotiated with national parks to co-manage their land. In remote Australia, many communities have established Indigenous Protected Areas and these now employ thousands of people managing their lands and waters. An expansion of these programs is a vital part of meaningful action on climate change because Aboriginal fire management practices have been shown to be highly effective methods of storing carbon from the atmosphere. But an expansion of Aboriginal economic activity under community control is also an important part of achieving social justice for Aboriginal communities, who are the poorest in Australia and have been denied any control over their own lives for more than 200 years.

Aboriginal rangers speak of the deep sense of pride they get from their work, and communities with these initiatives alongside other cultural programs like language revival do better on indicators of physical health and social and emotional wellbeing than communities without. Aboriginal people throughout NSW also have ambitions to manage their country again, although making this a reality will be more difficult than in more remote parts of the continent because Aboriginal people in NSW own very little of their own land. Because of the insecurity of government funding, some ranger projects have also unfortunately been sponsored by royalties from mining projects on Aboriginal land, including gas and oil projects which contribute to climate change. Nonetheless, these initiatives provide real examples of what an economy based on caring for rather than exploiting the environment might look like, and need to be significantly expanded.


The climate battlefield in Australia 

While the new and youthful energy which has been brought into the climate movement is deeply inspiring, it is important to be clear about the obstacles to meaningful climate action which we face in Australia. Our federal parliament is led by people who bring lumps of coal or hi-vis shirts into parliament instead of anything meaningful to say about the climate crisis. Beyond these stunts, the Liberal Party have successfully stalled any real action on climate change by cleverly playing the need for climate action off against economic issues.

The climate movement has been seriously weakened by Tony Abbott’s arguments from 2013 that climate action will increase people’s power bills and destroy communities dependent on coal mining. State Labor governments have often taken pro-climate policies to elections, but subsequently failed to deliver once in power – as happened for example with the NT Labor government’s backflip on its ban on new gas projects in the Territory. The Labor party’s uncertainty around the Adani project has been widely recognised as one of the most significant factors in its recent federal election defeat – many of the electorates which swung to the liberals are coal-mining areas which are normally reasonably safe Labor seats. This demonstrates a cultural gulf between the party’s working class base in the regions and the socially progressive intelligentsia in the inner city as much as it represents disagreement over economic policy. Traumatised by the drubbing they received federally from the liberals and One Nation, the QLD Labor government is pushing to fast-track the new central Queensland coal field and issuing increasingly hysterical pronouncements about climate activists, alongside worrying new legal restrictions on the right to protest.

In NSW, the liberal state government remains extremely committed to building an enormous new export gas field in the Pilliga forest in the northwest of the state and is also supporting a dramatic expansion of coal mining. New and expanded coal mines are proliferating in the Hunter and around Gunnedah. This is partly because the resource is becoming exhausted in the traditional coalfields around Lithgow, Newcastle and Wollongong – which have had coal mining for nearly two hundred years – but is also an attempt by the industry to depress wages and conditions. Concerns over automation, antisocial fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) rosters and lower wages in comparison with the traditional coalfields have driven a new wave of labour unrest around the new coal projects, as communities have seen the industry repeatedly fail to deliver on­ its promises. The coalfield around the Hunter Valley is also, sadly, now home to the largest One Nation vote outside Queensland – a phenomenon driven by racist scaremongering which has found resonance in communities left behind by neoliberalism.

The ALP leadership appears to be learning precisely the wrong lesson from all of this, and instead of committing to things like a publicly funded program of renewable energy rollout and investment in other sustainable industries the right of the ALP is instead urging the party to scrap their commitment to emissions targets altogether. One hopes that climate activists within the ALP, such as those organising with the Labor Environment Network (LEAN), will be able to contest any retreat from the party’s already inadequate climate commitments. Nonetheless, the ALP’s failure not only to articulate a clear path forward on climate, but indeed its inability to mount a serious challenge to the Liberals at all, means that the grassroots climate movement (in coalition with Aboriginal communities and the union movement) is going to be our only hope for the foreseeable future. Thankfully, these three movements have lengthy histories of working together which can serve as a source of lessons and inspiration for today’s new generation of activists. 


Aboriginal rights and the environment movement

Aboriginal communities and the environmental movement have a lengthy history of collaboration, but also tensions which reflect their different worldviews, different social bases, and the complex political, economic and legal terrain in which they operate. Some on the Left see Aboriginal communities and environmentalists as ‘natural allies’ in opposing environmentally destructive development and have been surprised by some recent disagreements between the two camps over mining developments.

Former Native Title lawyer and Greenpeace campaigner David Ritter contests this simplistic picture, explaining how the operation of Native Title often puts Aboriginal and environmental groups at odds with one another. Native Title claims are an exhausting and often traumatic process, with communities essentially subjected to Federal Court scrutiny of their genealogies and cultural practices as part of the process. Many claims take decades to resolve, with the sad outcome that the elders who initiate them very rarely live to see their land returned. Claims in urban areas or other heavily-developed places have been rejected completely, as happened to the Dharug people’s claim in Western Sydney in 2004. In addition, Land Rights and Native Title systems often overlap and contradict one another, further complicating matters for Aboriginal communities attempting to win some control over their land. 

However, even when communities have been successful in applying for their Native Title to be recognised, the legislation does not provide any right of veto – that is, any right to say no to developments on their land. All that is provided is a right to negotiate with mining companies. While the mining industry was initially very violently opposed to Native Title, settlements with Aboriginal communities have subsequently become part of the industry’s corporate social responsibility strategy, with industry framing agreements over mine royalties and employment as a means of economic development for impoverished communities. Conservative governments have also threatened to withdraw essential services for remote communities unless agreements with mining companies are reached. In communities that are excluded from the mainstream labour market and offered inadequate housing, health and education services, there are of course going to be some community leaders who see a mining project as an opportunity and are happy to sign agreements, alongside others who are opposed to the project altogether. 

Aboriginal communities also have complex relationships with conservation as a whole. The idea of wilderness conservation has itself been criticised from Aboriginal perspectives, since Australia was not a wilderness in 1788 but rather an inhabited and managed landscape. ‘Wilderness’ and ‘Terra Nullius’ are in fact similar concepts, and national parks have played an important role in the colonial imagination of space in Australia for more than a century. In some instances, the establishment of National Parks has directly involved the dispossession of Aboriginal people. Other conservation laws, such as those requiring fishing licenses or prohibiting harvesting of particular species, have also been criticised by Aboriginal communities as criminalising their traditional harvesting practices. While some communities now have agreements with NPWS (National Parks and Wildlife Service) to co-manage their country, it is important to remember these arrangements were often won by local community protests against land management authorities. For example, Barkindji people blockaded the Mutawinji National Park in far western NSW in 1983 in response to visitors defacing and stealing rock art within the site, and ultimately campaigned for the land to be returned to community control. Similarly, Gulaga and Biamanga National Parks on the South Coast were returned to Yuin community control following community protests against logging on culturally significant sites. 

Against this complicated historical background, mainstream environmental movement spaces can often fail to show meaningful solidarity with Aboriginal communities. One reason for this is the institutional nature of the environmental NGOs that dominate the movement, and are dependent for campaign funding on either private foundations or donations from the public. This often shapes the nature of the campaigns chosen, with a lack of support for Aboriginal-led campaigns around environmental protection and a lack of investment in long-term relationships with Aboriginal communities in favour of short-term campaigns. Aboriginal communities can often feel tokenised by the broader movement in these circumstances. Grassroots Aboriginal organisations often run on tiny fractions of the budgets of NGOs, creating further potential for bad blood between the two camps. In addition, even radical grassroots environmental spaces are not necessarily free of the racism that pervades the broader society. For example, Extinction Rebellion’s strategy regarding the police – in which activists are urged to get arrested at demonstrations as a goal in itself, and police are congratulated for arresting them – has been criticised by Aboriginal activists as profoundly out of touch. Aboriginal communities still struggle under overt oppression from the police and experience enormous rates of incarceration for trivial offences. Police frequently kill Aboriginal people in custody with no legal or professional consequences. Environmentalists too often fail to understand the links between these issues and the destruction of the environment and fail to see that using the movement’s platform to support justice for Aboriginal people actually builds the movement we need rather than being a distraction. 

Despite these many causes of tension and conflict, there is also a lengthy history of collaboration between mainstream environmentalists and Aboriginal communities. For example, Mirrar people in the Northern Territory led a lengthy campaign during the 1980s and 90s against the development of a uranium mine on their country at Jabiluka, supported by a range of environmental groups and sections of the union movement, and were ultimately successful in preventing the mine from going ahead. Gary Foley argues that the non-Aboriginal campaigners’ ability to respond constructively to challenges from Mirrar people themselves over the direction and focus of their work was key to the success of the campaign. During the Maules Creek mine campaign, Gomeroi traditional owners signed a mutual agreement with environmental organisations and local farmers which – although the campaign was ultimately not successful – demonstrates a model of respectful negotiation of the tensions that can arise between different participants in a campaign. Collaboration between Aboriginal people, environmental organisations and a diverse range of local community members was also a key component of the campaign at James Price Point, where a combination of legal challenges and a physical blockade of the site over a period of months in 2013 successfully prevented the construction of an enormous gas export facility. Bundjalung elders were also prominent in the successful anti-gasfield campaign at Bentley the following year. SEED Indigenous Youth Climate Network have also been providing vital leadership in this space as the only Aboriginal-led climate campaign organisation in a very white-dominated scene, combining conventional movement tactics with very broad consultation of Aboriginal communities. These examples show that, although the playing field can be very challenging, there is space for environmental movement organisations and Aboriginal organisations to work together on successful projects. 


Workers and aboriginal rights

The labour movement’s relationship to the Aboriginal rights movement provides another source of lessons and inspiration for today’s activists. Similar to the story with environmentalist-Aboriginal relations, the dialogue has not always been rosy. The early Aboriginal rights organisations from the 1920s like the Australian Aborigines Progressive Association (AAPA) found little support from socialists and the union movement of the time. This is difficult to understand given that the organisation was regularly holding meetings of hundreds of members all over NSW. These meetings were often conducted in Aboriginal languages and voiced demands disturbingly familiar today: an end to police harassment, land rights, an end to the theft of Aboriginal children from their families, and equal rights to housing, health and education. Paternalistic and racist attitudes towards Aboriginal people were widespread within the left at the time. Many unionists may have bought into the Social Darwinist theory that Aboriginal people would magically disappear. Some socialists were opposed to the idea of distinct rights for Aboriginal people, arguing instead that Aboriginal people must simply become assimilated into the working class at large. Fortunately, by the 1930s these attitudes were no longer dominant in the labour movement, and the CPA (Communist Party of Australia) along with left-wing unionists began to take an active role in supporting Aboriginal community campaigns. 

Aboriginal unionists themselves were key to these shifting attitudes, winning their comrades on the wharves, on cattle and sheep stations and building sites over to an understanding of the need for workers to support Aboriginal communities in their struggle for justice. The Cummeragunja walk-off in 1939 saw two hundred Yorta-Yorta people stage a dramatic protest against the oppressive control of the Aborigines Protection Board (APB), leaving their mission in southern NSW and establishing a temporary community across the Murray River in Victoria. William Cooper, one of the community leaders, had been a member of the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and was able to use his trade union connections to build support for the campaign.

The fact that the Yorta-Yorta action was in part as a strike against unfair working conditions made it easy to explain to workers, and trade unionists got involved by sending funds to support the community campaign and lobbying government in support of their demands. Socialists in the labour movement were also involved in supporting Aboriginal-led strikes at the Pilbara in the 1940s, and the strike by Gurindji stockmen at Wave Hill in 1966. This latter walk-off quickly evolved into a campaign demanding not only equal wages or better living conditions but the restoration of the land to Gurindji people. Dexter Daniels, an Aboriginal organiser with the AWU, orchestrated support from the broader union movement for the Gurindji struggle. Community leaders came down to speak to delegations of wharfies, building workers, teachers and university students in Sydney, and funds were raised to support the community. This support was instrumental in allowing the Gurindji to ‘illegally’ establish and maintain a community at Wattie Creek for 8 years, until the incoming Labor government handed back the land in 1972. 

Aboriginal unionists Harry Hall and Ray Peckham, who had been active in organising shearers in western NSW, were key to the success of the Freedom Ride in 1965. The Ride saw students from Student Action for Aborigines (SAFA) travel to segregated towns like Dubbo, Walgett, Moree, Collarenebri and Bowraville and bring the intense racism of these places to national media attention for the first time. Students supported local Aboriginal people in protesting the segregation of pools, pubs, cinemas and cafes as well as unequal access to housing, education and healthcare. The students were often greeted with intense hostility by local authorities and by racists in the towns, and the Ride is best remembered for the confrontations that resulted. However, this trip was only possible because of pre-existing networks of Aboriginal activism throughout the state. The students were following the example of previous union-organised trips to these places in support of local community campaigns. 

These connections between the growing Aboriginal rights movement and the union movement came at a time of increasing militancy and confidence among the working class, and often leant industrial muscle to community campaigns. Wharfie Chicka Dixon and builders’ labourer Kevin Cook became key figures in the dialogue that was developing at the time between the left of the labour movement and the growing Aboriginal rights movement. One of Chicka Dixon’s stories gives an idea of the atmosphere at the time:

I was in bed and three young Aborigines knocked on the door about nine o’clock at night. They told me that a very dignified hotel down in George Street [in Sydney] wouldn’t serve Aborigines. I decided to go down and find out. I took the blackest fella with me, walked in, and asked for a schooner of beer for my friend and schooner of lemonade for myself. The bartender said: `I’m sorry… We won’t serve Aborigines.’ `Well that’s quite all right, [Chicka replied], tomorrow evening I’ll have 300 waterside workers up outside your joint here. Nobody is going to get in because we are going to blacklist this hotel. Then I’ll go to the Trades and Labour Council and the Liquor Trades Union to pull the barmaids out.’ Well, he did a complete [about] face. It’s a remarkable thing, blacks are welcome down there now!

Dixon participated in the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972, and rallied union support around the campaign when the Embassy was repeatedly attacked by police. Cook helped to build support for Aboriginal rights causes among the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), including a national shutdown of building sites in support of Aboriginal land rights in 1972. The BLF was also crucial in the establishment of the Redfern Aboriginal Community Housing Scheme the following year, with workers refusing to work on a corporate redevelopment and supporting local demands for a housing project under community control. The housing project was built by Aboriginal members of the union and included a training program for young Aboriginal workers. 

The Aboriginal presence within the Teachers Federation provides another example of Aboriginal leadership within the union movement over a long period of time. Aboriginal members have been very active not only on contesting racism within the school system against Aboriginal teachers and students, but also on developing a better Aboriginal studies curriculum within the education system as a whole. In some ways, the current surge of youth support for Aboriginal rights is testament to this legacy, with successive improvements to Aboriginal history and other curricula since the 1980s giving many people under the age of thirty a much better understanding of the history than our parents had. These changing attitudes were recently cited by Uluru park managers as part of their reason for finally deciding to ban climbing of the site by visitors.

Workers and the environmental movement

Trade unionists and the environmental movement also have a long history of both solidarity and tension. The origin of ‘Green’ politics in Australia actually came from within the labour movement, with the Green Bans of the early 1970s. These bans were issued by the BLF on projects which were seen by the union and the broader community as environmentally harmful, and are responsible for saving large areas of the city – including iconic parks like the Botanic Gardens and Centennial Park, as well as working-class housing in Wooloomooloo, the Rocks and Waterloo – from high-rise developments. The union pursued these campaigns as part of its general commitment to social movement activity during the period, also supporting protests against the VIetnam War, against Apartheid in South Africa, and in support of Aboriginal rights, and often took strike action in order to do so. The BLF was treated very harshly for its visionary stance during these years, being persecuted out of existence by the NSW Liberal government of the time, but activists from the Green Bans later joined with campaigners from the anti-uranium movement of the 1980s to form the NSW Greens. The BLF’s leaders, like Jack Mundey, articulated a vision for working-class environmentalism that remains as pertinent as ever today:

It’s not much good winning a 35 hour week if we’re going to choke to death in planless and polluted cities where rents are too high, and where ordinary people can’t live.

Since the Green Bans, workers and the environment movement have been in conflict more often than we have been in collaboration. The large wilderness campaigns of the early 1980s, such as the Franklin River blockade, often pitted a city-based concern for the environment against regional desires for development and jobs. Franklin saw Tasmanian unions and the state Labor government in a struggle with environmental protesters over the construction of a new hydroelectric dam. While the success of the campaign gave the environmental movement an enormous amount of momentum, the legacy of the ‘jobs vs the environment’ debate established at that time remains with us to this day. Despite this trend, there have also been episodes of solidarity, such as in 1976. when railway worker and unionist Jim Assenbruck refused to load a train with materials for a uranium mine, and in 2013, when the MUA said their members would not unload nuclear waste at Australian ports in solidarity with a campaign against an international nuclear waste dump. 

In some instances, unions are actually part of the climate problem. The CFMEU has given some support to the idea of a just transition, but the union is also deeply committed to the expansion of coal mining in NSW and QLD. Meanwhile the AWU (Australian Workers Union) is aggressively championing the opening up of new gas projects throughout the country. This politics has been on display for a long time within union and Labor party discussions on responses to the climate crisis, but was also shamefully exhibited during the most recent climate strike. Hunter Unions had endorsed the Newcastle climate strike rally, and was offering student organisers the use of some equipment including a mobile stage and speaker system, but the local Mining and Energy division of the CFMEU threatened to pull its affiliation from the regional trades hall unless this support for the rally was withdrawn. Sydney-based delegates in the Construction division of the union were also bullied out of supporting the demonstration amid similar scenes. 

This behaviour reveals quite deep divisions within the labour movement, especially in the blue-collar unions that represent fossil-fuel workers, in regards to climate action. Progressive elements within the labour movement argue that unions need to be at the forefront of climate action, because workers power will be key to winning a transition to sustainable industries that looks after both communities and the environment. But the leadership within some unions are using convenient excuses to justify business-as-usual and avoid discussing the need for action. The CFMEU is presenting a large expansion of coal mining as compatible with a safe climate future through a hypothetical expansion of the discredited technology of carbon capture and storage, while also using the get-out-of-jail-free card that our coal exports do not technically count towards Australia’s emissions – even though coal releases the same amount of CO2 no matter the particular borders in which it is burnt. The union has also tended to uncritically accept the employment projections put forward by industry, even though these are always massively overstated. For example, Adani stated publicly that their Carmichael mine would generate 10,000 jobs, but in reality the project will provide about 1,500 jobs during construction and a mere one hundred permanent positions when fully operational.

In some ways, the defensive posture of these unions on climate action is understandable, as both the CFMEU and AWU have been subjected to intense attacks by Liberal governments in recent years and with casualisation and automation threatening their survival. In this context, workers in fossil fuel industries can perceive calls for an energy transition as a threat, and are sceptical that governments will support their communities adequately throughout the transition process. Building solidarity and dialogue between blue-collar unions and the climate movement will therefore be crucial to securing a genuinely just transition.

Despite this hostility of some unions towards climate action, there are also many points of leadership on climate coming from within the union movement. The firefighters’ union (FBEU), long active in the climate movement because their members are so obviously affected, has come out very strongly during the recent bushfire crisis in NSW. It argued not only that climate change has created unprecedented fire conditions but that years of cuts to National Parks and to the fire service have left the state woefully unprepared. The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has thrown its support behind the climate strikes, even conducting workplace stoppages in order to support the demonstration, and has been aggressively championing renewable energy projects such as the Star of The South offshore wind project in Victoria. The National Union of Workers (NUW) used the climate strikes as an opportunity to highlight the need for workers to lead the transition away from fossil fuels and campaign for a Green New Deal, while the South Coast Labour Council has released a statement suggesting that – given its traditional role as the steelmaking region of NSW – the Illawarra will be crucial to a transition to renewable energy technology such as wind turbines. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) has argued that state-led investment in sustainable industries could recast an energy transition as an opportunity for the labour movement rather than a threat. And at a grassroots level, the newly-formed Workers for Climate Action group and ordinary delegates have been organising rank-and-file participation across a very wide range of unions – PSA/CPSU, FBEU, AMWU, ASU, CFMEU (although only the Construction Division), RBTU, RAFFWU, NSWNMA, TFED, ETU – in the climate strike rallies. These efforts need to be deepened in order to open up a meaningful space for rank-and-file workers within the climate movement. 


Where to?

The success of the climate movement is therefore going to depend on its ability to connect with Aboriginal communities on one hand and the union movement on the other. The climate movement is bringing more and more young people to an understanding that we need to radically transform our economy and society if we are going to avoid global environmental catastrophe – in other words, that capitalism is not compatible with a safe future for humanity. But for Aboriginal people, colonial society has never been safe – many Aboriginal activists argue that for them, the apocalypse began in 1788 with the invasion. Aboriginal leadership of the climate justice fight is vital not only because Aboriginal communities are the most marginalised in Australia, but because they have the values and the knowledge that the rest of the country needs to build a sustainable and fair society in this place.

The connection between the labour movement and the struggle for climate justice is also vital. Organised workers are historically one of the most powerful forces for progressive social and economic change in our society, and union support has been a critical part of many victories on social and environmental issues from the Green Bans to Vietnam and marriage equality. Unions are also fundamentally responsible for many of the basic material benefits that we enjoy – the weekend, the eight-hour day, and minimum wages at work as well as our public healthcare, education and transport systems are all part of the legacy of the union movement. Many young people would not be aware that these things didn’t fall from the sky. They were won and defended by generations of unionists.

The complex terrain of climate politics in this country presents a number of serious challenges, but also opportunities, for the climate movement going forward. Firstly, regional working-class voters’ rejection of Labor over its climate commitments does not demonstrate that it will be impossible to win them over to climate action. On the contrary, it is now up to both unions and the climate movement to demonstrate what a just transition would concretely involve, and how it would be won. This will only be possible with substantial buy-in from unions, and will require a repairing of the green-labour relationship.

Environmentalists must demonstrate to coal miners and their communities that climate action does not mean leaving them in the lurch – it means investment in new industries, retraining, job guarantees and sustainable livelihoods. Similarly, we must show the suburban working class that action on climate change is not responsible for their skyrocketing power bills – it’s the energy privatisations championed by the Liberals that have done this. Increased public and community ownership of the energy system would help power prices, not hurt them. The best way to win people on side with this will not be with slick social media strategy thought up in Sydney, but through grassroots campaigns which draw in large numbers of ordinary workers and their broader communities. 

Despite a hostile political context, the climate movement has had a number of significant local victories in recent years. A coalition of Aboriginal groups alongside environmental organisations successfully fought off a gas processing plant at James Price Point in the Kimberley, and we have also seen victories at Bylong, Gloucester, Bentley and the Illawarra in NSW. Bentley is an especially inspiring example of a successful community campaign: a significant portion of the town relocated to a permanent blockade camp on the site of AGL’s proposed Northern Rivers gasfield, preventing its construction. Support for the campaign was so strong in the community that when hundreds of riot police were to be sent up from Sydney to break the blockade, local motels and even the local fire department refused to house them, and the state government was forced to cancel AGL’s license soon after. Grassroots community campaigns have also successfully chased off new coal seam gas projects in the Illawarra and at Gloucester, while the Bylong community recently won a successful legal challenge against a new coal mine in the valley. However, there have also been defeats – for example, at Maules Creek, where a three-year campaign by Gomeroi people, environmentalists and farmers, over three hundred of whom were arrested, failed to stop the construction of a new coal mine near Boggabri in north-west NSW. While this demonstrates that victory is not guaranteed in every instance, the numerous recent successes show that it is indeed possible (if not easy) to stop new fossil fuel projects. These examples can serve as an inspiration for the climate movement in the difficult days ahead. 

The history also shows us the need for deep, long-term relationships and collaborative campaigning. Aboriginal communities have many of the solutions to the climate crisis, so the climate movement needs to take solidarity with them seriously. This can be done by trying to shift some of the huge wave of youth support for climate action currently surging through the country towards supporting Aboriginal-led campaigns, whether they focus on issues directly related to climate and environmental justice like Aboriginal fire management or around other issues like deaths in custody and child removals. A small amount of the energy in the climate space at the moment would go a long way in these stretched and drained campaigns, and might lay the foundations for the long-term solidarity we need to really shift things in this country. SEED’s campaign against fracking in the NT, Gomeroi people’s campaigns against a new coal mine at Shenhua and against coal seam gas in the Pilliga, the Djap Wurrung campaign for the protection of their cultural landscape from highway construction, and FIRE’s work delivering water to Aboriginal families in north-west NSW are examples of projects that non-Aboriginal supporters, whether unionists or climate activists, could get involved in. 

Everyone who wants a safe and fair future for all in this country should educate themselves and their community about the history of our movements, and look for opportunities to show solidarity between them. 

Andy Mason

Andy Mason is a bush regenerator, gardener, community activist, geographer and member of the United Workers Union. They are currently based in Bathurst and working on ecological restoration projects on farmland across far western NSW. You can contact Andy at andrew.mason1994@gmail.com

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  1. Fantastic article Andy. It is heartening to read about the history and evolution of connections between Unions, Aboriginal rights and the climate movement and how we may unite as community rather than fracture.

  2. A timely and well constructed article on the complex history of unions, Aboriginal rights and environmental justice and the opportunities to further develop these relationships. Powerful stuff and great writing. Thanks!

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