We are living during the most critical decade for our survival, one in which we will need to drastically reduce our emissions and protect ourselves from climate change. Australians care deeply about climate change and yet it is still framed as a side issue, rather than an issue that further complicates and weaves into the injustices people already face after decades of neoliberalism. Without planning and adaptation, climate change will continue to exacerbate inequality and affect more heavily those already struggling to make it.
Workers are on the frontlines of climate change in Australia, particularly when it comes to health and safety. Many workplaces are not set up to deal with increasingly severe heat, drought and floods, or with newly emerging threats such as coastal erosion, thunderstorm asthma and extreme smoke exposure from unprecedented bushfires. Despite all of this, politicians have failed to act on the issue with the seriousness it deserves, wasting time at best and – at worst – actively fighting against action on climate.
It’s clear now this is a fight that will have to be waged by Unions and their members. It’s often the very same forces which are making our wages stagnate and our work become increasingly insecure that are working to prevent us from taking serious action on climate change. They are undemocratic forces – corporations and wealthy individuals more concerned with immediate profit than with preserving human life and the life that supports us on the only planet we can live on.
Unions have a responsibility to use our collective power in demanding and designing a just transition – making use of cease-work action, creating transition plans for workplaces and industries, and importantly in supporting rank and file members to demand and win the future jobs they deserve. If we make this a priority, Union members can and will provide a crucial link to shift from rhetoric to reality when it comes to the creation of sustainable jobs and an economy built for all.
Many of the services that are crucial to keeping Australia running day to day – childcare workers, aged care, health care, retail and supply chains, are also very low-carbon. These types of work are often undervalued by corporations and governments but represent an increasingly important and ever-growing workforce in our low-carbon future, one that can help us focus our society on caring for people.
Climate change poses an increasing risk for workers. Unions face a significant challenge in the ongoing campaign for safe workplaces. During the Black Summer bushfires, wharfies and members of the Maritime Union of Australia walked off the job after having to suffer eye and throat irritation and breathing in toxic and carcinogenic smoke for days, which turned into weeks. These were not ‘protected industrial action’, but rather cease-work actions taken under the New South Wales Work and Safety Act, which gives employees the right to cease work if there is ‘a reasonable concern that to carry out the work would expose the worker to a serious risk to the worker’s health or safety.’ These kinds of actions will unfortunately only become more necessary in the future and must be used to continue the fight for workers rights and safety.
It is impossible to tackle climate change and deal with climate change impacts from a purely reactive standpoint, however, and action and resources will need to be used in 2021 and over the coming years to create proactive change that is good for workers now and into the future.
The Hunter Jobs Alliance is an example of this kind of response. Formed in November 2020 as an alliance of union, environmental and other interest groups, it aims to end the political impasse on energy and climate change and to create and implement a plan for the Hunter region that will help it avoid an economic crash while improving quality of life for local people as well as the local and global environment.
Climate change means we have to achieve the transition to a low-carbon economy as quickly as possible. There is the risk that if workers and unions are not part of this economic and industrial transformation, the outcomes will be bad for workers and the broader community.
However, unions are already working to build a plan for a just transition to ensure workers’ rights and livelihoods are protected in the shift to sustainable production. The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, the Electrical Trades Union, the Gippsland Trades and Labour Council, the Maritime Union of Australia, and the Victorian Trades Hall Council recently co-authored a report on the building of offshore wind farms and the transitioning of workers into low-emissions industries, while keeping justice for workers at its core.
The Star of the South offshore wind project in Victoria is supported by this alliance, as a potential jump-start to the transition. This project aims to provide transitions for workers in high-emissions industries in Gippsland, an area that has historically powered the state of Victoria through coal-fired power, into secure union jobs in the renewable energy sector. It also has the potential to use the skills of current seafarers who work in offshore oil and gas, as there is significant overlap between the skills required by the offshore renewables industries and those developed in the construction and maintenance of large maritime oil and gas projects.
The project aims to install 250 wind turbines 10-25 km off the east coast of Gippsland and could supply up to 18 per cent of Victoria’s current electricity demand.
A transition of this scale will need government planning and investment. It makes sense to use this opportunity to bring energy generation and transmission systems back into public ownership to ensure cost efficiency and improved reliability for consumers. This is a chance to rebuild our economy so that it finally works for regular people, and helps to create a happy, healthy and flourishing society.
The biggest mistake at a time like this would be to dim our collective imagination and accept that the way it is is the way it has to be, that there is no alternative. Unions are well-positioned to convincingly argue for our hopeful future – one that treats people with dignity and centres a wide-reaching solidarity, and in which we are ready to respond to the increasingly unpredictable world evolving around us.
We must take up the challenge because this future is ours to win.
Header image from the Star of the South