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A New Approach to Energy Politics

Cory Wright

We’ve seen it time and time again, politicians smiling with workers in Hi Viz every time they want to add a spice of authenticity to their campaign. 

Conservative politicians have used this tactic to their advantage to extend the political viability of coal and fossil fuels and turn workers against each other.

And it’s worked.

We know it’s worked because we see little interrogation of their motives- they must be fighting so hard for coal subsidies because they care about workers, not because they are in the pockets of big mining bosses.

Why we know it’s worked even more so, is because some in our own party have swallowed the rhetoric whole. 

We’ve seen politician after politician championing fossil fuels, and demonising environmental activists, not because it’s in the best interests of their communities, but because they see it as the shortest path to re-election.

I’ve been organising blue collar workers in the Hunter Valley for the best part of 12 years. 

It’s true that many blue collar workers have made a great life of their work in power stations, coal mines and downstream industries.

But none of them suffer under the illusion that this is because of the goodwill of big corporations. 

These jobs are well-paid because unions and community fought hard to make them so. 

In Newcastle, we know all too well what trail of destruction big corporations can leave behind. 

From 2012 to 2014, I spent almost all my time supporting workers’ and their families through job losses as the mining boom wound down. 

As a union leader, this is not something I am prepared to allow to happen again.

The idea that the future of these industries should be left to the free market, void of genuine community dialogue and a seat at the table for workers is setting us on a path back to 2012, where workers’ were left high and dry, and whole towns were all but decimated.

Every time politicians use their platform to criticise environmental activists or champion coal, is another moment they are failing to engage with their community to plan for an inevitable crash. 

Punching down on an easy target might feel good for a moment, but it won’t fix the problem.

The inheritance of this climate change culture war by ALP figures also patronises our members that work in these industries. 

It sends a message that they don’t believe workers in these industries are capable of contributing to these discussions in a meaningful way, that workers who use their hands to make a living are insignificant in the debate.  Politicians tie themselves in knots trying to articulate how blue collar workers see the world. It’s pretty simple-  Our members are proud of what they do, the skills they have and what they produce. They have a sense of pride and crave a sense of security, one that most recognise will not exist for much longer without change. 

After the last Federal election, I set aside some time to talk to our members in the power stations about climate change and the future of fossil fuels. 

While we didn’t all agree on everything, there was one thing that was resoundingly obvious to us. This issue is our business- and we need a seat at the table on the future of our jobs and livelihoods.

Our members have said again and again, that they expect us to have a seat at the table. 

Not because they want us to posture or waste our time in a culture war, but because through every structural change its been unions and community alone who have looked out for workers. It’s unions that will fight for their security. 

Our union has thought long and hard about how we might intervene effectively in this issue. 

We have taken the unlikely step of building a coalition with other trade unions, community and environmental groups to start the long process of advocating for industry and regional investment.

We’ve done this because division and derision has not delivered a fix to this issue in over a decade. 

We’ve also done this because we’re not afraid of having tough conversations and finding common ground with people who we may not ordinarily side with. 

That is what issues as big as this call for. 

Egos and self interests in the bin, and everyone rolling up their sleeves and finding a way through. 

Cory Wright is the newly elected state secretary for the AMWU NSW branch. He has been organising manufacturing workers in Newcastle and the Hunter Valley for 12 years.


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