“When workers politics are ahead of environmental politics, then we win”. Steve Murphy and Felicity Wade explore the history between the union and environmental movements, and their entwined future.
As the challenges of a warming climate bear down on Australia’s working class faster than we anticipated, we repeat a trade union fable to foster our hope.
The story of the tenacity of the Builder Labourers Federation’s Green Bans shows us that organised labour can win for the environment. It demonstrates that democratic, militant trade unions are best placed to deliver social and community change.
In a climate where conservative politics has pitted workers against the environment, the story of the Green bans shows the importance of telling our own stories, and carrying the history of our movement with us.
Conservative politics has done a tremendous job at undermining any sense of common ground between the environmental and workers rights movements. And for the most part, we have swallowed it whole.
Both of our movements launched mammoth efforts to change the government at the last election, and secure strong commitments from the ALP on our respective issues - of course this was done separately.
And then the environment and workers movements crashed violently into each other just days before Australia went to the polls. Workers in Central Queensland’s rural mining town, Clermont pegged rocks at environmentalists protesting the Adani coal mine who turned up in their town. Many of these workers were committed trade union members.
They were ugly scenes, and gave a late boost to a range of conservative Queensland MPs in close run races. The election result showed that it is no longer tenable to organise in our respective spaces without having the conversation about the intersection of workers livelihoods and environmental change.
It showed, if we’re being honest, the bitter fruits of a lazy and uncourageous lack of cooperation for the last decade between our movements.
As union activists, to ignore worker anxiety about the future of work would relegate us to superficial servicing agents, with no trust to build something stronger. To ignore climate change is to side with capital in leaving communities high and dry as the weather changes and capital shifts.
In the environmental space, to ignore a broad swathe of the community who characterise you as anti-job elitists prohibits you from building a broad national consensus from which to act on climate change.
Work must be done to build lasting and sincere linkages between the environmental and trade union movement, such that conservative fear-mongering is anticipated and inoculated against.
On the most superficial level, it must be done because conservatives will continue to prevail electorally while the parliamentary wing of our movement continues to struggle in straddling both of our demands.
But more holistically, it must be done because both movements have a deep commitment to broad economic and social justice.
The BLF’s example sets out some guiding principles for cooperation moving forward: it was revolutionary, it championed the social responsibility of labour, and it was deeply committed to the preservation of working-class institutions.
It is, however, no guidebook for organising out of this mess. We are operating in a complicated world where globalisation and deregulation have left many feeling ripped off and suspicious of calls for further change.
This is occurring while technological change is stripping many industries of jobs threatening quality of life, job satisfaction and community identity.
To address these challenges, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union NSW and ACT branch and the Labor Environment Action Network slowly and carefully started discussing how we can work together and are embarking on a formal cooperation between our two organisations. We want to build community and political campaigning infrastructure to proactively organise communities to own and shape the changes demanded by a changing climate.
Our approach to workers and communities is to avoid lecturing on the science of climate change and the need to transition away from fossil fuels. It is a community-focused approach that demonstrates the need to respond to capital’s changing investment behaviour.
For too long, the debate on climate change has been an abstract slinging match of ideas, rather than concrete ways in which we will transform the everyday life of working Australians.
While we care about the mechanics of policy matters, our larger concern is communities and workplaces taking ownership of this. When a transitioning economy happens without worker representation, it’s workers who lose out.
What does this look like practically?
A lot of talking.
We’re talking with community groups, environmental groups, other Trade Unions, we’re holding workplace member meetings and scoping out the forward plans of capital.
We’re building an organising plan that is local, focused on the Hunter Valley.
We are smashing all of the misconceptions we have collectively swallowed as a result of capital clinging desperately to business as usual.
We are not the first to reach out of the silos capital has created for us, and we are certain we won’t be the last.
What we do know, however, is the only path to a better world is one where workers and environmentalists build a safer future together.
Felicity Wade is the National Co-Convenor of the Labor Environmental Action Network (LEAN).
Steve Murphy is the NSW Secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU).