The Union Divide Over Climate Change and the Path Forward

By Andrew Martin

There are growing divisions within Australia’s blue-collar unions. Climate change has become a polarising issue in the trade union movement as it has in broader society. The background to the dispute is that unions have been struggling for years to retain their membership and survive. At the same time, the industrial landscape is rapidly changing in favour of renewable energy over coal and other fossil fuels.

The issue of climate change is enmeshed with the culture wars stoked up by the right-wing media, the right-wing of the Australian Labor Party, the Liberal and National Parties and the motley assortment of other reactionary right-wing parties such as One Nation and Bob Katter’s Australia Party. The bulk of Australia’s political machinery is influenced by the spin of the Minerals Council of Australia and greased by the fossil fuel giants. No longer ignored by the mainstream media, the issue of climate change which, in the past was only seriously considered by environmentalists and the socialist movement, has taken the form of a left-right divide.

The major blue-collar unions are all influenced by their factional alignment within the ALP. While the ALP has equivocated on the issue of climate change, it is coming under increasing pressure to do more than simply acknowledge its significance or advocate mild and gradual market-friendly policies. It must take action, especially as Australia is facing global scrutiny for failing to tackle climate change. A report titled the 2020 MJA Lancet Countdown published in the Medical Journal of Australia found “Australia is the only OECD country to have worsened the carbon intensity of its energy supply over the past three decades, which is now 36 per cent higher than the global average.”

The ALP is lagging on the issue of climate change. Its parliamentarians mightn’t be stupid enough to bring a lump of coal into parliament and declare it is “good for humanity” (as current prime minister Scott Morrison has done), but they have firmly backed fossil fuels. They continue to support the expansion of coal mining, new gas fields and pipelines while simultaneously backing renewable energy targets and emissions reductions. Coal has caught the ALP in a severe bind.

The Queensland ALP state government is banking on increasing investment in coal and gas to prop up its ailing budget, but it may be betting against the odds. It is set to borrow $130 billion within four years, hoping investment in fossil fuels will lead an economic recovery. Royalties from coal in the financial year 2020-21 are expected to drop by 54% compared with last year according to treasury forecasts. Queensland is the world’s largest exporter of coking coal, and a major exporter of thermal coal. According to Tim Buckley, the director of energy finance studies at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, the sharp drop in royalties was “stark evidence of the false promise of the fossil fuel industry to Queensland” and that expectations export volumes would grow was “delusional”.

The mining division of the CFMMEU (Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union) in Queensland has been unable to come to grips with this reality. Stephen Smyth, the district president of the union threatened to pull backing away from Labor candidates at the last federal election if they didn’t support coal mining. Speaking to Guardian Australia in February 2019 he stated: “The road to Canberra is paved through central Queensland.” Smyth complained that not one single politician had put forward a credible transition plan to support workers in the coal industry. The point, however, is to fight for one, not to continue the suicidal path of backing coal.

Smyth has failed to recognise that Labor is losing support in inner-city areas and only has a chance of gaining power with preferences from the Greens. The emergence of environmental politics since the 1970s has continually divided and tested the ALP. Of all people, Smyth is in the best position to discuss the issue of climate change with his membership and to put forward a transition plan. The CFMMEU, with the right leadership, could collectively put together a campaigning platform that prepares its tens of thousands of members for a future that no longer relies on coal mining.

Joel Fitzgibbon, the ALP’s resources spokesperson’s recent resignation from the Labor’s shadow cabinet underscores the division within the party. Fitzgibbon has openly lobbied for the fossil fuel industry. The announcement of this “sensible centre” politician’s resignation didn’t send the shock waves through the ranks of the ALP that might’ve been hoped for by his fossil fuel backers. No one pleaded with him to change his mind. Nevertheless, Fitzgibbon was received well by much of the mainstream media where he stated his mission was to “ensure that the party doesn’t go over the proverbial cliff”. There were puff pieces televised on the ABC news of him sipping beer in a pub in the Hunter Valley with a handful of former coal miners where he spoke of the need to return to “Labor values”.

The ABC was at least correct to point out Joel Fitzgibbon’s resignation is a reminder there’s no white knight in the wings for Labor. There is no saviour from the right or the left of the party. As much as opposition leader Anthony Albanese has been a non-entity, the ALP lacks any credible alternatives for the leadership. For a party that has gutted itself of any moral core, talk of returning to “Labor values” is empty and meaningless. Its parliamentary leaders and bureaucrats are easily bought – and usually for a very cheap price.

The Labor party is caught in a bind of pragmatic policies and inaction. For years they have been losing their connection with their traditional base for many reasons, but these have little to do with climate change. The perception that the Labor has become a party for white-collar professionals is based on a certain reality – the composition of its membership has become more middle class and when in government it has failed to champion the interests of the working class in a genuine and meaningful way. When last in power they failed to wind back Australia’s draconian industrial relations legislation, they cut the single mothers pension and further divided the working class by attacking refugees.

Fitzgibbon’s resignation from the frontbench has also led to his removal from convening the right faction of the ALP. It comes after he waged a public attack on Mark Butler who holds the position of shadow climate change minister. Fitzgibbon effectively blamed Butler for the ALP’s election losses over the last seven years. The ALP is calling for 50% renewable energy by 2030, an emissions trading scheme – a policy briefly implemented by the short-lived Gillard ALP government – and a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Fitzgibbon’s campaign to overturn the ALP’s policies on climate change underlines the opportunism of the ALP. While his right faction has supported opposition leader Anthony Albanese’s appointment of Butler, they have struck a deal to amend the national policy platform of the party to explicitly support gas.

The new policy brokered by the Australian Workers Union (AWU) ties the ALP more firmly in a pragmatic bind. The policy states: “Labor recognises and supports the critical role gas plays in the Australian economy. Labor’s policies will support Australian workers in the gas extraction industry, building on Labor’s legacy of supporting sufficient and affordable gas supply for industry and consumers”.

The policy is set to go before the national conference next year; it remains to be seen if there will be any significant opposition to it. Labor has been supporting the extraction of Coal Seam Gas nationally. The AWU has been a strong proponent of gas extraction and has been lobbying the ALP and the federal government for “gas to play a pivotal role in Australia’s post-pandemic recovery”.

Most unions are firmly wedded to the ALP and have no intention of breaking with it over the issue of climate change, either to the left or to the right, but the relationship is becoming more strained, particularly within the CFMMEU.

The CFMMEU – a Divided House

For over 30 years the CFMMEU has operated as an organisation of several unions, rather than one union with a centralised leadership. Combined, the CFMMEU has 144,000 members and presents a considerable industrial threat to some of the biggest employers in the country. Its total assets are worth $310 million. But it is not a united union.

There is a gulf between the divisions of the CFMMEU that mirrors the political divisions over climate change within the ALP. The union has been at war with itself. The forestry, mining, energy, construction and manufacturing divisions are suffering from multiple schisms and rifts. The issue of climate change is just one of them.

As with most union politics, the divisions are murky and shrouded in other political issues and factional wrangling. The Victorian construction division has been under siege, continually facing fines and threats of de-registration for industrial activity. In an atmosphere where their activity is heavily policed and under constant legal scrutiny, internal divisions have added to the pressure on the leadership of the union.

The majority of the National Executive of the CFMMEU voted to call on the national secretary, Michael O’Connor to resign six months ago. Ostensibly, this was because O’Connor had failed to publicly defend Victorian secretary John Setka against allegations of domestic violence. Evidence of Setka harassing his wife with multiple text messages was made public as were disparaging comments Setka had made of anti-domestic violence campaigner Rosy Battie. O’Connor is thought to have been the source of the leak. After pressure from Albanese, Setka quit the ALP.

Tony Maher, the national president of the union has also resigned, the effect of which will be to withdraw the mining and energy division from the union’s activities and forums until at least March. In a letter to the division’s 20,000 members, he stated: “The current state of the union does not reflect the spirit of solidarity, consensus and shared vision that has been cultivated over the past decade. Rather, the CFMMEU has become impossibly divided and dysfunctional with no repair in sight.”

Both O’Connor and Maher are Accordera union organisers and their politics have not shifted from a time when union struggles were channeled into conciliation and arbitration. The Accord (or the Prices and Incomes Accord) was the industrial policy of the ALP government from 1983 until it lost power in 1996. It is credited with demobilising the union movement and paving the way for the largest shift of national wealth from wages to profits in Australian history. O’Connor, when national secretary, also headed the manufacturing branch of the union which has 9000 members. During the spat with Setka, the construction division, which has over 60 000 members, poached members from the manufacturing division, leading both divisions to battle it out in the federal court of which sections had the right to represent various groups of workers. O’Connor still holds his position as secretary of the manufacturing division.

Neither Maher nor O’Connor deny the reality of climate change.. But they are not upfront with their membership on what needs to be done. They are living in a fantasy land where the natural resources of Australia can be plundered indefinitely.  Their leadership lacks any vision of how to build the union movement, grapple with the issue of climate change and adapt to the changing industrial landscape. Maher has, in various opinion pieces and media releases, attacked the Greens and environmentalists for opposing the Adani coal mine.

At best O’Connor, like most career trade union officials, can speak in vague generalities about “good quality jobs, skills investment and protecting regional Australia”, but his ideas reflect an acutely narrow short-sightedness and backwardness. Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald about the troubles in the CFMMEU, O’Connor promoted the idea of exporting paper pulp to China to protect forestry jobs. Here was his chance to present a vision of how the CFMMEU can meet future challenges and he had nothing to deliver.

O’Connor later in the article bemoaned the many job losses he’s been a witness to: “I know what it’s like to stand in front of 60 workers where the only employer in town is going to shut.

“I know what it’s like when you see wives and families crying and there’s no alternative employment when the sawmill shuts.

“I can actually drive past towns now where there is nothing left – I mean literally no buildings left.”

The inference is that policies to limit old-growth logging have cost jobs, but these job losses are an indictment of his leadership. Not only has O’Connor failed to save those jobs, but he’s also failed to outline an alternative vision where these workers can transition to other forms of employment. He failed to act. For many years these jobs have been mechanised, killing jobs even as old-growth forests continue to be wood-chipped at an alarming rate.

With increasing automation, the viability of many forestry jobs is even more in question. Destroying old-growth forests for paper pulp shows a poverty of vision, but this bleakness is nothing new. It should be remembered that O’Connor sided with John Howard against Mark Latham’s forestry policy in the 2004 federal election, threatening to resign from the ALP. Labor had pledged to preserve 240 000 hectares of old-growth forests in Tasmania.

O’Connor has since been replaced as national secretary by Christy Cain who is also the national president of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). Cain will be national secretary at least until elections are held next year, but by then it will be a very different union. The CFMMEU is almost certainly headed for a split. The ALP has backed the federal government’s Withdrawal from Amalgamation legislation to de-merge unions. The bill was publicly backed by Maher and the Master Builders Association of Australia which represents building bosses. Under the existing rules, a union can leave a merger only within the first five years of amalgamation.

Dave Noonan, the National Secretary of the construction division accused Maher of hatching the plan to de-merge the union in secret. Maher has denied what is so obvious – that he collaborated with Christian Porter, the federal government’s IR minister to formulate this legislation behind closed doors. The bill was not discussed within the union or by any other union. The ACTU has not commented on the bill and did not oppose its passage. The bill intends to politically isolate the construction division and leave it more vulnerable to de-registration. It allows for a vote to split the union apart, which will most likely take place at the union’s quadrennial convention in March.

Speaking to the ABC, Noonan stated: “Certainly there’s been some unhappiness about Michael moving on from the position [of national secretary] and I understand that. I understand people take these things pretty personally and pretty seriously but no one at any point has ever come and said we want to move our division out of the union.”

Is there a path forward?

Once the mining and energy division has left the CFMMEU, it is likely the manufacturing and forestry divisions will also leave. This weakens the union industrially and politically. The split will harden ideological divisions. Rather than avoiding isolation, the de-merger will increase the likelihood of each division being attacked one by one. It also paves the way for other unions to be broken up.

None of these shifts has been driven by the rank-and-file; they are driven by internecine bureaucratic warfare that is divorced from the day-to-day life of the membership. But the break-up will have an impact. Organised on a sectoral basis, these small unions will have much less industrial muscle and a smaller level of political outreach.

The narrow sectoral nature of these divisions is in and of itself also a problem. The separation of these divisions pushes them in a direction that reinforces a more socially conservative outlook that ties workers to a specific industry or occupation. The power of the working class is collective and it is through the experience of solidarity with other workers that sharpens class consciousness.

Each division, once separated will be forced to follow the contours of industry and its fortunes will remain tied to it. As such it is more difficult to organise new sectors that are emerging such as in renewable energy. The fortunes of the mining and energy division are then tied more to the old world of fossil fuel production and more unable to break with it. The more limited avenues for collective discussion and campaigning reinforce a more blinkered world view rooted in the past. Its harder to break through the disfunction of a world that is being burnt to a crisp and the need to put food on the table.

The vision of what’s possible – a just transition to renewable energy that secures the livelihoods of miners and timber workers – is getting pulped by the break-up of the CFMMEU. There is one division of the union however, that shows another way is possible.

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has taken a stand on climate change. The MUA is operating independently within the CFMMEU with which it merged in 2018. It has many members in offshore oil and gas and coal terminals. The MUA led the Australian union movement in endorsing the global climate strike in September 2019.

It has been campaigning for jobs in the renewable energy sector including offshore wind turbines to be built in the Bass Straight through the “Star of the South” project, Australia’s first proposed offshore wind farm which would use 250 turbines between 10 and 25kms off the Gippsland coast to generate up to 20 percent of Victoria’s electricity. The MUA developed an extensive report in collaboration with the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), the construction division of the CFMMEU and the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) that details how this could become a reality.

The MUA has consistently opposed government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and challenged the tax avoidance of big oil corporations such as Chevron. Shane Stevens the recently elected Victorian Secretary of the MUA has called for the federal government to explore a public takeover of Australia’s second-largest oil refinery in Geelong run by Viva Energy which is seeking a bailout from the Victorian state government.

The MUA has tied in climate justice with the right to strike, stressing in its campaigning that workers industrial power is essential in forcing governments to act. The MUA is not the only blue-collar union to campaign for renewable energy.

The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) which has 60 000 members nationally has rebuffed the attempts of the Labor right to divide the union movement on the issue of climate change. In response to Fitzgibbons resignation and calls to back the coal industry they sent a letter to the shadow cabinet stating “…the market was irreversibly shifting towards renewable energy”.

Along with the AMWU, the ETU is a member of the Hunter Jobs Alliance, a group of unions and environmental organisations that have converged to face the challenges of providing secure work with a transition towards renewable energy in the Hunter Valley of NSW. The express aim of the group is to end the “jobs versus environment dynamic that is holding the region back”.

Newcastle environmentalist, Georgina Woods, co-founder of the group stated in their first media release: “The Hunter has a proud history of environmentalists and workers supporting each other in their struggle to make this region fairer for both people and the environment. We’re looking forward to rolling up our sleeves and putting governments and big business on notice that workers, communities, and the environment are at the heart of what makes this place great.”

The group is calling for workers to have control over major industry decisions and for large scale public investment in renewable energy. They are also calling on state and federal governments to be “upfront” with people of the region about the future of coal. This is a positive shift and helps lay the basis to struggle against the use of fossil fuels.

The ETU in Queensland has been successful in campaigning for the state government to establish a new publicly-owned renewable generator CleanCo. The establishment of CleanCo will help Queensland achieve a 50% renewable energy target by 2030 and 1000MW of new renewable energy by 2025. The pay and conditions are equivalent to other power generators including no forced redundancies or relocations. While the Queensland government is depending on a rebound in fossil fuel use it will spend $500 million on wind and solar power over four years. Half of that money will be used to construct and operate the Karara Wind Farm, supporting hundreds of jobs.

These are small beginnings and insufficient in truly meeting the urgency of climate change. However, the orientation of these blue-collar unions towards renewable energy is a positive shift and is a contrast to the reactionary sectoral outlook of O’Connor and Maher’s unionism.

The manoeuvres of these right-wing bureaucrats within the ALP and CFMMEU should not come as a surprise. Trade unions exist in a politically and industrially hostile environment where big business gets government support and the unions confront a centralised capitalist adversary intimately bound up with state power. O’Connor and Maher simply wish to sit at the table with their masters, as happened during the disastrous accord years. They have very little interest in activating the rank-and-file. The unionism we need now is one where unions think and act socially and are concerned with what their members produce and their role in the community.

There is already a good precedent for unions to take action globally to fight for renewable energy. In New York state, unions successfully formed the “Climate jobs NY” campaign. Climate Jobs NY has become a broad and growing coalition of trade unions that has tackled issues of climate change and inequality with a focus on transport, building and energy. The NY state government has committed to building 9000 MW of offshore wind power, requiring union agreements and job guarantees for their manufacture.

At every historical turn of capitalism’s historical development, whole industries are left to decay as new technologies or regions are developed. Continuing to burn fossil fuels for a few more decades will not secure the future even of the small section of the working class employed in this industry – though that would guarantee the most dangerous version of the climate crisis. Unions need to be at the forefront of fighting for renewable energy so the energy transition takes place sooner, more thoroughly and to fight for workers livelihoods during the transition. The right-wing policies of Maher, O’connor, Fitzgibbon and their ilk, if successful, could extend the life of a handful of jobs. But in the long term there is no future – even an economic future – in fossil fuels for workers. Their outlook ultimately reflects a capitulation to the fossil fuel bosses.

If unions and working people do not campaign for a just transition, the transition to a low carbon economy will happen anyway. Left to the leadership of the likes of the ALP, the transition will take on a pro-capitalist form, such as Rudd-Gillard’s tried and failed Emissions Trading Scheme. While marginally reducing emissions, the ETS passed on the burden to working people, paving the way for the election of Tony Abbott and the situation we are now in.

Similarly, Queensland CFMMEU’s Stephen Smyth’s comment that “The road to Canberra is paved through central Queensland” also failed to realise how that (parliamentary) road could be paved. Had then ALP leader Bill Shorten toured Central Queensland with a serious, well argued and clear plan to massively fund renewable jobs, the conservative backlash in support of the Adani mine could well have been overturned. More equivocation and decline seems likely to be the trajectory of the ALP and sections of the union movement that tie themselves to that party. However the MUA, ETU and AMWU have already indicated there is a way forward.

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