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Australia Needs a Working-Class Environmental Movement

Steve Murphy

Led by Australian unions, the Hunter Jobs Alliance is organizing workers, environmentalists, and Hunter Valley communities to oppose the right-wing narrative on climate change. We don’t have to choose between protecting jobs and saving the planet: a plan based on public investment can do both.

Workers overlooking a mine in the upper Hunter Valley. (David Hancock / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Lopez

The Hunter Valley in New South Wales (NSW) stretches from about 120 kilometers north of Sydney well into the hinterland, encompassing some 29,000 square kilometers and 620,000 residents. Although it’s famous for its wineries, in recent years the Hunter Valley has become a flash point for Australia’s debate over climate change.

Forty-one coal mines in the region employ fourteen thousand people, while many tens of thousands more work in connected businesses. Scott Morrison’s Liberal-National Coalition wants to double down on fossil fuels, encouraging businesses to extract as much coal and gas as they can. The conservative wing of the Australian Labor Party agrees. Together, they argue that action on climate change will lead to catastrophic job losses and long-term stagnation for the Hunter Valley.

The Hunter Jobs Alliance (HJA), launched in March this year, rejects this narrative. Spearheaded by the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU), the HJA is a coalition that brings together thirteen unions with community and environmental groups. They are putting forward a vision for the Hunter Valley to make a transition away from fossil fuels that will place workers, communities, and the environment first.

The HJA’s plan calls for community control, public investment and ownership of infrastructure, green manufacturing, and renewable energy projects. The Alliance is pushing back against the conservative claim that climate action must result in lost jobs and lower living standards.

The AMWU’s national secretary Steve Murphy grew up in the Hunter Valley, and worked there for most of his career, both as a fitter and turner, and as a union organizer. He spoke to Jacobin about the Hunter Jobs Alliance and the need for unity between the workers’ movement and the ecological movement.


DL

Former Labor senator Doug Cameron recently shared a story from his time as a shop steward with the AMWU’s predecessor. In 1975, when the governor general dismissed the Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam, Doug Cameron and his workmates walked off the job straight away. The situation for unions has changed a good deal since then, however. What challenges has the AMWU has faced, especially in the Hunter Valley, in the last few decades?

SM
Liddell Power Station and Bayswater Power Station on Lake Liddell in the Hunter Valley. (Wikimedia Commons)

Doug worked as a fitter and turner at the Liddell Power Station before becoming the assistant state secretary of the AMWU in 1986. When I first joined the union as a young apprentice, he was national secretary. When I was an organizer, he went into the senate, where he was a fierce advocate for socialism and workers’ rights. He was a very principled leader of our union, who made many personal sacrifices for the movement.

While there’s been a lot of change in the AMWU since Doug’s days as a leader on the job, our commitment to mindful militancy has remained firm. On many occasions, workers in those power stations have had to take a stand. That hasn’t changed since 1975.

When I was the organizer up in the Valley in 2008, we shut down those power stations for almost two weeks over safety. Workers were being paid very badly and a host of contractors weren’t receiving basic amenities. It was a big story — the media claimed the AMWU was trying to force a power blackout.

In reality, workers employed by six or seven different contractors realized they were being exploited and treated poorly by a very profitable power station, and said they wouldn’t go back to work until it was safe. At the time, there was a hearing in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission that tried to order workers back to work. But we’ve got a right to refuse to work when it’s unsafe. We stood our ground, and we got our issues fixed.

Since then, we’ve seen conditions for contractors in the power stations improve. With all the legislation that’s thrown at workers to tie their hands, they can feel powerless. Our job as a union is to remind them of their power.

DL

For years manufacturing has declined, as have other industries. At the same time, there’s been a broader decline in union density. How has this affected blue-collar workers and the AMWU?

SM

Manufacturing has been under attack in a number of areas, with private capital chasing profit while the government signs off on terrible free trade agreements. Every time a boss says it’s cheaper to move overseas and exploit workers there, it’s always blue-collar workers and the community who have to pick up the pieces. Private capital tries to fool workers that there will be something for them at the end of the rainbow. But there never has been.

DL

The mainstream media and major parties have argued that moving toward a net-zero emission economy powered by renewables will necessarily lead to job losses. How has this argument played out in the Hunter Valley?

SM

It’s a conservative framing that, to be honest, has mostly been accepted by both sides of politics. It has arrested action on climate change for over a decade. When you frame the debate that way, it tells workers they need to choose between financial security and the environment. Because climate change feels like it’s far away, people are more likely to choose the option they think will immediately help their family.

In truth, the framing is false. When I started talking about the issue to union members and to workers generally, the best way forward wasn’t to debate whether climate scientists are right or not. It’s more powerful to say that private capital is making decisions in distant boardrooms that will put a question mark over workers’ livelihoods.

I was an apprentice when they announced the closure of BHP Steel in Newcastle and a young tradesman when it happened. The BHP workers were fooled into believing that a nice redundancy package and a Technical and Further Education (TAFE) course would give them a bright future. We learned from that experience, and others like it, that, as a rule, one-third of workers move on to a comparable job that doesn’t pay too badly and has some job security. Another third of workers will go on to insecure, low-paid, low-dignity work. And another third never work again.

When I was touring workplaces, I went and spoke to one of my mates, Luke, who I did my apprenticeship with. He’s a fitter and turner, and now he works in the coal mines. I asked him about the stuff denying climate change he posts on Facebook. He told me: “We know that something is going on and we don’t trust the mining bosses. But it feels like there’s nobody in our corner.”

When I asked him about the role he expected the union to play, he told me he wanted the union to be in our corner, not just defending the jobs we’ve got, but building jobs for the future. From there, Luke told a bigger story. A lot of workers in mining know it’s going to be around for ten or more years, and they’re going to be okay. But their biggest concern is that they don’t want their kids to have to move away just to get a job.

As a union, we’re working with environmentalists to throw out the “jobs versus the environment” framing. When environmentalists and blue-collar workers throw rocks at each other, the mining bosses rub their hands together and line their pockets. Good jobs and a thriving environment are not counterposed.

DL

Conservatives — along with many in the Labor Party — have tried to pit inner-city progressives against blue-collar workers, especially workers in rural areas. How much traction does that particular narrative have in the Hunter Valley?

SM

I grew up in regional New South Wales and when I was an organizer, I worked both there and in Queensland. If you go to any regional town, they’ll tell you that they don’t like people from the big cities telling them what’s good for them. A lot of people go to the regions to make speeches — not many go there to listen. When I toured the Hunter Valley, it was to listen.

A lot of people forget that the union movement was born in regional Australia. You can see it in Henry Lawson’s poems — he captured the spirit of what it was like to be working in colonial Australia. Looking after your mate and making sure everyone gets a fair go is our lifeblood. We haven’t lost that in the Hunter Valley.

The idea of unionism is people coming together to talk about solutions to the problems we all face. When we’re talking to environmentalists, our approach is to say: look, we can work together and find a solution that’s in both of our interests.

DL

Can you tell us more about the Hunter Jobs Alliance? What are its goals?

SM

The idea for the Hunter Jobs Alliance was born at an AMWU delegates meeting in 2018, with many delegates from coal mining. We wanted to return to the kind of working-class politics I was talking about before. We invited a host of different groups to talk to us about economics, about the women’s movement and the struggle of Indigenous Australians, and about environmentalism.

Felicity Wade from the Labor Environment Action Network addressed the meeting. I wasn’t sure how her talk was going to be received. But the delegates recognized that the workers’ movement and the environmental movement have a rich history of solidarity. We’re all tired of letting conservatives divide us. As part of that discussion, we came up with a line that was the catalyst for the Hunter Jobs Alliance: “When working-class politics are at the head of the environmental movement, we’ll all win.”

We’ve built a coalition of thirteen environmental groups and unions, and compiled a list of projects that will not only create jobs, but also take real action on climate change. There are enough think tanks and opinions out there already. We’ve focused on putting boots on the ground and developing real community ownership of this process.

We formally launched the Hunter Jobs Alliance in early March. Over the coming weeks, we will focus on coal jobs. In addition to proposing new renewable projects, infrastructure, electric bus retrofits, and investment in education, we’re demanding that a statutory authority be set up to plan how we’re going to respond to manage the coming changes, with a clear focus on justice for workers.

DL

Your comments about the alliance between environmentalists and unions reminds me of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), which helped organize the green bans. Jack Mundey pioneered that strategy while he led the NSW BLF in the 1970s. Is that kind of thinking part of the Hunter Jobs Alliance?

SM

When Felicity spoke to us, she reminded us about that history of solidarity. The union movement in Australia, in its early days, fought for eight hours work, eight hours rest, and eight hours recreation. But Jack Mundey had a bigger vision — he saw that workers and our families should be able to live in any area of our cities and towns, and that we need green spaces when we’re enjoying our recreation. The BLF’s story resonated with us and reminded us that what we’re doing isn’t new.

DL

Let’s return to the theme of community control, which seems to be the key to helping workers in regional areas take control over their future. What does community control look like?

SM

Community control means an equal share in the opportunities of our region, and also in the pain. Too often, it’s workers and communities that bear the full cost of the decisions made by private capital.

Community control also means organizing communities in a way that’s firmly linked to local customs and culture. Our union has done some important work in Collie in Western Australia and in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria. Those projects are working toward the same goal, but they look different because of the community cultures that exists.

Members of the Hunter Jobs Alliance. (Steve Murphy / Twitter)

The AMWU is a blue-collar union, so we tend to focus on creating the kinds of jobs that make it possible for workers — with some level of training — to go on to another job that gives them dignity, respect, and good pay and conditions. Other unions bring different priorities: for example, a decent public education system so that kids growing up in the community can learn the skills for the future. Or they may focus on strong TAFE institutions and a well-resourced community sector. Federal and state governments have to ensure the necessary framework is developed to pull these different aspects together.

A decent health system has got to be part of the response as well. As you drive into one of the towns up in the Hunter Valley, there’s a sign that says: “We’ve got two cemeteries and no hospital.” The idea is to get drivers on the highway to slow down. But for me, it raises the need to look at this as a community issue.

DL

The Green New Deal has gained a lot of traction worldwide, and there are many different variations on it and the idea of a Just Transition. Is there one approach that you favor?

SM

To me, these are different ways of labelling the same process. All of them attempt to chart a path to a sustainable environment that also provides good jobs and social cohesion.

In Australia, conservatives have poisoned some of these terms, so we need to think deeply about what language will work. The policy of a Just Transition is sound. But the campaign and the message needs to be developed over time, to bring working-class people with us. As we saw in the last federal election, if you don’t bring people with us, the best policies won’t ever be realized. We should put in the hard work at the start to make sure that we’re speaking the same language as workers, and proposing solutions that represent their aspirations.

DL

What kind of language or framing do you think would be most effective?

SM

When you talk to blue-collar workers who are yet to be convinced, the message that there’s “no transition without a jobs transition” has made headway. However, this left some environmentalists feeling alienated. So we modified the message to say “we can have both climate action and job creation.” And we’re finding that it resonates.

At the core, what we’re saying to activists and workers — and even the Labor Party — is that no matter how you view this issue, we can all win if we talk about new jobs at the same time as talking about real climate action. I’m not saying the messaging is perfect, and of course, a lot of conservatives pick out the Hunter Valley as a target. But more workers realize that the problem is coming on fast, and we don’t trust politicians or mining bosses to have our back. Only the workers’ movement has the power to build this kind of coalition, bringing together communities, environmentalists, and unions.

DL

The Hunter Jobs Alliance demands public investment. There’s a debate to be had, though, about different types of public investment. Many on the Right simply support public subsidies or tax exemptions for businesses. On the center-left, there’s the “public-private partnership” approach, typically preferred by state Labor governments. And then there’s direct investment in publicly owned services and utilities. Is there one of these approaches that the Hunter Jobs Alliance supports in particular?

SM

The issue you raise boils down to one simple fact: we cannot leave an economic transition of this size to private capital. Private capital only makes decisions in the interests of maximizing profit. We have got to manage this transition in a way that recognizes the system is broken and doesn’t serve the interests of workers or our community. The public-private partnership model is also completely flawed. It privatizes profits and socializes losses.

Public ownership and investment are a key part of the transition. If we’re going to rebuild a post-pandemic economy that serves the interests of the community, the government needs to play a role. There will be a lot of political pressure against this. But with interest rates at record lows and renewable energy so cheap and profitable, it would be madness for the government to miss the opportunity to borrow money and invest in major infrastructure.

On top of that, we need a plan to reinvigorate domestic manufacturing. That presents us with a golden opportunity to turn some of the ideas associated with the HJA into reality, and to create hundreds of thousands of new, local jobs, particularly in regional areas.

The transition is also an opportunity to future-proof our major transport, energy, water, and telecommunication needs. We need big, nation-building projects, from world-class urban transport systems to inland rail and transport corridors, particularly in NSW, Victoria, and Queensland. We need projects that cater to our future energy needs, including Snowy Hydro 2.0, offshore wind farms, or large-scale hydrogen production. We also need to take back public ownership of our national electricity grid and upgrade it. On top of all that, we’ve got the capacity for a world-class shipbuilding industry.

All of those projects will require significant government investment — which should mean that they’re publicly owned, in some cases strategically partnering with domestic industry for procurement purposes and long-term planning. If our government were to own or co-own projects like these, it would boost local business and we could invest the proceeds in research and technology, as well as improving job security, pay, and the quality of life for all workers.

DL

What do you think it will take politically to make this vision a reality?

SM

Rejecting conservative framing is crucial. The conservatives have outmaneuvered us by creating narrow frames that constrain our sense of what’s possible. They’ve also made use of groups on their hard-right flank, letting them build up a public profile and push the argument in a more conservative direction. That way, when the mainstream right comes in with a proposal, it looks more sensible and centrist than it really is.

The Left doesn’t do that. It’s about time we started talking more seriously about organizing and about the bold action that’s needed to claw back the center. This means being unapologetic about our views and our intentions.

There’s a mood all across the community to revitalize Australian manufacturing. In regional areas, the idea that the government should be playing a bigger role really resonates. And certainly, the perception amongst workers — blue-collar workers in particular — is that our government doesn’t have a plan or vision for the future.

But on our side, we’re still looking through the narrow conservative frame and talking about managing the economy. When you take a step back and ask who will manage the economy in the best interests of workers, it changes the narrative. If we step back even further and ask what our decisions would look like if we built an economy that serves the best interests of workers, we open up a different discussion altogether.

This is a way to bring workers’ voices into the picture. The projects that I mentioned before didn’t spring from my mind. They were first raised by workers at mass meetings. I asked: “If your current job is going to end in ten years’ time, what kinds of jobs would you expect the union to create in the future?” We found that workers had already been thinking long and hard about this.

Now is the time to listen to workers in regional communities. We have an opportunity to learn what workers expect, and to create the kind of bold, forty-year vision that Labor had under Gough Whitlam. What Labor needs right now is a lot of ambition — not just for themselves, but for working-class people in this country.

DL

One federal Labor MP, Joel Fitzgibbon, is a prominent representative of the Otis Group, a right-wing Labor faction that revealed itself last year. Fitzgibbon is often presented as the voice of the Hunter Valley, although you’ve suggested that many workers and residents in the Hunter Valley have a very different vision. How do you deal with conservatives like Joel Fitzgibbon in the ALP?

SM

We don’t pay too much attention to what Joel says. He’s been in parliament for twenty-five years and had ample opportunity to make his opinions heard. During that time, I’ve been in the Hunter Valley. I grew up in the Hunter Valley, I did my trade there and I worked as an organizer there for seven years. I know the communities and I know the workers — I spent months meeting with hundreds of them and talking about these problems.

They were very clear. They know there’s a problem coming, and they don’t trust political parties or mining bosses to fix it. But they do trust their unions. So, we’re getting on with the job and bringing workers together to plan for the future. Denying there’s a problem denies workers the opportunity to have a say.

We should be honest, and we should listen. If we do those two things, workers will tell us exactly what they expect us to do. Once you get workers talking about it, you get a plan. And once you have a plan, you can take action.