The mining union should join students fighting for a transition from coal

A student climate strike rally in Sydney last year. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

The mining and energy division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining, Maritime and Energy Union (CFMMEU) does not seem to have a strategy for life after coal, if the leaked minutes from its Queensland division’s December meeting can be believed.

It intends to cling tightly to the coalmining multinationals and hope for the best as global climate and renewable energy policies kick in.

Meanwhile in New South Wales, anti-coal campaigners reported seeing the CFMMEU’s Hunter Valley branch acting as a cheer squad for a new United Wambo open-cut coalmine in the Upper Hunter.

The union mobilised its members to a Planning and Assessment Commission (PAC) hearing in Singleton to support the proposal. The CFMMEU holds a 5% stake in the mine.

Either the mining union is serious about a transition or it is not. It cannot be both.

The CFMMEU commissioned a report — The Ruhr or Appalachia? Deciding the future of Australia’s coal power workers and communities on what a just transition would look like. In a welcome first step, the report notes that governments must plan to retrain, redeploy and compensate those workers impacted by the necessary closures of coal and gas-fired power stations.

A recently-released study commissioned by Lock the Gate, Weathering the Storm: The case for transforming the Hunter Valley, models the outcomes of transitioning away from coal versus an uncontrolled decline.

The report found there would be “enormous risks” to the region if it did not prepare for the inevitable global changes “that are underway”. It estimated that more than 5000 jobs and $700 million in wages could be lost in the Hunter Valley with the predicted decline in coal.

The report also found there could be more jobs created than lost from having a planned transition, apart from the concurrent economic boost from new jobs and new industries in the Hunter.

Most people in the region have warmed to the idea, too. Doorknocking by Lock the Gate in Muswellbrook and Singleton — the heart of coal country — found 9 out of 10 people agreed there needs to be a plan for life after coal.

A report released on February 27 by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) said that more than 100 major financial institutions around the world have divested from coal, with another major bank, insurer or lender announcing restrictions on fossil fuel lending every two weeks.

Swiss-based coal corporation Glencore, the biggest operator in Australia, announced recently it was capping its global thermal and coking coal production in line with its commitments to the Paris climate targets.

While this is good news (and a slap in the face for resources minister Matt Canavan who continues to say the future is bright for coal), the world is not shifting towards renewables at anywhere near the pace required to avert dangerous and severe warming.

Union’s reputation

The CFMMEU mining and energy division has a good reputation for fighting for its members’ pay, conditions and safety on site. The union’s transition policy as it relates to domestic coal-fired power stations and the mines that feed them is not bad either (notwithstanding some bald delusions about carbon capture and storage).

But the union shares the same view as the Minerals Council of Australia on new export coal mines: they support them. The mining union seems determined to wait until coal is in serious decline before speaking up about the need for a transition. Given that the union is leading the way on wages and health and safety, this is a major internal inconsistency with some major ramifications for jobs.

Yes, it’s true that billions will be needed for a good “green new deal”. But, as the Hunter Valley report noted, the economic and social costs of not planning for the inevitable transition will be enormous, not to mention devastating to communities and the ecosystem.

The CFMMEU also has a proud history of taking action to protect environments — urban and bushland — when no-one else was prepared to.

In the 1970s, the left-wing Builders Labourers Federation in NSW took strike action and, together with many communities, it led campaigns to defend workers’ housing, heritage buildings, bushland and parkland across Sydney and beyond.

Green bans

The Green Bans movement, as it became known, inspired a new type of union practice. The precedent it set could not be more relevant today.

Conventional trade unionism, which focuses exclusively on the pay, conditions and safety of the workers, pretends not to have a position on the critical social questions of the day, including climate change.

This is not true. By not taking a side on whether or not to mine more coal, or unconventional gas, the union’s default position is the same as that of the bosses. It is not a working class strategy. It allows bosses to flee town and dump the workers, who made them huge profits, on the dole as the coal industry enters its final decline.

We need a new, 21st century green ban on coalmines to hasten the shift to 100% renewables and to secure funding for workers to become skilled in the new jobs that come with the transition. This would need to work in tandem with other unions taking action in the cities, in defiance of the anti-strike laws.

The remarkable Student Strike 4 Climate movement, which has shaken up the political class, tells us that there has been a dramatic shift in consciousness on the need to act now. Students have spent their entire lives watching, or being affected by extreme weather events and reading all about the politics of climate change and the solutions.

They also like New York Democratic Socialist congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal for a Green New Deal, which argues strongly for a transition for workers and communities caught up in the climate emergency.

They understand the need for deep ongoing system change, and see it as necessary.  

Another decade of playing cheerleader for new coal on a planet being cooked is not an option. The CFMMEU must link up with the students taking action for our collective future. Together, we would be a formidable force.

[Zane Alcorn is a member of the construction division of the CFMMEU and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]