Changing the rules going global: unions and climate change

Last week 3 significant reports from distant parts of the world highlighted the crucial role that workers and their unions can play in fighting climate change.

Each one showed how union members can shape the character of the move away from fossil-fueled energy production and, negotiate a rapid “just transition” that provides secure jobs in renewable energy production and associated environment renewal industries.

In Latin America

In early October representatives from 15 countries throughout the Americas met in San José, Costa Rica, for the Third Regional Conference on Energy, Environment and Work. The meeting was reported by the ever growing Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, and convened by the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA-CSA). 24 trade union centres attended along with 7 continental social movements, 4 civil society organizations and 5 universities.

“For three days, the group discussed how to respond to the predatory and repressive actions of mining and drilling companies across the continent.”

The participants developed an agreed affirmative agenda, including:

  • ending energy poverty,
  • de-privatisation,
  • recover people’s sovereignty over common resources and goods
  • reject technological determinism that gives precedence to one technology over another and,
  • de-fossilisation of the energy matrix.

Thus, representing hundreds of thousands of workers, these unions connect poverty and inequality to the impact of climate change driven by transnational corporations’ control over work and social life.

In Spain

We learned that in Spain a group of coal mining unions have negotiated a “Just Transition” agreement. The Agreement  speeds up the closure of declining coal mines and replaces these with a programme of clean energy production and environment renewal.

There seem to be 2 important factors behind this breakthrough. First, the workers and their communities, through their unions, established momentum for their demands through social and industrial action. Also, they were dealing with a government that wanted to develop a “just transition agreement”.

The Just Transition deal “… replaces subsidies to the coal industry with a sustainable development plan. Financially viable mines can remain open, but ten pits and open cast mines are expected to close by the end of the year, with the loss of 1,677 jobs. The deal covers eight companies with 12 production units in four regions of Spain. The biggest employer is state owned mining company HUNOSA, with 1,056 employees.

“The highly detailed agreement has been praised by unions as a model, and provides a package of benefits to miners and their communities.

“About 60 per cent of miners – those age 48 and older, or with 25 years’ service – will be able to take early retirement. Younger miners will receive a redundancy payment of €10,000, as well as 35 days’ pay for every year of service. Miners with asbestosis will receive an additional payment of €26,000. …

“An action plan will be created for each mining community, including plans for developing renewable energy and improving energy efficiency, and investing in and developing new industries.

Obviously, there is still much to learn about any flow-on effects to the “financially viable” mines and the damage they will continue to cause.

In Australia

The Mining and Energy Division of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) released a report on “Just Transition” as it might apply to Australia’s mining industry and the workers threatened by its decline.

Of course “a report” is not the same as a negotiated “just transition agreement”, its still a big deal, for several reasons.

First, it is not straightforward for a union and its members – under pressure from a declining industry base and workforce – to develop a strategy on climate change. Members and their families can now draw on new, rich material to work out their campaigns for the immediate future.

The report says:

“Coal-fired power industry workers and their communities have provided Australia with energy for many decades. For this, they have also suffered from working and living in polluted or dangerous environments. In the absence of sufficient policy-making forethought and attention, they will now also carry the heaviest costs of the new national climate change priorities.

“Those costs would show up as unwelcome early retirements, unemployment, underemployment, insecure employment and work that is lower paid, less safe and less skilled. Overall, these produce reduced incomes and personal assets, both before and after retirement.”

Put in another way, leaving transition to the elusive charms of the “free market” will be a disastrous dead end for workers who have worked their guts out to provide what is taken for granted by the rest of the population.

Not just bread, we’ll take the bakery too?

The common thinking in most of the Australian union movement says that investment (and disinvestment) decisions are a matter for the employer, even when we don’t like it, as we often do.

With some exceptions, climate change has not been union business in the practical sense that it should or can be negotiated. Making sure that unions can represent workers in decisions about disinvestment (“defossilisation”), new job-creating investment based on renewables, and private or public ownership, is quite rare.

The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union has been an exception. In 2008, the Union released a ground breaking report that formed the basis of its ongoing negotiations with the then Labor government, especially in reference to its industry development policy.

Of course, the broken rules of Australia’s Fair Work Act 2009 prohibit investment decisions from being the subject matter of negotiations for the purposes of making an agreement. This prohibition must be removed and replaced with workers’ rights, including through their unions, to make claims and negotiate arrangements that protect and advance their interests during transition away from fossil fuel dependency.

As the CFMMEU report says:

Currently, law, policy and practice allow owners of coal-fired power stations to make all decisions regarding closures: when and how it suits them. The clear inference is that those decisions should be left only to the owners’ commercial considerations. This was evident in the South Australian cases but also, in 2017, for the Hazelwood plant in Victoria. Further, those owners have no social responsibilities to workers or host communities beyond the scarce regulatory requirements.

The “Concrete Proposals” in the report (page 15) are, potentially, a big step forward to ensure a strong role for unions and their workers in setting the pace of transition and, also, to ensure that workers and their communities will not be victims of it. The emphasis on tripartite processes is quite European and is understandable. Tripartite industry processes were not a gross failure, despite inadequacies, during the 1980’s.

Changing the workplace and industrial laws to strengthen workers’ rights – including the right to strike – will change the rules about “just transition” to reverse climate change, not just reversing inequality on the wages front.

“New rules” campaigns come together for the elections

Rapid action on climate and “changing the rules” in Australia’s grossly unfair workplace and industrial laws will be 2 of the major threshold issues for the next national election. (See this, for example.) The National Conference of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) coming up in December will also also have to deal with them.

The “Changing the Rules” theme is catching on. There are so many sets of broken rules, as I have commented on before. And most of them do interact with each other in various ways.

And we have this 15 year old’s insight all the way from Helsinki, Finland

…  Greta Thunberg urged marchers to fight for the major systemic changes that experts have said are necessary to limit greenhouse gas emissions and avert a looming climate catastrophe.

“Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground, so we can’t save the world by playing by the rules because the rules have to change. Everything needs to change and it has to start today,” declared the Swedish teenager, who traveled to the capital city of her nation’s Nordic neighbor for Saturday’s massive march.

Nails it.

Impending crisis, the broken rules of the system v the 90%

Here, Michael Roberts gives a good overview of the global picture regarding new levels of instability in the economic system. Instability is an intrinsic feature of the capitalists system we live in.

He starts as follows:

The US stock market turned volatile this week and has now erased all the gains made up to now in 2018 in just a week or so.  So much for Trump’s boast that things for rich investors have never been better.  The fall in the US market has been matched by similar drops in the European and Asian stock markets.  The all-world index has had its worst performance since the Euro debt crisis of 2012.

— Read on thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2018/10/25/correction/

What does it mean for Australia?

Australia is affected, and the impact will sharpen in the months ahead as the national election gets closer.

Living in denial is dangerous. Governing in denial is destructive. Campaigning in denial is not very smart.

That does not mean giving up. It does means re-thinking the campaigns we are active in and how we join in them, and bringing others with us. Many of our demands will be just as valid. We will have to be tougher and more united in defending and winning them.

Living … in brief

Among other things, profits and profitability will fall. There will be bankruptcies. If you are a small business employer that possibility is very sharp. If you are a worker with a job, the likelihood that you will lose it or be pressured to take a big cut in wages will escalate. If you are a worker without a job there will be downward pressure on your social welfare entitlements. Just surviving will be tougher and we will have to resist a louder call to blame it on refugees and migrant workers. It will infect our thinking and our social solidarity instincts or, it will make them stronger.

Governing … in brief

The LNP government is preparing to leave the next economic crisis to the market. Deciding to do that takes about 5 minutes and means the government is not in control.

In the meantime, they will seek to get re-elected on the basis of “their record”: current growth numbers, reduced unemployment, and very low strike figures.

Growth as GDP is barely adequate.

Unemployment has fallen. They say, for example Kelly O’Dwyer (the rather shrill and vacuous Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations), that unemployment is at 5%. She is using the volatile nominal figures not the more reliable “trend” figures that say it’s a bit higher. I haven’t seen an interview with her that deals with that.

She also does not talk about underemployment. That is now rising and more entrenched.

Campaigning … brief, but not so brief

On climate change …

Apart from the big and growing campaigns against the Adani mega coal mine there remains no coordinated national campaign. There is rich potential for this in the dozens of small initiatives and mini campaigns.

A thousand flowers blooming, each one in its own paddock, will not be good enough to win the battle to reverse climate change.

On workers rights and Changing the Rules …

The union movement’s campaign to “Change the Rules” (CtR) that seeks more power in the hands of workers to reverse inequality and poverty will be affected by instability and new crisis.

We must factor impending crisis into our strategy. Not to do so would be negligent.

Electoral intervention will not be enough.

This is true for those who want the campaign to be focussed almost entirely on getting a new Labor government. That is, an electoral strategy that focuses on the marginal seats that the Labor Party must win.

If the crisis hits not long after such a government, as it did in 2008-9, that new government – on historical form – will seek that we retreat from our most important demands. They will join with the employers, albeit with some reforms to make retreat “excusable”. Recent and longer history says that the dominant (these days) laborist tendency in our union movement will go along with that.

Compliant industrial strategy will not be enough

The CtR’s current industrial strategy is to comply with the rules (even though a percentage who attended last week’s rallies did not do that) and then whinge about them through social media and national union leader media appearances.

This is a dead end strategy because it leaves both union and non union workers fully exposed to the bankruptcies and wage cut demands that go with economic crisis.

The champions of the dead end approach are also champions of rules that restore arbitration powers to the Fair Work Commission and inspectorial and prosecuting powers to the Fair Work Ombudsman. They oppose a comprehensive “right to strike” that puts power into the hands of workers, union and non union alike.

A prospective new Labor government relies on the “dead end” champions as it prepares to win the election with the focus on the ALP National Conference in December.

A defiant strategy: electoral and industrial action before and after the national election

For those who want an strong, interventionist industrial strategy for CtR that interacts with the electoral strategy and also escalates the priority on the “right to strike”, the impending economic and climate crisis is also a big deal.

If we are “fair dinkum”, the need to change the rules by defying them – a big part of Australian history – will rise.

There is a serious option: a minimum wage increase

The National Minimum Wage Review starts soon. The Fair Work Commission will announce a timetable at any time in the next few weeks. The Review process will then start and traverse through to June 2019. This is the period leading up to and probably just after the national election.

In the next few weeks, the ACTU will prepare and present a proposal for a minimum pay increase by taking all minimum wages – the statutory and award based minimums closer to a “living wage”.

Lets start discussing that proposal now even, if necessary, before it is formalised.

Lets build an industrial campaign, reinforced by our efforts in the key electorates, that puts pressure on employer organisations, the government and the Commission to accept that proposal.

Otherwise they will dominate the public debate with the economic c risks logic of 0% increase.

All methods and tactics of campaigning can be harnessed into such a campaign.

It can be designed to appeal to all of those workers who are not in unions but who try to live on the minimum wage and those whose thieving employers pay below the minimum.

The 90% in charge

The modest efforts that the Rudd Labor government produced in 2008-9 to deal with the economic crash back then will be inadequate. They complied with the financial management rules of the day. But we know the rules of the finance system are stacked for the 1-10%, even more today. They must not be allowed to dominate “governing” as the crisis strikes and takes effect. Unless the 90 % take charge, the 90%, and the natural world we are dependent on, will suffer horrendously.

But we also have the rich working class potential to develop and win an alternative.

Not just workplace relations, a whole network of broken rules!

The ACTU’S Change the Rules Campaign draws attention to the “broken rules” – from the point of view of workers – in the Fair Work Act 2009. The campaign is borne out of a system that adds to employer power and this enables wages repression. The system thus contributes to growing poverty and inequality.

Broken rules galore

At the same time we can create a list of other “broken rules” that attack the environment we must live in, living standards, democracy and humanist values. For example:

  • First Nations peoples exploitation, oppression, incarceration
  • The finance and banking system
  • Taxation – powerful corporations pay little or no tax;
  • Social welfare payments – denying a dignified life to tens of thousands;
  • Climate change – now no rules at all;
  • Trade policy;
  • Immigration and refugee policy;
  • Corporations law.

One can go on.

Put the transnational corporations in even stronger command?

It is clear that parliamentary democracy, in its current, Australian form has seriously broken rules also.

On climate change the government has morphed into being so bad that the large corporations are saying, through the Business Council of Australia, that they will go it alone on climate change mitigation.

Maybe that has been the objective all along.

Let the most powerful have more power to control the future. After all, that’s 21st century capitalism.

Its not just the LNP government who is the protagonist, although they are at the extreme end. The ALP is a co-creator of some of them, or insipid in its efforts to “solve the problem”.

Recently, the TTP (trade policy) is a good example. A closer look at Labor’s control of the negotiations for the Fair Work Act 2009 that reproduced or established “the broken rules”, reveals another.

Broken rules: separate? Or connected?

The big question is: are all of these sets of broken rules separate and discrete?

Or, are they – in various ways – connected and mutually dependent … systemic?

If the answer to these is “No” and “Yes”, that must lead to a very different response from all of those engaged in the largely discrete struggles and campaigns against them.

The challenge from a real alternative: the seeds within the separated struggles

All of the separated struggles contain an analysis of what is wrong with the :”broken rules” and, to one degree or another, an alternative set of ideas, proposals and sometimes specific demands. Many stand well as a real alternative, new rules that are democratic and reverse exploitation of people and nature, many require further development in the realm of power and democracy.

Defeating the sets of requires a unifying programme of demands and proposals, and a strategy for a unifying Organisation that can bring them together and put them in the hands of the people for further development and political pressure. That would include an approach that “unites the identities” (gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, disabilities) based on a working class framework.

The driving principles would be solidarity and unifying across the struggles, more power in the hands of the people, especially at work, equality, environmental renewal, and equality.

Leaving the politics of dissatisfaction as they are now – an inadequate combination of 1) silo campaigns, 2) protest driven electing of “independent” and right wing nationalists, and 3) click activism – will not put the majority in charge of their futures.