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.

Understanding its reality is the first activist step towards preparing for the next economic crisis

Global economy is facing a ‘perfect storm’

BIS fears that increasing protectionism could reverse decades of progress.
http://www.smh.com.au/business/the-economy/global-economy-is-facing-a-perfect-storm-warns-bis-chief-20180827-p4zzzq.html?btis

You don’t have to agree with or understand all of the stuff in this summary of what one of the major architects of “our” twenty first century capitalism is saying, except that another economic crisis is just around the corner. It will dovetail with the destruction of more climate change.

Among the experts I understand the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) is the international bank of banks.

The crisis they expect will have very serious consequences for any Australian government, the Change the Rules campaign, and all Australians. It will reach into every nook and cranny of all communities of the world.

Every single democratic and social justice campaign will also be affected. All will have to work out on whose side they will stand.

Will corporations and governments be permitted so much control over the handling of the crisis that the recovery that might follow is for them only?

Will campaigns like “Change the Rules” concede major demands that give more control to workers to win the even tougher struggles that the crisis will bring? Or, will it allow new control in the hands of institutions like the Fair Work Commission to resolve conflict through “consensus” and “even handedness” and “fairness”?

This is union activist business and part of their business is to make sure, even when union and political leaders are sluggish about it, that the problem is discussed among members and potential members.

Of course this should include discussions with a prospective Labor government and the Greens – including at the local level – that drive towards a government that enables much more power in the hands of workers to deal with the destructive effects of the crisis on their lives.

Understanding the reality of another crisis enables the possibilities of a different resolution to last time, a resolution that enabled continued destruction of the environment and more inequality … and an even more destructive next crisis.

The challenge for all genuinely democratic forces is how to transfer power into the hands of the majority and to therefore break the cycle.

This means the development and popular spread of an alternative programme of change for the majority – economic, political and environmental. Much of the content of this programme already exists in the mainly separated demands of the thousands of organisations that are struggling in so many different, and mainly separate ways, against the pressures on their lives, including our precious environment.

Australians could well look towards the largely coherent programme of the Corbyn forces in the British Labour Party for an example of what is meant. And examples exist in our own history. Both the ALP and the Greens have some good material in parts of their programmes. But both end up wanting to maintain the system that causes the big problems for the majority.

GREEN BANS FOREVER … AGAIN!

This thought looms because of the lead letter in today’s Sydney Morning Herald. The letter, that I cut and paste below, laments the steady destruction of Sydney’s parks and green spaces and associated amenities. As we all should. The writer wonders who should control decisions about these in the face of the profit hungry developers.
In Sydney’s own history we find the perfect answer: the builders labourers’ greens bans that saved so much of Sydney against the ancestors of these profit hungry developers in the 60 s and 70s and occasionally since.
In brief, a green ban is workers taking industrial action that puts a ban on a project that might or actually is destroying the environment and the human enjoyment of that environment, either as residents in it or as passers-by or visitors to it. The workers combine through their union to say, “We will not supply labour to the site and we will act with the community to prevent rich property developers and / or their governments from trying to do so.”
For more on these and the democratic processes that the New South Wales builders labourers, through their union, insisted on, read Green Bans, Red Union by Meredith and Verity Burgmann and Jack Mundey’s autobiography. Or click here. Or here.
Green bans required 2 things: a democratic decision of the community that wants them that is then presented to the union, and a democratic decision of the construction workers to agree to carry out the ban.
The capacity to organize can deliver the first.
But, IN THESE TIMES, the second, requires, as well as the capacity to organize, a determination to disobey repressive anti strike laws in Labor’s Fair Work Act, and to stand with construction workers against the Turnbull- Abbott government’s laws to set up a special Commission (the Australian Building and Construction Commission – ABCC) to repress and police construction workers and their friends and associates.
The ABCC laws are now before the Australian parliament and, because they are strongly opposed, they are potentially the trigger for the right-wing government to dissolve the parliament and run a new election.
These laws intend to, among other things, stop, detain, interrogate and imprison construction workers and their friends in the community for doing things like standing up against profit hungry developers. (For a plain language summary of the laws and links to more information: click here.)
Yet, many in eastern Sydney, the scene of civil protests against the destruction of Anzac Parade, and the northern suburbs (not all I stress, but I mention these because that is where the author of the SMH letter comes from) who lament the loss of green spaces and want more democratic control over the decision-making, either like or couldn’t care less about Turnbull’s lies about construction workers and their unions.
Such irony. These lies and the associated media propaganda are the means to persuade a majority of Australians and parliamentarians that special repressive powers against construction are necessary.
The powerful property developer 1%érs are the direct beneficiaries of these proposed laws. Metaphorically, who knows maybe “for real”, the government is in their pocket.
To all lovers of Australia’s natural habitat and historical buildings: if you don’t want the property developers to have the power to do what they are doing then you must stand up with construction workers – today’s builders labourers – to stop Turnbull’s ABCC laws and ABCC election. Green bans are socially useful democratic actions.
Here is today’s Sydney Morning Herald letter:
“Who is really looking after our urban public space?
“Elizabeth Farrelly’s article (“Parks and Trees make way for profit”, April 14), in highlighting the loss, degradation to Sydney’s public space amenity poses the obvious question: who is really looking after our urban public space?
“Growing cities like Sydney are under constant pressure from the demands of development.
“Loss of public amenity adjacent to redeveloped harbour front land (for example, Barangaroo), adjoining parks such as the Botanic Gardens or along historic majestic major boulevards like Anzac Parade form the unfortunate casualties of an absence of both custodianship and advocacy by an appropriate public body.
“Since the early 1990s, this publicly staffed office working within the-then Department of Planning has been outsourced largely to private consultants.
Hence developers and their consultants, “push the envelope”, including incursions into the public space.
It doesn’t take that much imagination to conceive of the potential conflict of interest that design consultants risk in having both public and private clients.
Possibly it’s high time to reconsider resurrecting in a contemporary guise, the role of civic authority of “city designers” to ensure both the quantity and quality of open public space commensurate to a dynamic, sustainable “global city” like Sydney.
Cleveland Rose Dee Why