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Coal industry workers in Australia are taking their destiny into their own hands

By Léo Roussel - Equal Times, September 30, 2022

The coal industry is to Australia what the Second Amendment of the US Constitution (granting citizens the right to bear arms) is to the United States: it would be hard to imagine the country without it. With fossil fuels still accounting for 92 per cent of Australia’s energy mix, including 29 per cent for coal in 2021, the industry is still vigorously defended by lobbies, even in parliamentary circles and the corridors of ministries.

Australia’s conservative former prime minister Scott Morrison famously held up a piece of coal in Parliament in 2017, when he was finance minister, admonishing his colleagues not to be afraid of it. When he became prime minister, he also directly surrounded himself with lobbyists like John Kunkel, former vice-chairman of the Minerals Council of Australia, who he appointed chief of staff in 2018.

In the Hunter Valley, a region north of Sydney in the state of New South Wales, the local economy is still dominated by coal. From the mines to the cargo ships departing from the port of Newcastle, the industry directly and indirectly employs more than 17,000 people. “Newcastle is the world’s largest coal port,” says Dr Liam Phelan, a researcher at the University of Newcastle (Australia) specialising in the uncertainties and risks of climate change. “Coal mining has been a part of life here since white people arrived in Australia.”

For many years, mining projects were still supported and approved, not least by the Morrison government, which was widely condemned in Australia and around the world for its inaction on climate change. But the tides have begun to turn. In May 2022, voters ousted ‘ScoMo’ and returned Labor to power. The new prime minister Anthony Albanese has promised to make Australia a “renewable energy superpower” and to reduce the country’s CO₂ emissions by 43 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 – a target that the scientists of the Climate Change Authority nonetheless still consider to be insufficient.

Leaving energy transition aside, the Australian coal industry has already seen its exports slow in recent years, partly as a result of the trade war with China since 2020, while domestic demand has shifted to cleaner energy sources which are gaining ground. According to Clean Energy Council’s 2022 energy report: “The Australian renewable energy industry accounted for 32.5 per cent of Australia’s total electricity generation in 2021, which represented an increase of almost 5 percentage points compared to 2020.”

To hit 82% renewables in 8 years, we need skilled workers – and labour markets are already overstretched

By Chris Briggs and Rusty Langdon - The Conversation, August 17, 2022

In just eight years time, the Labor government wants Australia to be 82% powered by renewable energy. That means a rapid, historic shift, given only 24% of our power was supplied by renewables as of last year.

To make this happen, we must rapidly scale up our renewable energy construction workforce. Last week’s energy ministers’ meeting calls for assessment of the “workforce, supply chain and community needs” for the energy transition. The government’s jobs and skills summit in early September will tackle the issue too. While it’s positive the government is focused on these challenges, the reality is we’re playing catch-up.

Why? Because Australia is already stretched for workers, and it takes time to give new ones the skills they will need. Our research estimates the renewable energy transition will need up to 30,000 workers in coming years to build enough solar farms, wind farms, batteries, transmission lines and pumped hydro storage to transform our energy system. Most of these jobs will be in regional areas.

In coming decades, Australia will invest around A$66 billion in large-scale renewables and $27 billion in rooftop solar and battery storage. This creates openings for industry development like the $7.4 billion market opportunity for an integrated battery supply chain and manufacturing which builds on our strengths, such as wind towers.

If we get this right, we can create new manufacturing and supply chain jobs and reverse the long drift of these jobs overseas. But if we get it wrong, skill shortages could derail the vision of a new energy system by 2030.

Blockade Australia: Our Perspective

By staff - Black Flag Sidney, July 27, 2022

Blockade Australia (BA) is a climate activist group whose primary strategy is to shut down activity at fossil fuel sites and disrupt the economy as a form of protest. So far, they have coordinated two major blockades in NSW: in November 2021, they disrupted $60 million worth of coal exports for eleven days in the Port of Newcastle; in March 2022, activists blockaded terminals for five days at Port Botany; at the end of June, they attempted a six-day blockade of Sydney’s economic centre.

Their activism has been met with alarming state violence. Earlier this month, around one hundred police raided a BA camp of activists and made several arrests. The Port Botany blockade earlier this year triggered the bipartisan enactment of new laws in NSW Parliament, increasing the penalty for protesting without police or state approval to up to $22,000 in fines and/or two years’ imprisonment. These laws will affect all protests which are unapproved by police, and should be fiercely opposed.

BA doesn’t formally adhere to a specific political ideology, although their social media activity suggests anti-capitalist and anti-electoral leanings. They aim to create a “consistent and strategic” disruption “that cannot be ignored,” to temporarily shut down the fossil fuel industry’s operation and force a “political response,” though BA does not define what this would look like concretely.

Overall, BA’s strategy relies on small affinity groups rather than a political organisation to coordinate individual non-violent disruptive stunts, a strategy which places them outside of the mass movement for working class liberation. It’s important to note here that we condemn in the strongest terms the state violence against BA activists. We express our solidarity to activists who, like us, are interested in building “power… opposing the colonial and extractive systems of Australia.” We argue, though, that BA cannot build this power with isolated actions and sporadic disruption alone.

Australia’s Recent Power Market Crisis and the Struggle for Public Ownership

By staff - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, July 8, 2022

This past June 15th, Australia’s Electricity Market Operator (AEMO) announced the suspension of wholesale electricity spot markets in all regions covered by the country’s National Electricity Market (NEM). The NEM typically provides 80% of Australia’s electricity, mainly in developed coastal areas around the eastern third of the country.

The market suspension came in response to soaring wholesale electricity prices and serious shortages in supply — a combination of factors that, according to AEMO, made it “impossible to continue operating the spot market while ensuring a secure and reliable supply of electricity for consumers” in line with national regulatory requirements.

Key unions in Australia have recognized for years that the NEM does not serve the interests of unions, working people, or the public in general. According to Michael Wright, acting national secretary of the country’s Electrical Trades Union (ETU):

The ETU has been sounding the alarm about the NEM for years. This vindicates our long-held concerns that the market is broken and beyond repair.

The experiment in synthetic markets, trying to deliver essential public services through profit-motivated, tax-avoiding multinational energy corporations, has failed shockingly.

Similarly, Colin Long, Just Transitions Organizer for Australia’s Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC), points out that such markets only function when they ensure profits for private owners and investors. As Long states in a background document he has written on the current crisis:

The NEM [like other market-based systems] is designed to deliver electricity in a way that is profitable to generators, mostly privately-owned, not in a way that maximises public or social benefit to Australians.

As Long further explains:

Privatisation was supposed to lead to lower prices for consumers. In fact, the opposite has occurred. Reinstating public ownership would eliminate rentier behaviour by transmission and distribution companies and the need to concede to the profit demands of big overseas investors. It would enable us to plan the energy system transformation, with a clear schedule for closure of fossil fuel generators to give certainty to workers, their communities and electricity grid managers. It would enable us to schedule fossil fuel generation replacement by renewables in a way that guaranteed supply, efficiency and reduced cost – and ensures we meet decarbonisation targets. It would enable us to ensure that workers are guaranteed a just transition to new opportunities and new industries.

Readers who would like a copy of Long’s background document can contact him at clong@vthc.org.au.

Both ETU and VTHC are part of the TUED network, and have played key roles in advancing the project.

A park for the people: Jack Mundey and the Eastlakes green ban

By Alison Wishart - Overland, June 23, 2022

On 13 August 2021, the Geographical Names Board officially approved Bayside Council’s request to rename Eastlakes Reserve as Jack Mundey Reserve. Mundey was neither a local resident, councillor nor mayor. Yet sixty years ago, he led a movement that saved these four acres of land as a park for the local people.

The reserve, situated within the centre of a new housing development christened ‘Eastlakes’ (a much more appealing name than ‘Botany Swamps’, as it was previously known) is used for recreation, exercise and community events. To understand how Mundey—a rugby player, labourer and communist who left school at the age of fourteen—came to be honoured in this way, we need to go back to 1961.

Jack Mundey Reserve was once part of the much larger Rosebery Racecourse. In 1961, Sydney Turf Club contracted L.J. Hooker Real Estate to sell the racecourse to the highest bidder. The sales brochure proclaimed that this 56.5 acre site was just ‘four miles from the heart of the city’; ‘perfectly cleared and level’ and ready for development. In characteristic sales hyperbole, the brochure confidently declared that ‘without a doubt, it was this century’s greatest opportunity for developers and investors.’

Despite the sales pitch, the land was passed in at auction on 26 September 1961. Sydney Turf Club negotiated with the highest bidder and signed a contract for Rosebery Development Corporation, a subsidiary of Parkes Development, to purchase the site for £450,000 (£75,000 below the reserve price). Six acres on the eastern and western edges of the racecourse were reserved for the Housing Commission of NSW and not included in the sale. Harry Seidler, the famous modernist architect, would design the housing commission unit block on Maloney Avenue.

Shell sends ‘thug’ to stop industrial strike action on Prelude FLNG, says labor union

By Damon Evans - Energy Voice, June 2, 2022

In response to the formal notice served by lawyers representing the Offshore Alliance, a labor union, as well as the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), issued on 30 May, Shell has “now resorted to industrial thuggery in a desperate effort to try and stop protected industrial action on Prelude,” the Offshore Alliance claimed in a post on Facebook today.

“One of the Shell leads, who has been parachuted onto Prelude, is throwing his weight around like he’s some sort of big king dick…this self-styled hero tough guy has been doing his best to intimidate some of the younger female tech’s by demanding they tell him whether they are in the Union and whether they intend to take Protected Industrial Action,” claimed the Offshore Alliance.

“Shell’s senior management need to pull this idiot into line as the Offshore Alliance will bang both him and Shell into the Federal Court for breach of Freedom of Association provisions if he doesn’t pull his head in. Pull off your management thugs, Shell,” added the union.

A Shell spokesperson told Energy Voice that “Shell recognises the entitlement of all workers to exercise their rights, including the right to participate in industrial action.”

The Offshore Alliance has listed 19 activities that will be banned at various times from June 10 to June 21, as part of their plan to implement “rolling stoppages of work and work bans.”

“Shell have had two years to sort out our key bargaining claims and nothing less than tier 1 rates and conditions and job security are going to cut it,” said the union, which combines the industrial and organisational resources of the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), to provide effective representation of offshore construction, maintenance, catering, and rig workers in Western Australia.

Capitalism Can’t Stop Climate Change

By Ablokeimet - The Anvil, January 7, 2022

COP26, the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow, was a monumental failure. It was supposed to be the forum where the world finally committed to emissions reductions sufficient to meet the target of the Paris Agreement: keeping the global temperature increase to only 1.5° Celsius. No less an establishment figure than the Prince of Wales described it as humanity’s “last chance saloon”, but the results fell a long way short of what is necessary. According to the prestigious scientific journal Nature (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-03431-4), global emissions must fall 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Instead, the commitments at COP26 will make emissions 14% higher by 2030.

The majority of the capitalist class recognises in theory that climate change is a grave problem requiring drastic steps, but each government wants to protect their own capitalists. The Australian Government is conspicuous by being on the list of bad guys at almost every point. Liberal Prime Minister Scott Morrison signed up to a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050, but only after almost every other advanced country (and many others) had done so. However, its 2030 target is only a 26-28% reduction from 2010 levels. Even without lifting a finger it will definitely achieve 30% and possibly 35%, so the refusal to promise more is ferociously political.

In sectoral negotiations, 40 countries promised to phase out coal, but Australia was not one of them. More than 80 countries pledged to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030, but Australia was not one of them. Neither were other big natural gas producers (and therefore producers of fugitive emissions) Russia and Iran. And the Australian Government’s zeal in funding expansion of fossil fuel exports is joined with almost matching enthusiasm by the main opposition party, Labor. Similar stances have been taken by other large fossil fuel exporters, including Canada.

There is a reason for this. Capitalist governments exist, first and foremost, to protect the interests of their own capitalist class. There is enormous sunk capital invested in fossil fuels and the industries using them as inputs. So mining and oil companies fund climate denialism, they promote political parties that oppose addressing climate change and, where necessary, they fight hard to establish loopholes for themselves from any general policy. If a political party proposing serious action against climate change comes to power, or even threatens to, they run vicious and mendacious campaigns to stop it. These companies may have been cutting jobs for decades, but they will cry crocodile tears over the threat to their workers’ jobs. And they may have undermined their local communities by introducing fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workers, but suddenly they’ll be backing community groups who think that the only way to defend their community is to oppose climate action.

Just to defend themselves, governments want to protect investments in fossil fuels to the maximum extent possible. So when a problem is identified and specific action is required to address it, the governments that could make the biggest difference are ones least likely to sign up to it. And on the rare occasion where a government that can make a big difference signs up (as Brazil has over attempts to stop deforestation), it is an attempt at fishing for international assistance that won’t have to be returned if targets aren’t met.

In Celebration: Jack Mundey and the Green Bans

The Sydney “Green Bans” Show How We Can Transform Our Cities

By Kurt Iveson - Jacobin, July 10, 2021

In the 1970s, trade unions in Sydney began imposing “green bans” on property developments that were going to cause social and ecological harm. The movement should be an inspiration for challenges to the power of big business everywhere.

Fifty years ago, in June 1971, the New South Wales branch of the Builders Labourers Federation (NSWBLF) voted to ban construction of a luxury housing development in the Sydney harborside suburb of Hunters Hill. Their bulldozer-driving comrades in the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen’s Association followed suit. The goal was to protect Kelly’s Bush, one of the last undeveloped areas of bushland on Sydney Harbour.

Over time, the tactic they used came to be known as a “green ban,” distinguishing it from a more conventional “black ban.” While trade unions imposed the latter in disputes over wages and conditions, green bans blocked construction on projects that were environmentally or socially destructive, or that threatened sites with heritage value.

The Kelly’s Bush green ban resulted from an unlikely alliance. Hunters Hill was a wealthy suburb, and most residents had little to do with the workers’ movement. Earlier that month, however, the Battlers for Kelly’s Bush — a resident action group — held a meeting of over six hundred people. It called on the unions to protect the bushland.

The NSWBLF was militant, proudly working-class, and maligned by respectable opinion. It was led by socialists and communists. Yet the union found common cause with the middle-class Battlers for Kelly’s Bush.

NSWBLF secretary Jack Mundey explained the union’s decision in a 1973 interview:

What is the good of fighting to improve wages and conditions if we are going to choke to death in polluted and planless cities? We are fighting for a shorter working week. If we get it, we still have to live in these cities. So “quality of life” should not just become a cliché. It should become a meaningful thing, and the workers should be concerned about every aspect of life — not just their working conditions.

Developer AVJennings attempted to circumvent the green ban by using nonunion labor. The NSWBLF hit back. Union members employed at another Jennings site sent a telegram to the developer’s head office: “If you attempt to build on Kelly’s Bush, even if there is the loss of one tree, this half-completed building will remain so forever, as a monument to Kelly’s Bush.”

The NSWBLF executive backed up their members’ threat. In August, AVJennings shelved their development plans. Kelly’s Bush remains untouched to this day.

Read the rest here.

What’s Missing from the New IEA Report on Mining and the Renewable Energy Transition?

By Raquel Dominguez - Earthworks, June 14, 2021

The International Energy Agency sends a mixed message in its recent reports, urging that we leave fossil fuels in the ground while simultaneously calling for more extraction of metals used in low-carbon technologies. This extractivist push is both problematic and unnecessary: the world can achieve a clean energy transition without the kind of human rights catastrophes and environmental devastation that the mining industry currently considers acceptable. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released two important reports in the past month. The first, Net Zero by 2050, notes that “there is no need for new investment in fossil fuel supply,” a conclusion that many in the climate movement, including Earthworks, have applauded. The second, The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transitions, undermines the “keep it in the ground” message of the first report by calling for more extraction in the form of metals mining. 

With the ever-increasing damage and injustices exacerbated by the climate crisis, the renewable energy transition is more urgent than ever. Demand for the “transition” minerals used in renewable energy technologies is in turn projected to increase sharply: according to the IEA, to meet the Paris Agreement goals, demand will rise (over the next 20 years) by more than 40% for copper and rare earth elements (REEs), 60-70% for nickel and cobalt, and more than 89% for lithium. Lithium-ion batteries need lithium, nickel, and cobalt (among other elements), wind turbines use REEs, and copper is used in all electricity-based technologies, due to its high rate of conductivity. 

These aren’t new projections: our own 2019 publication on this issue based on research by the University of Technology, Sydney, pointed to similar trendlines. This steep upward trajectory in minerals demand could be devastating for communities and ecosystems in the regions where these minerals are extracted. Hardrock mining has a long, terrible history as a tool of colonization and imperialism; in the United States alone, mining has accompanied and driven western settlement, which killed untold numbers of Indigenous peoples, breaking multiple treaties with Indigenous peoples, contaminating more than 40% of western watersheds’ headwaters, and directly causing the deaths of many members of mining-affected communities from cancer. Mining is the country’s leading industrial toxic polluter, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, according to the UN Environment Programme.

But the social and environmental harm brought on by mining is not a thing of the past: in the Olaroz salt flat in Argentina, Indigenous peoples “that own the land struggle to pay for sewage systems, drinking water and heat for schools” even as Minera Exar anticipates making $250 million per year by mining lithium; in Australia, Rio Tinto blew up the Juukan Gorge, which is sacred to the Puutu Kunti Kuurama and Pinikura peoples and which had evidence of continuous habitation for more than 46,000 years, in pursuit of iron ore. There are hundreds of stories just like these, some of them which are detailed in our recent report, Recharge Responsibly, happening all over the world—and this environmental injustice will continue apace if recycling and reuse, alongside other demand reduction strategies and more responsible primary sourcing, are not prioritized as part of a clean energy transition.

It doesn’t have to be this way...

Read the rest here.

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