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Where unions and cooperatives meet: the example of Earthworker, Australia

Mark Tyler and Anna Boddenberg - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, April 7, 2015

We are currently facing two interrelated crises; catastrophic climate change, and massive economic collapse. Those in power are not responding appropriately to this reality. Earthworker, a worker-controlled cooperative movement based in Australia, is one creative response to this situation. In the face of climate change, Earthworker is building sustainable industry. In the face of economic collapse, Earthworker is building secure, dignified jobs in worker-owned cooperatives. In the face of inaction (or unhelpful action) from government and business, Earthworker is building a strategy that can be controlled and enacted from below, by workers and local communities. While the vision is expansive, it is starting the only way it can: from where we are currently standing, and with one step at a time.

At the end of 2014, Earthworker saw the mutualisation of Eureka’s Future in Dandenong, Victoria, Australia. This means a private business was transformed into a worker-owned cooperative factory, manufacturing high-quality hot water tanks. The transition from a traditional, privately-owned enterprise was facilitated by Earthworker, and has taken many years of leg-work. This is the first of a network of worker-owned cooperatives in sustainable industries across Australia that Earthworker will support and build.

Earthworker does not emerge out of a vacuum. The project is a result of years of struggle and draws from the lessons of both the labour and environmental movements. These histories inform and guide Earthworker. Three principles that are key to the project are; 1) a direct action approach of “show me don’t tell me”; 2) an insistence that workers have control over how our labour is used; and 3) a memory that struggles for the emancipation of labour and struggles for environmental justice are sister movements.

The Eureka’s Future factory in Dandenong is a powerful example of the first principle of “show me don’t tell me”. The factory, in which the workers manufacturer tanks for solar hot water systems, provides a working model of worker-control, and offers the opportunity for workers to embark on the process of learning and putting into practice workplace democracy. Vitally, the factory is also a material example of workers producing high-quality items that are appropriate to the context we are in (socially, economically and environmentally). At a time when more and more manufacturing is being “off-shored” from Australia (in order to chase more easily exploited labour), and with corporate bodies determining that Australia’s economy should depend on a fragile service sector and extractive industries (i.e., mining), Earthworker is one of the few social forces with a working strategy for building sustainable, wealth-creating jobs in this country.

By showing people what our vision looks like, rather than just describing it, we are trying to cultivate a grounded hope in working our way out of the mess we are in, both economically and environmentally. The strategy enables workers and communities to “do it ourselves” without waiting for government and private enterprise to move (while acknowledging there is of course a need to pressure and make demands of government and big business to pull their weight). This means workers and communities can start responding to the problems we are facing now, and start deciding what is produced, and how it is produced, ourselves. A catchcry for the project is “we don’t have time to wait for the government and corporations… We can where they have failed”.

As we walk towards this vision we continue to look to our history for guidance. This is nowhere more evident than in Earthworker’s second principle: the stance that workers have the right to control their labour, and insist it not be used in harmful ways. In the Australian context, this tradition emerged starkly in the early 1970s in the form of the “Green Bans” of the Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF). Just as the BLF determined that builders labourers must be able to withdraw their labour from socially or environmentally harmful “development” projects, so Earthworker determines that workers must be able to build industry that allows them to direct their labour in ways that are socially and environmentally appropriate. Furthermore, worker’s control is practised on the shop-floor within the Earthworker cooperatives, with a system of “one worker, one vote”, and the cooperative owned collectively by the people that work there.

While Earthworker is not a traditional organised labour entity, the project is embedded in the trade union movement in more ways than one. Significantly, a large portion of Earthworker organisers are also involved in unions and labour struggles. Indeed, the fact that Earthworker was built by trade unionists is most obvious when looking at one of the key distribution methods for Earthworker products: using the Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) mechanism. It is outside the scope of this article to go into the intricacies of the EBA distribution method for Earthworker products, but at a basic level it is a strategy that allows workers to collectively decide to allocate a portion of their wages to obtain an Earthworker product (e.g., a solar hot water system). This has the benefits of “collectivising” consumption (which has the potential to encourage workers to make more informed choices about where they invest their capital), cutting costs for workers, and it also ties the fate of Earthworker to that of trade unions and organised labour more broadly. It is a means by which we can be constantly reminded that it is useless to be a healthy tree if the forest is burning.

These two principles (i.e., “show me don’t tell me” and workers’ right to control how their labour is used) have created a foundation for a third principle: the unity of labour and environmental struggles. There is currently a deep distrust in the belief that environmental sustainability is not a threat to jobs. Earthworker is taking steps to shift this. The next step in the project is to expand operations to Morwell, in the heart of Victoria’s coal-dominated Latrobe Valley. By offering people who currently rely on coal for their local economies an alternative they can touch and see, trust can be built that a ‘just transition’ away from fossil fuels is possible. While many acknowledge the need to move away from coal and towards sustainable industries, Earthworker is providing a tangible means to do this, while ensuring no one is left behind. This has created a gravity that draws in a diverse range of social forces, amongst them trade unions (including the union that represents mining workers), small manufacturers, faith groups, and environmental activists and organisations. The breadth of support for Earthworker can be seen in a recent video for a successful crowd fund campaign (which raised almost $80,000 in just 2 weeks). By offering a strategy for a just transition to sustainable industries, one that is controlled by workers and local communities, Earthworker transcends the old jobs vs environment debate, and evokes a memory of the commonality between the struggle for social justice and environmental justice.

Once the factory in Morwell is running, Earthworker aims to continue to replicate the tactic across Australia, and also link-up over national borders with similar projects in other countries (for example, we have started conversations with a sister cooperative in Argentina). Other regions in Australia have shown interest in setting up Earthworker cooperatives, particularly in areas where people are dependent on coal to earn a wage and meet their needs. We are finding that many people are hungry for alternatives in these areas. What is lacking is a trust that these alternatives are viable and that regional communities won’t be left behind. By building something people can touch and see, Earthworker is a strategy for building trust between disparate groups of people, and a grounded hope that we can work our way out of the climate emergency we are facing.

However, only by many people deciding to invest in the project, either through purchases or direct investment, will it succeed. It is being built from below, and it is run from below.

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