Union Eyes: Climate Connectors needs clarity and collectivity

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An invitation from my union to join Union Climate Connectors and “raise awareness and action in workplaces and communities around Australia” sounded great. I requested an action kit. Organised labour has the collective power to put the necessary muscle behind the environment movement to tackle the big polluters and make a real difference on slowing climate change. The campaign leaflet boldly declared, “Australian workers are stepping up for our planet.” And it put a compelling case for action: “We live on one of the driest continents on Earth, which puts us right in the firing line of climate change. We can see the terrible effects of climate change: the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, increases in fires and drought, and more severe storms such as Cyclone Larry.” The headings looked promising too: “We need to take control of our future; Workers can make a difference; By taking action; Being heard; And by standing together.” Too right!

Union Climate Connectors was launched in August 2009. An initiative of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in partnership with the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), it is supported by many unions including those representing manufacturing, education, public sector, service and hospitality workers.

When my action kit arrived I was very disappointed. It was full of stickers and posters asking me to shop smart, reduce consumption of red meat by one serve and drive 10 kilometres less each week. Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t object to turning off the lights, catching the tram instead of driving or taking my green bags to the supermarket. But these individual actions won’t achieve what’s needed – like replacing market mechanisms with planning, expanding public transport networks, increasing renewable energy generation, and stopping the big polluters in their tracks. Without tackling the underpinning causes – and fast – the climate will continue to warm with disastrous consequences.

In October, Climate Connectors really went off the rails, urging unionists to lobby MPs and Senators to pass the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), labelling all who oppose it “dinosaurs.” But the CPRS is opposed not only by climate change deniers but also by Greens Senators who point to the pathetically low emissions targets and $20 billion handouts to big business. In the streets, grassroots climate change activists bitterly oppose this scheme, which serves no other purpose than to make it seem that the government is doing something. Schemes like the CPRS are nothing more than a way of turning the environmental crisis into a profit-making opportunity by creating a market to buy and sell pollution! [See “An Inconvenient Truth: Carbon Trading Won’t Stop Climate Change,” Freedom Socialist, April 2009].

The Climate Connectors team eventually split after the ACF finally called for the defeat of the CPRS. Meanwhile, the ACTU continued to call for the scheme to be passed. But the good news is that debate is growing in the trade union movement. While some, such as Australian Workers Union secretary, Paul Howes, are enthusiastic fans of the CPRS, others are breaking with the ACTU position. Last October, the National Tertiary Education Union came out in opposition to it, calling for a strategy to tackle global warming that does not rely on market mechanisms. Peter Marshall, the national secretary of the United Fire Fighters Union, called for halving emissions by 2020 to reduce repeats of the recent Victorian bushfires. Many unions mobilised members to participate in the Walk Against Warming. Other unions, such as the CPSU, are promoting Global Warming and Sustainable Environment Initiatives and demanding that employers take practical measures to enhance energy and resource efficiency in the workplace. These developments are welcome.

The union movement has a proud history of taking action to protect the environment with successful Green Bans by building workers being one memorable example. We can do it again! How about demanding that bosses pay for public transport to and from work? Or imposing bans on the construction of coal and nuclear power stations and other big polluters.

But tackling climate change means confronting the capitalist ideology that big business has the right to render the planet uninhabitable. What is needed now is economic planning and international cooperation, combined with concrete action. The union movement has a vital role to play.

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