Union climate conference—focus on political campaigning needed

Unions in NSW have deepened their engagement with climate issues by hosting a Climate Active conference in September, one of the first of its kind. But it was weakened by the lack of clear direction about how unions can take up climate issues at work and be part of the climate movement.

The conference was a joint initiative of the NTEU (National Tertiary Education Union), NSWTF (NSW Teachers Federation) and the LHMU (Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union).

There was an encouraging emphasis on a “just transition” to climate jobs. As a video featuring LHMU office cleaners showed, workers already have difficulty keeping up with the cost of living—for workers to pay more as the price of action on climate change would be unfair. Some speakers were rightly critical of the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ support for the CPRS. Renewables expert Mark Diesendorf emphasised that we “must build a mass movement”, a view shared by many at the conference. But he also expressed support for a carbon tax and population control. Neither of these proposals will help grow the movement. Market mechanisms such as carbon taxes will raise the cost of living for workers—demanding them is hardly a way to mobilise workers like the LHMU office cleaners.

There was also an emphasis on “greening” workplaces, for example by recycling correctly and turning off lights. But focusing on individual behaviour in workplaces often obscures government and employer inaction and puts the blame on workers. Instead we should be mobilising workers to fight for political change.

Beyond Zero Emissions presented their plan to transition to renewables in ten years. They were backed up by academics Stuart Rosewarne and James Goodman, who argued that we need to build a mass social movement to force systemic changes, not rely on the market.
The conference itself did not endorse a course of action for unionists.

But Beyond Zero Emissions has endorsed a union motion calling on Julia Gillard to invest in a planned transition to 100 per cent renewable energy.This can be a way of discussing within the union movement how government can adopt policies to tackle climate change that do not force workers to pay—and the need for unions to campaign to demand these policies.Union activists can take this motion to their union branch or conference. Initiatives like this can be the building blocks for more union involvement in the climate movement.

By Ben Dharmendra
To get a copy of the motion, email [email protected]

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