Unions and the carbon price: trying to sell the unsaleable

“If one job is lost, our support is gone.” This was the condition placed on a carbon tax by right-wing Labor heavyweight and Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) Secretary Paul Howes in April.

Consecutive union leaders have backed up Howes’ position. The national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) Dave Oliver told national radio that his members acknowledge climate change, but are worried about how Labor will ensure jobs aren’t lost through the carbon price. He said that Labor needs “schemes to attract the investment for the new jobs”.

Even the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), who has backed Labor’s carbon price plans since the failed CPRS, are calling for a “national jobs plan”.

Ged Kearney, ACTU national secretary, speaking at the Climate Summit, told attendees that union leaders are having trouble selling the carbon price to their members.

Interestingly, Kearney said the unions’ ideal position is “another Snowy Mountains scheme” where the government “just builds the renewable energy”. It shows the unions have been pulled into supporting the carbon tax so far not out of a conviction the scheme will work, but out of a resignation that a carbon tax is all that’s possible.


But Labor’s carbon tax is now haemorrhaging support in the polls because of fears that it will hit household budgets. A Nielsen poll found 56 per cent were opposed to the introduction of a carbon price and 35 per cent supported it. This is in contrast to a March poll that showed 44 per cent opposed a carbon price and 46 per cent supported it.

These polls coincide with the release of Treasury documents that calculated the cost impact on household bills as between $600 to $800 a year under Labor’s carbon price.

It’s not surprising that union members do not trust Gillard’s comment that “millions of Australians will be better off” under carbon price compensation arrangements.

As Industrial Relations Minister, Gillard made of point of staring down the education unions over MySchool and accepted the decision for a one-year freeze on the minimum wage. Her FairWork law left 90 per cent of WorkChoices in tact. Construction workers still have less rights than other workers because of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

And as many union members would be all too aware, market schemes like a carbon tax are incapable of providing any certainty of job security. It leaves the initiative in the hands of the polluting companies, who are all too happy to ride roughshod over workers’ rights.

The unions have found themselves defending a policy that’s not in the interests of their members. This has driven the recent criticisms.

Paul Howes and some other union leaders that cover workers in polluting industries have been pulled into supporting big business’s calls for assistance for industry, and exemption for the steel industry, as a way to save jobs.

But there is an alternative to protecting the profits of the multinationals that do their best to undermine wages and conditions on the job. Unions and the climate movement could campaign for a government renewable energy scheme where every worker’s job is protected. If the ACTU was prepared to push such a scheme, rather than back Labor’s carbon price, it could help win back support for climate action.

Similarly, the climate movement could find ways to agitate inside the union movement to win support for renewable energy. Unionists in Melbourne are trying to win union support for the Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) plan.

Initiatives like this can bring activists and trade unionists together in their common cause against the polluting multinationals—and help undermine Abbott’s rhetoric about living standards.

The recent comments from union leaders demonstrate the potential audience for a progressive climate policy that makes the rich, not the working class, pay.


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