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labor Coal Industry Workers in Australia Are Taking Their Destiny Into Their Own Hands

Unions representing workers in the coal industry are generally not opposed to the realities of climate change. They know that the impending energy transition is inevitable – they just want to ensure that it is just.

Warrick Jordan poses in front of a mining site in Newcastle. He is coordinator for the Hunter Jobs Alliance, an organisation set up by unions and others to support the region’s workers and economy in the post-coal era, (Photo: Léo Roussel)

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.

This begs the question of what role fossil fuels will play going forward and what will be the fate of the 50,000 direct jobs and 120,000 indirect jobs (figures from the Minerals Council of Australia) linked to Australia’s coal industry.

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.”

The quickening pace of transition has workers worried

Despite their ‘windfall gains’ in recent months due to the gas crisis in Europe caused by the conflict in Ukraine, which has led to a sharp rise in global demand for coal, mining companies can see the writing on the wall and are already taking steps in anticipation of changes to the industry. In June, BHP announced that its Mount Arthur mine in the Hunter Valley would close by 2030, 15 years ahead of schedule, while earlier in the year, it was revealed that the Eraring coal-fired power plant in Lake Macquarie would close by 2025, seven years earlier than planned. This means that New South Wales will see both its largest mine and its largest power station close in the space of eight years.

Workers and the unions prefer to stay ahead of this transition, which is already proving faster than expected. “I’ve gone back to university to study for a business degree,” says Nathan Clements, 27, a shop steward for the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, which represents 4,000 workers in the Hunter Valley, many of them employed by companies involved in coal production.

For Nathan, who has spent the last seven years working for a company that “maintains the machinery used in the mines,” coal is something of a family affair.

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“My father still works in it. My brother and friends have worked in it. When you go in, you’re guaranteed a job, an income. It used to guarantee you a future,” he says. But for some time now, this future has felt increasingly uncertain.

Like Nathan, who is doing his best to balance a 38-hour work week with his studies, many are considering returning to university to begin the process of retraining. “I know a guy who juggles the two and has six children,” he adds.

As uncertainty over their future grows, workplace discussions amongst workers are becoming increasingly common. “Today, it’s easier to talk about the future of our professions,” says Nathan, who also sees “increasing awareness of global warming since the fires” that took place in Australia in 2019 and 2020. But while workers are increasingly talking about climate change, their primary concern remains the prospect of a job and salary.

Trade unions leading the fight for a just transition

In November 2020, Steve Murphy, national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), and several environmental collectives* founded the Hunter Jobs Alliance (HJA), a coalition of unions and environmental groups whose aim is to ensure a successful economic transition for the region. “We’re trying to make sure that the Hunter Valley has the support and programmes in place to help employees affected by the change, while also creating new industries and ensuring that our region remains attractive,” says Warrick Jordan, coordinator of the Hunter Jobs Alliance. When it comes to job creation, the HJA has no shortage of ideas: electric bus manufacturing, building renovation, green aluminium smelters, offshore wind power and mine rehabilitation are among the sectors the organisation hopes the government will fund.

The HJA’s goal is to move beyond the sometimes divisive debate on environmental action within the coal industry and act quickly to bring together unions from several trades to reimagine the region’s future. A total of nine unions representing teachers, nurses, administrative and public sector employees and workers now make up the HJA. “Too much time was spent discussing the reality of global warming that should have been spent finding solutions to support employees and attract new industry,” adds Warrick Jordan.

The Hunter Jobs Alliance collects worker feedback through its member unions and organises workshops to better understand employees’ fears and expectations.

“Despite the diversity of workers’ backgrounds and differences of opinion on the subject, most people understand that change is coming,” says Phelan of Newcastle University.

Unions representing workers in the coal industry are generally not opposed to the realities of climate change. They know that the impending energy transition is inevitable – they just want to ensure that it is just. “We’re working politically, at the state and federal level, to ensure that just transition is enshrined into legislation,” says Adrian Evans, deputy national secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), a branch of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) that represents coal port workers among others.

All the union representatives interviewed for this article agree that a just transition must involve, among other things, increasing resources to train employees to find work again, particularly in the renewable energy sector. “We need to seize these opportunities and ensure that the benefits of renewable energy development are available to all, especially those who will be affected by the end of the old industries,” says Michael Wright, deputy national secretary of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), which represents 60,000 electricity sector workers in Australia. According to Wright, “several thousand” of his union’s members are already working in solar and wind power.

“We are only at the beginning”

While the state agency TAFE (Technical and Further Education) already provides training for professionals in New South Wales, Phelan argues that it needs more government investment: “You don’t go and work on a wind farm overnight. We have the skills, but we really need more training,” he adds.

Another measure that unions have fought to see implemented is the creation of a local authority to coordinate transition efforts, which have already been established in several parts of Australia. “Last year the New South Wales government announced the creation of the Royalties for Rejuvenation fund, a body that will receive AU$25 million a year to support transition initiatives, including in the Hunter Valley,” explains Liam Phelan. A similar body, the Latrobe Valley Authority, has also been created in the state of Victoria.

According to the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Australia’s largest trade union centre, whose affiliates include many of the previously mentioned unions, the transition is “entirely predictable and it is critical that government acts to support workers and communities impacted by the energy transition.” Unions and their workers assure us that it is already underway and, as Jordan of the Hunter Jobs Alliance says: “We are only at the beginning.”

*Hunter Community Environment Centre (HCEC), Lock the Gate Alliance, Nature Conservation Council, Labor Environment Action.

This article has been translated from French.

Léo Roussel is a French journalist based in Sydney. He is a regular contributor to Reporterre and Ouest-France. His articles and photographs have also been published by Médiapart, Slate.fr and Radio France International.

Equal Times is a trilingual news and opinion website focusing on labour, human rights, culture, development, the environment, politics and the economy from a social justice perspective.  Located in the heart of Europe, we are supported by the 200 million-member International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and receive additional financial support from the International Labour Organization (ILO), the European Union and other donor organisations.