Wollongong unions demand action on climate change

Photo by Robert Peet: Illawarra unions have joined together to ensure renewable jobs are created in the region as the country grapples with climate change

Kate McIlwain writes (the Illawarra Mercury 30 September 2019), unions in Illawarra, a coal and steel town,  have joined  to stand for action on climate change, and to push for a plan that will provide new jobs though renewable alternatives.

Action now: Illawarra unions have joined together to ensure renewable jobs are created in the region as the country grapples with climate change. Picture: Robert Peet.

With Australia’s biggest steelworks pumping behind them, a union alliance from some of the country’s heaviest industries launched a campaign to put their workers at the forefront of climate action.

Photo from the Office of Environment and Heritage (NSW): Illawarra

“We know we’re exposed here – we are ground zero when it comes to carbon exposure because we have steelworks, coal mines and logistics right here on our doorstep,” South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris said at Port Kembla on Monday.

Joining leaders representing Wollongong’s steel, mining, manufacturing, transport, education, construction and maritime industries, Mr Rorris said it was a misconception that workers in these sectors did not want action on climate change.

Photo from the illawarra Mercury: Woolongong BlueScope Steelworks

“We’re here to say we not only back the demands for climate action, we want the job of doing it,” he said.

“People may be surprised to know that this steel town is actually their pathway to helping save the planet. It may sound strange, but a renewable future depends on the things that we make here, within these so-called dirty industries.

“We are demanding that the Morrison Government take immediate action on climate policy to ensure our workers are not denied the opportunity to build the multi-billion dollar renewable technologies and systems required to transform Australia’s energy landscape.”

For instance, he said Port Kembla steel works could build wind turbines made from the coal mined from the Illawarra.

Each wind turbine would require about 100 tons of steel, Mr Rorris said, and there would be demand for thousands of turbines to meet renewable energy requirements in the coming years.

He said ramping up production of coal mining and steel products was not incompatible with the growing pressure on governments to set carbon emissions targets and become carbon neutral.

“We believe in the science, but what scientists are telling us is that even if you need to burn coal to make steel to make these turbines, that’s still in the plan,” he said.

“Of course we should do everything we can to reduce emissions in the process, but if you need to pump out steel to make wind turbines, then you have to factor that in to your carbon budget.

“If we didn’t have this steelworks, then these wind turbines would be made somewhere else, overseas, that may not have the environmental standards we do.”

Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union state secretary Steve Murphy said meal rooms across regional Australia were filled with workers worried about their jobs and futures due to inaction on climate change.

“They are sick and tired of it being workers versus the environmental movement, or workers versus change,” he said. “We have a real opportunity for workers to be at the forefront of this change, and if there is going to be renewable jobs, for these jobs to be made here.

“We’re talking to our people in power stations, and they’re saying ‘we’re not loyal to coal, we’re not rusted on, but we just don’t see another job we can move to.

“I don’t think our members are particularly loyal to what their current job is, but what they don’t see is a plan for what their future job is.

Renewable energy is the future

“If we have a plan for the future then we can create a plan B for these workers who might be displaced. The truth is that renewable energy is coming at us and it’s not something we can stick our head in the sand and deny.”

The union campaign, being dubbed Recharge the Illawarra, was launched on the 10th anniversary of the NSW Government’s defunct Green Jobs Action Plan.

“Ten years on climate change is still here, but the political will has evaporated,” Mr Rorris said.

“The policy paralysis of Scott Morrison’s government is risking the jobs in all of these new industries, which in our case represents a large amount of production in our traditional industries.”

According to the Clean Energy Council, Australia’s wind farms last year produced 33.5 per cent of the country’s clean energy and supplied 7.1 per cent of Australia’s overall electricity.

Over 850 MW of wind energy was installed in 2018, making it the best ever year for installed wind farm capacity.

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