For the sake of a safe climate, clean air, clean water and healthy communities, we urgently need to ‘quit coal’. But what does this mean for the workers and communities who currently depend on the coal industry? Like it or not, as well as currently producing most of our electricity, the coal industry provides vital employment to many people in regional areas like the Latrobe Valley. The way we transition away from coal, and the way we campaign for such changes, must take these things into account to ensure a transition that is effective, widely-supported and fair (a ‘just transition’).
In August 2013 some Quit Coal-ers headed out to Morwell, in the heart of Victoria’s coal and energy producing Latrobe Valley, in order to hear from those at the coalface. Three ‘Community Roundtable Discussions’ were organised to provide a chance for climate activists to listen, share and connect with Latrobe Valley coal workers and residents. These meetings provided valuable lessons for all involved, and highlighted the importance of properly listening to and engaging with those who are intimately connected to the plight of the coal industry – something that will need to happen much more if we want a just transition away from coal.
Despite the way that media likes to highlight conflict and difference, we should not think of coal workers and communities as the enemy of climate change action, nor should we blame them for causing climate change. Like many of us, they care deeply about the wellbeing of their families and communities – communities for whom coal industry jobs are often all that’s on offer.
All the locals who attended the Community Roundtable Discussions, including coal workers, were concerned about climate change and supportive of a transition away from coal providing that appropriate support for the community could be provided (such as re-training workers for alternative work, and supporting alternative industries).
It is the corporate owners of Victoria’s power stations that seek to drive down environmental regulation as well as their worker’s rights and conditions – and they’re very effective. Thanks to fossil fuel industry pressure, the previous government’s Carbon Price package gifted billions of dollars in compensation to private multinational coal companies (like the owners of Hazelwood and Yallourn) whilst in comparison, communities like the Latrobe Valley were given barely a pittance to grapple with the potentially enormous changes of a carbon price.
Fighting for a safe climate and justice for coal workers and communities should thus go hand in hand. In this way, alongside the Community Roundtable Discussions, many climate activists and Quit Coalers supported Yallourn Power Station workers in their long-running dispute with their multinational company, Energy Australia (See the flyer).
Due to the experience of power industry privatisation in the 1990s, which saw almost 10,000 jobs cuts and massive social upheaval in the Latrobe Valley, many Latrobe Valley residents are wary of embracing another big change that could similarly harm their local community. Slogans like ‘Switch off Hazelwood’ and ‘Quit Coal’ have led many in the Valley to associate climate change action and activism with similar reckless and harmful policies.
We must ensure that the transition we are fighting for, and the ways we articulate it, do not harm or alienate potential allies in the process. When our campaigning is seen to threaten local economies and communities, all that is shut down is the chance for collaboration and unity in pursuing a transition away from coal.
The Community Roundable Discussions highlighted the need to create and articulate positive and inclusive visions and solutions for a just transition – alongside the argument to end coal use. Initiatives like Earthworker are exciting and important examples that are very worthy of our support.
A working group has been established by some people involved in these discussions to build an alliance for a Just Transition for the Latrobe Valley. If you’re interested in finding out more or getting involved, contact Dan at email@example.com.