Australian socialists demand `green jobs'

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A worker welds a wind turbine mast. Photo from Greenpeace.

By the Socialist Alliance

[The following leaflet was distributed at the ``switch off Hazelwood'' power station protest in Victoria on September 12 and 13, attended by more than 300 people.]

September 13, 2009 -- The transition from a fossil fuel dependent society to renewable energy is perhaps the most urgent question facing humanity. The public debate about climate change has shifted from a discussion about the reality of global warming to a discussion focused on how to transition to renewable energy.

In large part the debate has focused on using a price signal to shift private investment from carbon-intensive industries to renewables. While a variety of schemes are being argued about the logic is the same – by making carbon-intensive economic activity more expensive private investment will shift into the green economy. “Green jobs”, it is argued, will be a product of this new investment and will replace jobs lost in industries like coal-fired power.

Green economy

The logic behind these arguments makes a number of flimsy assumptions about the way that capitalism works and how private capital makes decisions about investment. First, increased costs do not necessarily mean investment will flow out of carbon-intensive industries. The first response will be to push these costs onto consumers, such as increased energy bills.

Second, the oil and coal industries and their powerful corporations have made mega-profits for more than a hundred years. Investment in these industries in unlikely to shift without a massive reduction in profit levels. The current carbon trading and tax schemes do not even come close to achieving this result.

Assuming that the profitability of carbon-intensive industries is significantly impacted via schemes like carbon trading, there is no guarantee that this investment will flow to into renewable energy production and other sustainable industries. Moreover there is no reason to expect that these new industries would spring up in the communities affected by the closure of carbon-intensive industries. Private capital always seeks the highest return which may not be in renewable energy and is unlikely to be in the Latrobe Vally or Hunter Valley.

Green jobs

Parts of the Australian trade union movement have come behind big corporations seeking to protect dirty industries. They claim that these industries should be shielded in order to protect the jobs of their members and maintain communities. These views reflect the legitimate concerns many working people employed in carbon-intensive industries have raised about employment security. The promise of a “green job” provided at some point in the future by “green private investment” understandably does not inspire great confidence. In communities already devastated by unemployment the concern is even greater.

A real `just transition'

The Socialist Alliance believes that all active in the union and environmental movements need to urgently pursue a serious discussion about how to move to renewable industries and maintain well-paid jobs in local communities. We need to turn the phrase “just transition” into a practical discussion not just a motherhood statement tacked on the end of our leaflets.

We believe that it is possible to rapidly make a transition to renewables without causing large-scale unemployment in communities like the Latrobe Valley. This means not relying on the vagaries of “the market” to spontaneously replace lost jobs. Governments must develop a comprehensive plan to create industries in communities that will be most impacted by the closure of fossil fuel intensive industries. Part of this plan must include a skill audit to assess what training is needed to move workers from carbon-intensive industries into alternative employment.

The fact is that a government with the political will has the capacity to set up wind turbine, solar thermal and solar photovoltaic factories and run them in the interests of the community. This work could begin within months not years.

Public ownership is essential

Public ownership of new green industries would enable governments to ensure that jobs are created where people live. With a government commitment to public ownership, communities reliant on coal mining and coal-fired power could be sure that ``green jobs'' are going to be there for the long haul, not just for a few years.

The perils of relying on private business to provide green jobs was demonstrated by the recent decision of the Danish wind turbine company Vestas to close down its United Kingdom operations and move to the United States. Vestas, the world’s largest wind turbine company, had three factories in the UK producing the different parts of wind turbines; these were the only wind turbine factories in Britain and were running at a profit.

Vestas as a whole has been growing rapidly over the last few years and recorded an after-tax profit of 56 million euros in the first quarter of 2009 alone. The company from the outset was hostile to trade unions and tried to screen unionists from getting jobs at the UK plants. This year Vestas announced that due to insufficient government support it was going to close its UK plants and move offshore. Workers at the Isle of Wight blade factory heroically staged a factory occupation demanding the factory be nationalised and kept operating; their campaign enjoyed the support of unionists and climate activists across the UK and around the world.

Rudd ain't gonna do it

Australia's federal Labor Party government has failed to take any decisive action to tackle climate change. The Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) is living proof of that. It has avoided even the most minor of confrontations with the coal corporations. Labor doesn’t want to set up an industry which makes those profitable coal mines and power stations redundant.

History has saddled ordinary working people with the responsibility to force governments to challenge powerful vested interests and to take action to cut carbon emissions. It's no good telling our grandchildren that because we weren’t game to take on the corporations their planet is a permanent disaster zone. We want to be able to tell our grandchildren the story of how we took on those companies and won, and built the new sustainable infrastructure necessary for our survival. We can do it.