28 February, 2024
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ACTU: Coal-to-renewables transition needs to be ‘with workers, not to workers’


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As Australia edges towards its 2050 net zero emissions target, the question of how to support workers and communities affected by the decline of fossil fuel industries becomes more urgent.

This week, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) proposed the establishment of a National Energy Transition Authority (NETA) to ensure a “just transition” for workers.

Speaking with The New Daily, ACTU president Michele O’Neil said the closure of energy facilities across the country would profoundly affect workers and communities.

She said a NETA would help ensure no worker or community got left behind.

“Direct workers are on the frontline of it,” she said. “But many facilities are in communities where that is the main employer, [so] the economy and the society in the community around it relies on that industry.

“It affects the nurses, the teachers, the workers that work in small business in those communities. The whole community can be impacted in a really dramatic way.”

President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions Michele O’Neil addresses the National Press Club in Canberra. Photo: AAP

Tony Wolf, a coal worker with more than 40 years of industry experience, has advocated for the transition to renewables for about 10 years.

While there was “trepidation” among workers at the speed of change, he said, most were not surprised about the closure of coal-fired power stations as the “writing has been on the wall” for some time.

“I think the closure dates coming forward made people realise that this is happening.

‘What will take over?’

“Nobody’s building any new power stations. So, [workers are thinking] what will take over, and how can I be part of that?”

The ABS says there were 34,300 people employed in coal mines in Australia in 2021-22, highlighting the major task of such a transition.

But the closure dates for coal power stations in Australia are continually being brought forward.

The Eraring plant, the largest in the country with its capacity of 2.9 gigawatts, is set to close in 2025, seven years ahead of schedule.

Mr Wolf said for a NETA to succeed, essential workers and “community-based” people who “understand what works for their community” have to have oversight and input.

“It’s not the companies that have sustained the power station, it’s the workforce themselves that have built ownership of that … and they’ve got the community’s vision, foremost …i t will be critical to get their buy-in on [the transition].”

The ACTU president says the NETA would fund and co-ordinate regional economic diversification programs with good, secure jobs in new and emerging industries.

“An independent, statutory National Energy Transition Authority will ensure the shift to renewable energy happens with workers, not to workers, and delivers good jobs and economic opportunity,” Ms O’Neil said.

Community support

The proposal for NETA has received broad support.

Dr Jennifer Rayner, the Climate Council’s head of advocacy, said a NETA was needed to ensure “people around Australia have good jobs and thriving communities, no matter where they are”.

Dr Rayner said it was essential to involve a range of perspectives and for stakeholders to work collectively in developing a NETA.

“We need everybody working on this because this is such a big part of what Australia’s next phase of prosperity will look like,” she told TND.

There were already great examples of successful partnerships around the country, Dr Rayner said.

“A great example is in the Latrobe Valley, where government, business and community are partnering really closely to work out how they keep that region thriving and those communities full of good jobs.”

Economist and director at the Centre for Future Work, Jim Stanford, told TND that creating a transition authority with a mandate to phase out fossil fuels over time and without anyone losing their job is “realistic and necessary”.

He said the transition could be accomplished without a single person losing their job, but it would require planning, resources and leadership.

“It’s possible – other countries have done it,” he said.

He cited Germany’s successful phase-out of black coal mining, saying that over 20 years, 80,000 jobs were phased out gradually without any involuntary redundancies.

Mr Stanford said this was achieved through a combination of advance notice, gradual phasing out of the industry, mobility across mines, and a range of voluntary measures to support workers in finding new jobs, including within the energy industry and in other professions.

“If we did that, that would prove that fossil fuel workers are better off with an ambitious transition authority like this than they are just leaving it to their boss to decide when they get kicked on the street,” he said.

The changing face of coal

Mr Standford and Mr Wolf said that in general the coal workforce is ageing, which means many workers will retire while we’re still reliant on coal.

“It’s not a question of making them learn a new skill and take up a new job,” said Mr Standford.

“It’s a question of giving them and the industry notice that it’s going to phase out over time, instead of pretending that somehow this can be avoided – it can’t be avoided.”

“If we pretend it can, we’re going to trick workers into investing their lives in an industry that has no future.”

Mr Wolf said for those who don’t want to retire or pick up new skills there will be a decade of work required to rehabilitate sites.

The post ACTU: Coal-to-renewables transition needs to be ‘with workers, not <i>to</i> workers’ appeared first on The New Daily.