Interview: The Reich Stuff
Economics: Crime and Punishment
Environment: Beyond The Wedge
International: The End Of The Lucky Country
Safety: Tests Fail Tests
Politics: Labo(u)r Day
Human Rights: Arabian Lights
History: Labour's Titan
Review: Foxy Fiasco
Poetry: Then I Saw The Light
The Locker Room
What’s In a Name?
Let's Start A New Party
Beyond The Wedge
A month on from the Federal election in which forestry fall-out proved a major feature and finally agreement seems to have been restored between environmentalists and forestry workers - the wedge is alive and well and unlikely to be going away soon.
But hope may be here with the re-booting of Eathworker, an organisation committed to bringing unionists and environmentalists together to work on sustainability projects where there is common ground.
Earthworker was established in 1999 to help green the union movement and unionise the environmentalists. The organisation aimed to overcome any wedges wrongfully placed between unionists and greenies by identifying areas of agreement that could be jointly actioned.
Within less than a year there were 14 unions and three environmental organisations affiliated with Earthworker and it was given a room in Melbourne's Trades Hall.
Early work to help establish a solar, wind, and water powered energy industry in Australia started with the assistance of the ETU and the AMWU - each allocating a worker to spend one day per week with a range of experts, academics, and industry players to get it up and running.
By the beginning of this century there was a conviction that Earthworker's time had come - that Australian workers were ready to embrace the fact that solidarity and sustainability were inseparable and that the jobs versus the environment debate could finally be resolved.
The Victorian based group was getting ready to spread its wings across the nation and in NSW the basement of the Labor Council's Trades Hall building provided the venue for a series of meetings.
Things appeared to be going well until they got "caught in the cross fire between some green activists and the CFMEU forestry division" in Victoria, cumulating in a court case against the union over a forest protest camp counter blockade in the Otway ranges in 2000.
"Earthworker was asked to help mediate the situation and it was a complete disaster," one of the founders of Earthworker in Victoria Cam Walker says.
Four years down the track and Walker describes the organisation in past tense.
"We were completely dead in the water," he says. "We lost all credibility and never recovered."
Now Walker says he is getting ready to brush off the Earthworker concept in the hopes it may rise from the ashes once again - possibly under a new name, but with many of the original aims in mind.
What they will try to avoid this time around is getting involved in the forestry issue.
"We were dealing with between 20 and 30 years of entrenched angst between environmentalists and forestry yet it was never something Earthworker was set up to do. It is true that in forestry there is a common ground but in our experience it can never be reached."
Walker says the new organisation will return to Earthworker's original framework, of concentrating on areas where there is agreement and will also extend the types of programs it works on to encompass community health.
The communities that unionists live and work in directly impact on their health and wellbeing and there is a role for the trade union movement and the green movement to join forces to ensure these areas are safe, pollution free, and sustainable, he says.
Walker says this approach is based on a similar US-based organisation called the Just Transition Alliance.
The model is likely to appeal to some areas of the union movement as is the organisation's commitment to focusing on areas of agreement but there is a lot of trust to win back as far as the NSW forestry union is concerned.
CFMEU Forestry Division state secretary Craig Smith says it is important that the union movement and the environmental movement has a good working relationship - especially with the left wing CFMEU - "but we constantly find ourselves hooked up in the forestry debate".
"There are hundreds of thousands of people indirectly employed as a result of the forestry industry, on top of our members who are directly employed, and we are never going to agree to anything that would put their livelihoods in jeopardy.
"We have tried to have meaningful discussions around the sale of plantations that were intended to be a joint initiative and we assumed the meetings would focus on this - but someone always wanted to debate us on wood chipping and native forests," he says.
"There is a lot of misinformation out there and I get sick of constantly having to deal with that. Our members now see the environmental movement as anti-forestry because they keep on raising it."
Smith says the CFMEU is more concerned with directly lobbying state and federal governments on environmental issues and says it is this relationship that needs more work to ensure unions are better consulted before government policies are released.
He says federal Labor's forestry policy had its flaws, including its almost sole focus on Tasmania and reneging on the regional forests agreement. "But at least it offered a generous compensation package for workers who were affected or displaced as a result of restructure."
As secretary of the union, Smith says a core environmental concern is water and says the forestry division is always looking at sustainability because of the nature of the industry. However, Smith doubts the union and environmentalists can ever work together on the issue.
"There will always be some rednecks in forestry and some lunatics in the environmental movement - there are extremist views on both sides of the debate.
"The sort of trust and respect required for these people to work together is not going to happen in my generation," Smith says.
NSW forest campaigner with the Wilderness Society, Claire McVeigh agrees the union movement does appear more focussed on lobbying government that working with the environmental movement but says there are limits to this approach.
"At the moment the union movement seems to mainly work with the Greens on environmental matters. Aside from this, there has been a lot of resistance for many years from government because of the noise that industry makes.
"The Wilderness Society believes in putting a direct alternative forward to identify solutions for workers."
McVeigh says there is always encouragement and support from within the environmental movement for working together with unions.
"Sometimes, in the case of forestry, this can involve relocating wood chipping mills to more sustainable areas. We believe there is enough room in the existing plantation industry for all the people currently employed and more.
"We believe it is important to be proactive in working towards the long-term sustainability of jobs - and not just in forestry. Climate change is one of many other areas with opportunities for harnessing job sustainability and even job creation by looking at the situation not just in the short term but over the next 20 years and beyond.
"There are a lot of opportunities that unions can harness by looking to the long-term," she says.
Cam Walker will be looking for unions interested in exploring some of these when he looks to launch a new-look union/environmental partnership early next year.
To find out more or to become involved, contact [email protected]
To find out more about Wilderness Society projects, visit http://www.wilderness.org.au
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