An ‘alliance’ of unions and environmental groups is helping change the debate on energy transition in Australia’s biggest coal region. By Tom Morton.
‘I’m not loyal to coal’: The Hunter readies for change
It’s 6 o’clock on a Thursday night at the Doyalson RSL. There’s bingo starting soon. A few punters are playing the pokies and on the TV screens bull-necked men collide with bone-crunching force.
The crowd filing into the meeting room behind the Kokoda bar isn’t here for fun and games. Twenty kilometres or so from the Doylo, across Lake Macquarie, is Eraring, home to Australia’s largest coal-fired power plant. Many of the older men taking their seats around the tables have worked there all their lives. Eraring supplies about a quarter of New South Wales’s electricity – and it will close in 2025.
“Our members went to bed one night in February and woke up next morning to find their jobs were going seven years earlier than expected,” Cory Wright tells the meeting. “The company and the state government knew about it, but the workers only found out from the news.”
Wright, in his early 30s, is one of the youngest in the room. He’s state secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU), a forceful speaker, and a member of the Hunter Jobs Alliance. The alliance is a coalition of 12 unions and environmental organisations based in the Hunter Valley that are now talking openly at meetings such as this about what was, until recently, taboo: how to plan for a future beyond coal.
Coal made the Hunter. It’s the biggest regional economy in Australia, home to the world’s largest coal export port in Newcastle, and drives about 28 per cent of the gross domestic product of NSW. But now unions such as the AMWU are looking ahead and seeing the curtain slowly coming down on coal.
Earlier this year, when Origin Energy announced Eraring would close seven years ahead of schedule, it shocked the whole region. The company’s chief executive, Frank Calabria, said cleaner, cheaper power from solar, wind and batteries was making coal-fired power increasingly unsustainable. The closure is good news for the climate – Calabria says the closure will remove “a significant proportion” of Origin’s emissions – but bad news for the 350 workers employed there.
Four of the five NSW coal power stations will close in just over a decade – and all of them are in the Hunter. It’s not just coal-fired power that’s leaving, either. In June, despite surging coal prices worldwide, BHP announced it would close its Mount Arthur mine near Muswellbrook, the largest coalmine in NSW, by 2030 – 15 years ahead of schedule.
Regions such as the Hunter are at the frontier of the climate emergency in Australia. On nights like this, in stuffy meeting rooms up and down the valley, the global imperatives of climate action collide with the everyday lives of workers and communities.
“Hearts and minds are changing in the Hunter,” Justin Page, former state secretary of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), tells the meeting, “but that’s because we’ve been lobbying for it.”
Climate action is now part of the mainstream union agenda. Launching a report entitled “Secure Jobs for a Safe Climate” ahead of the jobs summit, Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O’Neil said climate change was already affecting workers across all industries. Working Australians, O’Neil said, are now at a turning point in the move to net zero emissions.
One man who’s been working hard to ensure workers have a say in that process is Steve Murphy, national secretary of the AMWU. Murphy recalls the day he walked into a lunchtime meeting at Komatsu Mining in Rutherford, in the heart of Hunter coal country. It was soon after what Murphy describes as the “horrific” 2019 election and the wounds of the climate culture wars were still raw.
Murphy grew up nearby and many of his family still worked in the coal industry. Now he was about to tell his members, over sandwiches, that the days of coal were coming to an end.
“I was standing by the sink in the lunch room beforehand,” he says, “and I was thinking, ‘Either this is going to go really well, and workers will understand that this is their union having their back, or I’ll be the shortest-serving state secretary in the history of the union – three months in the job, and the workers will be calling for my head.’ ”
Murphy’s speech was short and sharp. “I said we were watching what was happening in the power stations, we were seeing big miners getting out of the valley, big miners making decisions in boardrooms that they weren’t going to reinvest. The curtain was slowly closing. What I didn’t want to see, as the secretary of their union, and above all someone who grew up in the Hunter Valley, was that mining companies would just lock the gates and our community would be left isolated and with nothing.”
Murphy says there was an “honest conversation” with members after his speech. Some were in denial. Some felt “it’s going to happen but it’s not going to happen to us”. Murphy spoke about his own experience at BHP in Newcastle, where he’d worked as a fitter. When BHP closed, he told them, the company promised thousands of workers they were all going to come out the other end of the transition with good jobs. Instead, a third got decent jobs, a third got low-paid, insecure work, and a third never worked again. “I said I wasn’t going to let that happen another time.”
When the meeting ended, two older members walked up to Murphy. “I thought they’d say, ‘Mate, you’re full of shit.’ Instead, they shook my hand and said it was exactly the thing they expected of an AMWU secretary, to be finally talking honestly about the problems we face.”
Murphy kept his job. He knew unions had to move beyond the poisoned chalice of the climate culture wars – but he wasn’t sure how. “The 2019 election was framed as a competition between the environment or jobs. I knew in my mind that that’s not where the conflict is – the conflict is with private capital.”
He decided to go back to the grassroots. On a Saturday morning in Granville, in Sydney’s industrial west, the AMWU ran political education workshops for the rank and file on economics, women’s issues, Indigenous issues and the environment. The members who attended worked everywhere from fish-finger factories to the coal industry. Murphy invited Felicity Wade to speak at the final session of the morning.
Wade was national co-convenor of LEAN, the Labor Environment Action Network, and a seasoned environmental activist; she’d run the Wilderness Society in NSW, been arrested numerous times taking part in direct action, even worn a koala suit.
She’d also been a formidable grassroots campaigner within Labor. Now, like Murphy, she knew Labor had to change the framing around climate policy.
“At the 2019 election coal communities came out and said, ‘Nick off with your climate change stuff’, ” says Wade. “There’d been the Adani convoy, and big swings against Labor in mining seats, especially the seat of Hunter. That was those communities saying, ‘You’d better not forget us’.”
Wade talked to the Granville meeting about the Green Bans movement, and how Jack Mundey and the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation had led the fight to save working-class communities and their homes. Then she uttered a sentence Murphy couldn’t get out of his mind. “When working-class politics gets ahead of the environmental movement,” she said, “we all win.”
For Murphy, it was a lightbulb moment. “I thought, ‘This is our opportunity, everything that Felicity’s been talking about, the history of the Green Bans, this is our chance; not to repeat it but to carry on the work and build a new movement.’ ”
After Wade finished speaking, Owen, a delegate from the Hunter, put up his hand. Murphy held his breath. Owen wasn’t one to mince words.
“I work in the coal industry,” Owen told the room. “I owe it everything I have. The coal industry feeds my family, it’s the reason I could buy my house and my car. But I’m not loyal to coal. What I am loyal to is providing a quality life to my family. If you can create a job for me tomorrow, I will shift.” For Murphy, this was another lightbulb moment. “I thought, that’s it, that’s how we need to reframe it: we need climate action and job creation.”
Murphy began talking to other union secretaries and the idea of a formal alliance was born. The nine unions keen to get on board ranged from the ETU to the United Workers Union (UWU), which covers workers in low-paid jobs such as aged care, disability services and early childhood. “We have hundreds of members in the Hunter region,” says Mel Gatfield, NSW secretary of the UWU. “Their families all have connections to the coal industry. And climate change has become a big issue for our members all across the country.”
One union that did not put up its hand to join was the Mining & Energy Union. “We’re a union, we’re not climate activists,” says Tony Maher, general president of the MEU, a division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. “We don’t need to have an alliance with the environmental groups, we’ve been dealing with them for 20 years or more.”
But even Maher agrees the alliance’s explicit focus on job creation is crucial. “The point is to give people well-paid jobs for the rest of their lives – that’s how you avoid victims as a result of climate policy. The more victims you have, the more it feeds the scare campaigns. So make sure there aren’t any victims.”
Of course, the workers at the Eraring Power Station are not victims of climate policy. Origin brought forward the closure by seven years because there was “no business case for baseload fossil fuels”. But, as Maher suggests, what workers perceive is that it is climate policy and climate activists, rather than business decisions, that threaten their jobs.
To shift that perception, Wade believes it was essential to bring local environmental groups from the Hunter into the alliance. “Groups like Lock the Gate, the Hunter Community Environment Centre and the Nature Conservation Council are deeply embedded in those communities,” she says. “They understood that keeping on shouting was not winning.”
Georgina Woods, who was then national co-ordinator of Lock the Gate, had already reached that conclusion. Lock the Gate is a grassroots organisation that had been fighting the coal and coal-seam gas industries in the Hunter for a decade. “We’d been locked into a really unproductive us-and-them dynamic,” Woods says of that time, “and it wasn’t getting us anywhere.” Lock the Gate changed tactics, running free public dinners, workshops and an intensive campaign of doorknocking. “It shifted the ground a lot,” Woods says. “Regardless of people’s views about how much longer the industry is going to be here, nine out of 10 people we talked to agreed that we need to start planning for a future beyond coal.”
Steve Murphy says there were many “tough, difficult conversations” before the unions and environmental groups could agree on a common platform, but they pushed through. The Hunter Jobs Alliance was launched in November 2020, with what Murphy calls “a deep community organising model”.
The man tasked with making that model work on the ground is Warrick Jordan, the alliance’s co-ordinator. Jordan was born in the Hunter and spent some of his 20s as a forest campaigner in Tasmania. In May this year Jordan told a public forum in Argenton it was a “pivotal moment” for the Hunter. “You’re not going to get your head shot off anymore for coming up here and saying we’re doing something with renewables,” he told the audience, many of whom had come straight from work and were still dressed in high-vis.
In his cramped office at the Hunter Workers building in Newcastle this week, Jordan told The Saturday Paper there’s been a clear shift in community sentiment. “I wouldn’t want to paint a picture that everyone in the region thinks we’re advancing rapidly towards a post-coal future,” he says, “but regardless of what people think about climate change, or how long export coal will be around, they recognise that things are changing quickly, and they want a response.”
Nathan Clements, an electrical fitter and machinist at Komatsu, and union delegate with the AMWU, agrees. “We’re talking about a very big change to the Hunter and the whole community – it’s a scary thing, no doubt about it,” the 27-year-old says. “More than anything people want a time line – and of course that’s very difficult to give.”
While there’s already a clear time line for the end of coal-fired power, the future of export thermal coal is harder to predict. World coal prices are booming – and Dan Repacholi, the new Labor member for Hunter, says coal exports from the valley will continue for “decades to come”.
Others are not so convinced. In 2019 the Reserve Bank of Australia published a sober assessment of what would happen to coal exports if our major customers – China, Japan and South Korea – met their commitments under the Paris Agreement. The RBA predicted demand for Australian thermal coal would fall 80 per cent by 2030.
“I read all the reports,” says Tony Maher, “but it takes a lot of time, money and energy to retool an economy like Japan to run off hydrogen and offshore wind.” Still, Maher sounds a note of caution. “In every other time in history when we’ve had extraordinary prices, there’s been an investment boom,” he says. “That hasn’t happened this time.”
Whatever the future holds for export coal, the social legitimacy of transition in the Hunter will stand or fall on the region’s ability to create thousands of new jobs. The road to stable climate policy leads through regions like this.
According to the NSW Renewable Energy Sector Board, $32 billion in private sector investment is set to flow into renewables under the NSW Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap. The federal government is promising $20 billion to modernise the grid with its Rewiring the Nation program, and $15 billion in the National Reconstruction Fund.
But as Warrick Jordan says, “We need to get past the simple narrative that coalminers can leave a pit on Friday and rock up at a wind farm on Monday.” In the words of an audience member at a public forum, what workers need to see is “a job in a shed they can go to”.
One such shed – or rather a brand spanking new plant – will open in Tomago, just north of Newcastle, early next year. Energy Renaissance will manufacture industrial-scale lithium batteries there, employing about 700 people when full production is reached.
The company was founded in 2015 but initially encountered scepticism from both investors and the federal government. “We sat in the office of a federal minister who actually tried to persuade us to manufacture in Asia,” says managing director Mark Chilcote.
“All you had to do was believe in climate change to know there’d be a market,” he goes on, “but we had to satisfy ourselves that an Australian company could compete in advanced manufacturing.”
Three years later, they concluded it could. Australia is the only country in the world that produces all the raw materials used in lithium-ion batteries, the price of electricity from renewables is dropping all the time, and labour is only 15 per cent of their cost of production.
Examples such as Energy Renaissance suggest a bright future for new manufacturing in the Hunter. But the alliance argues both state and federal governments will still need to directly fund “flagship projects” that will stabilise employment. Otherwise, says the AMWU’s Cory Wright, “we are going to hit a cliff”.
Even more important for the alliance is a regional transition authority, a funded statutory authority that will steer the process of transition. The ACTU wants a national energy transition authority, and now has backing from the Business Council of Australia and the MEU.
“The clock is ticking,” says MEU national secretary Tony Maher. “We don’t have much time. I thought we’d be discussing this in the second term of a Labor government, but it’s got to be done in the first term.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 17, 2022 as "Dispelling coal to Newcastle".
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