Friday’s school climate strike protests were a spectacle impossible to ignore. Millions of furious children gathered in town squares around the world, to make clear they’ve had a gutful of inaction on an issue that will impact their futures long after the adults currently in charge are dead and buried. It’s no surprise they feel the need to shout about it.
Less expected is who stood with them.
Around Australia, they were joined by a growing number of coal workers — men and women three times their age, calling for an end to the industry that has been their livelihood for decades. These are people who understand full well the economic gift that “little black rock“ has been, but who can no longer accept the environmental cost it comes wrapped in.
In Newcastle, a town quite literally built on coal, Ian Hodgson was one of those men. A fitter and turner currently working at the coal-fired Bayswater Power Station, he has spent much of his working life in or around mines and now only reluctantly takes on coal-related work as a last resort. “I try to do anything else I can first — but sometimes I’ve just got to pay the bills.”
Ian says he is deeply concerned about the planet his children and grandchildren will inherit, and hugely frustrated by the public debate.
“I can’t stand the way it’s made into an ‘us-versus-them’ scenario,” Ian said, of the way some politicians frame calls for climate change action as attacks on coal communities. “Climate change affects all of us. You might work in a mine but you live in the world.”
His thoughts were echoed in the speech given by student organiser Alexa Stuart at the Newcastle rally.
“We are here in the biggest coal port in the world to tell you that we do stand with those who work in the mining industry and that this is not about us versus them … our frustration and anger about climate inaction is never directed at coal workers, but at the people in power like you, Mr Prime Minister.”
One of the key demands at the Newcastle event was the funding of new job creation, for all fossil-fuel workers and their communities — paid for by the coal industry.
Bruce Lawrence, a former miner also at the Newcastle march, spent 43 years working underground and agrees that the coal companies should be doing more to establish a “just transition” for its workers.
“Every time they turn around and say there’s no money in coal, they open up another pit then go to court and spend billions in court. That could be redirected towards training blokes in clean energy. They should be obliged, just by the money they’ve made out of the country already.”
On a personal level, he says it’s hard for anyone to come to terms with the fact that the fruits of their labour could be harming the planet, especially when personal financial obligations are at stake.
“People get blinded. They see things differently when they’re trapped in debt, and everything’s about repaying their debt.”
Phil Mansfield, a rigger-turned-environmental activist who attended the Sydney march, spent years sub-contracting at mines and power stations from Wollongong to the Hunter Valley. For him, accepting the reality of climate change hit hard.
“It was about 2015 that I realised that basically everything I was doing from the moment I got up, every step that I took, was destroying the environment that was sustaining my life.”
Phil says his former workmates were generally dismissive of his views.
“You’re just a bloody hippie la-la wannabe mate, dole bludger this and that — and then all of a sudden they’re out of work, they can’t get work, and they start to see things a bit differently.”
For unions in coal areas like Newcastle, the issue is fraught. Divisions in the movement were revealed in a petty dispute over a podium: Hunter Workers (formerly the Newcastle Trades Hall) had previously loaned students a stage for their climate strike in March, but this time refused it and withdrew support for the event, reportedly under pressure from the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). (The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union later stepped in with a donation to cover the $600 cost of a hired replacement stage, while a Hunter Workers representative asked strike organisers to continue working with and negotiating with the group.)
And yet, the CFMEU’s flag was there on Friday, held by member Karl Hitchcock.
The kids who skipped school have been accused of wasting time — but coal workers know better than anyone the power this form of protest can have.
As Bruce pointed out: “If we didn’t go on strike years ago we’d still have nine-year-olds down in the pit.”