climate action cafe

A space for discussion and analysis within the global climate movement

Don’t talk about the war!

Posted by KM on August 26, 2008

The nonsensical relationship between the labour and environment movements in the face of climate change.

by Liz Turner

This article originally appeared in the newspaper “Unless You Are Free”, which was put together by anarchists in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, and was distributed at the recent Newcastle Climate Camp

Over the past twenty years in Australia, the relationship between environmental activists and some aspects of the labour movement has been plagued by nonsensical paradoxes and conflict, to the detriment of the environment. Big industrial giants and governments are clearly not going to be the ones to prevent dangerous climate change because their interests lie in fossil fuels. This leaves environmentalists and workers to create solutions that will transform the energy industry to be sustainable, localised and grassroots, while providing people with jobs.

We can’t rely on the leaders of the mainstream labour unions to transform the logging industry because the Forestry division of the powerful Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) has been embroiled in conflicts with the environment movement for years. New approaches are needed in order to begin resolving these conflicts. Strategies based on the principles of mutual aid and direct action, are the most likely ones to get good results.

Many environmental activists have anti‑capitalist ideas that are not fostered by a strong workers’ movement. This is a ridiculous situation. However, Union Solidarity is an organisation based in Melbourne that aims to build sustainable housing co‑operatives for low‑income earners. This very practical project could go leaps and bounds towards healing strained relations, while at the same time, demonstrating that workers control can transform industries to be sustainable.

The Forestry Division of the CFMEU

Claims that the Forestry division of the CFMEU have been bought off by the forest industry, are well‑founded. Michael O’Connor from the Forestry branch of the CFMEU supported John Howard’s 2004 election campaign after Opposition Leader Mark Latham promised to protect more of Tasmania’s Old Growth forests.

The CFMEU will not dissolve its forestry division due to the Forestry division’s historical threat that they will dismantle the doors of Victoria’s Trades Hall. I have a proposition: Perhaps Trades Hall does not need the doors as much as the CFMEU needs to be liberated from the conservative and damaging leaders of the Forestry union.

The Builders Labourers Federation

From 1971 and 1974 the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) helped foster a powerful relationship between strong elements of the labour movement and the environment movement. Under the leadership of Jack Mundey, Bob Pringle and Joe Owens, the New South Wales BLF ran 42 Green Bans, holding up well over $5 billion worth of inappropriate development in areas of environmental significance and low‑income residential areas at the Rocks, Kelly’s Bush, Centennial Park, the Botanic Gardens, and Woolloomooloo.1

In 1983, Bob Hawke’s Labor government introduced the Prices and Incomes Accord, an agreement between governments, bosses and unions. The Accord was promoted as apparently “heralding the end of industrial disputes”. The BLF signed on, but broke the accord when industrial disputes were needed. The ALP government then deregistered the union. Police were called to sites in Victoria, NSW and Canberra, where BLF members were ordered to join rival unions. If they refused, they were sacked on the spot and escorted off site. BLF officials were banned from sites and if they entered anyway were charged with trespass. The courts would then issue an order banning them from the site. If the official ignored the court order, they were jailed for 28 days.2 Howard can partly thank Hawke for laying the foundations for workplace organising laws under Workchoices.

The sustained attacks by the state, an economic recession and the constant blacklisting of BLF militants presented the final nails in the coffin of the BLF. Make no mistake: the government were engaged in a deliberate project to ensure that workers and concerned members of the community could not interfere with unsustainable development.

Stories of violence perpetrated by loggers against environmental protestors are not uncommon. On the ground, these fights are sometimes articulated as some kind of “class” war, where forest workers defend their right to their job and are happy to fight to apparently “bourgeois” greenies (who are often students earning a meager income of Austudy or underemployed people). The restructuring of the forest industry has led more and more forest workers to become independent contractors. So if they miss a day’s work because someone has chained themselves to their tractor, they can’t claim wages. Stripping workers of guaranteed wages and conditions is a very good strategic move for industry and government because it is harder for these workers to sympathise with the concerns of environmentalists. Instead, forest workers effectively perform the role of enforcer against environmentalists, while industry and the state can sit back and watch.

Violence in the forest is often a case of family against family, workers against people concerned for their children’s futures. But the interests of forest workers and environmental protesters are the same.

This violence came to a head in the courts in the early 2000’s when activists from the Wilderness Society claimed they were beaten up, trapped in a log cabin and terrorized to the point of suffering post‑traumatic stress disorder by loggers who are members of the CFMEU’s Forestry division during a forest blockade. The unsuccessful response of the activists was to try and sue the CFMEU for all they had, which would have effectively decimated the most militant union in the country.

The extent of this damage cannot easily be undone. It presents barriers whenever workers and environmentalists try to find new solutions, to the point where it seems easier to simply not talk about the war. For young environmentalists exploring all possible solutions to environmental crises, it can be tempting to find relief by looking to the corporate sector. But there is simply no sufficient solution to be found within the capitalist system. BHP Billiton,
for instance, is responsible for ten per cent of Australia’s overall greenhouse emissions and they have refused to set a targ t to reduce emissions. (Instead they have set a target to reduce energy intensity by 13% by 2010).

This means there is a lot of hard work to do to build the relationship between workers and environmentalists. This is where we need to start.

Union Solidarity’s sustainable housing workers co‑operatives should be applauded. We can only hope it will provide a positive example and lead to a groundswell for other construction workers to join.


1 Verity Burgmann, Power, Profit and Protest: Australian Social Movements and Globalisation, 2003, Allen & Unwin, pp169 – 171

2 Michael Bull, ‘John Cummins, 1948 – 2006’, Green Left Weekly, 17 November 1993,


One Response to “Don’t talk about the war!”

  1. […] It’s interesting to look back on the happy-clappy ‘Turtles and Teamsters’ and see where we’ve come. Despite the efforts to make the argument for alliances across social struggles, that romantic view is often challenged. Indigenous struggles don’t always align with environmental concerns. Unionists fight with forest activists. […]

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