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Walking for Latrobe Valley

Walking for Latrobe Valley
Earthworker members and supporters spent a week walking 100km from Melbourne to Morwell in September 2016. The walk was to show solidarity with the communities of the Latrobe Valley and raise awareness about worker cooperatives. Earthworker member Tim Wallace wrote about the walk for the “CFMEU Worker” magazine.

The Hazelwood power station and coal mine in the Latrobe Valley will close in April 2017, resulting in the immediate loss of 500 jobs and many more to follow.

In announcing the shut down, majority owner Engie acknowledged both difficult market conditions in Victoria due to lower electricity prices as well as its global strategy to end all coal activities and concentrate on low-carbon forms of power generation.

Around the world, the writing is on the wall for jobs and communities based on coal as nations act to curb the carbon emissions driving global warming. The Australian trade union movement acknowledges the necessity of such action but argues there must be a “just transition” that includes tangible plans for new industries to provide secure employment in affected coal-mining regions and communities.

To raise awareness about need the for a just transition, members and supporters of the Earthworker Cooperative undertook a 100km week-long walk from the outskirts of Melbourne to the heart of the Latrobe Valley in September

The “Walk with the Valley” took us through the townships of Nar Nar Goon, Tynon, Bunyip, Longwarry, Drouin, Warragul, Yarragon, Trafalgar. We ended in Morwell, the epicentre of Victoria’s fossil-fuel energy industry, ringed by the Yallourn, Hazelwood and Loy Yang coal-fired power stations, their associated open-cut mines and the state’s second and fourth-largest gas-fired power stations.

We walked as an expression of solidarity with the communities of the Latrobe Valley in the face of the inevitable move away from high-polluting power generation to cleaner energy sources. We hoped to raise general awareness about the need for government action at all levels to take care of the communities that have powered Victoria’s prosperity for the best part of a century.

In particular, we were spreading the message about a model of economic empowerment with the proven capacity to sustain jobs and enrich local communities by building businesses that balance the needs of people before sheer profit-seeking; in which the conflict of interests between owners and workers (and the communities in which the workers live) is minimised by the fact that the workers are the owners.

The idea of the walk was inspired by the founders of Earthworker Cooperative, Dave Kerin, a veteran union activist and now proud, retired member of the CFMEU. He’s been his own “long walk” over several decades, seeking to find common ground where the union and green movements can work together, rather than against each other on the battleground of jobs versus the environment.

The journey has not been without missteps and the need for reorientation; but Dave is now confident that, with Earthworker attracting a new generation of young men and women, the cooperative has the leadership to make the vision of worker cooperatives a reality in Australia.

Co-operatives and other forms of mutual economic organisation have a long history of achievement in Australia. Though the cooperative sector has been hollowed out in recent decades by demutualisation (driven by self-interested parties blinding members with the prospect of a fistful of dollars) more than 13 million Australians continue to benefit from membership of at least one of more than 1700 consumer- and producer-owned mutual enterprises.

Worker-owned cooperatives, though, are few and far between in Australia, compared to growing numbers in countries like India, Argentina, Spain and even the United States. But it is an idea whose time has come. In 2012 the ACTU Congress endorsed the International Labour Organisation’s support for cooperative formation as a proven means to create and sustain employment, declaring: “Manufacturing hopes rest on union-supported cooperative ventures.”

Earthworker’s immediate mission is to complete the establishment of Australia’s first worker-owned manufacturing cooperative in Morwell, making renewable energy technology including solar-ready hot-water tanks. The executive director of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, has described the initiative as “an innovative and practical way to address climate change whilst providing dignified, community-sustaining livelihoods – an exciting and tangible step in a ‘just transition’, and an inspiring example of cleaner, fairer economies.”

As circumstances have it, the first news of Engie’s expected decision to close the Hazelwood power station broke on the second-last day of our walk. In Trafalgar, television news crews and newspaper reporters intercepted the group for “vision” and comments. The next day The Sunday Age carried a prominent photo of the walkers on page three. A caption described us a “protesters”.

The description did not sit well with Dan Musil, secretary of the Earthworker Cooperative. Standing in the middle of Morwell’s main shopping strip, Hazelwood’s smokestacks visible in the distance, he gently but firmly declared: “We’re not here to protest. This is a demonstration of vision and a declaration of hope.”

“We need new industries and new opportunities in places like the Latrobe Valley. The Earthworker Cooperative for me is an exciting project because it works to do that in an innovative and different way, to sustain communities and provide livelihoods that are democratic and dignified, and to work our way out of the challenges we face.”