Postcards from Wales

The ways we know each other and ourselves are transformed through collective struggles. Sometimes we manage to exceed and push beyond what is anticipated. The bonds formed between Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and mining communities in South Wales Prideare one such example. Matthew Warchus’s film Pride got us thinking about what notion of ‘pride’ might be required to combat climate change through a struggle around the conditions of contemporary work. We see that labour struggles of the 20th century were accompanied by a discourse of pride in being a worker – for some, in being a miner. We ask, how might our collective nostalgia for labour movements remembered in terms of the pride to be labour be unsettled by the catastrophic threat posed by our enduring reliance on coal mining?pride-miners-strike-gay-activists-3

Juxtaposing reflections on our families’ histories in the Taff Bargoed and Cynon valleys with the contemporary political and economic situation in Australia, we ask whether there is another path for communities that rely on wages/welfare today. What possibilities are arising for our generation, a generation that must challenge catastrophic environmental destruction? Is it possible that we might not need to sacrifice our well-being, our environment and the futures of others to satisfy our immediate material needs and desires?

We propose that we can be proud of mining communities’ battles to defend their livelihoods by clarifying these as struggles for dignity, sustainability and for community control over community interests. These characteristics will be essential in ongoing efforts to put an end to mining. To this we would add that a major battleground for our time is the struggle to collectively work less!

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Mining Memories

As two Welsh-Australian women who were children in the 1980s and for whom Sydney is mostly home, there isn’t much we can contribute to a personalised analysis of the battles against pit closures. There are, however, some links to be drawn between the experiences of our ancestors and the conditions we face in contemporary Australia.

We know that in Wales the pits sustained life by providing relatively well-paid jobs, and sites around which strong communities were built and where our families flourished. But they also took life, sometimes quickly and brutally, sometimes by slowly chipping away. Emphysema and other lung conditions affected our grandparents’ and parents’ generation. Many people would not live beyond their fifties due to over-work and poor health and safety conditions. Injuries were commonplace in the hazardous underground mines and for children playing in the towns around the coalfields. Claire’s Dad remembers,

‘There wasn’t much in the way of health and safety! If we were going up the mountain, we used to hitch a ride on the coal trams. There was a rope that winched them up and we’d jump on that. I don’t know how many of us got hurt doing it. We also used to play on the bridge over the train tracks. The game was to be on top of the bridge as the coal train passed, shooting smoke up as it went. We came back covered in soot, black from head to foot.’

Despite some of the horrors and misery of the daily grind, we feel a longing for the courage of those communities that fought against the pit closures. We understand that a way of life was at stake during the struggles in the 1980s. Much of what has been lost in the last few decades relates to the breaking down of that culture, as well as the very real consequences of inter-generational under-employment and poverty. This acknowledged, one of the starkest examples of the contradictions inherent in the fight to keep the pits open is found in many people’s hopes that their children would not have to work in them. ‘No one wanted their children to go down the mines but there weren’t many other options in the Valleys. It was down the pits or to the army,’ says Claire’s Dad. The less common narrative of the struggle to against pit closures is the struggle for better lives, lives extricable from work.

Labour struggles in contemporary Australian mining

Shifts in the global coal mining industry have meant huge changes in the organisation of mining in the South Welsh valleys and also in the New South Welsh cities of Wollongong and Newcastle. In the 1970s and 1980s, as capital sought ways to maintain profitability, the livelihoods of coal miners came under attack. The mining industry in Australia transformed in that period, and continues to change today.

Labour’s struggles in Australia have been less focused on mine closures than were the struggles in Wales in the 1980s. The struggles of miners in Australia have been more focused on work arrangements. The introduction of new technologies, the focus on open-cast rather than underground mines, as well as changes to employment regulations contributed to a decline in mining employment in from the 1980s to around 2000. However, since then, coal mining employment has grown substantially as Australia enjoyed a mining boom and the industry has shifted from a domestic focus to becoming one of the largest coal exporters worldwide.

The boom in Australia is now coming to an end. In 2014, the International Monetary Fund predicted that the proportion of Australian Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that comes from coal mining will decline sharply in the next few years. As growth rates fall in China, commodity prices drop, and pressure increased from competing coal producers like Indonesia, India and China, Australian coal mines will face declining profitability. Workers will feel the consequences of this. Competitive pressure in the industry means that some Australian communities’ current direct material dependence on the industry is threatened, while workers in poorer countries will be progressively dispossessed of their lands and forced to work in mining.

Keeping the industry running does not appear to be an immediate question for Australia today, where there are currently almost 100 new coal mine projects under review. What is at issue, though, is the conditions under which coal is extracted. Around ten thousand jobs were lost in Australian coal mining over the past two years. US mining giant Peabody just announced 400 job cuts from its Australian operations, while 500 workers lost their jobs in two coal mines in the Hunter Valley. Some workers are being forced to choose between their jobs and their conditions. In Wollongong, just south of Sydney, a union meeting recently voted to reject a $1,000 /week pay cut, choosing instead to face 45 redundancies. At another mine down the road, workers chose to keep the jobs, but to take the pay cut. Other mine operators are accelerating the move towards more precarious working arrangements to retain profitability targets. In Collinsville, Queensland, the mining company Glencore closed its doors in 2013, cutting 300 jobs. The mine re-opened just a few months later and refused to re-hire former employees. Instead, it will primarily employ labour-hire contractors on what the company described as ‘more modern and flexible employment arrangements’. Former workers and their families have been evicted from the company’s housing.

In addition to attempts to reduce labour costs and intensify work, ‘Fly-In, Fly-Out’ (FIFO) work arrangements now extend to 60% of workers in resource sector, up from 40% in 2008. FIFO has recently been the subject of a federal parliamentary inquiry and as well as a Western Australian enquiry into the associated mental health impacts. In 2014, at least 9 FIFO workers took their own lives. On one hand FIFO work has answered workers’ resistance to permanently moving for work, while on the other it enables companies to shift labour around and undermine the sense of community and connection to place that has historically arisen around collieries. Many new mine projects stipulate that workers must be remotely located and must work on a FIFO basis.

Research commissioned by Australia’s mining industry union and released in November 2014 finds that both workers and local communities are suffering because of the growing use of FIFO. Work patterns vary, but typically FIFO employees work long hours while on site and then take a week or two break at home. Mine industry workers typically work a 51-hour week, compared to the Australian average of 35 hours. A survey of 15,000 FIFO workers also found that nearly 60% of them were suffering moderate to very high levels of stress due to their working arrangements, and nearly half of them were reluctant to raise workplace issues with their boss. Working on a FIFO basis has various impacts, including intensive work schedules, impaired sleep, consequences for workplace health and safety, as well as separation from home and family. Isolation, in particular, is a major cause of anxiety, which many FIFO workers self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. While these kinds of disputes over wages and conditions are nothing new, nor are they peculiar to the coal mining industry, they remind us that workers bear the consequences of capital’s quest for profits. This squeeze is likely to get tighter as profits from the industry decline.

Environmental struggles in contemporary Australian mining

In environmental campaigning, and especially in campaigning to end coal mining in Australia, there is a tension between activists and workers; between nature and jobs; between ecology and economy. Dependence on waged work to survive is our defining condition under capitalism. It is crucial that climate justice campaigners illuminate paths away from mining that involve those who are immediately reliant on wages from the industry. We turn to current campaigns focused on Maules Creek in New South Wales (NSW) and Bowen in Queensland (QLD), to illustrate some of the ways that these tensions are currently being expressed.

Maules Creek is a small farming town, about an 8-hour drive north of Sydney. The area already hosts a coal mine that emits a constant dull humming noise and coal dust, which interferes with local wildlife and impacts on the health of nearby residents. The proposed mine has split the local community. While some businesses are keen to get a slice of the immediate economic activity that a new mine in the area might bring, Aboriginal Traditional Owners need access to burial sites and other places of cultural significance that will be destroyed by the new mine site. Furthermore, farmers are concerned about the mine’s reliance on water resources, of which there are few in drought-ridden NSW. In addition to these localised impacts, the mine will contribute enormously to carbon emissions over its expected 30-year production period.

The campaigns for and against the construction of a second major coal port alongside the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area in Queensland are other examples of the tensions that mining stirs up. The seaside fishing town of Bowen in QLD, like many towns targeted for mining-related activity, has high unemployment. In response to the proposal to expand coal export transits from 14,000 to 80,000 per annum through a second port at Abbott Point, a mining industry-funded ‘community’ campaign has formed to lobby in favour of the proposal. They say that the area ‘needs jobs’, and yet of the 50 or so mines (60 more are under review for development) that currently operate in the area, the vast majority of labour is flown in from the major cities. Meanwhile, the Mackay Conservation Group among many other organisations involved in a broader climate movement, has emphasised the disastrous environmental impacts and the jobs in tourism that will be threatened by the accelerated destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. These examples push the central question: how can we resolve the tensions between the need to sell one’s labour and our drive to survive on this planet?

In the context of current global geopolitics, the role of coal mining in contributing to climate change cannot be ignored. As the second largest exporter of coal worldwide, Australia is responsible for almost 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Climate science is terrifying. The United Nations, not known for radical hyperbole, predicts devastating consequences if action is not taken to arrest rising average temperatures. One of the key messages from climate science is that remaining fossil fuels must remain below ground.

Is an end to mining possible without austerity?

Coal mining, in particular, is an industry that clearly displays the consequences of subordinating both labour and nature to the dictates of capital accumulation. The relationship between coal mining and mining communities can almost be seen as an allegory, a representation of underlying tensions in capitalism. Mining depleted the lives of our ancestors and their families in the immediate vicinity of the mines. Over time, these impacts have broadened. Today, greenhouse gas emissions are slowly choking not just small villages in mining valleys, but the entire planet. Mining operations are robbing and polluting more and more of our waterways, eating up farmland, destroying the cultural and recreational sites that enrich our lives.

All businesses are subject to the need to constantly grow and remain competitive in order to survive in a capitalist economy. While practically all industries rely on the provision of energy from coal and other fossil fuels, coal mining is at the pointy end of ecological collapse today. We know that if remaining fossil fuels are not left in the ground mass extinction is likely to follow for both humans and other species. This reality highlights the need to move away from a reliance on coal. It also raises some more fundamental questions about capital as a social relation. We can’t address the problem of climate change without changing the structure of our economy. As the late geographer Neil Smith has written, ‘the bourgeoisie has no solution to the ecological problem, they simply move it around’. When faced with economic pressure, political resistance and ecological crisis, capital searches for technical, spatial or political fixes. We see this manifest in responses such as the development of open-cast and long-wall mining technologies, offshore developments such as the search for cheaper labour or government subsidies to coal and gas operations rather than renewable energy development. Whichever route is taken, workers somewhere lose out.

Elements of the environmental movement are rightly criticised for suggesting that ‘we are all responsible’ for climate change and that we must all contribute to a kind of war-effort style of collective rationing. How can we tackle these problems without lending weight to an emerging era of austerity, perhaps to become better known as ‘green austerity’? Growing inequality is at issue here. Many climate activists respond by saying that a green economy need not be one without jobs. They argue for a ‘just transition’ to renewable energy, by re-training mine workers, and continuing to grow the economy. We need renewable energy, but capital’s tendency to intensify work will remain the key issue in the organisation of this new industry. We need more than just a transition to renewables – and more than the replication of the condition of the wage that exists in today’s fossil fuel-dependent economy.

What do miners and environmentalists have in common?

This brings us back to the questions with which we opened. What notion of ‘pride’ might be required to combat climate change through a struggle around the conditions of work? For many people today, the traditional notion of working class identity is at odds with the lived experience of precarious work. Earlier on we explored some of the ways in which coal mining jobs have been made increasingly insecure. This is part of a broad trend. Today around half of all Australian workers are employed on casual contracts, with no guaranteed hours and no entitlements to benefits such as sick leave or holidays. Young people in advanced capitalist economies are often criticised for being flighty and demanding, changing jobs regularly. The reality is that stable work is elusive for a significant and growing proportion of people. This increasingly means that we are working to get work, and that work increasingly pervades our free time.

Rather than harking back to labour movement golden-era demands for full-time work and a job-for-life, and rather than ignoring that our labour is completely integral to the operation of capital – we need to organise around the desire for more leisure and less work. Perhaps, we contend, struggles for better lives may be held back by demands to ‘save our jobs’ or weakened by attempts to unify our collective interests under a misplaced notion of pride in the very condition of having to work. Instead, to circumvent the contradiction of being forced to undertake waged work in unsustainable industries, we could collectively demand to work less while simultaneously demanding a larger cut of what we collectively produce.

Many miners and mining communities now, as much as ever, recognise the impacts of mining and seek better lives for themselves and the next generation. As the coal miner activist Dave Douglass said, ‘all movements begin with the ideological baggage of this world, but if they are not to be weighed down by this baggage, such movements have to throw it off’. Our ancestors’ struggles to protect their livelihoods may have found unified expression in terms of the need to preserve mining jobs. In reality, these struggles reached far beyond the demand to keep working – as do today’s struggles both for and against coal mining. The particular and urgent challenge we face now is to find ways to unite labour and environmental movements, to move beyond jobs in mining and indeed, beyond lives defined by waged work.

A version of this article appears in Planet – the Welsh Internationalist (217). Claire and I would like to acknowledge the insight and generosity of Nick Southall, Dave Eden and David Parfitt which have helped us think through many of the issues raised here

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