Last Saturday the 12th of December, people gathered in Sydney’s CBD to rally first for climate jobs and just transitions, and then in support of Coles workers who have been locked out of their Smeaton Grange warehouse in NSW for three months over Christmas and New Years after starting a 24 hour strike. Another rally concerning refugee rights also happened on Saturday afternoon.
The climate rally was organised by the Australian Student Environment Network (ASEN) and Workers for Climate Action (W4CA), and had over 200 people in attendance. Starting with an impassioned welcome to country by Aunty Rhonda, a Gadigal activist with strong ties to the union movement, it featured speakers such as rank and file members of the MUA and the UFUA, as well as student environmental and anti-racist activists who all stressed the need for first nations justice, a just transition to 100% renewable energy for workers and communities, a commitment to no new fossil fuel projects including Santos’ gas mine in the Pillaga, and increased funding for firies and essential workers.
The mobilisation against Coles and their abhorrent lock out of workers over the Christmas period was well attended by students, workers and members of the community alike, with the climate rally forming a contingent which walked from to Belmore park to join the second protest. Coles has raked in massive amounts of profits over the pandemic period, and yet they are locking out and refusing to pay logistical workers who were essential in supplying basic necessities to people during lockdown. Coles is also refusing to provide these workers with a fair redundancy package, leaving many stranded and with limited options for employment. Protesters took the road and marched all the way to Victoria Park, which ended with a speak out, holding space on Parramatta road for a significant amount of time.
The pandemic has made it clear that the ruling class does not care about working people, and will attempt to make ordinary workers foot the bill for this economic crisis. After winning back the right to protest through sustained defiance of anti-democratic laws enforced by the NSW state government during the COVID lockdown, speakers at the climate protest made it clear that Morrison’s gas-led recovery is another articulation of how the ruling class will continue to trash the environment and put profits over people in order to solidify their class position. It has also brought to the fore the apparent contradictions inherent to capitalism; while we are in an economic crisis, the solution being proposed is to plunge people further into environmental disaster with a ‘gas-led’ recovery plan, which will not provide nearly enough jobs as promised and is actively detrimental to the future health and material wellbeing of ordinary people.
It was made abundantly clear at the first rally that the climate movement and worker struggle are fights which are one and the same, as they both stem from the capitalist modes of production underpinning society. While First Nations people are continuously dispossessed of their land and face attempts by corporations to desecrate land and water by expanding the gas industry, workers are facing increasing casualisation, unemployment, underfunded public services and cuts to wages and unemployment benefits. Speakers articulated the need for a just transition away from fossil fuels to the renewable energy industry, which has the potential to provide an abundance of good green jobs for ordinary people, and the need for rank and file union activity on a mass scale, as well as jobs for First Nations people on country. Bosses like Coles who exploit workers in order to extract more and more profits from other people’s labour are also implicated in the climate crisis, as the capitalist class continues to invest in fossil fuels, underpay employees and perpetuate a system which serves their interests and their interests alone.
It was heartening to see the climate crisis and the struggle for workers rights being so explicitly linked in such a public way, and environmental activists rallying behind issues which concern workers rights and conditions. It was also comparatively a solid showing of numbers, given the fear that has been instilled in the public around protest and safety concerns throughout the pandemic, which will hopefully continue to diminish in the future. This is a positive step forward for the climate movement in Sydney, and may help to counter the popular narrative which pits environmental activists against workers and communities, and create a stronger and more unified response to the overlapping crises exacerbated by the pandemic that will affect ordinary people far into the future if we don’t stand up and fight back against this system which is exploitative to its core.
Also in the afternoon, a smaller group of activists gathered at Town Hall to demonstrate for the needs of refugees within Australia. The Australian government’s decision to slash the already meagre support provided to people seeking protection in the community is having the effect of driving many into deeper destitution. Hundreds of refugees have been evicted from community detention with no clear future ahead of them. The Australian government’s determination to “make an example” of desperately poor people fleeing wars is as perverse as it is cruel. Due to their visa situation, large numbers of refugees struggle to find work. Many lost their jobs at the outbreak of the COVID-crisis and have been unable to find consistent work since.
Refugees and the activists that support them have been waging an uphill battle for the past two decades, but we can find inspiration in the continued struggle of the refugees confined in hotel-prisons in Melbourne and Brisbane; they and their supporters have never failed to take the opportunity to fight. The brutalisation of refugees in the name of “securing the borders” is so embedded into the framework of government in Australia that no mere electoral change will deliver justice. It is clear that if we are to succeed, then the movement must join with the wider discontent in Australian society.
Many workers in Australia feel that the refugees are unlike them, that they are responsible for their own situation. They rest easy knowing that what happens to refugees does not affect them. This is an illusion. Like indigenous peoples, another hyper-exploited group, refugees are lab rats for Australian governance. Every power the government grants itself to brutalise refugees can – and will – be used against anyone who falls in the crosshairs of Australian capital. This includes Australian workers.
Whilst it was unfortunate that poor planning stopped what could have been a practical coming together of causes, we can feel confident that every fight for workers rights – like those of the striking Coles workers – will benefit the refugee struggle, just as every fight for refugee rights will benefit the workers’ struggle. Though harmonising the interests of Australian workers and refugees can be difficult, just as it can be difficult to bring together concerns about the environment with the concerns of workers, it is imperative if we are to do away with the root of both groups’ misery: capitalism, and its political corollary, government.