Bob Carnegie, secretary of the Queensland branch of the Maritime Union of Australia, has caused controversy by breaking ranks with other union leaders to publicly criticise the Adani mine. He spoke to Red Flag’s Carl Jackson. 

CJ: Your stand against the Adani mine has put you at odds with a lot of others in the union movement. Why did you think it was important to speak out?

BC: It’s important because there’s only one race, and that’s the human race. I think we need another steaming [thermal] coal mine in this world like we need a hole in the head!

CJ: Why is it important for workers and unions to oppose the mine?

BC: This is where I have some differences with some of my colleagues. They see trade unions purely as representing the concerns of their members, whereas I think that unions have an industrial, social and a political purpose. As a trade unionist, I’m concerned we’re going to leave this world in a worse state for the younger generation. And as a trade unionist, I always thought our whole aim was to leave this world a better place than we found it.

CJ: Despite claims of 10,000 jobs, it has come to light that the Adani mine will generate only some hundreds of jobs in the construction phase, and fewer once the mine is operational. Adani management say that the mine will be fully automated. The Australia Institute estimates that it will lead to the loss of around 12,000 jobs elsewhere in the coal industry. Yet some union leaders continue to use jobs to justify their support for the mine – what do you say to this? 

BC: The union movement is at a very low ebb at the present time. Hence any talk about jobs means that certain trade union leaders will jump all over it. But what surprises me most about the Adani case is that, to the best part of my knowledge, no union has even signed an agreement with Adani. So firstly, we don’t know what the terms and conditions are going to be for the construction workers who are going to build it. And secondly, and possibly most importantly, whether or not it is going to be a unionised coal mine. But there’s a bigger question about our responsibility as a highly developed economy to cut carbon dioxide emissions – to be part of the solution and not the problem.

CJ: There’s another global student climate strike on 20 September. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has urged adults to join the strike this time. Will any unions here lead walkouts on the day?

BC: I think we’re a fair way away from that kind of political action at the present time. There will be people who take sickies on the day, no doubt, to support the students. I think it’s wonderful that young people are giving a lead on this issue. In the beginning of the movement against the Vietnam war it was university students and some high school students that first demonstrated. And the union movement eventually took that up. So that can happen.

I fully support the students being brave and trying to stand up against the destruction of this earth by capitalism. And that’s the problem in the end: the means of production are owned by a few – they’re not socialised. How can you develop a social good out of a system that’s based on ruthless competition, the destruction of the environment and the exploitation of working class people?

CJ: It would be technically illegal for workers to strike if they’re not in a bargaining period, should they do it anyway?

BC: I’m sick and tired of people telling me what’s legal and what’s illegal at work. In the end, we’re not chattel slaves on an American cotton farm in the 1850s. What gets me is that on ANZAC day, everyone talks about how people gave their lives for our freedoms, but then we acquiesce on the right to withdraw our labour. This is something we’re not fighting hard enough for by a country mile.

CJ: What would you say to rank and file unionists concerned about climate destruction and who oppose Adani?

BC: I would say go to their union meetings and speak their mind. The Australian trade union movement at the present time is in its worst position I have seen in my life. It would be good if the ACTU’s hierarchy realised this. One of the problems of the Change the Rules campaign was the slogan “change the government”. What we have to do as a trade union movement is organise independently and not be tied to the Labor Party. We need to develop policies that genuinely represent the trade union and working class movement.

CJ: What's the alternative to Adani? What kinds of commitments would you like to see from the state government in terms of renewable energy jobs?

BC: Good union pay renewable energy jobs in the mining towns themselves.

CJ: Do you think the union movement has the power to compel governments, whether Labor or Liberal, to do that?

BC: Absolutely. We still have the power to do it – if we’re prepared to go out there and fight. You go out there with a clear agenda and try to bring in the wonderful working class people in coal mining communities, they’re not going to be thrown to the wind. The wonderful people who work in steaming coal – not metallurgical coal [used for steel, not energy production] – should be in the renewable energy sector, which we need to be developing. And we need to make sure that transition is done in a humane and fair way. Blind Freddy can negotiate a redundancy payment. It takes far greater vision from trade union leadership to develop a new economy that’s based on renewable energy, and long term union pay jobs, so that their children will have a long term future. And so that the planet will have some chance of survival.