Earthworker – Dignified Work on a Healthy Planet
The Earthworker Cooperative is off to a good start this year, as it begins to distribute its renewable energy products.
The Earthworker project is a creative response to the challenges of climate change and the need for local job creation. The project is addressing both these questions by facilitating the establishment of worker-owned cooperatives throughout Australia in sustainability-focused industries.
The current move to distribution has been the result of a 16-year development between trade unions and green movements across the country, also involving small-scale businesses that have been financially damaged by the neoliberal policies of the state and federal governments for the past two decades. While groups in this alliance have traditionally been divided over many issues, they have rallied behind the Earthworker project. Few projects have received endorsements from both the CFMEU Mining Division and the direct action environmental group Quit Coal.
At its heart, Earthworker holds recognition of the urgent need to move beyond coal as an energy source. This recognition considers both the reality of climate change, and also the negative health impacts of mining and burning coal, in particular for communities where coal mining occurs and coal power plants operate (for example in the Latrobe Valley). This recognition informs Earthworker’s ultimate goal of setting up a worker-owned factory, named Eureka’s Future, in Morewell in the Latrobe Valley to make and distribute renewable energy products. These include solar-powered water heating systems, heating pumps and solar ventilators.
This commitment to building green energy infrastructure and green jobs has created a force that is drawing together otherwise disparate and divided groups. By setting up something the local community in the Latrobe Valley can touch and see, Earthworker will build trust and confidence that there can indeed be a ‘just transition’ beyond a coal-powered economy. These communities, which currently rely on the coal industry to keep local economies afloat, need to be assured that they will not be left behind in any transition to renewable energy.
Earthworker is not only responding to the challenge of coal-dependence, but also fundamental questions relating to work and the economy more broadly. There are two important aspects to this. First: worker-ownership- Eureka’s Future (the factory to be set up in the Latrobe Valley) will be owned and run by the people who work there. In this way it will be a worker-run cooperative, in which the people who are most affected by decisions are the ones who make them. This will also ensure any profits are fed back into the local economy where the workers live.
The second important aspect of the economics of Earthworker involves the other end of the demand-supply chain: collective purchasing. One of the main ways in which the purchase of the cooperative’s goods takes place is through the Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs) between unions and employers. This would, for example, allow workers to make a collective decision to purchase Eureka’s Future products as part of their agreements. While the details of how this works are not within the scope of this article (more information can be found at the Earthworker website below), it is enough to say that this collective purchase of hot water systems by workers would enable them to bring down their costs of living, while simultaneously cutting carbon emissions and supporting Australian manufacturing. More traditional purchasing options (e.g. through phone and internet sales) are also avenues for sales of Earthworker products.
With these tools (worker-ownership and collective purchase through EBAs) Earthworker intends to set up cooperatives across Australia. These cooperatives would be both worker-owned, and working within sustainability-focused industries.
The Earthworker Cooperative has recently acquired a licence to begin the distribution of solar hot water systems, including hot water pumps and hot water tanks. A recent partnership with Siddons SolarStream and Douglas Solar has allowed Earthworker to make and begin the distribution of the first batch of solar hot water pumps, while Everlast, a small manufacturing industry in Dandenong, is making water tanks for the cooperative’s distribution. These partnerships are building towards the ultimate goal of setting up the work-owned and run cooperative factory (Eureka’s Future) in Morwell in the Latrobe Valley. Once enough capital is raised, this next stage of the project will begin.
While it is starting local, the main project manager of Earthworker, Dave Kerin, speaking recently on 3CR radio, summarised what he saw as being the eventual goal of the project: “If [Eureka’s Future] happens in Australia, it can happen in alliances with cooperatives and mutuals around the world. Eventually, we would like to seek out similar partners in joint ventures around the world — in Latin America, the Middle East and other continents and countries.”
For now, however, Earthworker is also giving assistance to cooperatives in Australia, such as the 888 Brewing cooperative in Victoria. At a time when progressive legislative changes for the environment and workers appears unlikely, Earthworker is a project that offers the potential for communities and workers to build the infrastructure we need ourselves to meet the problems we currently face.
Find more information about the project and Earthworker products at: http://earthworkercooperative.com.au/