Union & Environmentalist

Union boss and environmentalist bury the hatchet in the Hunter

By Nick O'Malley
September 19, 2020 — 12.00am

In the bruised days after Labor’s shock national election defeat last May, union boss Steve Murphy, a Maitland boy, thought long and hard about what went wrong – and came to a very different conclusion than the Hunter Valley’s most prominent ALP figure, Joel Fitzgibbon.

Murphy, then the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union state secretary and from Monday its national leader, believed Labor had not failed because it had favoured action on climate change over jobs.

Environmental campaigner Felicity Wade and AMWU leader Steve Murphy outside the site of the demolished Clyde Petrochemical Plant in Rosehill.

Environmental campaigner Felicity Wade and AMWU leader Steve Murphy outside the site of the demolished Clyde Petrochemical Plant in Rosehill.


“We failed because we allowed the bosses to turn the workers and environmentalists against each other to their own benefit,” the former fitter and turner said this week.

Murphy’s view – one that is far from universally shared – was if Labor could solve the culture war over coal and emissions in regions like the Hunter it could campaign on both climate action and job creation.

From this conviction, an alliance formed between Murphy and Felicity Wade, a lifelong environmentalist and political activist.

In 2013 – after Labor lost another election in the face of a devastating campaign against carbon pricing by then Liberal leader Tony Abbott – Wade had resurrected the Labor Environment Action Network after being approached by senior party figures who feared the ALP would abandon climate.

In November last year Murphy invited Wade to attend a delegates' meeting at the left-wing AMWU’s Granville headquarters.

“It was old-fashioned workers education,” says Wade, who addressed the group of about 25 delegates about the history of co-operation between the labour and environment movements.

She ran them through the Builders’ Labourers Federation’s Green Bans and she voiced the view that while the labour movement and the ALP were formed in response to the exploitation of labour by capital, in the 21st century it was clear that capital also exploited the environment. Climate change was core Labor business, according to Wade.

The lecture, she says, was well received. Murphy recalls one bloke telling the group, “We’re not loyal to coal, we don’t do this because we like polluting the environment, we are loyal to good jobs, to our families.”

Murphy began moving through the Hunter sharing the ideas in lunch rooms and family kitchens.

Around those tables, says Murphy, he learnt his members had already detected not only a change in the climate, but evidence of the capital flight from investments in fossil fuel industries around the world.

“They know pay is flat, they know jobs are becoming less certain and more scarce,” he says. “They know that when the time comes to pull out completely the decisions will be made in boardrooms by people who don’t care about workers or their families.”

Wade says that in her meetings it became clear how much locals loved the region and its lifestyle. Protecting it seemed obvious to them.

In coming months LEAN and the AMWU will launch a movement called the Hunter Jobs Alliance, which they see as a vehicle for union members and local environment groups to support both investments in long-term jobs in emerging low carbon and climate action.

The creation of a hydrogen energy industry supporting manufacturing is one of the first areas they mention, along with the manufacture of electronic busses.

For his part Fitzgibbon, Labor’s Hunter MP, resources spokesman and NSW right faction leader, remains unimpressed.

“I don’t know what’s happened to the AMWU. It’s now advancing a position that will cost manufacturing jobs,” says Fitzgibbon, who suffered a 10 point swing against him in the last election, and who has voiced fears that the issue could split the party.

Fitzgibbon argues Labor cannot hope to win if its climate goals reach “world’s best practice” and he notes that Labor can introduce no climate policy at all if it fails to take government.

Murphy is unrepentant. “Culture wars over climate change have served politicians trying to win elections far more than they have workers,” he says.

get updates