Earthworker: taking power back

| 17th October 2019
Earthworker
Earthworker
A worker-owned cooperative in Victoria, Australia, is drawing on the combined forces of industrial and environmental action.

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It’s almost impossible to argue the jobs versus climate debate without mentioning Victoria’s Latrobe Valley.

Outside the town of Morwell, the gargantuan Hazelwood power station, which once employed 1,000 people, has sat dormant since 2017. Beside it the immense brown coal mine swallows the gaze of onlookers down into its ashen bowels.

To some, Hazelwood was just the most polluting coal fired power station in the Southern Hemisphere, to others it was the lone source of jobs in an increasingly bleak sector.

Tone deaf

Years before its closure, Hazelwood had been a focal point for climate activists willing to take the 150 kilometre trip East from Melbourne to protest the Valley’s carbon emissions.

In a famous action in 2009 hundreds bearing placards arrived to stage a mock closure. It was a move considered by most locals as tone deaf to the two decades of economic depression that had beset the area. At the real closure of the power station one worker responded by attaching a “F*** the Greens” sign to the station’s shut chainlink gate. 

But around the corner from Hazelwood is an industrial park where a venture aims to cut the ever tightening knot between jobs and climate. It is called Earthworker, and has already begun creating green jobs for the area.

Earthworker's co-founder Dave Kerin conceived of the project in Melbourne but realised early the need to target the Latrobe Valley. 

“It would have been a hell of a lot easier for us to push ahead in Dandenong [an outlying industrial suburb of Melbourne] but we have responsibility within our nation to these families who have been there for generations, who have provided power - we have a responsibility to put these new transitional jobs in place in those areas.”

Having opened a factory last year, they have six part-time employees building high-grade solar hot water heaters for households and businesses around the country, most recently for Father Bob Maguire Hospices.

Old knowledge

Employees Dickie Savva and Graeme Donald take great pride in the quality of their work: “We have a polyethylene casing on the tank - you could roll it down the paddock it might scuff but it won't damage. They are a durable item and that's another reason I was really attracted to the philosophy of this organisation.”

Dickie, who does most of the talking, is 58, which he explains is nearing the end of his career, while Graeme, the quieter of the two, is only 30 but so experienced that employers think he is 50 from his resume.

Their opinions frequently differ but the two find common ground in their love for the Australian bush, pride in quality craft and their ability to repair and reuse rather than throw away.

All these are unified within Earthworker’s ethos. Both put in unpaid overtime to get the old welding machines back in operation after receiving them second-hand.

Waste is not just the physical waste thrown into landfill, which, Dickie said, “we all end up paying for it in the long run,” but it’s also wasted talent and human potential.

Earthworker must start training people from the valley - particularly those once employed by the power industry. Graeme explained: “There’s a lot of old knowledge and a lot of skills that need to be passed on otherwise it'll be lost and you'll end up with nothing but more problems.” Both people have lived in the area most of their lives and are familiar with the meaning of economic decline.

Innovative challenge 

While the Earthworker Energy Manufacturing Cooperative Factory is small scale, it’s tensile strength comes from its model, an innovative challenge to the conventions of capitalism.

Earthworker is a worker owned coop, meaning the enterprise is owned and managed by the workers themselves, rather than a board and shareholders. Their business decisions have the community in mind. This is what Dave Kerin calls “democratic economics” which he offers as a solution to environmental catastrophe.

Kerin explained: “We want a quadruple bottom line economics, the social, the ecological and the economic but we also want to make sure that we create a democratic ownership by ordinary people - only then you get the engagement you need to deal with the climate emergency and species extinction.”

This attitude reflects Earthworker’s roots in Australia’s famous Green Bans in the 70s. Then unions and neighbourhood groups banded together to stop developers clearing bushland or developing greenspace. The Green Bans resonated worldwide.

In fact, the term ‘Greens’ applied to political parties came when German Politician Petra Kelly witnessed them on a tour of Australia. They also set a vital precedent for Earthworker, and now the tradition of combining industrial and environmental action to oppose the inertia and waste of globalised capitalism is embedded in its DNA.

“You can't do that with a multinational corporation - that relationship is transactional - we need relationships that are much deeper.”

Ecosystem of support

For Dickie’s part, he appreciates Earthworker’s flatness: “We are all equal and that is unique - it's a new concept. We are all the bosses.”

To him this strength in numbers is in stark contrast to the insecurity of today’s manufacturing and industrial sector: “I've worked and did my training with some guys who have been in the same factory for 45 years. That's changed now. Throughout the world.”

This worker-owner structure extends throughout the Earthworker Cooperative network, of which the solar hot water enterprise is but one. Within Earthworker are Red Gum Cleaning Cooperative, an energy retailing coop and plans for hemp manufacturing and a journalists’ coop.

Professor Katherine Gibson of the Institute for Culture and Society, University of Western Sydney, has studied Earthworker, cooperatives and the Latrobe Valley in depth. She says that while the need for community enterprises is great, coops have always been considered fringe: “So whether that can be shifted around is through demonstration, that's what Earthworker is doing.”

Gibson also believes their best hope for a bright future lies in developing a network of cooperatives: “Their potential is to build an ecosystem of support around them. A lot less thinking of the enterprise in isolation. This is a really interesting experiment that is creating jobs for a lot of people.”

Mobilising wages

Dave Kerin also has plans to harness the immense capital of Australian workers’ super to fund environmentally and socially responsible projects like Earthworker: “The minute we can mobilise our superannuated wage behind some big projects and then do some joint venturing with the super of North American workers, the super of European workers then we’ll have a critical mass of capital.”

He then cites Simon Sheikh, Founder of Ethical Super’s statistic that 7.7 percent of Australian super could create 100 percent of renewables in this country.

It’s a discussion better suited for the glass towers of Melbourne’s CBD than in a repurposed factory on the outskirts of Morwell. Sparks fly as Graeme and Dickie weld a seam on a hot water heater due out tomorrow morning.

Dickie confessed, “stainless steel can be tricky," as he checks the join then drops his welding mask. They’ll be working overtime tonight to get an order out, a union member’s system that burst earlier.

The Maritime Union of Australia is negotiating an Earthworker clause in contracts where members can have an Earthworker hot water system installed as part of a wage increase. This sort of bootstrapping could one day see theirs grow into something like Spain’s sprawling Mondragon network of 257 companies. But right now, there’s work to be done. 

This Author 

Kurt Johnson is a writer and journalist who has written for the ABC, Crikey! and published a book - The Red Wake - about travelling through the post-Soviet landscape. His current focus is deindustrialisation and the opportunities and pitfalls that a transition to a carbon free economy offers society. He has a weekly radio show for 3CR Melbourne.

The  organization Earthworker was shortlisted for the Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award 2019.

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