The unlikely group pushing for – and getting – results on climate change

The environment continues to be a key battleground in the corporate world.

The environment continues to be a key battleground in the corporate world. Photo: Getty

A rise in workplace activism has been cited as a reason why organisations are being motivated to take action on climate change.

Lucy Piper, director of climate organisation WorkforClimate, says that “activism in the workplace is leading to action, with one out of two executives saying that their organisations had increased sustainability actions as a result” of pressure from employees to act.

However, that climate activism doesn’t always look like climate activism, says Piper, who believes that by educating and upskilling “climate concerned” employees, businesses are building a “movement of climate leaders who are using their outsized impact to decarbonise and mobilise their organisations, without glueing their hands to a Monet”.

Although this kind of workplace activism may be a seemingly fresh concept within the modern Australian workplace, WorkforClimate points to overseas research undertaken by Kite Insights which reveals that eight out of 10 employees are ready to take action on climate change in their jobs.

People chaining themselves to trees or standing in front of bulldozers might have fallen from favour in modern times, but the concept of workers taking action to support environmental and other social causes does have a colourful and inspired history.

Green bans and walk offs

In the 1970s, led by the NSW Builders Labourers Federation and its secretary Jack Mundey, workers and community members engaged in a series of bans to prevent certain projects and developments going ahead over environmental concerns.

Those “green” bans are credited with preserving many historically significant buildings in The Rocks area of Sydney as well as many other landmarks.

So pivotal was the impact of the bans that in 2000, Mundey was made an Officer in the Order of Australia for “service to the identification and preservation of significant sections of Australia’s natural and urban heritage through initiating ‘Green Bans’” among other things.

In 2007 a section of The Rocks was renamed Jack Mundey Place in recognition of the green bans, and Mundey’s contribution.

In Victoria in the 1970s, similar green bans are credited with having saved the 1884-built Windsor Hotel from demolition. Workers and unions at that time also clashed with the state government led by Rupert Hamer about the ‘Newport D’ gas-fired power station being constructed just six kilometres from the CBD.

Although the power station was ultimately built, it was at a much smaller capacity than originally intended.

Well-known Australian environmental activist and former leader of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown, is also even reported to have credited the “green” bans as inspiration for the name of that political party.

Land rights

Although there are many historical examples of the actions of workers initiating sweeping social changes, there would be few in Australian history as well known or transformative as the Wave Hill walk-off.

In 1966, after battling with the British owners of a large Northern Territory cattle station – known as Wave Hill – for better wages and conditions, Gurindji man Vincent Lingiari led the walk off strike of about 100 of his fellow Gurindji stockmen.

While that fight, about 750 kilometres south of Darwin, was initially about the Indigenous workers receiving poorer wages and conditions than their white colleagues, it became a central cause for the Australian Indigenous land rights movement.

The striking Gurindji stockmen led by Lingiari established the Wattie Creek camp and then demanded rights to the ancestral lands they were working and on which the cattle station was operated.

The strike lasted for years and following the election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1971, culminated in that most famous scene where Prime Minister Gough Whitlam visits the strike camp and pours sand through Lingiari’s fingers, declaring, “Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people”.

In 1975 the Gurindji were granted a pastoral lease for land at the Wave Hill station, and in 1981 a claim was made under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act to have that leasehold converted to freehold title, which was granted in 1983.

The Wave Hill walk-off also became the inspiration for the Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody song From Little Things, Big Things Grow, and inspired many other native title claims that followed it.

Activism is what activism does

Although the corporatisation of green or climate activism is a relatively new phenomenon, workers and community members rallying together to pursue an objective greater than themselves is not.

In the song, Paul Kelly sings, “That was the story of Vincent Lingiari, but this is the story of something much more”.

We should all wonder when the cool eye of history looks back on climate change and actions that were taken to slow it, where will it observe the greatest catalysts for change.

Will it be in agreements struck by a relative few at conferences like COP28, or the collective actions of people motivated to fight for benefits that they themselves might never receive?

Scott Riches is a former union official with the Electrical Trades Union Victorian branch, and a practising employment lawyer. He is also a volunteer in the employment clinic at the Fitzroy Legal Service

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