My friend Dennis Glover, a former historian and speechwriter, has an op-ed in today’s Australian, comparing the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union’s response to climate change with the Luddites’ response to the industrial revolution. But the comparison isn’t as harsh as it might sound.
It’s easy for us, who enjoy the long-term economic benefits of their suffering, to ridicule the Luddites, but we shouldn’t. As the historian of the movement, E.P. Thompson, argues in his famous 1963 book, The Making of the English Working Class, their behaviour was a rational response to the callous and often violent way in which change was forced on their communities.
It’s this historical legacy – with its very real stories of 18-hour days, starvation, child labour, mass emigration and transportation to Australia – that informs the moral compass of the leaders of today’s mining and logging unions as they figure out how best to prevent their members from being cast aside as “the price worth paying” for a sustainable economy. Their radicalism is tempered by their responsibility to the vulnerable people they represent in the way the radicalism of some environmentalists is not.
And the unions’ fears of change are all too real. The Brotherhood of St Laurence recently released economic modelling demonstrating that imposing a price on carbon will have the greatest proportional economic impact on the lowest income earners.