NEWCASTLE'S student climate strike has exposed divisions in the union movement after Hunter Workers denied students use of a stage only months after prominently supporting an earlier student climate strike.
Students and volunteers were forced to raise $600 to hire a replacement stage for this Friday's event in Civic Park after Hunter Workers - the former Newcastle Trades Hall - declined an interim booking to use a unions-owned mobile stage and vehicle with "Hunter Workers" featured prominently on the side.
The mobile stage was provided free to students for at least one former Newcastle climate strike in 2019.
Hunter Workers did not deny, and declined to respond to questions about, claims it was pressured by coal workers or their unions to refuse support for the climate strike while one of the student demands is to end new coal mines and gas projects.
In a statement issued to all media on Monday after Newcastle Herald questions Hunter Workers acting secretary Peter McPherson said his organisation, which says it "acts on behalf of all affiliated unions in the Hunter", would not be attending the "protest".
The statement made no mention of questions about the stage or Hunter Workers' previous support for the student strikers. The Construction Forestry Mining Maritime and Energy Union's northern division did not respond to questions and repeated requests for comment. The Australian Workers Union also did not respond to questions.
Newcastle nurse Erin Killion, who made the initial booking to use the stage on behalf of the students, said she was disappointed several days later when she rang to confirm the booking, after reports of coal union blowback about previous prominent Hunter Workers support for the strike, and was told: "We're not going to be able to provide any support at any time".
"The person I was talking to was a bit cagey but when I said we'd heard that coalminers had threatened to disaffiliate from Hunter Workers if there was any more support he said 'Yeah. Pretty much. Sort of. But he didn't deny it'," Ms Killion said.
"If that's the case, and Hunter Workers isn't letting school students use a stage because of pressure from a union I think it's petty. Completely petty. It's just lame."
Ms Killion, a member of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association, said the Hunter Workers stage was generally made available to union members free of charge. She had previously booked it for an anti-racism event. She has donated $100 towards the stage cost and supports the students because of the birth of her first child next month.
A Go Fund Me page set up by another volunteer supporting the student strikers, Callan Lawrence, has attracted donations including $200 from Politics in the Pub.
"I think it's shortsighted of anyone in the union movement who thinks they need to block this sort of thing," said Mr Lawrence, who also donated money towards the stage costs.
The student strikers' demands include a "just transition and job creation" for coal workers, Mr Lawrence said.
Shortland MP and former CFMEU organiser Pat Conroy said he supported the student strikers after a meeting several weeks ago, although he did not agree with their demand for no new coal mines or gas projects.
"I admire their passion and commitment and I understand why they're desperate to drive this debate," Mr Conroy said.
Recent comments by Coalition ministers casting doubt about human-induced climate change showed why students were taking to the streets, he said.
"It's 2019. It's almost unbelievable there are still climate change deniers in the community, let alone in Federal Cabinet," he said.
Mr McPherson said Hunter Workers supported the students' right to strike and protest government inaction.
He said Hunter Workers supported workers in the coal, power and port industries, transport, manufacturing, retail, construction and hospitality, and also workers in the renewables industry.
"Until a proper and just transition is put in place, supported by unions and the communities affected, we will continue to support base load power supply," Mr McPherson said.
Lock the Gate spokesperson Georgina Woods said the climate strike movement, led by school students but supported by trade unions, churches, businesses and many in the community, "is highlighting the urgent need to get money and plans on the table to diversify this region's economy".
"It's disappointing that Hunter Workers is not going to join its affiliate unions and their members going to the strike and backing a collective vision for action on climate change and a just transition for this region," Ms Woods said.
"Their voice is needed at the strike this Friday and every day, because when it comes to climate change, we have to stick together, particularly in a region where so many people's livelihoods are bound up in the coal export industry."
The School Strike for Climate website shows a long list of union support for the strike, including the United Firefighters Union, CFMEU Victoria, the Rail, Trams and Bus Union, Retail and Fast Food Workers Union, Victorian Trades Hall Council, Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation, Queensland Council of Unions, CSIRO Staff Association and unions representing teachers and the tertiary education sector.
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