Reportage

Manufacturing a co‑operative future

Towards the factory without a boss

DRIVING INTO MORWELL, on the long highway from Melbourne, the first things you see are the smokestacks of the Yallourn Power Station. On a grey overcast morning the thick smoke coming out mingles in the air with the clouds and is almost indistinguishable. This is, or was, coal country.

The greater Latrobe Valley region and the brown coal dug up here has underpinned Melbourne and Victoria’s energy supply for a century. The region underwent a devastating ‘transition’ in the late 1980s and 1990s when the state’s electricity production was privatised and thousands of workers were laid off. Many simply left the region for good and for those left behind unemployment soared. Today there is another transition taking place as the state – and the nation – moves away from the pollution generated by fossil fuels towards cleaner renewable energy. Despite federal government inaction and feet-dragging in terms of setting a net-zero emissions target, the state of Victoria – along with other states and territories around the country – has set the goal of meeting net-zero emissions by 2050. Victoria has also set a number of shorter term emission-reduction goals, with dirty brown coal-fired power stations likely to be phased out much sooner.

While there are still several power stations burning coal in the region, others, such as the Hazelwood Power Station, which sits right up against the town of Morwell, are gone. In May 2020 the final chapter of one of Australia’s most notorious, oldest and dirtiest power stations came to a close with the demolition of Hazelwood’s chimneys. The huge open-cut coal mine that fed Hazelwood still sits along the highway, idle and without purpose now that the station it once fed is no more.

 

ANYONE YOU SPEAK to in Morwell will tell you the ways in which privatisation devastated the town. At the 2016 Census the unemployment rate in Morwell was 14.5 per cent, more than double both the Victorian and national average. Now there are fears that the transition away from coal altogether will be the final nail in the coffin for a once thriving region. But a small group of people gathered in a dilapidated 1970s factory building close to the highway on the outskirts of town one Thursday morning are trying to realise a different vision for Morwell.

Dan Musil is a tall man with a scruffy beard whose unassuming presence immediately puts you at ease. He has dedicated years of his life to the Earthworker Energy Manufacturing Cooperative, which after many stops and starts and changing forms and configurations has found its home here in the valley. It is Australia’s only manufacturing worker co-operative.

‘If we are going to deal with the challenge of climate change, that invariably involves the urgent phase-out of polluting energy industries like coal – brown coal being one of the worst,’ Dan says. ‘The too-often neglected side of the puzzle is grappling with the distribution of the economic justice in regions where there is going to be massive economic change, when coal or other fossil fuels are phased out. Latrobe Valley is one of the key places in Victoria and Australia where that question comes to ground.’

The broader Earthworker movement, which aims to build a network of co-operatives across various sectors, now has around 400 active members with varying levels of involvement. Many make a small annual financial contribution to the Earthworker collective; others volunteer and donate their time. The collective started in the late 1990s when a group of union activists at Victorian Trades Hall and environmentalists came together. Dan says the initial founders were hoping to break down the barriers between the two movements that had seen them at loggerheads – and at times still does. Over the years Earthworker has been involved in supporting various attempts to get green manufacturing worker co-operatives up and running, with the factory in Morwell the latest iteration.

‘Earthworker is about trying to break down and tackle that false jobs-versus-environment choice we are supposedly forced to make, and to break that down through building democratic and sustainable economies,’ he says.

Being carried through the doors of their vast factory floor space in Morwell is a premium high-end solar hot water tank, which can be installed in residential or commercial properties. The building is rented, but all the factory equipment and machinery is owned by Earthworker. The first solar hot water tank rolled off the production line here in 2018, and over the last year they have roughly doubled their output.

Inspired by the Mondragon network of co-operatives established in the Basque Country in Spain, Earthworker Manufacturing functions via a flat collectivised organisational structure. The factory currently has a small staff of five worker members, some on the factory floor, others in sales and administration. They are all paid the same wage and Dan says any future surplus profits that aren’t reinvested into growing the business will be split evenly among the members. They are currently struggling to keep up with demand for their product, and there are plans to bring more workers on to the factory floor in the near future. Given the vast open factory space, there is certainly room to grow. The dream is to run the factory at a capacity of around forty worker-members in a few years from now and to spin off elements of the production to establish another co-operative factory elsewhere.

What’s standing in the way of that growth is access to capital and investment. The worker-owned co-operative model is foreign to most industries in Australia, and Dan says convincing government bureaucrats or others to support the project has been the hardest element of the whole undertaking. ‘We set up a manufacturing business without any working capital, which is sort of impossible,’ he says. Their ambition when they started was to be a lot bigger than they are by now, he concedes, but they are heading in the right direction. Around the time of their launch, the Victorian Government announced a major project upgrading a thousand homes in the Latrobe Valley, installing solar hot water tanks among the upgrades. Dan says they expected hundreds of orders to come from the state government’s procurement, but they never arrived. ‘At first we thought government making key procurement decisions would be the catalyst for us scaling up, but that hasn’t happened,’ he says. ‘Instead it’s been community members around Gippsland, and across Victoria and across the country, wanting to support the project and buy locally made that’s supported our growth. We have been driving our own growth, but that has meant we have been moving slower than we hoped.’

 

THERE ARE NO bosses in Earthworker, and decisions are made collectively and – so far – unanimously, although Dan acknowledges that maintaining unanimous approval for every decision may be tricky as the co-operative grows. It may come to a point where decisions need to be made by majority vote, he acknowledges, but they aren’t at that stage yet. And it’s that lack of bosses that attracted Rod Horton to join the co-operative.

Rod, who was born in the valley, worked various jobs in telecommunications before he finally had enough. ‘I was sick to death of [having a] boss,’ he says.

When he found out about Earthworker seven years ago at a sustainability festival, he was inspired to join by their collectivised working system. ‘You usually have people at the top making all this money and very few of them sharing it with the people who are making it for them. And treating them with nothing but contempt: I’m the boss, you fucking do what I say or get out of the door. There has got to be a better way,’ he says. He has been doing sales work for the manufacturing co-operative since 2020.

Another local working at the factory is Andreas Savva, who introduces himself as Dicky. ‘My mother gave me that nickname and it stuck,’ he says with a grin. Dicky is the main welder at the factory. A skinny man approaching sixty, he is clearly passionate about his work. He jumps up from his chair on different occasions throughout the interview to demonstrate some part of the welding process. Dicky was taken on as a young apprentice and has worked his whole life in the Latrobe Valley, something that was extremely common before privatisation. He has seen the town change a lot over the years and finds it heartbreaking to see the way it is now. ‘We have a lot of social issues and dramas here in the Latrobe Valley because of a lack of work. I’ve seen the boom times and the bust times, and a lot of displaced youngsters,’ he says.

Dan notes that Dicky is much more focused on the day-to-day demands that come with his welding job and is less involved in the more abstract discussions that come with decision-making. To him this provides an example of how workers are trained to think – something that Earthworker is attempting to undo. ‘Sometimes there is an inclination to defer decisions to an authority of some kind, defer decisions to a boss. We are really trying to foster a culture where everyone does have a say in decision-making, even if peoples’ conditioned instinct is to leave it to someone else to decide,’ he says. ‘Those skills of how we collectively determine our working days, weeks and years are important but not something you are taught in schools. We are learning as we go.’

So far, the Earthworker co-operative model has spawned a handful of associated co-operatives in and around Melbourne. There is a residential and commercial cleaning co-operative, another co-operative for asylum-seeker students, and others are in the pipeline. Dan says the long-term goal is for a nationwide network of sustainable and successful worker co-operatives to provide people with a model of worker-controlled organisations that can offer an alternative to the capitalist profit-driven structure. ‘The vision is to inspire, leading by example, giving a practical example of how we can do things differently,’ he says. ‘The aim is to inspire hope that we can take things in a different direction and also inspire other people to get involved and take back some control in our economic lives.’

As Australia emerges from the Covid pandemic, Dan believes we are uniquely placed to reimagine the type of economic future we want to have, the types of business models that flourish and our relationship to capital itself. ‘As we recover as an economy and bounce back, we have an opportunity to think about what kind of economies we want to build – [and] whether they are more democratic and empowered, given the rising inequality,’ he says. ‘The rich are getting richer, even through the pandemic. Now we have a chance to think about what kind of models we want to build and what kind of enterprise might serve this ambition of a more equal society and workplace.’

 

EARTHWORKER ALSO POSES questions about what kind of role manufacturing has in Australia’s future. Manufacturing has been on a long decline since a high point in the late 1950s and early 1960s when it made up close to 30 per cent of Australia’s GDP. Today reductions in global trade tariffs and a lack of government support have seen that figure dip to just over 5.5 per cent. But consumers choosing to buy local and supporting the manufacturing of green products in Australia can make a real difference, as Dan sees it, and the co-operative model offers an alternative future for workers on the factory floor.

While the co-operative movement in Australia remains small compared with many other places, such as Europe, he sees great potential for growth. ‘Part of what we are trying to do is promote the co-operative model to a broader audience along with the ideas of broader economic democracy,’ Dan says. ‘We are trying to build a bigger co-operative movement in Australia as well as link up with co-operatives around the world.’

In a rundown old brown brick building in Victoria’s south-east, in a partially empty factory with a handful of workers, these lofty goals might sound like something of a pipe dream. But sitting over a cup of tea with Dan, Rod and Dicky, their enthusiasm and belief in what they are building is infectious. Maybe they can build an alternative business model here in the valley. Maybe there is a future for manufacturing green products in Australia. Maybe we don’t need bosses running our lives.

Dan and the others may only have something small going at the moment, but they are living by their values, optimistic it will grow. And nothing ever got built without a bit of dreaming.

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