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Do trade unions have energy for change?

Unions cannot afford to allow the climate change debate to become one of saving jobs versus saving the environment – they are not mutually exclusive, writes BERT SCHOUWENBURG

AGAINST a backdrop of floods and heatwaves of unprecedented magnitude and frequency all over the world, the latest report from the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issues a stark warning that immediate action must be taken on emissions to prevent global warming exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, if a global catastrophe is to be averted. 

Its sobering assessment will set the scene at the forthcoming Cop26 climate change conference in Glasgow, scheduled to commence at the end of October after being postponed from last year because of the Covid pandemic, where representatives of the international trade union movement will be in attendance.

Many of those unions are affiliated to Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), established in 2012 and based in New York City. 

TUED describes itself as a global multi-sector initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of land and people and responds to attacks on workers’ rights and protections. 

It promotes an equitable energy system that can only occur if there is a decisive shift in power towards workers, communities and the public. 

In order to achieve that goal, TUED advocates resistance to the agenda of the fossil fuel corporations, reclaiming privatised energy for the public ownership and restructuring it to a renewable, sustainable model. 

Six of the 88 organisations belonging to TUED are the British trade unions — Unite, GMB, Unison, PCS, NEU and UCU. While they have all participated in TUED’s activities at one time or another and there is a general consensus on the call for public ownership, there are differences between them on matters of future energy policy in Britain and elsewhere.

Broadly speaking, the political debate about how best to avoid climate disaster has centred on whether the dominant neoliberal order can be adapted to provide market-based solutions to the crisis or whether a system based on perpetual growth and capital accumulation is completely at odds with the need to curb emissions. 

It goes without saying that political elites in the richer countries of the global north, including Britain, subscribe to the former in their belief that some kind of green capitalism is both possible and desirable. 

In this they are supported by the energy companies, whose principal concern is their bottom line. 

TUED, on the other hand, is promoting the concept of a Just Transition from an economy based on fossil fuel consumption to one that largely relies on renewable energy. 

Technological advances make that transition a realistic proposition but in order for it to be “just” it must take into consideration the livelihoods of energy workers who would see their jobs disappear. 

This presents an enormous challenge to the governments of the day but were there to be a strategically planned conversion to a publicly owned green economy, there would undoubtedly be a huge demand in everything from retrofitting home insulation to the manufacturing of wind turbines that could more than absorb work lost in the transition. 

The theory of a Just Transition within the framework of an oft-quoted Green New Deal is certainly plausible, but for British trade unions there is, justifiably, little faith in a right-wing Conservative regime doing the right thing by their members, many of whom currently enjoy relatively stable and well-paid employment in parts of the energy sector that would disappear. 

Consequently, there is still an emphasis on preservation of existing jobs within the gas industry and the creation of new ones in the construction and running of newly commissioned nuclear power stations rather than complete endorsement of renewables, though one can understand the frustration at seeing much of the renewables infrastructure being manufactured overseas. 

The fossil fuel companies are pinning their hopes on being able to convert the existing natural gas network into hydrogen, a strategy being backed by both government and the constituent unions, despite ample evidence demonstrating that there is no prospect of enough renewable energy being generated to produce “green” hydrogen. 

At a European level, a recent study concluded that the EU could only produce green gas to cover 7 per cent of demand by 2050. 

The alternative of using “blue” hydrogen made from natural gas, and using untried carbon capture and storage technology, would potentially produce more methane emissions than at present. 

As for nuclear, it is hideously expensive, inherently dangerous and produces waste that cannot be disposed of safely, not to mention the environmental degradation involved in mining uranium for fuel.

In other parts of the world, unions have faced difficult decisions in deciding to support or oppose projects that would bring work but damage the environment. 

A case in point is the Cerrejon coalmine in Colombia, the largest open cast mine in the world, where the Sintracarbon union opposed plans to expand the workings by diverting a river, because of the harm it would cause to the community despite more jobs being created in an extremely poor area. 

By contrast, unions in the US have criticised the decision to halt the construction of pipelines that would have brought oil from Canada’s tar sands down to the Gulf coast and create thousands of jobs, even though they were vigorously opposed by climate activists and indigenous people who did not want them crossing their territories.

What the unions cannot afford to do is allow the debate to become one of saving jobs versus saving the environment. 

The two are not mutually exclusive and it is imperative that they develop strategies that work towards the Just Transition to a sustainable global economy that is not dependent on the consumption of fossil fuels that, if left unchecked, will have profound consequences for humankind. 

It will be apparent that this represents a challenge to a capitalism predicated upon mass consumption and corporate profits, thus ensuring that there will be fierce resistance from the vested interests that benefit from it. 

The unions’ Victorian forbears were very clear about the iniquities of the system and called for its complete overthrow but the demands of today’s unions tend to focus upon improvements for their members within the prevailing orthodoxy, a philosophy that will be tested to its limits by the effects of the climate emergency.

History shows that the British Establishment has proved itself to be adept at accommodating and adapting to changing circumstances while retaining its power and privileges. 

Initially, the emergence of combative trade unions in the 19th century was met with violence and repression as well as punitive sanctions before they were allowed to evolve into the role they fulfil today — that of negotiating members’ terms and conditions within a tightly controlled legislative framework. 

However, the climate emergency demands that unions go further than that. Although global warming affects everybody, we are already seeing that it is the poorest in society who suffer the most, making it imperative that the unions take a lead in the struggle for an equitable and sustainable global economic order. 

There is no doubt that this will present formidable challenges to the labour movement which is why forums like TUED are so important in providing it with a coherent and collective voice, and never letting us forget that there are no jobs for anyone on a dead planet.

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