LRD Booklets June 2009

Unions and climate change - the case for union environment reps

Foreword by Brendan Barber

Climate change is the greatest environmental threat facing humanity today. This booklet contains new research on the positive role played by unions in tackling global warming. Despite the economic downturn, detailed responses from 1,300 union reps express tremendous enthusiasm for taking on the climate challenge in the workplace and the wider community — and making it central to economic recovery.

The booklet showcases mounting evidence that unions are taking action to tackle climate change. Unions have the proven ability to deliver progressive change on working conditions, safety and equality. The booklet also indicates the remarkable progress made by unions on environmental issues in recent years. The TUC’s Greening the Workplace report (2005) highlighted a handful of union examples. Now unions can boast thousands of climate champions making a substantial contribution towards cutting carbon emissions across the UK.

Some employers are taking action on the environment and the survey shows how union reps have supported these measures. However, many employers have failed to make the step changes necessary. Union reps are vital catalysts to ensure that low carbon measures are implemented across thousands of workplaces. Unions are negotiating agreements to meet sectoral and organisation targets to reduce emissions. Their effectiveness would be greatly strengthened with the provision of some basic legal entitlements — particularly to time off for training, and some basic facilities.

Unions have backed government action both on mitigation to cut greenhouse gas emissions and on adaptation to climate change that is already unavoidable. However, there is still a gap between government targets and the strategies to meet them. As a matter of coherent public policy and to ensure that the transition to a low carbon economy is socially just, union environment reps have a key role to play in securing consultation and the active participation of their members in climate change initiatives at work. But, as this study shows, only a minority of union reps surveyed were able to access an environmental training course, while three-quarters said they did not have facility time for environmental work. Union reps need the support of some basic legal rights to act on climate change at work; they represent colossal untapped potential, which should be unleashed.

The government has called for “a new industrial activism for a new green industrial revolution”. Unions have a key role to play in such a transformation. Workplaces burn energy, consume resources and generate waste. They generate at least half of all carbon emissions and are therefore an obvious place to focus action. The evidence exhibited in this booklet makes a powerful case for unions as drivers for tackling climate change. But to make such a contribution, union reps need a legally-defined role.

Unions are 21st century organisations, relevant to the most vital concerns of our members and the public. Playing our full part in the fight to prevent dangerous climate change is an important part of union renewal, bringing new reps into the movement and engaging with the fundamental questions of our age.

Brendan Barber

General Secretary, TUC

LRD survey 2009

In February/March 2009 the Labour Research Department (LRD) conducted a survey of union representatives on climate change and the environment for the TUC. Some 1,301 union representatives and activists responded to the survey. Strong responses came from union reps in central and local government, the NHS, manufacturing industry, education, rail, fire and communication sectors.

Some 55% of respondents were union reps or stewards, 20% were safety reps, with 4% environment reps and just under 4% learning reps. An encouraging 20% of responses came from reps who are 40 or younger. The gender profile of respondents was 28% women, 72% men.

LRD and the TUC would like to thank union reps for their detailed and fascinating responses.