LRD Booklets September 2019

Union action on climate change - a trade union guide

Introduction

Introduction


[pages 4-5]

Trade unions have a long and proud tradition of taking and demanding action on the environment, but in recent years it has not always easy for them to prioritise climate change and other environmental issues in the face of other pressures arising from years of austerity. This has often forced them to focus on core activities such as maintaining and growing membership and defending jobs, pay and pensions. 


However, over recent months climate change has shot up both union and political agendas in response to dire warnings that time is running out to tackle rising carbon emissions and global temperatures. 


On World Environment Day 2019 polling company YouGov published data showing the public is more concerned about the environment than ever before. A quarter (27%) of Britons now cite the environment in their top three issues facing the country, putting it behind only Brexit (67%) and health (32%). The previous record high was 23% in February 2014, following a period of violent winter storms and flooding. One national union official told the Labour Research Department “there has been a mass revival of interest” over the past year and the union is fielding “an overwhelming the number of queries”.


This growing concern has prompted high profile public protests, reflecting wider concerns about the environment and demanding government action. 


Millions of school and college students have taken to the streets across the world and direct action by Extinction Rebellion (XR) campaigners has caused widespread disruption in protest at the lack of government action in response to the climate crisis.


The university and college union UCU said of the student action: “We need to keep up this pressure...If this is not achieved then the earth’s climate will have passed a dangerous tipping point with temperatures rising by up to four degrees by the end of the century — in the lifetime of young people alive today.”


The student and XR protest action has also forced governments and other organisations across the world to declare a climate emergency. In May, the UK parliament debated and voted for Labour’s Climate Emergency Declaration. The Scottish and Welsh governments, more than half of the UK’s principal local authorities, Bristol and Newcastle universities and Newcastle-upon-Tyne hospital trust had all declared a climate emergency by the end of July 2019. 


Several unions, including the food workers’ union BFAWU and public and commercial services union PCS, declared climate emergencies at their annual conferences over summer 2019. The TUC South West, which represents the 48 trade unions in the region, has also declared a climate emergency. 


A UCU motion to the 2019 TUC Congress calls on all TUC-affiliated unions, student unions across colleges and universities, as well as politicians and community groups to support the call for a 30-minute workday stoppage in solidarity with the global school student strike on 20 September.” The strike will initiate a week of climate action.


Meanwhile, concern about air pollution, which government ministers have admitted is a public health emergency, has seen unions creatively use their health and safety rights — in the absence of environmental rights they have long campaigned for — to address what they say is also an occupational health emergency. The Trade Union Clean Air Network (TUCAN) was launched in 2019 and 13 national unions have signed up to the demands set out in the TUCAN charter (see pages 67-68).


This booklet aims to help trade union reps play their part in tackling climate change and other environmental problems. It looks in detail at: 


• the causes and consequences of climate change and the importance of a Just Transition and decent jobs in moving towards a low-carbon economy;

• the role of green reps and union support for them to take action in their workplaces, including green rep networks, handbooks and newsletters, bargaining advice and model policies, guidance on environmental auditing and environmental action checklists;

• trade union policy on energy generation and the ownership of the energy system; union campaigns for UK jobs and decent pay and conditions in the renewables industry, on fracking and the sponsorship of arts, culture and other activities by fossil fuel companies and guidance on pension fund divestment from fossil fuels; and union guidance on improving energy efficiency in workplaces;

• union policy, advice, training and action on transport and air pollution, including diesel engine exhaust emissions (DEEEs) and toxic cabin air in planes. It sets out TUCAN’s demands and looks at union calls for investment in public transport, electrification of the railways and electric vehicles, and moving freight onto rail. It provides examples of initiatives to encourage active travel such as walking and cycling to work and school and highlights negotiating guidance on workplace parking levies and low emission zones;

• waste and recycling, including union policies on plastics, food and other waste and workplace action to reduce waste;

• union calls to protect biodiversity and nature and reduce the use of pesticides and other hazardous substances; and

• union demands for fit-for-purpose education, training, skills and apprenticeship policies that recognise the importance of tackling climate change.

Throughout the booklet there are examples of how union reps are taking action at local level and it includes sources of further information, advice and guidance and references to examples of union-developed tools for reps to use in their workplaces.