Labour Research February 2019


Working for a just transition

Labour Research looks at union policies and action on “just transition” — the process enabling a shift to a low-carbon economy that is sustainable in terms of both the environment and jobs.

At the international climate change (COP 24) conference in Poland at the end of last year, UK prime minister Theresa May, along with the heads of more than 40 countries, signed up to the just transition declaration. 

This recognises that in moving to a low carbon economy in order to avoid catastrophic global warming, the future livelihoods of workers and communities affected by the transition must be secured (see box bottom of page 14). However, unions say the government’s industrial and environmental strategies are falling woefully short of what is needed to make just transition a reality. 

There are major challenges involved in “decarbonising” an economy that is still highly dependent on fossil fuels, as the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) explains in its trade union guide, Involving trade unions in climate action to build a just transition. 

It describes the need for “wide-reaching industrial transformations and technological shifts, the development of new energy patterns, new business models and more circularity in ways of producing and consuming”. 

This transition will “profoundly reshape the labour market in ways that creates both new risks and new opportunities for workers”. 

Climate change and a just transition

In December 2015, 160 governments, including the UK, officially signed up to the so-called Paris Agreement. This commits them to take action to cut emissions of greenhouse gases and limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. 

In December 2018, at the international climate change conference in Poland (COP 24), governments agreed to a “rule book” setting out how they will deliver their promised cuts in carbon emissions to keep to the 1.5°C limit and avoid catastrophic climate change. 

Two months earlier, the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, had pointed out in a special report that limiting global warming to this level will require urgent, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. 

It also explained that we have just 12 years (until 2030) to make these massive changes to avoid the devastating consequences of allowing global warming to exceed this limit. 

The BMA doctors’ union says the potential adverse health consequences of climate change include:

• an increase in frequency and severity of extreme weather events; 

• the spread of vector-borne diseases such as malaria to new locations; and

• rising sea levels and associated population displacement.

The international climate change conference also agreed that a consideration of “the social aspect of the transition towards a low-carbon economy is crucial for gaining social approval for the changes taking place”. 

It adopted a Just Transition Declaration, recognising the importance of ensuring a decent future for workers affected by the transition to a low-carbon economy and the need for decent work and quality jobs.

Union policies

Although there will be new jobs there will also be, in some cases, “destruction of jobs, replacement of some existing occupations by new ones, along with the need for new competencies and skills”. Sectors and regions dependent on carbon-intensive industries are likely to be particularly affected, so there are inevitable tensions within the UK union movement concerning climate change and just transition. 

TUC policy on climate change 

The 2017 TUC Congress saw unity around a motion on climate change, public ownership of energy and just transition put forward by the BFAWU food workers’ union. 

Among other things, this called on the TUC to lobby for a just transition strategy for workers affected by the industrial changes needed for a more environmentally sustainable future for all.

At the 2018 Congress, a motion by the Prospect union set out that just transition is “a much-used but often ambiguous term and there is no shortage of voices who believe they are qualified to say what energy workers and communities want and need”. 

The resolution said that the views of workers affected, as expressed through the unions organising in the energy sector — the GMB, Prospect, UNISON and Unite — “should be paramount and central to the development of all TUC policies on energy, industrial strategy and climate change”. And it said that “the TUC should develop a political and lobbying strategy led by the voices and experience of energy unions and their members”.

However, others point out that workers beyond the energy sector will be affected by the changes needed to limit global warming. Sarah Woolley, regional organiser at the BFAWU, said: “The food industry uses a lot of energy and produces a lot of emissions in production and transport and any changes in the energy sector will impact on food sector employers and our members.”

And Sam Mason, PCS civil service union policy officer, said: “The whole economy, not just energy workers, will be affected by the rapid and deep transformation needed to meet the challenges set out in the recent IPPC report on climate change. 

“It will affect workers from construction to transport and care and needs to be part of a much wider industrial strategy.”

“The unions with the most ambitious policies on climate change and just transition tend not to be those organising in energy-intensive industries,” Scottish TUC (STUC) policy officer Francis Stuart told Labour Research. “There are obviously profound challenges for unions with members in heavy fossil-fuel industries.”

The PCS civil service union is calling for a “transformative just transition”. In its 2017 pamphlet, Just transition and energy democracy, it argues for public ownership and the democratic control of energy, together with the creation of a National Climate Service. This would, it says, provide an opportunity to cut greenhouse gas emissions while “re-visioning” and rebuilding public services for people not profit. The National Climate Service would ensure the creation of jobs needed to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

The union’s 2018 publication, There is an alternative to fracking — building a climate jobs plan for Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre, points to a study that estimated an average 420 jobs were possible in fracking, compared to an average of 4,500 new jobs over 20 years by investing in climate jobs — 10 times as many.

Last year’s PCS conference called for a Just Transition Act and for the core principles within such an Act to underpin a planned economic transition. 

This is “more than a floor of social protections” and is “a proactive policy for social justice”. 

The PCS, along with unions including the TSSA transport, UCU lecturers and UNISON public services unions, is also campaigning for pension schemes to divest from fossil fuel companies. 

While Stuart says there are tensions, there are also areas of agreement where unions in Scotland are working together to develop policy on climate change and just transition. 

These include the need for public ownership of energy production and a critique of how industrial policy has been done in the past, as well as examining where there are job opportunities — mapping the areas that could benefit and looking at how unions might organise in response.

Just Transition Partnership

The PCS, UCU, UNISON Scotland along with the CWU communications and Unite Scotland general unions are all members of the Just Transition Partnership (JTP) founded by the STUC and environmental group Friends of the Earth. 

Having lobbied for a Just Transition Commission, the JTP welcomed the recent Scottish government announcement that it will set up such a commission to advise ministers on how to apply just transition principles to Scotland. The STUC wants to see a balance of interests on the commission, including trade union representation. And it says that to fit in with targets set out in the 2008 Climate Change Act, which requires that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are significantly reduced by 2050, the commission should be a long-term endeavour, rather than the proposed two-year initiative. 

TUC Yorkshire and Humberside Low Carbon Task Force

Unions are also working together on just transition as part of the TUC Yorkshire and Humberside Low Carbon Task Force, a project that is “blazing the trail” and developing a model that could be rolled out across the TUC’s regions. The task force is continuing work started as part of an ETUC just transition project.

The TUC says Yorkshire and the Humber is “a region in transition but without a plan”. It has the highest concentrations of foundation industries — steel, cement works, chemicals, food manufacturing and glass — and coal and gas power stations in the UK. No region has a bigger carbon footprint. And, says the TUC, there is no bigger question to answer than: “How to protect and develop high carbon industries and skilled jobs in the transition to a low-carbon economy?”

TUC regional secretary for Yorkshire and the Humber Bill Adams said: “There are 28,000 good jobs at risk over the next 30 years and the unions need to be involved in doing something about that.” 

The ITUC says transition to a green economy will inevitably cause job losses in certain sectors as carbon- and resource-intensive industries are scaled down. But the TUC says those already employed must not pay the price of tackling climate change.

“Indeed, there are great prospects for retraining, with new advanced skilled jobs, to accompany the transition in all workplaces across the region,” Adams added. “We are looking to increase the number of highly-skilled, well-paid jobs for current and future workers.”

The task force involves a wide range of partners including unions, employers, local authorities and local enterprise partnerships. It focuses on raising awareness about climate change and just transition and is “organising from the workplace upwards”, said Adams.

“Trade unions will of course lead the negotiations,” he told Labour Research. Our role is about equipping shop stewards to think about how they can get involved, working together and building up expertise and putting just transition on the collective bargaining agenda.”

The unions involved include UNISON, Unite, the PCS and the UCU as well as the food workers’ BFAWU, GMB general and Prospect specialists’ unions. 

Activists and regional organisers from the unions attended a training course on just transition last November and there are plans to run a second course this month.

Bus manufacturer goes green 

Going green doesn’t have to be at the expense of jobs, as unions at bus manufacturing company Alexander Dennis Limited have discovered. 

The firm employs around 800 people at its Falkirk plant, including around 600 shop floor workers, and recognises the GMB and Unite general unions. In response to customer demand, it has moved from manufacturing only diesel buses to also producing hybrid and, more recently, electric models. 

According to Unite convenor Darren McWilliam, the impact on the number of jobs has been positive. In December 2018, the company took on 30 temporary production workers and the workforce has also received awareness training and new skills. “January, February and March are traditionally quiet,” McWilliam told Labour Research. “But we are very busy in the early part of 2019 and throughout the year. 

“The move to hybrid and electric vehicles has increased job security here. There have been no redundancies at Alexander Dennis since 2009.”

Demanding a just transition for energy workers

Unions are also in agreement that the government needs to do far more to make just transition a reality. In December 2018, the four big energy unions — GMB, Prospect, UNISON and Unite — launched a 10-point blueprint to secure 200,000 energy jobs in a low-carbon economy and called for talks with business secretary Greg Clark “to chart a constructive way forward in the decade ahead”. 

Their report, Demanding a just transition for energy workers, calls for a balanced low-carbon energy mix, investment in skills and infrastructure and protecting and creating high-quality jobs and employment. And it says no community must be left behind. 

The unions say that 10 years on from the Climate Change Act, the UK still doesn’t have a plan that puts workers, future skills and affected communities at the heart of energy policy. 

“Energy has to be at the cornerstone of industrial policy as it affects jobs far beyond the energy sector,” GMB policy officer Charlotte Nichols told Labour Research. “It’s vital we get it right.”

She points to tyre manufacturing in Wolverhampton as an example of the consequences of getting it wrong. 

The industry is now more or less non-existent as high energy costs have driven jobs abroad. The union is concerned the same could happen in other energy-intensive sectors, like ceramics manufacturing, if decarbonisation is badly managed. 

Workers’ experiences of previous industrial transitions have not been good, as STUC deputy general secretary Dave Moxham points out in a recent blog. 

Moxham says the 1980s closures of coal mines and heavy industry, and the privatisation of key utilities, led to the loss of quality jobs and the destruction of communities. 

The transition to the “knowledge economy” has seen a rise in low-wage, precarious jobs. And in the energy sector, the transition to low carbon has so far seen “thousands of high quality jobs destroyed and far too few created”, with decently-paid, unionised jobs lost and not replaced. 

Domestic emissions reductions have been the result of offshoring, he says, while a “much-heralded jobs bonanza” in renewables has not materialised. 

Trade unionists and environmentalists alike are concerned that government action to date has been based on a market approach — including carbon taxes and incentives for renewables, for example — that has not delivered the necessary scale of change, environmentally or socially. 

What’s required is “a wider vision of the changes needed”, Stuart said. “Just transition requires more than market incentives for renewables or carbon capture and storage. It needs to consider job creation in supply chains and manufacturing, including discussions about investment and ownership.” 

He points to a political and environmental crisis that requires massive public investment, direction and planning and a different type of ownership to the current model in the UK, which has privatised energy companies and decarbonised by offshoring emissions to south east Asia. 

“Just transition is a big challenge, but also a big opportunity to create clean, green jobs in former industrial areas,” TUC policy officer Tim Page told Labour Research. “The challenge is how to move forward to make tangible, concrete progress providing new unionised jobs that are as high-skill and high-value as those that currently exist.”