Labour Research July 2019


Establishing common ground

Unions are engaging with environmental campaigns and arguing for a workers’ voice in the debate on how to respond to the climate emergency.

Thousands of school and college students and Extinction Rebellion (XR) climate activists have taken to the streets in strikes, demonstrations and direct action, causing widespread disruption in protest at the lack of urgent government action to tackle the climate crisis. 

And there has been an explosion of anger and frustration at the government’s failure to act in response to what the UK Parliament, Scottish and Welsh governments and several towns and cities have all declared is an environment and climate emergency. 

Last year, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called for urgent action to move rapidly to a zero-carbon economy in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. 

But according to the Committee on Climate Change, which advises government on building a low-carbon economy and preparing for climate change, the UK is not on track to meet its own carbon emission reduction targets.

In April this year, XR protestors paralysed parts of central London during 10 days of direct action, and the group has threatened to shut down Heathrow Airport for 10 days this month if the government does not cancel plans for a third runway at Heathrow. 

Meanwhile, school and college students are “choosing to rise up and take direct action where older generations have failed”, as YouthStrike4Climate (YS4C) puts it. Tens of thousands of school and college students joined three days of YS4C action earlier this year and called on older people to join them for a week of action later this year beginning on Friday 20 September. 

Several unions have welcomed the action and pledged their support for the student strikers and XR protesters. For example, the PCS civil service union voted to declare a climate emergency at its recent annual conference and a student striker addressed a fringe meeting there. The meeting asked whether workers should follow their lead and also strike for climate. 

A motion debated last month at the annual conference of the TSSA transport union expressed support for the youth strikes and urged trade unions to “step up to support the struggle led by young people for their future”. 

The UCU university and college lecturers’ union encouraged branches to work with and support those taking part in the YS4C and XR actions. And a resolution carried at the NEU education union’s annual conference opposes any reprisals against striking students, and pledges to support future action by, for example, offering trade union speakers. 

The NEU also agreed to “lobby the government to press them on plans to carry out their obligation under the Paris Agreement to educate the public about the scale of climate change and the measures to deal with it”, including through schools’ curricula.

The 2015 Paris Agreement is a landmark global deal to combat climate change by limiting global temperature rise to 1.50 Celsius above pre-industrial levels. According to a TSSA conference motion, “reports suggest that two-thirds of the UK public were unaware of the Paris talks whilst they were on”.

The NEU is now working with other education unions and the school students’ movement to organise an Education for Just Transition conference in the autumn. Just transition means moving to a low-carbon economy while protecting the future livelihoods of the workers and communities affected by the transition (see Labour Research, February 2019, pages 13-15). 

“Tackling climate change will affect all sectors of the economy,” TUC senior policy officer Tim Page explains. “That means it will affect the jobs of trade union members — and unions must have a seat at the table when mapping a course of action to deal with climate change. 

“In most of Europe this would be normal. But in the UK, unions have to fight for our voices to be heard.”

Building alliances, both within and beyond the union movement, is an important way of ensuring there is a workers’ voice in this debate, as experience in Scotland shows.

Working together in Scotland

In 2016, the Scottish TUC (STUC) and environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth (FoE) Scotland set up the Just Transition Partnership (JTP). The general union Unite Scotland, public services union UNISON Scotland, communications union CWU Scotland, PCS Scotland and UCU Scotland, together with environmental campaign group WWF Scotland, are all members. 

The JTP successfully lobbied for a Just Transition Commission (JTC) and, in April 2018, the Scottish government launched the commission to advise Scottish ministers “on a carbon-neutral economy that is fair for all” and how to apply just transition principles to Scotland. 

The JTP also successfully argued for a balance of interests on the commission. Among the 11 members of the JTC are Dave Moxon, STUC deputy general secretary, Richard Hardy, national secretary for Scotland and Ireland for the professionals’ Prospect union, and WWF Scotland director Lang Banks. It is chaired by leading climate scientist Jim Skea. 

The Commission is still in its early days — its first meeting took place in January this year — and the JTP is calling for an extension of its two-year remit so it becomes a long-term and statutory, rather than advisory, body. 

But unions are hopeful it can provide a template for a union voice on climate change and just transition in other parts of the UK. PCS policy officer Sam Mason told Labour Research that it is “perhaps a model we’d hope to replicate in England and Wales”. And the Greener Jobs Alliance (see box below) is calling for a Just Transition Commission for England, with a remit including low-carbon training.

UNISON Scotland has also worked successfully with green groups through Stop Climate Chaos Scotland which it helped found. The coalition launched in 2007 in the run-up to Scotland’s first climate change Bill — the second is currently making its way through the Scottish parliament — and more than 40 civil society organisations are members. They include environment, faith and belief groups, international development organisations, trade and student unions and community groups. 

“It succeeded in ensuring that every public body in Scotland has climate change duties and must act in a way as to contribute to meeting the targets set out in the Climate Change Act 2009,” said UNISON Scotland information development officer Fiona Montgomery. 

It’s priority demands currently include the right to negotiate green workplace policies. “For example, workplace parking levies should be part of a negotiated travel to work plan rather than being imposed on workers,” Montgomery told Labour Research.

And working with unions has also influenced how green groups campaign, she believes. “We may have differences about what we want to achieve, timescales for example, but we focus on what we agree on and work towards that,” she said. “Friends of the Earth are very involved in the Just Transition Partnership and they clearly understand the need for workers to be on board in their campaigns.”

Joint work has included a UNISON Scotland and FoE Scotland pamphlet on divesting from fossil fuels in local government pension schemes. 

A UNISON Scotland motion to the union’s national conference then led to UK-wide UNISON guidance, Local government pension funds — divest from carbon campaign, written collaboratively with the responsible investment charity, Share Action, and published in January 2018. 

Last month, UNISON Scotland depute convenor Stephen Smellie, along with his UNISON national executive committee colleague Kate Ramsden, ran a workshop on just transition and the role of unions for a group of around 30 young activists attending an FoE Scotland youth group seminar. 

“If unions want to be relevant to young people and what they are demanding, joint campaigning and dialogue with green groups are important,” Montgomery added.

Trade union/Green alliances 

Unions have formed a number of alliances with environmental organisations, including the following:

• The Greener Jobs Alliance (GJA) focuses on the jobs and skills needed for a transition to a low-carbon economy. Launched with funding from Battersea and Wandsworth TUC, its founding members are the TUC, the UCU lecturers’ union and NUS students’ union; green groups Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and People and Planet; and the IPPR think tank.

• Thirteen unions have already signed up to the Trade Union Clean Air Network (TUCAN), following its launch in February 2019. It aims to gain wider recognition that air pollution is an occupational, as well as a public, health emergency and to ensure a workers’ voice is much more prominent in the public debate on the issue. 

Founded by the NEU and UCU education unions, the GJA and Hazards campaign, its members also include the GMB and Unite general, UNISON public services, CWU communications, PCS civil service, NASUWT teachers’, FBU firefighters’, Aslef, RMT and TSSA rail, and BFAWU food workers’ unions. 

The TUCAN charter sets out a series of demands for unions to prioritise at local, regional, national and international level.

• The Campaign against Climate Change “brings people together to push for the urgent and resolute action we need to prevent the catastrophic destabilisation of global climate”. It organises climate marches and demonstrations, while trade unionists within the initiative set up the One Million Climate Jobs campaign. 

The PCS, FBU, Aslef, UCU and BFAWU are national affiliates of its trade union group; the NEU and TSSA recently agreed to affiliate and several local union branches are also affiliates.

Trade unions for energy democracy “is a platform for unions from all sectors and countries to debate, develop and promote real solutions to the climate crisis, land grabs, energy poverty, and pollution generated by fossil fuels”. 

Globally, more than 70 trade union organisations are involved in the initiative, including UK unions the GMB, FBU, NEU, PCS, TSSA, UCU, UNISON and Unite.

Just Transition for energy workers

Within the union movement, UNISON has joined forces with the other three large energy unions, the GMB, Prospect and Unite, to develop a joint document, Demanding a just transition for energy workers. This sets out 10 demands for decarbonising the energy system while ensuring the fair treatment of workers and communities most affected.

In April, Prospect held a summit examining the potential of renewables and how to make political progress on energy policy. Energy industry leaders, policy experts, academics and journalists joined Prospect members and reps at the event. And the union’s senior deputy general secretary Sue Ferns said that while campaigning is important, “we also believe it needs informed industrial input so that we know what is possible, and in what timescale.”

Union conference motions make clear there is some tension around whether unions representing energy workers should lead on developing TUC policy on energy, industrial strategy and climate change. Some fear this could exclude the voices of unions outside a direct energy membership. 

A motion to the PCS conference, for example, says the union movement must cohere around a common agenda, otherwise it will be left behind in climate change debates.

In a forthcoming statement on a just transition to a green economy, the TUC will argue for “workers voices to be heard, front and centre of this debate”.

“As we have developed that statement, we have talked to our members around the UK, including those who work in the power and energy sectors and whose jobs are likely to be affected,” said Tim Page. 

“They see a real difference between an industrial transition that is done to workers and a transition that is done in partnership with workers.”

He calls for a robust industrial strategy that brings great new jobs to towns and communities across the UK, and says that losing good quality, skilled jobs to zero hours contracts would be unacceptable. 

He also calls for education and training to be overhauled “to ensure that today’s workers can learn tomorrow’s skills”. He adds: “This is a mission that all trade unions can get behind — campaigning as one for a clean planet that delivers great jobs for working people.”.

Some current union environmental campaigns 

After developing joint guidance with the British Lung Foundation (BLF), Air pollution guidance for school staff, the NEU education union is backing the national Clean Air for Children Programme. 

The programme was launched last year by the Clean Air Parents’ Network with the support of environmental law group ClientEarth and the BLF.

Meanwhile, the GMB general union is helping the British Safety Council to develop its Canairy app, which aims to track and help reduce outdoor workers’ exposure to air pollution.

The PCS civil service union has been working closely with local communities and green group Friends of the Earth to oppose fracking, particularly at Preston New Road in Lancashire. 

In the culture sector, it is working with Platform, which campaigns on the social, economic and environmental impacts of the global oil industry, and other campaign groups. These include BP or not BP, a national network of actors who oppose fossil fuel companies funding the arts. 

The union is part of the anti-Heathrow airport expansion group, No 3rd Runway Coalition, a growing coalition of MPs, local councils, residents groups, unions and environmental organisations.

The BFAWU food workers’ union is also a member of No 3rd Runway and is also working with groups including the Manchester Environmental Education Network and Labour’s SERA environment campaign. 

Through its joint work with bakery chain Greggs, it is talking to Refill UK and Surfers Against Sewage, groups campaigning to tackle plastic pollution. 

Delegates at retail union Usdaw’s annual conference called on the government to speed up the pace of waste plastic recycling and the development of recyclable and biodegradable packaging materials and said food manufacturers should do more to reduce unnecessary food waste.

Groups including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) are supporting the Prospect professionals’ union’s Natural England (NE) campaign. This highlights the threats facing the organisation and its valuable work to restore and enhance the countryside and marine environment and help species to recover. 

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs grant to NE has been cut by more than 50% since 2007, with more cuts to come. Prospect says this has left 83% of NE staff stressed due to high workload, while demoralised workers are actively looking for a new job elsewhere. 

A motion to last month’s GMB annual conference called on the union to raise the profile of Environment Agency workers and use its Go Public campaign to put their crucial work in the spotlight.

The STUC is supporting the campaign by the GMB and Unite unions, Fife — Ready for Renewal, which brings together workers, community groups, elected representatives and environmental campaigners. 

Its aims to force EDF Renewables, part of the French-owned energy giant EDF, to make good on promises that offshore wind turbines for the NeartnaGoaithe (NnG) project off the coast of Fife will be built locally in the yards of the Burntisland Fabrication firm in Methil and Burntisland. 

Unite Scottish secretary Pat Rafferty said: “If the bulk of the wind turbine jackets are built in yards just 10 miles from the wind farm, it would mean less shipping and significantly less carbon emissions over the lifespan of the NnG project. That’s more good news for our environment and the future of the planet.”