Climate change and labour

Most problems in society are mainly social and political, even
if at first glance they seem purely technical or scientific. This
is a hard-earned lesson for the labour and trade union
movement.  For example, workplace technology can be developed
to serve different interests: the shareholders, the customers, the
workers… In the end it is the actual balance of power which
decides the solution and who it will benefit.

The threat of climate change is no exception. The solution of
this problem requires, among other things, a huge amount of new
technology. But the problem isn’t just about technology, it is a
genuinely social and political issue. It is decisive, therefore,
that the trade union movement develops its own climate change
policies. We have to move from a reactive to a proactive position.
In the end, it is a question of what kind of society we want to

Facing up to the issues

So far, much of the trade union movement has hesitated when
confronted with the problem of climate change, even though this
situation has moved on significantly in recent years. There has
been a tendency to deny the seriousness of the problem, and there
has been some opposition against taking action as a result of a
(fully understandable) fear of job losses.

Our first challenge is therefore to face reality. We have to
realise the overwhelming scientific proof that climate change is
here, that human activities are crucial factors, and that this can
be catastrophic. We must realise that the main reason for the
problem is the burning of fossil fuel. This means the success
factor of any measure is whether or not it contributes to reducing
the burning of fossil fuel. The way we live and work will change
radically over the coming years either as a result of action, or of
inaction. Not to act, or to delay action, is not an option, but
will only make consequences worse.

Failed markets need political control

The Stern Report, which reported to the UK government, concluded
that «climate change represents the biggest market failure in
history». The on-going financial crisis represents another huge
market failure in history. We cannot rely on those same failed
market mechanisms to solve these crises.

Both climate change policies and the financial crisis will need
increased democratic control of the economy. That is exactly what
we, in the trade union movement, also need for many other reasons.
This means that the climate crisis not only represents a threat,
but also new possibilities for the trade union movement. The
on-going crises, together with neo-liberalism’s current crisis of
legitimacy, have actually opened an array of opportunities waiting
to be exploited.

Trade unions thus have to prioritise climate change policies,
but we have to embed these policies in a broader political context.
We therefore also have to overcome the contradictions between
specific workers’ immediate, sectoral interests and broader
interests of workers as a whole. In other words, we are not only
transport workers who face a change in work pattern; we are human
beings confronting a potentially catastrophic event.

Redistribution of wealth

One thing is quite clear: there will be far-reaching changes.
The question is therefore, how do we meet these challenges?
Currently, workers and trade unions are on the defensive. We are
under pressure. There is a tendency to individualise responsibility
for greenhouse-gas emissions. All of us have to pay for the
emissions we cause, it is said, even though those emissions in most
cases are effects of the way society is organised and market forces
are pushing.

Of course emissions have to be reduced, even radically. This
cannot, however, be left to each individual’s responsibility.
Neither can it be done by implementing economic restrictions which
in practise exempt the rich and wealthy from any change. Why should
ordinary people support the necessary climate change policies under
such conditions? People will never accept that rich people can
continue to pay their way, that corporate interests are protected,
while the costs are put on workers, consumers and taxpayers. What
is needed, therefore, are collective political solutions in which
policies against climate change are combined with a radical social
redistribution of wealth. Anything short of that will prevent any
solution to the climate crisis.

From defensive to offensive

Environmental organisations tell us we have to make sacrifices
to save the climate and our planet. This is both incorrect, and
strategically and tactically wrong. Climate change policies are not
only a question of sacrifices, but of creating a better society for
all. Roger Toussaint, president of Transport Workers’ Union Local
100 in New York, got it right when he, at a climate change
conference, stated that: «Going green is not just about job
creation, it is about an improved life for working people.»

Serious climate change policies will give us an opportunity for
progressive social change. Change will presuppose a more
democratically managed economy. it will create millions of green
jobs – particularly in public transport and in the production of
renewable energy. It will reduce market competition and thereby
also reduce pressure at work. It will make it necessary to shorten
working hours to reduce the overexploitation of resources and allow
a more just distribution of jobs across the globe. It will, if we
do our job properly, hopefully reduce consumerism as a way of
compensating other unmet needs in our societies, characterised by
alienation and powerlessness. In short, social change is a
precondition and a solution at the same time to stopping climate

Furthermore, reduced greenhouse emissions will also reduce
pollution in workplaces and communities. An enormous – and free –
transfer of technology to developing countries will be necessary,
both to reduce their increase in emissions and to lift two billion
people out of poverty. Most importantly, climate change policies
will secure the survival of human beings and the planet.

Alliances and social mobilisation

Global summits haven’t achieved social equality, jobs for all,
decent working conditions, eradication of poverty, gender equality.
It seems unlikely they will solve the problem of climate change
either. Instead, we need a social and political mobilisation for
alternative solutions built on solidarity, equality and peoples’

The trade union movement will need to build strategic alliances
with the environmental movement, and others. To do that, we have to
overcome a couple of important weaknesses. Firstly, we have to
ensure the environmental movements understand the role of social
power (the class conflict). Secondly, we ourselves need to increase
the understanding of environmental problems and the climate crisis
in our trade unions. This can only happen if the two movements
start to co-operate, exchange views and experiences and develop a
friendly and constructive environment for discussion.

An excellent example is the Blue-Green Alliance between the
United Steel Workers and the environmental movement Sierra Club in
the USA, which «is focused on restoring an additional element to
the relationship between public policy and electoral politics …
that of movement building … without strong, well-organised social
movements mobilising along a society’s basic fault lines,
meaningful change is unlikely.»

Our long-term perspective must be to build the social alliances
necessary to change society, not the climate. It is ambitious, but
necessary and possible – and we will sit in the driver’s seat.

In summary

  • Trade unions have to face up to the reality of climate change
  • We need to be proactive, not reactive, to deal with the
  • Climate change is part of a broader political context. We
    should look at the structure of society to find solutions.
  • We have to work with others, especially environmental
  • Climate change offers many possibilities: new green jobs, a
    greater role for public transport, less market competition… We
    must act now to seize these changes and make this a positive step
    for workers.

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