Just Transitioning – marrying environment protection and social justice

Stephen Smellie lays out what is meant by Just Transition and what role unions have to play.

The concept of the ‘Just Transition’ to a low carbon economy has become policy over the past few years with the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), Trades Union Congress (TUC) and International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) all having it on their agenda. It was the international union movement, through the ITUC, that ensured global climate talks had the Just Transition concept adopted, including in the 2015 Paris Agreements.

The concept has become used quite broadly in terms of justice for a number of current or potential victims of the effects of climate change. This would include island communities threatened by rising sea levels; developing nations whose carbon footprint has been low and, therefore, their contribution to the problem negligible yet who are told they should not increase their use of carbon by developed nations whose carbon use for 200 years has brought them wealth and power which they now want to deny to others; and poorer nations who look at the rich world who don’t want to pay for the damage their economic policies have caused.

However, the concept was first developed in the union movement to address the need to consider the workers whose jobs, families and communities are dependent upon carbon industries and who stand to lose out when the current high carbon economy transitions to a low carbon economy. Those workers should not pay the price for society reaching a socially-agreed objective.

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Sustainable industrial employment

Canadian union activist, Brian Kohler, was one of the first to use and popularise the term in union circles in 1998 when he attempted to reconcile the union’s fight for decent jobs and the need to protect the environment. He said: “‘The real choice is not jobs or environment. It is both or neither”’.

In Scotland, we know when industries change or close workers are the last consideration for employers and governments. The coal and steel industries simply cast workers and communities aside when they were no longer needed. As did manufacturers in the 1980s as Thatcher’s lack of industrial policy saw jobs exported. There was no justice for workers when these transitions occurred.

It is, therefore, correct that workers in today’s carbon industries, gas, oil, chemicals, and their unions have raised the demand that their interests need to be looked after as we move towards a low carbon economy. The GMB, Prospect, UNISON and Unite unions recently published Demanding a Just Transition for Energy Workers, which details their demands for a just transition. These include training, access to jobs that are as well paid as current jobs and a voice for energy workers in the planning for the future.

This is a growing international union movement working towards a just transition. Canadian unions in the coal industry have welcomed the setting up of The Just Transition Task Force for Canadian Coal-Power Workers and Communities which will draft a plan to support affected workers and communities as Canada moves to phase-out coal-fired power. Australian power plant unions have signed up to a number of Just Transition agreements that have included transferring workers from power plants into renewable sectors as coal plants close.

The starting point for Just Transition to a low carbon economy has, however, to be the commitment that the transition is necessary and that society, government, industry and unions have agreed that there is an urgency to not only make the transition but to work together to make this transition within the shortest time possible. The recent warnings from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which said we have 12 years to put in place the measures needed to reduce carbon use to avoid catastrophic global warming provide the evidence needed to create this sense of urgency.

However, some stakeholders don’t buy into this urgency and sometimes not even into a commitment to a transition. Trump is the obvious example but very few governments around the world have implemented the measures that would put them on course for achieving the targets agreed in Paris. The outcome of the Katowice COP (Conference of the Parties) talks was equally disappointing.

Some sections of the union movement can often appear reluctant participants in discussions regarding transitioning to a low carbon economy and use the language of Just Transition to refuse to contemplate any change unless the current members’ jobs are protected, or that alternative highly paid and unionised jobs are readily available. This approach is sometimes justified by the evidence that the shift to renewables did not create a bonanza of new jobs in the construction of renewables or in the new renewables sector.

In Scotland, we have some unions and politicians continuing to see the extension of oil and gas production as a priority for the economy and jobs. Some have argued in support of fracking and still harbour ambitions to overturn the effective ban that the Scottish Government has implemented. Their reasons for this relate solely to the question of jobs, which for unions, is always going to be their starting point.

On the other hand, a growing number of unions and politicians, as well as environmentalists, scientists, and world climate change agreements, understand the argument that extending oil and gas production is the last thing we should be doing at the moment in terms of the urgent need to cut carbon emissions to stop global warming. All the evidence points out that most of the known carbon and fossil fuels in the ground should stay there if there is any chance of preventing the record breaking year-on-year temperature rises we have been seeing and which cause the increase in severe weather events, the melting of ice-caps and subsequent rise in sea levels and the extinction of many species of insects and animals.

It is in this context the need to protect workers’ interests and at the same time the environment, that the Just Transition was originally conceived. As the growing environmental movement of the 1970s and 1980s became more influential, as the evidence mounted about the impact of capitalist industrial processes on the environment and its likely impacts, and they stopped being dismissed as tree-hugging cranks, an engagement with the labour movement and the environmentalists became essential.

This was not the first time that unions engaged with the environmental movement. Throughout years of campaigning on health and safety, the link to the danger to the environment and workers has been made in relation to asbestos or the nuclear industry. American union leader, Tony Mazzochi, of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers’ International Union, pioneered these links in the 1960s.

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Good Jobs and Healthy Communities

Whilst some energy unions in the carbon industries were less receptive to messages about how their industries were a problem and needed to change, other unions became acutely aware of the consequences of continuing a high dependence on carbon use. Health union members reported increases in respiratory illness. Education union members were discussing with children the science of global warming and its consequences. Unions in the science sector had members producing the evidence of what was happening.

Therefore, the coming together within the union and labour movement of these forces created the necessary impetus to, on the one hand, accept that action is needed to reduce the use of carbon but, on the other, develop strategies that ensure that the workers in the carbon sector are not forgotten about and are looked after.

A transition to a low carbon economy must happen and that transition needs to be just to the workers. However, the Just Transition agenda is not simply related to these workers in the energy sector whose current jobs are part of an industry that is contributing to the problem. Other workers are in jobs that are at risk. Agricultural and food processing workers face changes related to climate change. The water industry, seafarers and other transport workers face significant challenges. High energy using industries such as manufacturing and construction face rising costs. The public sector workers whose budgets for services are cut to divert money to efforts to ameliorate the effects of climate change on infra-structure.

Other workers have a significant part to play in the transition and making sure that it is just: the science workers creating alternatives; the education workers training the current energy and future workers with the skills necessary for the future low carbon industries; and the public sector workers in environmental protection, infra-structure and planning, designing better communities that use less carbon.

Therefore, the assertion by some in the union movement that the Just Transition to a low carbon economy should be left to the energy workers needs to be challenged. This is an issue that affects all communities and all workers. Our consumption of energy, at work and at home, is part of the problem and our skills, knowledge and commitment to the transition to a low carbon economy is part of the solution.

For Scottish workers, we have immediate challenges and so the Scottish Government’s Just Transition Commission, set up after lobbying by the STUC and some unions working with Friends of the Earth Scotland in the Just Transition Partnership, is crucial to ensure that the necessary government actions in relation to industrial policy, education and training and harnessing public sector procurement and spending are directed towards a Just Transition for workers.

Stephen Smellie is Depute Convenor for UNISON Scotland and a UNISON national executive member. He blogs at https://stephenfs59.wordpress.com/