The Paris Agreement’s goals can not be fulfilled if neoliberalism prevails—which means only labour’s participation can bring success.
Attractive policy promises, wrapped around ambitious long-term targets, have been presented in advance of the next climate summit, COP26, in Glasgow in November. But authoritative reports on, and critical responses to, the prior G7 negotiations (echoed by a subsequent G20 finance ministers’ meeting) confirm that very little reduction in global carbon emissions and pollution has actually been achieved since the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The main obstacle is not simply an intergovernmental failure to recognise the urgency of the crisis. Rather, it is the prevailing underlying neoliberal model of economic behaviour and growth—with its attendant belief in the ability of the market to solve all socio-economic problems—in which humans and the ecosystem are treated as ‘resources’, to be disposed of or trashed when no longer required.
Despoliation and degradation
This has resulted in a complex pattern of despoliation, in which the degradation of the environment has been paralleled by the increasing degradation of work into low-paid, insecure jobs. The two crises are closely interrelated, through a global system of exploitation extending from the Amazon rain forests to Amazon ‘fulfillment centres’. Just as waste products and emissions are identified economically as ‘externalities’—their costs not reflected in prices of products and services—so the cost of unproductive labour time has been externalised and borne by workers on zero-hours or precarious agency contracts.
The failure of most governments to recognise, still less reverse, the defects of deregulated market activity is reflected most acutely in the lack of multilateral co-operation over climate issues and emissions policies—a weakness only now being addressed by the United States following the disastrous campaign by the former president, Donald Trump, to undermine the United Nations and the World Health Organization.
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In the workplace, meanwhile, the primacy given by management to maximising ‘shareholder value’ and so minimising cost, through organisational pyramids of contracting and sub-contracting, has increasingly resulted in low-paid and precarious work, intensification of performance management and denial of workers’ collective rights and representation—to the detriment of health, wellbeing and job satisfaction.
It is therefore not surprising that labour and supportive institutions appear to have been systematically distanced from helping to formulate national carbon-reduction policies or participating with governments and employers to adopt sustainable work policies. We argue in our recent book for a reversal: as employers have continually failed to address the environmental consequences of their activities, trade unions must be invited to play a critical role in meeting the challenges of rendering commercial activity and employment sustainable, in accordance with the Paris Agreement, and reducing inequality. To combat the existential threat presented by the climate emergency, unions need to be involved as equal partners, alongside national and local government, employers’ organisations, policy specialists and community groups, in developing sustainable recovery programmes.
The New Deal in the depression-era US owed much of its success to the collective support of labour, whose revived membership and policy activity, following federal endorsement, offered valuable support to associated economic programmes. And amid the emergency of the second world war, unions were effectively incorporated into central and sectoral decision-making bodies.
Building on these historical reference points, the various proposals for a Green New Deal have gone some way towards this goal. They usually include a strong case for unions to be involved in plans to switch to green sources of energy, with negotiated agreements to provide secure employment and skills training for those displaced from fossil-fuel sectors and by deindustrialisation. Also, workers are likely to live in communities most affected by atmospheric and other forms of pollution and unions, alongside community groups, must be offered full disclosure on hazards and the authority to intervene in production processes to ensure a clean local environment. Remunicipalisation, in which previously privatised essential services are returned to the public domain, has been given energetic support by unions in the global north and south, and such initiatives are growing rapidly.
Parity of representation
The precise nature of worker voice and agency in meeting sustainability goals will vary with the contours of national employment systems. The system of employee nominees on the most senior bodies of companies practised in some northern-European countries should be elevated everywhere to parity representation, so that employees are partners in strategic environmental decision-making. While current representation has been only partially successful in addressing worker contributions to key decisions, Thomas Piketty argues that these approaches have ‘somewhat shifted the balance of power between shareholders and employees and encourage more harmonious and ultimately more efficient economic development’.
European works councils were established some 25 years ago to provide information and consultation on transnational issues for employees of multinational companies but, despite revisions, their impact on corporate governance has been limited. A more robust system could offer effective contributions from representatives to integrate alongside worker-director co-determination, establishment consultation and collective bargaining. This multi-tiered approach should offer opportunities for national, sectoral and enterprise representatives to contribute to environmental, economic and financial issues at local, organisation-wide and industry levels. But these developments must be initiated and regulated by national and, potentially, international policy-making bodies such as the European Union. Multilateral organisations such as the UN and its labour agency, the International Labour Organization, can make proposals but these are rarely binding on their constituents.
While the concept of ‘the social partners’ remains ignored and largely unknown in the United Kingdom, the experience of health and safety there does offer a model for joint decision-making. Legislation from the 1970s onwards resulted in the widespread establishment of effective joint health-and-safety committees, with many unions appointing safety shop stewards. While much of this achievement has atrophied owing to the decline in union membership, the model could easily be adopted to ensure environmental and sustainability criteria were fulfilled in a company’s activities.
We do not underestimate the obstacles: labour-movement weaknesses are well-documented. Increasing numbers of workers in precarious work are not recognised as employees at all. Where contracts of employment do exist, employers have increasingly adopted individualistic employment practices, estranging atomised employees from meaningful participation in company affairs. Union density and other forms of collective influence at work have meanwhile been progressively undermined, buttressed by the dominance of financial institutions in establishing criteria for funding productive objectives. Also, while transnational corporations develop strategies and oversee operations from a unified command centre, unions are locally based and often forced into competition—competition which can have adverse environmental and employment consequences.
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Traditionally associated with reformist political parties, labour and socialist movements have moreover been progressively undermined over the past 30 years by aggressive neoliberal radicalism, reinforced by the wealth and power of those organisations which have benefited most from market fundamentalism and done least to address the peril of global heating to which they have most contributed. In this period, there have been only limited opportunities for worker-initiated participation.
The climate emergency will however not be resolved by market forces or a greenwashed ‘business as usual’. A Green New Deal could offer the template and regulatory means for a reinvigorated focus by the parties most affected by commercial activity to address jointly the fundamental environmental issues—by empowering them to participate in their resolution.