Since the social and ecological crises are so intertwined, a ‘climate-justice unionism’ is required to address them in a holistic way.
The continuous mobilisations of the youth-led Fridays For Future movement have inspired the wider public, yet it remains to be seen whether the young climate strikers have been able to spur trade unions into action for the Global Climate Action Week from September 20th. Beyond that, can unions develop a ‘climate-justice unionism’ which responds to the multiple crises of inequality, climate change and union decline?
Today’s notion of climate justice has its roots in the US civil-rights movement and African-Americans’ demand for ‘environmental justice’, as they were disproportionately affected by environmental hazards—which remains the case, as evidenced by the contamination of water in Flint, Michigan. Unlike traditional US environmentalism, which gave primacy to wilderness and its conservation, the environmental-justice movement was born in the heat of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike for better working conditions and pay, which brought Martin Luther King Jr to investigate an environmental incident in February 1968.
The contemporary climate-justice movement emerged out of the networks of ‘alter-globalisation’ around the COP-15 UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009. Whereas mainstream environmentalism was supporting market-based mechanisms—such as emissions trading, geo-engineering and co-operation with multinational corporation—to solve the climate crisis, the climate-justice movement placed the countries of the global south and the most disadvantaged groups in the north at the heart of its agenda.
For all the movement’s good intentions and unions’ first-time involvement, climate-justice activists could not offer a perspective to workers in the global north, for two reasons. They too often viewed such workers as ‘bought off’ or proposed economic models of de-growth at a time of mass lay-offs due to the 2008 financial meltdown. Meanwhile, the continuing decline in union membership, allied to the economic downturn, militated in favour of unions aligning defensively with ‘their’ government’s politics on migration and climate change, hoping to advance their agenda on the national labour market.
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Throughout COP-15 and in its wake, forward-thinking unions and environmental activists woke up to the realisation that the economic and ecological crises were inseparable—indeed, the twin crises offered an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine workers’ participation, trade unionism and the economy. The British trade-union campaign ‘One Million Climate Jobs’, for example, argued that creating jobs in insulating homes and buildings would simultaneously reduce CO2 emissions. Canadian activists contemplated how to offer Albertan oil workers a perspective beyond tar sands.
Since then, many unions across the globe have started to engage in projects to construct an alternative economy and lead a ‘just transition’ to it. As Sean Sweeney and John Treat have pointed out, conventionally this concept applied to the impacts on workers of environmental policies. Today, however, ‘just transition’ signifies a much deeper socio-economic transformation.
In countries such as the United States, where trade unions are less integrated into the state, they along with environmental groups and social movements have developed a ‘social power’ approach to just transition. Building on the achievements and insights of the environmental-justice movement, unions and campaigners are teaming up to advance concrete alternatives to a fossil-fuel-based economy, while advocating government and local agencies take action. Examples include the ALIGN coalition campaigning to fix New York City’s public transport system and Cornell Worker Institute’s ‘Reversing Inequality, Combatting Climate Change: A Climate Jobs Program for New York State’, with its recommendations for the energy, transport and building sectors.
Such politics and coalition-building have inspired the likes of the Democrat Congress members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders to propose a Green New Deal, which seeks to empower workers and reimagine US capitalism. Meantime, the country’s largest environmental organisation, the Sierra Club, has employed a labour and coal co-ordinator to address the gap between the environmental and labour movements.
In western and northern Europe, where unions have stronger ties to government and command greater institutional power, the ‘social dialogue’ approach predominates. This involves economic planning and industrial restructuring along bipartite or tripartite lines, with less of a focus on reducing inequality. It continues to tie labour unions to current business and economic development models primarily based on ‘shareholder value’. Thus, it is no surprise that even the investment community has jumped on the ‘just transition’ bandwagon.
Since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, multinational corporations have been lobbying for non-binding goals, arguing that self-regulation is most effective. This has allowed them to set their own pace when it comes to lowering carbon emissions. While social pressure has forced large institutional shareholders to place greater emphasis on environmental and social governance issues, the world’s largest banks have continued to pour money into the fossil-fuel industry, to the tune of $1.9 trillion since the signing of the Paris climate agreement. In that context, a social-dialogue approach without workers’ pressure from below seems futile.
Fridays for Future
Fridays for Future’s call for an ‘earth strike’ appears to be a lightning rod for trade unions, labour groups and climate activists to converge. Many unions have issued statements in support and are calling on their members to participate in actions throughout the global climate-action week.
The British Trades Union Congress is calling on workers to engage in 30-minute work stoppages. In Austria, union and climate activists will hold a round-table discussion on what can be done at the workplace to stem climate change. In Belgium, a works council of an insurance company is calling on its employer to reduce emissions by half by 2030. In Germany, where the divisions between environmental movements and trade unions are particularly stark, several unions are nevertheless calling on their members to join the Fridays for Future protests.
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For many environmentalists, unions’ symbolic statements and calls for action are too little, too late. One reason why youthful climate strikers and unions haven’t converged more is that the two groups speak different languages: for trade unionists, a strike is the withdrawal of one’s labour from the employer to win a demand, whereas for the Fridays for Future movement, the political strike appears to be an end in itself. Yet, while some might regard this as naïve, such strikes have become a commonly used tactic within the global feminist movement. In any event, the climate strike won’t be enough on its own to avert what Naomi Klein has labelled ‘climate barbarism’.
There are only a few examples of unions bringing environmental and workplace issues together in their organising. Yet changing our broken model of economics depends on a climate-justice unionism which challenges runaway climate change, rising inequality and low union density. This would develop actions workers can take at their workplace or in collective negotiations at the sectoral level.
A climate-justice unionism is not anything new. It was born in east London in 1888, when young women workers took industrial action against hazardous working conditions, including exposure to white phosphorus which disfigured their faces. The matchgirls’ strike initiated a ‘new unionism’ in Britain, giving confidence to different groups of workers, beyond skilled men, to campaign for a reduction in working hours—a policy which remains central to reducing CO2 emissions.
Members of today’s low-wage workforce, including care workers, cleaners and security guards, face significant health-and-safety risks: cleaning polluted industrial sites, guarding nuclear-power stations, caring for older people in high-temperature environments and so on. Outsourcing such work has not only left these groups without sick pay or pension rights but also at the sharp end of the climate crisis. Not only are these some of the fastest growing occupational groups but they are also those with the lowest rates of unionisation.
Unions can use their organisational and institutional leverage to facilitate workers organising themselves. Collectively workers know how to improve work processes for the benefit of everyone. Climate-justice unionism would rebuild workers’ power at the workplace and at company level, with the goal of regulating multinational corporations from below. The ‘Climate proof our work’ campaign by the International Trades Union Congress is one way to start this process of rebuilding worker power and is the perfect antidote to company environmental campaigns which too often amount only to ‘greenwashing’.
At the sectoral level, unions could facilitate workers to engage in industry-wide bargaining with employers. Democratising the bargaining process would not only engender a democratic spirit among workers but also force companies to act collectively in the interest of their industry and its stakeholders. A climate-justice unionism would use education and health-and-safety provisions within collective agreements to upskill workers and refit companies, with the goal of reducing carbon emissions and enhancing labour standards.
As the social-power approach to ‘just transition’ involves creating labour-community coalitions, so would a climate-justice unionism involve organising ‘the whole worker’. Workers’ issues are after all not only rooted in their workplaces but also in their communities. For example, low-wage workers are also more likely to live in polluted areas. Moreover, politicians are moving to introducing taxes on CO2 emissions which disproportionately affect low-wage workers. Climate change will require unions to rebuild worker power—economically, socially and politically—if they are serious about working people not paying the price for the mitigation of climate change and a transition to a carbon-neutral economy.
Mark Bergfeld is the director of property services and UNICARE at UNI Global Union—Europa, representing cleaners, security workers and private care. He holds a PhD from Queen Mary University of London.