Module 3: Trade Union Responses


This Module looks at how the trade union movement is stepping up to the challenge of the climate crisis. If the climate crisis is to be tackled effectively, trade unions have a vital role to play. 

Module 4 covers union-led green workplace campaigns, and how we can get involved in local and national campaigns about climate change.  

There are as many trade union frontlines for tackling the climate crisis as there are trade unions! 

  • Many well-unionised energy-intensive industries have a huge carbon footprint’ from the amounts of energy and resources they use – in power stations, steel works, food manufacture and other heavy industries. Reducing these emissions presents huge challenges. 
  • There are public and voluntary service frontlines, where, for example, environmental agency staff or firefighters tackle fires and floods. Or NHS staff treat increasing numbers of patients, particularly the frail elderly, for heatstroke, dehydration, and other heat-related conditions. 
  • There’s an education frontline, where our teachers, lecturers, trainers, researchers, managers, administrators and librarians all have a role to play in informing and raising awareness of the climate crisis. 
  • And there’s a transport frontline, because carbon emissions from road transport and aviation are rising rapidly, while much needed investment in public transport, including rail, bus and tram services, is totally inadequate.  

Read thebmjopinion blog post, The summer we woke up to the health impact of climate change.

Many of these ‘frontline’ industries and services are well unionised. If the goal is to keep global temperature increases to below the ‘safe’ level of 1.5 degrees, then here in the UK, every union has some part to play. A to priority is campaigning against the government’s austerity that denies our public services the resources they need, and the investment required for a sustainable future.

Trade unions are already backing demands for radical change. For a switch from petrol and diesel to electric and hybrid vehicles. Far greater investment in public transport and renewable energy.  Home insulation and new ways to heat our homes. Sustainable agriculture, forestry and construction. And for new ways to manufacture products like steel, cement and chemicals that reduce the carbon emissions produced. 

The trade union movement is the largest democratic movement in the world. The TUC represents more than 6.3 million workers in 52 unions. The TUC is calling for A just transition to a greener, fairer economy. It says, ‘The voices of workers who are at the forefront of dealing with the challenge of climate change must be at the centre of achieving a successful transition to the economy we will need.’ 

Globally, the union movement has approximately 175 million members in more than 150 countries. Combatting climate change and helping workers and the communities they live in adapt to a changing world is a key trade union issue.

This module will look at how the trade union movement is stepping up to the challenge of the climate crisis. 

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)

As we saw in Module 2, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) leads the international trade union response to the climate crisis. It’s all part of the ITUC’s mission to promote and defend workers’ rights and interests worldwide. 

The ITUC demands urgent action to tackle global overheating: 

‘Unions want a global agreement implemented on the basis of just transition principles and plans: national and industry/enterprise plans that protect and create new jobs by investing in the necessary industrial transformation…there are no jobs on a dead planet.’

Each year in December the ITUC submits a report to the United Nations’ climate change conference setting out its key demands. In 2018, these incuded: 

  • Tough targets to cut carbon emissions
  • Hold temperature rises to below 1.5 degrees. 
  • A Just Transition, with a voice for trade unions at all levels.
  • New financed for developing nations on the frontline of climate breakdown.

Source: ITUC Frontlines Briefing Climate Justice: COP24 Special Edition.

The ITUC works for international solidarity between trade unions to support these goals. Its regional organisations coordinate unions in each continent: the Asia-Pacific Regional Organisation (ITUC-AP); African Regional Organisation ITUC-AF); American Regional Organisation (TUCA); and European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

ITUC’s Just Transition Centre 

The ITUC set up a Just Transition Centre in 2016. It brings together workers and their unions, communities, businesses and governments in social dialogue to ensure that labour has a seat at the table when planning for a Just Transition to a low-carbon world. The centre is building up a network of ‘good practice’ in Canada, Germany, the USA, Australia, the UK and elsewhere.


Worldwide, people are losing their lives and livelihood through climate change. The ITUC sees this as a major issue as it campaigns for workers’ rights, health and safety, and an end to poverty. As countries shift to renewable energies and a low carbon economy then workers and communities dependent on the fossil fuel industries for their income will suffer unless the transition is managed carefully. So a key aim of the ITUC is to develop a strategy for ‘a just transition’ for workers and communities, ‘to ensure we are all part of a sustainable, low carbon economy and benefit from decent and green jobs.’ (1)

Watch the interview with Sharan Burrow, the ITUC General Secretary talking about the effects on the world’s workforce of a changing climate.

As Sharan explained in the interview, prior to the 2015 Paris Summit the ITUC launched ‘a call for dialogue’ over ‘a just transition.’ 

Below is a section from that ITUC document outlining what is meant by a just transition.

A Just Transition means:

  • Giving unions a voice, from the workplace to the highest levels of government.  Negotiations with government and employers. Collective bargaining with workers and their unions for workplace change, boosting productivity and skills. 
  • Investment in jobs and skills – providing decent work opportunities in sectors which cut emissions. 
  • Invest in community renewal to win the trust of regions and communities at the forefront of industrial change. 
  • Respect the contribution that workers in fossil-fuel industries have made to today’s prosperity. Provide them with income support, retraining and redeployment opportunities, and secure pensions for older workers
  • Guarantee social protection and human rights
  • Support innovation and technology sharing to enable a rapid transformation of energy and manufacturing.
  • Decent work and union rights in the transition to a low carbon economy. 

Call for Dialogue: Climate Action Requires Just Transition (2)


Watch the following video where Peter Colley (National Research Director for the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union in Australia) talks about what a just transition means for one set of workers, those working in the coal industry.

Ending Climate Change Demands a JustTransition for Coal Workers

The European Trades Union Congress 

The ETUC leads the European trade union delegation to the UN climate conferences and lobbies the European Commission and Parliament for tough action to cut greenhouse gas emissions and create sustainable jobs for the future.

The ETUC argues that energy and industrial policy must work hand in hand to tackle climate breakdown

It calls for a Just Transition and supports trade unions campaigns across the EU. One of the projects it helped get underway is the Low Carbon Task Force in Yorkshire and Humber, led by the regional TUC and its union and other partners. The Yorkshire region has the highest carbon footprint of any UK region, with its combination of heavy industries and power stations. 

Involving Trade Unions in climate action to build a Just Transition: guide & video

The Trades Union Congress (TUC)

The TUC brings together unions in the UK to agree common policies on issues that matter to working people and their communities. It represents more than 5.5 million workers in 48 unions.

Much TUC policy on energy and the climate crisis is developed through debates at the organisation’s annual Congress. Following cross-union support for a just transition, the TUC published A just transition to a greener, fairer economy (July 2019). Its demands include:

  • A Commission on long-term energy strategy for a low carbon future. Unions, industry and consumers should be at the table.
  • Workplace Transition Agreements in companies and organisations: covering jobs, skills, pay and other issues. Unions should have access to all workplaces to explain the bene ts of trade unions.
  • Every worker should have access to funding to improve their skills. ‘Workers in energy-intensive sectors have the skills and expertise that will be required to help these sectors transition to lower carbon models.’ Support for apprenticeships, the best guarantor of skills excellence. Proper funding of the adult education sector. 
  • Government-led investment in household energy efficiency, public transport, and public service responses to extreme weather.
  • The ‘green economy’ (and beyond) must recognise unions and bargain with them to ensure good quality jobs ‘with terms and conditions at least as good as those in energy and carbon-intensive sectors.’ 

The TUC’s work on energy and climate change also includes greening the workplace. In 2014, a TUC report on The Union Effect- Greening the Workplace, showed how union reps led green workplace initiatives. It included case studies and best practice examples in energy saving, resources, recycling, waste management and green travel plans. The TUC now wants statutory rights for trade union environment reps, both in terms of training and facility time. Their role would be to:

  • promote environmentally sustainable workplace initiatives and practices
  • carry out environmental risk assessments and audits
  • consult on workplace environmental policies, practices and management systems
  • receive relevant training (5)


The TUC believes that a diverse and balanced low carbon energy policy provides the best guarantee for sustaining secure energy supply. Their policy supports a mix of nuclear power, renewable energy (notably wind and solar power), and clean coal and gas power stations, provided they have adapted to lowering their carbon emissions through carbon capture & storage technology. 

However, union opinions vary on some of these priorities, notably gas and nuclear power. On gas in our future energy mix, some unions support a nationwide switch to hydrogen for heating our homes. Others argue that natural gas, or methane, is a fossil fuel with no longer term future in a zero carbon Britain. On nuclear power, proponents argue that our highly regulated nuclear industry and the low-carbon electricity it generates is essential to ensuring security of supply and keeping the lights on. Those opposed are concerned about cost, safety and the dangerous waste which has the potential to be harmful for tens of thousands of years.

Some trade unions have clear policy opposing shale gas extraction on environmental and climate change grounds. The TUC’s approach to ‘fracking’ is based on the “precautionary principle,” which effectively means supporting a suspension of shale gas exploration, because of the occupational, environmental and regulatory issues involved.


The TUC and its affiliates have strongly supported the efforts of the ITUC to lobby for a strong and effective global agreement on climate change. The Paris Agreement set a new goal to reach zero emissions by the middle of the century. 

The TUC argues that:

‘Climate change affects our brothers and sisters – especially our sisters – across the world. UN figures show that 80 per cent of those displaced by climate change are women. The Paris Agreement identifies global solutions to a global problem; it has made specific provision for the empowerment of women, recognising that they are disproportionately impacted by climate change, and a just transition must provide fairness and overcome injustices experienced by all workers, male and female, young and old, black and white, in the global north and south.’ 

The UK is already legally bound by the 2008 Climate Change Act to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050, but a law mandating a 100% cut would mean a dramatic increase in ambition.

Trades Unions

As well as the common policies agreed by the annual Congress of the TUC, many unions have developed their own policies and campaigns around climate change and the environment. Below are some examples.


Unison, the public services union with 1.3 million members, has called for strong action on climate change for many years. In September 2019, Unison’s branches across the UK organised a week of activities to call for urgent action to tackle climate change.

Energy workers in UNISON are concerned about the impacts the necessary changes to tackle climate change will have on them, their families and communities. They will rightly want to have a significant say in how the UK energy industry achieves these difficult but possible outcomes. Unison is determined that any transition which is ‘just’ will secure workers jobs and livelihoods through the process of change.

Unison’s Climate change and your pension: divestment guide to campaigning through your branch for your local government pension fund to pull all investments in fossil fuels, commonly known as divestment. 

Green UNISON Week (September 2019) offers UNISON members the chance to show support for the school climate strikers ahead of their campaign to raise awareness and the school climate strike on 20 September.

Anti-trade union laws mean that UNISON branches cannot take strike action but there are many ways to show support for the school campaigners:

Five key actions:

  • Find out if your UNISON branch has an environment rep? If not, encourage your branch and any interested members to get involved and become green reps!
  • Find out what your employer is doing to reduce their environmental impact. Ask your employer to share this information with UNISON.
  • Hold a UNISON green event. You could run a lunchtime stall in the canteen, a film show, or a talk. Why not invite a school student climate striker or a speaker from a nearby environmental campaigning organisation to come along?
  • Run a green survey. Ask your friends and colleagues for ideas on how to ‘green up’ your workplace. Get people involved and offer a prize or raffle.
  • Run a green workplace training activity. Talk to your UNISON learning rep and look into running a lunchtime activity session for green reps and members who’d like to learn more.

For information on Green UNISON Week, email

Tips and suggestions to help kick-start climate campaigning are in these resources from the TUC:


Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS)

“Given the scale of the threat posed by climate change to our livelihoods and communities, workers are a key voice in negotiating reductions in workplace greenhouse gas emissions. Being green isn’t an optional extra; it’s a vital part of our trade union agenda.

Chris Baugh, PCS Assistant General Secretary

The Public and Commercial Services Union is the 6th largest trade union in the UK with approximately 200,000 members. They represent workers in the civil service, the public sector and some commercial organisations.

PCS’s environmental and climate change work focuses on the following strands:


There are four ways the union engages with its members in their workplaces on climate change:

  1. campaigning for statutory rights for workplace environmental reps and consultation machinery on sustainability at central government level
  2. organising sustainability forums at departmental or workplace level
  3. providing training and an e-news service for workplace environmental reps
  4. providing a checklist for reps to use in the workplace to systematically monitor environmental impacts in the workplace and to agree plans to address them with the employer e.g. on recycling and waste, energy usage and procurement practice.


PCS is involved in a number of campaigns including the Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union Group. PCS priority is the One Million Climate Jobs campaign as an alternative to the economic and environmental crisis. It’s also active in fossil fuel divestment, energy democracy, just transition and workers’ rights. They increasingly work with environmental and social justice groups to link their campaigning to just transition.

It also campaigns against the following: fracking; fuel poverty; nuclear power; the third runway at Heathrow; TTIP and trade deals.

PCS as an employer

Environmental Action Plans have been developed for their union offices and are monitored throughout the year by a joint committee comprising of staff union reps and PCS. An annual Greener Union Report is published each year that details things like recycling and energy usage.

Click here for more details on PCS’s policy and campaigns around climate change. 


University and College Union (UCU)

The UCU represents over 120,000 academics, lecturers, trainers, instructors, researchers, managers, administrators, computer staff, librarians and postgraduates in universities, colleges, prisons, adult education and 

UCU has established a network of over 150 UCU Environment Representatives, supplemented with training courses on the Role of the Environment Rep. Key sustainability campaigns for UCU include:

Trade Union Clean Air Network (TUCAN)

UCU was the first UK trade union to establish policy in 2017 to campaign on air pollution as a way to build practical alliances with other trade unions, environmental and community campaigns. TUCAN was launched by UCU, the Greener Jobs Alliance and the Hazards Campaign in 2019 to support air quality and clean air campaigns both inside and outside the workplace. Having decent work means being able to breathe clean air at work. Thirteen UK trade unions have signed the TUCAN charter. UCU published a guide for union reps on National Clean Air Day.

Just Transition. The TUC has launched a Just Transition statement and strategy, which UCU played a key role in creating. This puts workers at the centre of the debate, recognising the key role UCU and education trade unions have in delivering the skills and knowledge required to transition to a zero carbon economy. UCU is involved in ongoing work with the TUC around just transition, green skills and industrial strategy.

Supporting the global youth strike for climate movement. The UCU is organising practical solidarity with the UK Student Climate Network.  The UCU’s motion to the 2019 TUC Congress called on all the TUC affiliated unions, student unions, politicians and community groups, to support workday actions in solidarity with the climate strike on 20 September. A crucial element to UCU’s climate change work is building alliances with students and their organisations and campaigns. The UCU and GJA established strong solidarity links with the National Union of Students (NUS) and People & Planet around climate change campaigning.

International work. UCU is represented on Education International, a Global Union Federation, at international climate talks. It is pressing for the effective implementation at UK level of UN agreements related to climate change and the sustainable development goals.

UCU Resources include Staff Organising for Sustainability handbook.



“Unions are calling on the UN not only to agree to halt global warming and reverse carbon emissions, Unite….. believes it is crucial that there must be a ‘just transition’ in the changes that lie ahead…… a just transition means a place at the table, investment in green and decent jobs and new skills, a balanced energy, low carbon economy and respect for labour and human rights.” (9)

Len McClusky, Unite General Secretary

UNITE is Britain’s biggest union with 1.42 million members in every type of workplace.

In a recently published briefing paper, ‘Meeting the Climate Challenge’, Unite sees a balanced energy policy, a just transition to a low carbon economy and the growth of climate jobs as key parts of meeting that challenge.

In addition Unite campaigns around the following:

  • investment in renewable and low-carbon energy
  • new build homes to be fully energy efficient
  • appropriate incentives to improve home and business insulation
  • businesses to audit their energy use to be as efficient as possible
  • support for trade union representatives to promote energy efficient workplaces and meet the climate change challenge.

Click here for more details on UNITE’s policy and campaigns around climate change.



Prospect, represents professionals like scientists, engineers, managers, specialists in a range of industries and organisations, some of which are uniquely placed to influence climate change policy. They have members in the Met Office, the Environment Agency, the energy sector and many research councils. Prospect is active in the Trade Union Sustainable Development Advisory Committee (TUSDAC), one of the main forums for consultation between the government and trade unions on sustainable development and environmental issues.

Prospect’s priorities includes:

  • Engaging key stakeholders and politicians on a cross-party basis, including Parliamentary launches of our policy pamphlets on ‘A sustainable future for UK energy’ in summer 2018 and ‘Act now to re-energise UK renewables’ in December 2018.
  • In June 2019 we launched, and received good media coverage for a briefing ‘What happened to all the green jobs?’
  • We took part in a roundtable discussion on energy with Labour policy advisers and other energy unions. Through the TUC we published a joint statement with the other energy unions.
  • Courtesy of Prospect representatives, we ran two TUC workshops to discuss Just Transition at Uniper’s Ratcliffe site and at Sellafield. Find the TUC’s statement here.
  • We launched a major campaign with our Natural England branch to highlight the impact of cuts and the need for more investment in the environmental workforce –
  • We have reinvigorated our training for environmental reps following the mandate from Prospect conference 2018. This will be open to BECTU sector representatives.

Access Prospect’s resources here.


Bakers Union 

The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) successfully moved a motion around climate change at the TUC Congress in 2017, calling for a just transition to a renewable energy industry, energy democracy and recognition of environmental reps. BFAWU has been working away in the background to develop its environmental strategy:

  • Adapting the current Health and Safety Reps role to include an environmental aspect – transitioning into safety, health and environment reps (SHE).
  • Publishing a new newsletter, Green Stuff, which will be published every 3 months. It will be available to download here on the website and also from the Facebook page @BFAWUGreenstuff and Twitter page @BFAWUS. It contains regular updates on what’s happening

For content to go into the newsletter, or to find out more, contact: sarah.woolley@bfawu with the subject “green stuff”.



Trade Unions for Energy Democracy

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is an international network which calls for publicly and democratically owned energy. This would mean restructuring the global energy system to scale up renewable energy, energy efficiency and job creation.(7)

Watch the following animation that explains what is meant by energy democracy.


This Is What Energy Democracy Looks Like

These are just some examples of individual union policies and good practice in tackling climate change and greening the workplace. You can find details of your union’s policies on their website or by contacting their research department. Trade unions have a long history of taking action on environmental issues as they’ve campaigned for safer, healthier, working and living environments. Consequently, they have a unique and valuable role to play in raising awareness and mobilising people to address the challenge of climate change.

In the following video trade unionists and climate campaigners talk about the importance of the labour movement working together with other social movements to tackle climate change and fight for a just transition to a zero-carbon economy.

After Paris: Organising for a #JustTransition

Published on 10 Dec 2015 ITUC

References and further reading

  2. Call for Dialogue: Climate Action Requires Just Transition
  5.  Go Green at Work-reps handbook:

Click here to test your understanding