Photo: Tim Dennell

WANTED: a debate on climate policy in the Trade Union movement

Oct 16, 2022

On 8th October, our colleagues in Campaign Against Climate Change held a day’s conference titled ‘Urgent action, long term solutions: cost of living, climate and industrial action’.  One of the sessions, for which I was Chair, had the title ‘Winning climate arguments in trade unions’ and included excellent contributions from Sam Mason (PCS and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy), Mel Mullings (RMT) and Suzanne Jeffery (Chair, CACCTU).

There was also a great contribution from Pablo John, a GMB worker and a member of GMB for a Green New Deal, and Pablo has written a follow-up piece that appears alongside this article as part of the debate thread we hope to initiate around trade union policy and climate.

At such a critical moment for the country we desperately need a sensible, well-thought-out debate about how trade unions deal with the climate crisis and serve the long-term interest of their members.  That means recognising first that what many GJA supporters will see as a worrying trend towards regressive policies (support for fracking, oil and gas drilling, more nuclear) is a response to the fact that we have a government that is promoting those very industries and therefore that’s where the jobs would be.

My own counter to that would be that, as climate catastrophe approaches, those industries become increasingly untenable and our energy strategy will have to change and change more abruptly and dramatically the longer we leave it.  But it is difficult to sustain that argument when union leaders only have to look around to see that their members’ current jobs are ‘real’ while the point I’ve just made is ‘notional’.   The ask of those trade unions would be, even while supporting ‘regressive’ policies, at least come to the table to talk about the future, and what the workforce will look like, or else when the catastrophe strikes, as everyone knows it will, the change will be done to you not by you.

What the current polarisation within the trade union movement also speaks to is the difference between being a leader and being ordinary members.  In the case of General Secretaries, there are probably very few who do not recognise the imminence of climate breakdown and it’s likely impact on their members’ jobs.  But can they really come out and say that those jobs are at risk of becoming obsolete and we have to change, AND to propose policy out of that recognition?  That’s a lot to ask when your job description is ‘to protect members’ jobs’.

And yet, there is a growing feeling among ordinary members in every high-carbon industry that their jobs are unsustainable in the long term and that ‘something’ will change.  Many, when asked, acknowledge this as reality and are accepting of it.  Their main concern is about planned transition, the availability of training and reskilling, and about job security.  That’s why we, unions and their members, have to demand a prominent voice in planning and designing what, for example, the energy system of the future will look like, to ensure those safeguards are there.

The idea of this thread is to solicit blogs from others (beginning with Pablo’s contribution, and reaching out to specific individuals) that express all sides of the debate. Leaving aside the Theatre of the Absurd that constitutes our current government, this is the discussion workers need to have to ensure job security for the long term future.

Tahir Latif

GJA Secretary

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