This text is not about climate science nor about energy transition in general. But to start with, it is important to clarify three points:
- We urgently need an energy transition.
- The window of action is closing
- We have few years left to fundamentally change our energy systems.
There is no energy transition currently in course, whether just or unjust. If everything goes well with the government commitments, the marvellous increase in modern renewable energies would reach 20% of world energy supply in 2035. Despite all the green marketing, the truth is that the governments are not shutting down fossil fuel infrastructures, and they continue planning new ones.
Understanding that there is no no transition in course is important, because whoever says that it’s happening says it for purely ideological reasons, as it is not based on facts. The narrative about a possible green growth in which capitalist markets and a livable planet would be compatible not only demobilizes the people but also creates an ambition gap in social movements.
Which takes me to my third point: we have to make this transition happen. What is at stake is not a choice between just and unjust transition, but between a just transition and climate chaos.
And to make this happen, we have to make climate change a problem of the people. This is the topic I will focus on in this text: how to make the struggle for energy transition a concrete struggle in the lives of the people.
I will further focus on workers and unions.
Forms of union intervention
There are two forms of union intervention for energy transition: Firstly, as whole workers, that is, as member of the working class and not just employees of a company. This kind of intervention is quite common all around the world.
This is a subject which is directly related to the lives of the workers and the communities, and the unions already have a long history of social and political intervention beyond the conflicts within the working places. Some well known examples are anti-war movements, struggles against privatizations, gender equality fights and the recent mobilizations against free trade agreements.
Union struggles also include a strong component of influencing and challenging government policies, as in the cases of anti-austerity movements and annual budget negotiations. In this case too, the union intervention goes beyond the immediate conflicts inside the working places and assumes a general vision on the direction the society will take.
Secondly, there are workers in frontline sectors of climate crisis. Energy and transport are key sectors for the energy transition, where some jobs will be lost and many many more will be created. Particularly in public transport and renewable energies, studies predict multiple times more jobs than the fossil fuel industry offers. On the other hand, the workers in the forestry, agriculture, public health and firefighting are those who directly confront the impact of climate change. The labour organisations of these workers are essential to alert the society about the right path to take.
Climate Jobs as a strategy
To articulate social and climate justice, we have the Climate Jobs Campaign which unites environmentalist organisations and unions. We see the campaign not just as what should happen, but as what we will make happen.
The campaign, as a strategy, has a bunch of strong sides:
- It is a concrete, positive proposal, to which we would say “Yes”, which puts us in the offensive position (rather than defensive).
- It talks about just transition and includes workers and communities which at the moment depend on fossil fuel industry.
- It unites environmentalists and workers, breaking the false dilemma between jobs and sustainability.
- It demands thousands of new and decent jobs.
- It represents a real solution to the climate crisis.
- It sees climate as a common wealth and assumes a “public service” vision.
Tactics and experiences
With theses strategic advantages, we now pass to examples of successful alliances and union interventions around the world.
As in the first section, I will classify the examples as whole worker interventions and frontline worker interventions.
- In the Basque Country, the unions addressed fracking not only as workers but also defenders of the community. Thus, they led the fight against fracking together with various other organizations, and had quite a few victories.
- In France, the unions of the platform Emplois-Climat (Jobs-Climate) mobilized against the new labour law proposals which was to make the work conditions even more precarious. Thus, the unions used the campaign as a proposal against precarity. In Portugal too, the 2nd National Gathering for Climate Justice had CGTP-IN and the Precarious Workers’ Association in a session on labour precariousness and planetary precariousness.
- In Norway, unions and environmentalists unite for the 1st of May march. The Portuguese climate jobs campaign was indeed launched on a 1st of May protest 2016.
- In the UK, the Public and Commercial Services Union has a very active role in the One Million Climate Jobs campaign. The unions defend a National Climate Service, which would include climate jobs but also the whole social service organization to maintain these.
- In New York, after the Sandy hurricane, the movements did not allow the issue to disappear from public agenda. More recently, unions signed an agreement with the governor to create thousands of climate jobs in the construction and building sector.
- All around the world, the Climate Jobs campaign participate actively in the climate marches.
- In Norway, the Bridge to the Future coalition prepared a pledge for the candidates in the general elections, in which one of the core demands was the creation of climate jobs.
After these cases where environmentalists and unionists used the campaign as a tool for intervention in various areas, let us now move on to the frontlines.
- In the United Kingdom the One Million Climate Jobs campaign gained huge visibility when Vestas wanted to close down a series of wind turbines. The workers and activists called for an occupation of the turbines, to defend the work and the climate at the same time. In many parts of the world, fights for public transport could translate into such alliances.
- In South Africa, coal miners involved in the One Million Climate Jobs campaign reject political blackmails against their employment. Instead of fighting against environmentalists, the unions support and defend the campaign as the solution for a just transition, and they thus have the support of the climate movement too.
- In the United Kingdom, whenever a huge storm hits the land and several cities are affected by floods, the firefighters union alerts about climate change. The union underlines that if we don’t take action on time to reduce the emissions, we will reach a point that there will never be sufficient amount of firefighters to deal with what is to come. Similar approaches could work with forest fires in Southern Europe.
- In New York, the construction workers are demanding energy efficient buildings and the creation of climate jobs in this sector.
- The International Transport Workers’ Federation offers a training kit about the climate crisis and jobs, designed particularly for transportation workers.
- In the United Kingdom, the Public and Commercial Services Union proposes training for the next jobs as part of collective negotiations. For instance, the workers in an oil refinery can demand training in renewable energies as part of their collective negotiation. This is one way of addressing the administrative challenges of the energy transition and preparing the workers for a low carbon economy.
These are only some examples of tactics for the fight for a just energy transition. The essential aspect at this point is that neither the labour movement nor the climate movement can alone win the fight against climate change. We need to keep reinventing and updating alliances to build the movement large and strong enough to change everything.