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Unions see green light on climate

Chris Baugh explains how the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union and other UK trade unions are beginning to respond to the urgency of climate change with an agenda of 'just transition'

January 11, 2010
9 min read

At the height of the financial crash in late 2008, the Guardian asked various political commentators for their views. Naomi Klein wrote: ‘Nobody should believe the overblown claims that the free market ideology is now dead. Rest assured the ideology will come roaring back when the bailouts are done. The massive debt the public is accumulating to bail out the speculators will then become part of a global budget crisis that will be the rationalisation for deep cuts to social programmes and for a renewed push to privatise what is left of the public sector. We will also be told that our hopes for a green future are too costly.’

The government is on record as calling for new industrial activism for a green industrial revolution. Yet there could hardly be a greater mismatch between government rhetoric and practice than when – in the same week that environment minister Ed Miliband announced new targets for expanding renewable energy – Vestas, a profitable Danish company and England’s sole manufacturer of onshore wind turbines, announced the closure of its plant on the Isle of Wight with the loss of 600 jobs.

The occupation by the Vestas workers is not the only workplace occupation we’re seen recently. Since the crisis has bitten hard and jobs have been haemorrhaging in their hundreds of thousands, we have seen sit-ins at Waterford Crystal in Ireland, and the Ford component supplier Visteon in Enfield, Basildon and Belfast. These actions delivered tangible results by either saving jobs or securing better payoffs. The Vestas campaign secured the support of the workforce and its local community and also created a common front between trade unions and green activists.

This is not perhaps the industrial activism the government had in mind – but Vestas workers need our continued support to protect jobs, secure decent redundancy payments and apply pressure for government intervention. This is not about throwing money at a lame duck or ‘sunset’ industry. An expansion of low-carbon industries will be indispensible for combating climate change and developing the green economy of the future. As the Vestas workers put it, ‘If the government can spend billions bailing out the banks, and even nationalise them, then surely they can do the same at Vestas.’

Workplace activism

The urgency and scale of the threat of climate change has produced a growing awareness in society in general. This is reflected in the ranks of the trade union movement as the issue becomes increasingly central to our collective bargaining. PCS is one of a growing number of unions active around green issues and climate change. There are three strands to the approach we’ve taken.

1. The first involves establishing good practice as a union and employer ourselves through, for example, setting up a joint environment committee with PCS management and the staff union (GMB).

2. The second strand involves developing a bargaining agenda with government and employers. Following the publication of a report in 2008 by the environmental audit committee of MPs, which recommended engagement with civil service unions, a sustainability forum was set up. This provides a forum for consultation between the senior civil service and trade unions over the government’s sustainability targets for its own operations and holding the employer to account in departments, agencies and public bodies.

3. The third strand is about working with NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth around wider campaigns. These include opposing the building of a new generation of nuclear power stations, supporting the introduction of the Climate Change Act, support for renewable energy ‘feed-in tariffs’ and opposing a third runway at Heathrow. Aside from taking forward PCS’s policies on these issues, this collaboration has helped to give recognition to trade unions as increasingly active on green issues and fostered awareness of a growing common agenda between green NGOs and unions.

PCS has also actively campaigned for statutory provision for workplace environmental reps. John McDonnell MP tabled an amendment to the (now) Employment Act 2008, which sought to amend the ACAS code of practice on time off for trade union duties and activities. Very similar to rights that workplace learning reps were accorded in 2002, this would have provided for time off for training and carrying out activities such as promoting green workplace initiatives, carrying out environmental audits and being consulted on workplace environmental practices.

PCS wrote to all MPs and relevant party spokespeople, as well as all unions, asking them to support the amendment. Although the amendment wasn’t taken to a vote it did help to further raise the profile of the issue in parliament and with ministers.

Speaking during the debate on the amendment in the House of Commons, employment minister Pat McFadden said: ‘I agree that environmental representatives are a valuable and relatively new development. Their emergence shows that … trade unions have a valid and legitimate voice on this agenda. The issue in question is whether to place these representatives on a statutory footing. Members may not be too surprised to learn that I believe it is premature to do so, but I welcome their development and I encourage ACAS and environmental quality representatives to work on guidance in this area.’

Added strength was given to this campaign by a TUC motion in 2008, which included calling on the government to give statutory rights to workplace environmental reps. Following the House of Commons debate, a European Union written declaration (similar to a UK parliament early day motion), calling on governments and the European Commission to give legal recognition to workplace environmental representatives, was tabled by UK Green Party MEPs. Although the 106 signatures it received were not enough to see it adopted, the level of support was nevertheless significant.

Trade union environmentalism

Trade unions have undoubtedly taken an ideological and industrial battering over the past few decades. Rarely, if ever, will you see coverage of a dispute that addresses its causes. The media are always happy to describe the scratch, but not the itch. Trade unions have a long history of waging struggles around health and safety issues. What’s new is that workplaces are now estimated to be responsible for over 50 per cent of CO2 emissions. This reinforces the need for trade unions to be built from the workplace up and to win support from members and reps for intervening in the workplace not just on traditional collective bargaining issues but on climate change as well.

The Campaign Against Climate Change (CACC) has played an important role in bringing together unions and environmental activists. The CACC trade union group conference early in 2009 launched an initiative in an attempt to turn the rhetoric into a practical plan of action for producing more than a million green jobs. A pamphlet, One million climate jobs now!, has recently been published in advance of a more detailed report in 2010.

It points to the insulation of public buildings and private homes; developing a sustainable public transport system in rail, trams and electric cars; exploiting the fact that the UK has among the world’s best wind, wave and tidal energy resources; upgrading an antiquated national grid and developing the advanced research and development into energy storage; investing in research and development and training in renewable technologies. We can also take inspiration from the Lucas Aerospace workers’ plan of the late 1970s (see Red Pepper, Oct/Nov 2009), which points to how we could use our manufacturing capacity and skills for socially useful purposes.

Protecting jobs

We hope this will not just be another report for putting on a shelf. It can help open up debates around the need to adopt policies and promote green activities within individual trade unions. Recognising there are disagreements about the way forward, the report can also help open up a much-needed dialogue between unions and with environmental campaigners.

I recall, as a young activist in the late 1970s, leafleting workers at Sellafield about the dangers of nuclear power. The hostile reception didn’t change my views on nuclear power, but it did convince me of the need for the trade union movement to develop a strategy for protecting members’ jobs that also protects the environment for our and future generations.

This assumes even greater importance in the context of Nicholas Stern’s definition of climate change as ‘the greatest market failure the world has ever seen’, and also of the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s. It is clear that the market, left to its own devices, will not deliver the low carbon jobs of the future. Neither will it address the alarming increase in unemployment, with the insecurity and hardship this means for working-class families.

The UK government’s love affair with big business has produced one of the lowest rates of renewable power generation in Europe. To quote Seamus Milne: ‘The need for direct public investment in a green industrial base – the commanding heights of the future – could not be more pressing.’

We will need to vigorously protect public services against the planned onslaught by the three main political parties. This will need to form part of a strategy for green jobs that can carry the support of the trade union movement and help lay the basis for the collective public action necessary to avert the risk of ecological disaster. Our bigger task is to overcome the fatalism that has afflicted trade unions and popular protest for far too long, and re-assert the belief that an alternative to a world driven by profit rather than social need really is possible.

Chris Baugh is assistant general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union

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