Jobs versus climate needn’t be a dilemma

Trade union ranks are swelling and COP26 is on the horizon. It’s the perfect time to demand government action that benefits both workers and the climate, says Jake Woodier

February 25, 2021 · 6 min read
Protestors at DC Climate March, photo by Mark Dixon

A year into the global shockwaves caused by Covid-19, the devastating direct and indirect impacts on health, wellbeing and the global economy are still centre-stage. Meanwhile, the climate and ecological crises continue unabated, save for a minimal and short-lived drop in greenhouse gas emissions.

We have seen, in response to the pandemic, $14.9 trillion in government spending mobilised globally to shore up economies. Nearly incomprehensible, this figure is roughly equivalent to the gross domestic product of Russia, Canada, Italy, Brazil, France, the United Kingdom and India combined. Of this, $4.6 trillion will be pumped into sectors – including transport, agriculture, energy and industry – that have a lasting impact on carbon emissions and nature, yet ‘only’ $1.8 trillion can be classed as ‘green’. The overall stimulus demonstrates the vast financial apparatus available to governments when deemed necessary, yet the ‘green’ component falls woefully short. 

For all the rhetoric of a green recovery or ‘building back better’, the global response to Covid-19 looks set to continue on a trajectory towards climate and ecological breakdown. This reality highlights a glaring contradiction that needs urgently reckoning. To act at the scale and speed these interwoven crises necessitate, state intervention is imperative. 

Working for the climate

Amid the turmoil, glimmers of hope can be found. Workers and trade unions have mobilised in order to protect health, jobs and livelihoods. Trade unions were instrumental in negotiating the UK job retention and self-employment support schemes that, though imperfect, were vital in protecting millions of jobs. In perhaps a greater display of power, the National Education Union, supported by sectoral unions, forced the government’s hand over school closures by supporting staff in refusal to work citing an unsafe workplace. 

Moreover, after years of declining membership, there has been an upswing in workers joining unions prior to the pandemic, which looks set to increase given the current context of extreme precarity. This power and momentum must be wielded to head off threats to livelihoods in the immediate term, but also to demand and realise the necessary economic interventions to rapidly decarbonise all sectors of the economy. 

Unions can pressure the government – through lobbying and visionary worker-centred proposals – to commit to meaningful long-term capital funding for green infrastructure and jobs. While plans are currently in shambles, the Conservatives have at least recognised the need to decarbonise Britain’s homes. And it is through this sector that tens of thousands of jobs could be realised across the UK with well designed and targeted sectoral support including grants, education and training, and jobs guarantees.

Historically, trade unions have been slow movers on climate change. Similarly, environmentalists have often failed to recognise the implications of decarbonisation for workers’ livelihoods in industries subject to radical overhaul or obsoletion. Labour for a Green New Deal have made impressive headwinds with unions in recent years, however, securing a groundbreaking party commitment in 2019 that at the time situated Labour’s among the most progressive climate policies globally. Last year, Labour campaign was pivotal in supporting the establishment of GMB for a Green New Deal, notable given GMB’s historic heel-dragging on progressive climate action. 

Further demonstrating the possibility of collective action, in 2020 union-organised workers at an Airbus facility in North Wales used their skills to reorient aviation production toward medical ventilators that were urgently needed for healthcare provision. Those workers, backed by their union branch, demonstrated the potential for production conversion for public good. Their experience could offer a model for retooling our skilled workforce in a climate-conscious way. Looking further afield, Iron & Earth – a collective of fossil fuel industry and indigenous workers in Canada – are organising around ‘The Prosperous Transition Plan’, a worker designed pathway to decarbonisation over the coming decades. 

The UK landscape in 2021 is rare given the United Nations climate talks (COP26) taking place in Glasgow in November. This renders the government somewhat susceptible to reputational damage from climate inertia as the host nation. COP26 provides an opportunity to utilise this reputational susceptibility to pressure the government into policies that benefit both workers and the environment. It is trade unions, with perhaps newfound swagger, that could really harness their power, in collaboration with the wider climate movement, to exert unprecedented demands on climate and the environment policymakers, especially within the framing of meaningful jobs and economic resilience. 

Jake Woodier is an editor at Red Pepper

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