Protecting jobs, saving the planet

Union activists from across the UK’s energy sector came together to discuss the challenges posed by climate change – including a transition to sustainable energy that won’t come at the expense of workers

“Climate change is here. And so are its consequences.”

That stark statement was made by Benjamin Denis of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) as he set the scene at a seminar of union reps from the energy sector, organised by UNISON at the beginning of September.

The event brought together around 80 rank-and-file reps and activists representing energy industry workers from the four major unions in the field: UNISON, Unite, GMB and Prospect.

Their task: to discuss the unprecedented challenges faced by their industry, as the world tries to move to low-carbon, zero-emission economies to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The Paris Agreement saw governments commit themselves to keeping global warming to no more than 2˚C.

That’s the level which many scientists see as the tipping point – pass that and global warming could spiral out of control and become irreversible, leading to a ‘hothouse Earth’.

To have any chance of keeping global warming to 2˚, the global community needs to become carbon neutral by the second half of this century.

Europe’s carbon emissions have fallen by 1% a year since 1990. But to reach carbon neutrality by 2060-70, the rate of reduction needs to triple to 3% a year.

And that’s the problem.

As an ETUC guide on climate change for trade unions states: “Moving towards a low-carbon economy in a few decades is a challenge for all countries … decarbonising an economy which is still highly dependent on fossil fuels implies, among other things, wide-reaching industrial transformations and technological shifts, the development of new energy patterns, new business models and more circularity in ways of producing and consuming.

“In other words, respecting the Paris mandate requires a deep and rapid change of the way we produce, move and consume.”

bulb with sky

The report says that, from a workers’ perspective, the transition will profoundly reshape the labour market in ways that creates both new risks and new opportunities for workers. Jobs will be created, but also lost, or replaced by new roles.

There will also be the need for new knowledge and skills: “Certain sectors and regions, especially the ones that are dependent on carbon intensive industries, may be more negatively impacted than others.

“Anticipating these trends and their impact on workers is at the heart of trade unions’ activities.”

UNISON brought together the four major energy unions for the first time ever, at UNISON Centre in London, to address exactly that dilemma.

As Sue Ferns of Prospect told those attending: “This discussion isn’t about whether climate change exists or not – we’re here to talk as representatives of workers.

“Today is about trying to put us on the front foot with all unions working together.”

Everyone in the room had the example of the UK coal mining industry in the back of their minds.

In 1980, the industry employed some 237,000 people. By 1990, that figure had fallen to 49,000 and by 2000 just 11,000 people worked in mining. When Kellingley Colliery in West Yorkshire closed in December 2015, it marked the end of deep coal mining in the UK.

That precipitous fall in employment devastated communities from Kent to Wearside, from South Wales to Fife.

The unions represented at the seminar are determined to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to the workforce of today’s energy industry.

That’s where the labour movement’s demand for a ‘just transition’ comes in: ensuring that the move from a high-carbon energy industry to a low-carbon one comes with justice as a key element.

UNISON national officer Matthew Lay welcomed delegates to the seminar by pointing out that “the concept of a just transition appears too often to be just that: a concept.

“So this seminar has been organised to address that by bringing together reps from the four major energy unions for the first time ever.”

TUC deputy general secretary Paul Nowak told the seminar: “We have to grapple with the implications for the economy, our industrial base, etc, at a time when the industrial outlook is very uncertain, when low pay and insecure work have become the norm.”

So what does that mean for UNISON members and other workers in the industry?

That was the first question to be discussed in workshops, as the gathering was asked to identify the threats and concerns posed by the transition to a low-carbon economy. These included:

  • the decimation of communities – the fate of the mining communities in the 1990s;
  • the threat to jobs, including the quality of work, pay, pensions and skills;
  • the enforced relocation of staff;
  • the rise of smaller organisations and companies supplying energy without union recognition;
  • the lack of long-term planning from government;
    the issue of who is going to pay for a transition to sustainable energy.

Given these concerns, the question is how to ensure that the transition to a low-carbon economy is a just one.

Again, the seminar broke into working groups and came up with a number of proposals:

  • the need for a long-term and cohesive energy policy, including community support structures and future investment;
  • full consultation with, and involvement of the workforce in developing a balanced energy policy;
  • making sure the views of union members are central to planning;
  • informing the public and winning public support;
  • the creation of an energy council to bring together all stakeholders;
  • the establishment within companies of formal works councils, with union reps on board to oversee ethical supply chains;
  • clarification of what ‘a just transition’ means – what are the effects down the line?

“Climate change policies are not of themselves good or bad for workers – they are what we decide to make them,” said Benjamin Denis. “We want decarbonisation to be backed by a strong social agenda.

“A low-carbon, green economy can be seen as desirable for everyone if we can make sure that no-one is left behind.”

Or, as Justin Bowden from the GMB said: “We need to make sure we build in the skills and experience our current members.” The four unions at the seminar, and the wider labour movement, have “got responsibilities to today’s workers and to the workers of tomorrow”.

Peter McIntosh of Unite rounded up the day by affirming the three priorities already identified by the TUC.

These are: for skilled, well-paid jobs to be at the heart of a strategy for a just transition; for the government to step up to the plate, with among other things a new deal for further education that would accommodate retraining in the sector; and the need to make the case for a balanced energy mix – for a diverse, affordable and safe energy supply.

There is also the issue of union organisation.

As Mr Denis said: “If we only defend the people in sectors where we are strong … we might become completely irrelevant. We need to organise and unionise workers in green tech.” But he also warned: “There are no jobs on a dead planet.”

A global disaster

  • The increase in emissions between 1970 and 2010 was the highest in human history.
  • Of the years between 1998 and 2016, nine saw annual global temperatures that were higher than the average for the whole of the 20th century.
  • Nature reacts – heatwaves, floods, droughts, cyclones and wildfires are now everyday events.
  • In Africa, lakes are drying up – leaving fishing communities and other industries high and dry.
  • As land becomes arid, rural communities are forced to move to the outskirts of the large cities in search of food.
  • If global warming is unchecked, the availability and affordability of food and water will be affected.
  • Between 2000 and 2012, floods cost European countries €4.9bn a year. By 2050, that could rise to €25bn a year.
  • 70% of Europe’s energy is produced by burning fossil fuels.
  • 1% – the annual drop in carbon emissions across Europe since 1990. 3% – what the annual fall needs to be to prevent disaster.