Changing the rules going global: unions and climate change

Last week 3 significant reports from distant parts of the world highlighted the crucial role that workers and their unions can play in fighting climate change.

Each one showed how union members can shape the character of the move away from fossil-fueled energy production and, negotiate a rapid “just transition” that provides secure jobs in renewable energy production and associated environment renewal industries.

In Latin America

In early October representatives from 15 countries throughout the Americas met in San José, Costa Rica, for the Third Regional Conference on Energy, Environment and Work. The meeting was reported by the ever growing Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, and convened by the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA-CSA). 24 trade union centres attended along with 7 continental social movements, 4 civil society organizations and 5 universities.

“For three days, the group discussed how to respond to the predatory and repressive actions of mining and drilling companies across the continent.”

The participants developed an agreed affirmative agenda, including:

  • ending energy poverty,
  • de-privatisation,
  • recover people’s sovereignty over common resources and goods
  • reject technological determinism that gives precedence to one technology over another and,
  • de-fossilisation of the energy matrix.

Thus, representing hundreds of thousands of workers, these unions connect poverty and inequality to the impact of climate change driven by transnational corporations’ control over work and social life.

In Spain

We learned that in Spain a group of coal mining unions have negotiated a “Just Transition” agreement. The Agreement  speeds up the closure of declining coal mines and replaces these with a programme of clean energy production and environment renewal.

There seem to be 2 important factors behind this breakthrough. First, the workers and their communities, through their unions, established momentum for their demands through social and industrial action. Also, they were dealing with a government that wanted to develop a “just transition agreement”.

The Just Transition deal “… replaces subsidies to the coal industry with a sustainable development plan. Financially viable mines can remain open, but ten pits and open cast mines are expected to close by the end of the year, with the loss of 1,677 jobs. The deal covers eight companies with 12 production units in four regions of Spain. The biggest employer is state owned mining company HUNOSA, with 1,056 employees.

“The highly detailed agreement has been praised by unions as a model, and provides a package of benefits to miners and their communities.

“About 60 per cent of miners – those age 48 and older, or with 25 years’ service – will be able to take early retirement. Younger miners will receive a redundancy payment of €10,000, as well as 35 days’ pay for every year of service. Miners with asbestosis will receive an additional payment of €26,000. …

“An action plan will be created for each mining community, including plans for developing renewable energy and improving energy efficiency, and investing in and developing new industries.

Obviously, there is still much to learn about any flow-on effects to the “financially viable” mines and the damage they will continue to cause.

In Australia

The Mining and Energy Division of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) released a report on “Just Transition” as it might apply to Australia’s mining industry and the workers threatened by its decline.

Of course “a report” is not the same as a negotiated “just transition agreement”, its still a big deal, for several reasons.

First, it is not straightforward for a union and its members – under pressure from a declining industry base and workforce – to develop a strategy on climate change. Members and their families can now draw on new, rich material to work out their campaigns for the immediate future.

The report says:

“Coal-fired power industry workers and their communities have provided Australia with energy for many decades. For this, they have also suffered from working and living in polluted or dangerous environments. In the absence of sufficient policy-making forethought and attention, they will now also carry the heaviest costs of the new national climate change priorities.

“Those costs would show up as unwelcome early retirements, unemployment, underemployment, insecure employment and work that is lower paid, less safe and less skilled. Overall, these produce reduced incomes and personal assets, both before and after retirement.”

Put in another way, leaving transition to the elusive charms of the “free market” will be a disastrous dead end for workers who have worked their guts out to provide what is taken for granted by the rest of the population.

Not just bread, we’ll take the bakery too?

The common thinking in most of the Australian union movement says that investment (and disinvestment) decisions are a matter for the employer, even when we don’t like it, as we often do.

With some exceptions, climate change has not been union business in the practical sense that it should or can be negotiated. Making sure that unions can represent workers in decisions about disinvestment (“defossilisation”), new job-creating investment based on renewables, and private or public ownership, is quite rare.

The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union has been an exception. In 2008, the Union released a ground breaking report that formed the basis of its ongoing negotiations with the then Labor government, especially in reference to its industry development policy.

Of course, the broken rules of Australia’s Fair Work Act 2009 prohibit investment decisions from being the subject matter of negotiations for the purposes of making an agreement. This prohibition must be removed and replaced with workers’ rights, including through their unions, to make claims and negotiate arrangements that protect and advance their interests during transition away from fossil fuel dependency.

As the CFMMEU report says:

Currently, law, policy and practice allow owners of coal-fired power stations to make all decisions regarding closures: when and how it suits them. The clear inference is that those decisions should be left only to the owners’ commercial considerations. This was evident in the South Australian cases but also, in 2017, for the Hazelwood plant in Victoria. Further, those owners have no social responsibilities to workers or host communities beyond the scarce regulatory requirements.

The “Concrete Proposals” in the report (page 15) are, potentially, a big step forward to ensure a strong role for unions and their workers in setting the pace of transition and, also, to ensure that workers and their communities will not be victims of it. The emphasis on tripartite processes is quite European and is understandable. Tripartite industry processes were not a gross failure, despite inadequacies, during the 1980’s.

Changing the workplace and industrial laws to strengthen workers’ rights – including the right to strike – will change the rules about “just transition” to reverse climate change, not just reversing inequality on the wages front.

“New rules” campaigns come together for the elections

Rapid action on climate and “changing the rules” in Australia’s grossly unfair workplace and industrial laws will be 2 of the major threshold issues for the next national election. (See this, for example.) The National Conference of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) coming up in December will also also have to deal with them.

The “Changing the Rules” theme is catching on. There are so many sets of broken rules, as I have commented on before. And most of them do interact with each other in various ways.

And we have this 15 year old’s insight all the way from Helsinki, Finland

…  Greta Thunberg urged marchers to fight for the major systemic changes that experts have said are necessary to limit greenhouse gas emissions and avert a looming climate catastrophe.

“Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground, so we can’t save the world by playing by the rules because the rules have to change. Everything needs to change and it has to start today,” declared the Swedish teenager, who traveled to the capital city of her nation’s Nordic neighbor for Saturday’s massive march.

Nails it.

Author: Don Sutherland

I am a retired left wing and labour movement activist. Before that I worked for a long time in the Australian union movement in union education, Australian and international solidarity and organising. I am also active in Cuban solidarity, the SEARCH FOUNDATION, and promoting discussion, debate and action about green socialism based on workers control and social ownership.