Plenary Discussion – Unions and Climate Change

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8th July, 2015 / Anna Basten / guest blogger

A few years ago, climate change was not seen as a trade union issue. This is changing. And it needs to change, for, according to Sean Sweeney (Trade Unions for Energy Democracy), we are facing an energy crisis that will soon become a civilizational crisis. Sean Sweeney and Chris Baugh (Public and Commercial Services Union, UK) made a very convincing case for the involvement of the labour movement in the struggle for energy democracy. Their presentations and the discussions with Summer School participants made the following points very clear:

Sean Sweeney [Photo: Khalid Mahmood]

Sean Sweeney
[Photo: Khalid Mahmood]

One: “Green economy” arguments, which simply integrate renewable energy sources into a neoliberal framework, are not the right way to go. What we need is energy democracy. As long as the energy system works only in the interest of capital, it will not bring about real change. Instead, energy generation needs to be based on public ownership.

Two: Trade unions have an important role to play in the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy in order to ensure that it accommodates the needs of the workers who are employed in the energy sector. If the unions do not step up to the plate, any form of “greening the economy” will be done in the interest of big business.

There needs to be a discussion within the labour movement on how to design a just and fair transition to renewable energy, which puts workers’ interests at the heart of the debate. Trade unions could set up commissions to explore the specific impact of climate change on workers in their sectors, and to discuss which part they will play in shaping the transition of the energy system.

Chris Baugh [Photo: Khalid Mahmood]

Chris Baugh
[Photo: Khalid Mahmood]

Three: Trade unions from both the global North and South need to be part of the movement for energy democracy. Climate change is already affecting people all around the world, but first and foremost it affects poorer communities in the global South. Yet, at the moment there is very little discussion around this issue amongst unions in the South. It was suggested by the audience that Global Union Federations take responsibility for educating their member organisations on the issue and on the importance of getting involved. And in fact, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is already engaged in an active internal discussion around climate change and the role of the unions in an energy transition.

Finally, it was made clear that reducing emissions and pollution is not just an issue for the environmental movement. Changing the energy system needs to be coupled with shifting power relations in favour of workers and communities. This is where unions need to take on an active role – which, as a matter of fact they are increasingly doing, inter alia as part of a global initiative called Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED).