Just transition

“Our aim must be a new kind of globalisation from below – a transitional solidarity that offers alternatives to the mass of working or would-be working people, deepening their involvement and building their power.” Transformative trade unionism and low carbon futures – Jacklyn Cock and Hilary Wainwright, 2015

 Addressing the threat of climate change poses enormous challenges for workers. Together with increasing militarisation, automation, low wage and precarious work, our rapidly changing climate raises valid questions about the future of the world of work.

This is not new terrain as technological changes or the need to address environmental risks arguably goes back to the dawn of the industrial revolution. But climate change poses a different question, and with it, a potentially different – transformative – response.

The Paris climate agreement reached in December 2015 for the first time saw a global consensus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions with the aim of limiting global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius – or better 1.5 – on pre-industrial levels. However, to achieve this, we urgently need to transition from a fossil fuel to a zero carbon economy.

Workers are key to this transition but understandably resistant when jobs and livelihoods are threatened.   A nexus of ‘jobs versus environment’ which needs to be resolved if workers aren’t going to end up paying a disproportionate price for the transition.

For a salutary lesson in this we need look no further than the destruction of the coal industry and its impact on coalfield communities in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  With more than 250,000 jobs lost, the Labour commissioned 1998 Coalfields Task Force reported that they had “been left in no doubt about the scale of deprivation and decline” with coalfield closures leaving a “legacy of high unemployment, social deprivation and environmental degradation.”

The trade unions demand for a Just Transition seeks to ensure that workers, their families and communities, are not left to pay such devastating costs for the restructuring of the fossil fuel economy today. Every sector of the economy is affected by the shift to a zero carbon future – energy, manufacturing, heavy industries like steel, transport, construction and health and other public services. These sectors all have high levels of union membership. Every union has a stake in this transition.

As a concept, just transition dates back to worker displacement linked to soldier demobilisation programmes. But the origins of the term as we know today is linked to the ‘sunsetting’ of jobs in the US as use of toxic chemicals were phased out under pressure from environmentalists in the 1980’s.

Today, a hotly debated clause of UN climate negotiating texts, just transition has become a shorthand in the labour movement for a series of demands to protect workers in the transition to a low carbon economy:

  • Greener jobs – sustainable, decent work and terms and conditions
  • Social protections – income support, re-training and redeployment opportunities, pension security for older workers, and help for communities to adapt to climate change
  • Support for innovation and technology sharing to enable a rapid transformation of energy and manufacturing opportunities
  • Worker representation and consultation
  • Fair distribution of costs and recognition of social and human rights
  • Social dialogue with all relevant parties including collective bargaining with workers and unions for workplace change

A Just Transition was a ‘topline’ priority for the trade union movement led by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) at the UN climate talks in Paris, and is recognised in the Preamble to the agreement by way of the following text:

Taking into account the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities

Paris Agreement 2015 – https://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2015/cop21/eng/l09.pdf

A more expansive approach however sees just transition as a transformative process for economic and social justice, going beyond market based solutions and negotiating a transition within a framework of green capitalism.

In the transformative scenario a just transition will:

  • Design out the inherent inequality and injustice of the capitalist system
  • Create climate jobs that lower greenhouse gas emissions, are unionised, and pay a living wage
  • Socialise ownership and democratise productive processes and energy generation as part of a wider transition to different forms of energy production
  • Put workers and their communities at the heart of a transition based on social needs including in domestic and health care sectors
  • Rebuild the strength of organised labour and the interface of labour to nature.

The global one million climate jobs campaign led by trade unions is an attempt to start this transition by creating jobs that lower greenhouse gas emissions. In the UK through the creation of a National Climate Service – akin to the NHS – the government would oversee a transitional programme building the wind turbines needed for renewable energy; retrofitting and insulating homes and buildings to make them more fuel efficient; invest in an integrated public transport network run on clean fuel; provide workers with the training and skills needed for a zero carbon economy.

We can also learn from the experience of the Lucas Aerospace workers on how to develop a just transition that looks afresh at what we produce and who a ‘modern’ industrial society is for, its ownership and control. And one that recognises the extraordinary people that make up society – workers, carers, pensioners and so on – that have ideas, experience and knowledge to build a just and transformative transition based on labour and peoples terms, not capital.