Jobs, justice, climate: The struggle continues

Issue: 149

Martin Empson

A review of Paul Hampton, Workers and Trade Unions for Climate Solidarity: Tackling Climate Change in a Neoliberal World (Routledge Studies in Climate, Work and Society, 2015), £90

The complete and utter failure of the world’s governments to take meaningful action on climate change was once again apparent at the COP21 talks in Paris in December 2015. In Britain, the Conservative government was barely into its new term before it announced policies that undermined even the minimal commitments its predecessors had made. Their policies favoured fracking and other fossil fuels over renewable energy, airport and road expansion over public transport, and introduced reductions in funding that should have helped insulate homes.

Discussions about how we get a sustainable society—reduce emissions and force action upon unwilling governments—are ever more important. For socialists one key aspect of this debate in recent years has been the question of climate jobs and the role of trade unions.

Paul Hampton is head of research and policy for the Fire Brigades Union. His new book begins by locating the source of the climate crisis with capitalism. While noting that capitalism is a system based on the accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulation, with inevitable environmental impacts, he also points out that the increased use of machinery to increase relative surplus value in the exploitative ­relationship between capital and worker also has an environmental aspect. Thus, the ­“technological revolution”, powered by the burning of fossil fuels for energy, is part of what Hampton calls the “subsumption of climate to capital”. The importance of fossil fuels lies in their “flexibility, fitting capitalist society’s particular relationship to nature” and their centrality to the capitalist economy is the outcome of the development of capitalism, rather than “market forces or pluralistic decision-making”. Thus Hampton argues climate change cannot be seen as a result of “market failure”, as mainstream economists like Nicolas Stern argue, but as a result of how capitalism works. To avoid runaway climate change a “critique of capitalism…is the logical starting point”.

How does this fit in with the role of trade unions—which tend not to be revolutionary anti-capitalist organisations? The first point that Hampton makes is that unions, and by extension, workers have mostly been overlooked in “mainstream social science”. Bosses are often discussed as “climate actors”, those with the potential to enact changes such as reduction of emissions. But the people they employ are often ignored.

This is a mistake for two reasons. The first is that, as Hampton points out, workers have a vested interest in dealing with climate change because they are not only “likely to be among those most vulnerable to the physical impacts of climate change and to have fewer resources to adapt” but they are “also likely to be the victims of government policies designed to tackle climate change, especially those that shift the costs of mitigation and adaption from capital onto labour” (p39). It is for the latter reason that socialists and environmental activists must argue for a “just transition”, so that those who face losing jobs because of action on climate change, such as the closure of a highly polluting factory or the transition from fossil fuel generation to renewable energy, do not lose out.

The second reason is that workers are in an excellent position to help reduce emissions in workplaces. The last decade has seen a growing awareness from the official trade union movement of environmental issues, demonstrated by the number of conferences, policy documents and meetings as well as the support for campaigns such as that for one million climate jobs. But there has also been a significant growth in the number of workplaces where union reps are part of reducing emissions. Often these are “environmental reps” and in some unions, notably Unison, PCS, UCU and Prospect, such reps have formed national networks. The TUC estimates that there are also over 1,000 union green workplace projects in the UK.

While some of this work might concern workplace-based issues such as campaigning for facilities for cyclists, remote working, or even different dress codes in high-temperature weather, it can also lead to attempts to force more responsibility onto the employer. One survey reported that trade unionists from Unison, Prospect, Unite and GMB at the energy company EDF had “negotiated an international agreement on corporate responsibility, which includes commitments to tackle climate change” (p129).

But many reps report that they have difficulty raising environmental issues at work, and almost three-quarters say that they do not have facility time for environmental work. Hampton shows that in many workplaces, even ones that have green workplace projects, management often drag their feet on environmental issues, citing costs or lack of resources. Part of the problem is the lack of legal recognition of the role of environmental reps. This is in part because the last Labour government failed to pass legislation, leaving environmental reps with limited powers. Hampton cites one example of a trade union survey which pointed out “virtually no one outside union circles accepted the validity of the case, even in organisations with successful voluntary arrangements” for statutory rights to time off for environmental training for union reps.

There is also an ambiguity that arises from how environmental questions are framed in the workplace. Plymouth City Council, for instance, signed a Green Workspace Agreement with the three local government unions, “to encourage council staff to work with their managers to reduce carbon, encourage sustainability and save money” (p141). This emphasis on reducing costs as well as carbon can lead to situations where trade unionists might end up policing the behaviour of their colleagues on behalf of management. One example is from the supermarket chain Asda, where GMB reps were “encouraging workers to close walk-in fridge and freezer doors when they are not in use”. This might lead to a situation where union environmental reps play a role in disciplining workers for not following procedures, rather than fighting to defend their members.

However, Hampton notes that a 2009 survey showed that a quarter of reps surveyed had taken independent action on environmental issues. This suggests, says Hampton, that environmental reps saw their activity as coming out of the interests of their members and the union, rather than “common interests” with the employer. He continues: “Employment relations on climate issues were not uniformly harmonious, but subject to the pressures of consent and coercion. To write environmental reps off as merely a new form of class collaboration would be to miss some important antagonistic aspects of the activity” (p146). I would add that environmental reps can play an important role in raising wider environmental questions in the workplace, as well as getting workers involved in demonstrations and protests.

The British trade union movement’s attitude to climate change can be best understood as a form of “ecological modernism”. Hampton argues that this is a framework that is distinct from both Marxist and neoliberal approaches:

Ecological modernisation utilises familiar metaphors such as “win-win” co-benefits, “low-hanging fruit” and “technological crutches”. Three key features of ecological modernisation stand out: (1) an emphasis on state and non-state actors as significant agents for constructing climate alliances; (2) greater sensitivity to the social implications of climate policy; and (3) a wider range of instruments alongside market mechanisms (p20).

The Ecomodernist approach has become more mainstream recently. In April 2015, the Breakthrough Institute published An Ecomodernist Manifesto which emphasised the importance of technological solutions to climate change over solutions based on social change. For the authors of the Manifesto, technology reduces humanity’s dependence on nature, and thus technology (and demographic trends) can de-couple “human well-being from environmental impacts”.

As the authors write:

Accelerated technological progress will require the active, assertive and aggressive participation of private sector entrepreneurs, markets, civil society, and the state. While we reject the planning fallacy of the 1950s, we continue to embrace a strong public role in addressing environmental problems and accelerating technological innovation, including research to develop better technologies, subsidies and other measures to help bring them to market, and regulations to mitigate environmental hazards.1

While this can sound positive, in practice it means an over-emphasis on the state and business and a reliance on partnerships between capital and workers to achieve change. Despite talk of the importance of “non-state actors”, this rarely means the ability to hold corporations to account.

Ultimately ecological modernisation means looking to a more ­environmentally friendly capitalism, despite the impossibility of such an aim. This reflects the nature of trade unionism under capitalism, with unions trying to win reforms from the system to benefit their members. However, even such limited ambitions can give opportunities for more radical ideas.

“Social movement unionism” shows some of the potential to raise more radical demands around climate. This, Hampton suggests, is best shown by the way that the RMT in Britain related to the factory occupation in 2009 by workers at Vestas on the Isle of Wight. This action was against the closure of a plant that manufactured wind turbine blades. The RMT gave unprecedented support to the occupiers, helped the workers outside the occupation organise and helped build a national solidarity campaign. Bob Crow, the then general secretary, even promised a helicopter to deliver food should the company not end its blockade of the occupation. While this wasn’t needed, RMT lawyers did represent workers in the courts.

Social movement unionism means relating to wider social movements, campaigns and political questions and is particularly important to environmental questions, as one study argues: “it is difficult to imagine preservation of the earth and a broadening of human rights unless unions join such coalitions as enthusiastic proponents and partners” (quoted on p37). But social movementism on its own does not automatically mean progressive positions. The Canadian Auto Workers union, for instance, was often seen as a model of social movementism, but its leadership ended up supporting car manufacturers’ calls to make SUVs in Canada and hostility to hybrid vehicles, because the leadership ended up accommodating to “market pressure”.

The limitations of the trade union movement on environmental questions are unfortunately all too apparent. Over the summer of 2015, for instance, the GMB took a position of support for fracking, signing an agreement with oil and gas exploration firms. In the early 2000s the TUC as well as Amicus, the TGWU, GMB and Balpa (which represents airline pilots) jointly called for a third runway at Heathrow with Brendan Barber, then TUC general secretary, speaking alongside BA, Virgin and BAA in support of expansion. In both examples the question of jobs was at the forefront of the unions’ arguments. In the case of Heathrow they supported market mechanisms, such as carbon trading, to reduce the impact on the environment.

The problem is that the TUC (and by extension most of the union movement) is limited by the framework imposed upon it by mainstream politics. Hampton uses the example of the union movement’s attitude to the building of a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth. Resolutely opposed by the environmental movement, the expansion of the Kingsnorth site by E.ON was supported by the TUC and other unions in existing power stations. They acknowledged arguments against the burning of coal by saying Kingsnorth must only go ahead as a viable ­carbon capture and storage (CCS) ­demonstration plant, though they did not argue for a “moratorium on new coal-fired power stations until CCS was developed”. Eventually, under pressure from ­protestors, E.ON pulled the plug on plans for Kingsnorth, leading to a “bitter” response from the union movement. Kingsnorth demonstrated how easy it is to drive a wedge between the union and ­environmental movements.

That said, the union movement has moved on, in places, from simply arguing in defence of jobs or the creation of new jobs ­irrespective of the environmental impacts. One example of this is the question of climate jobs itself. The one million climate jobs campaign, which originated with the Campaign Against Climate Change’s Trade Union Group, now has the support of six national unions and has spawned a number of similar campaigns internationally. In the run-up to the protests at the COP21 meeting, the ITUC helped organise a global union climate conference, in the summer of 2015, which had the question of climate jobs at its heart.

The campaign for climate jobs fits with existing ideas of “just ­transition” within the union movement, but also has concrete demands that call for the creation of new jobs and new industries leading to the reduction of emissions. Hampton notes that the demand for climate jobs is “perceived as a key mobilising tool, shaping an alliance between trade unionists, environmentalists and other activists to tackle climate concerns alongside other wider issues arising from the economic crisis. Implicitly, it is not aimed at partnership with employers or indeed with existing governments” (p86).

The climate jobs campaign was given renewed momentum by the Vestas dispute, which demonstrated the potential for trade unionists to unite with wider forces over economic and environmental questions. Hampton provides a detailed account of the struggle to save the 600 jobs at Vestas, demonstrating the importance of the role of socialists in raising the question of occupation, of bringing solidarity and building the campaign. He also shows the limitations of the TUC approach which “prioritised partnership” between the workers, employers and government despite the fact that the bosses were particularly belligerent and the Labour government was uninterested in saving the factory through nationalisation.

Labour’s failings at the time are summed up well by Joan Ruddock, then minister of state for energy, who told a delegation of Vestas workers: “We live in a market economy, all the advanced economies think the same. The only economy that does not have a market is North Korea… It’s not appropriate! The government does not want to be producers of wind turbines, and we did not want to be bankers” (p173).

Hampton makes it clear that dealing with climate change means rejecting strategies that rely on the market. We need “structural change” on a global scale involving:

A rapid retooling of production and distribution systems… These will only come about as a result of massive, democratic public intervention and widespread global and national regulation of the market-based regime. Transitional reforms could limit the power of capital and point towards more social, planned and democratic forms of climate governance (p204).

This book shows that there is enormous potential within the unions for a movement that has questions of climate and social justice at its core. Socialists have made very important contributions to shaping that and beginning to move the debate away from the dominant ideas of ecological modernism. There is much more work to be done and this useful book contains lots of relevance to trade unionists and environmental campaigners keen that unions play a more prominent role in the climate movement. My only gripe is the high price. I hope a cheaper paperback becomes available soon.

1: An Ecomodernist Manifesto, April 2015, available at