As the IPCC report stresses the urgent action needed to tackle climate change, we must challenge the narrative that an ecologically sound economy would be bad for workers
Among the many positives from Labour's annual conference this year were very definitely the party's policies on climate change and the environment, which is no small thing given that a major UN report has reiterated once again that current efforts in the field are nowhere near what is actually necessary. Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Rebecca Long-Bailey was able to announce thoroughly good policies, such as a planned 400,000 skilled green jobs, committing to decarbonisation by 2030, twenty years sooner than the Tories, switching 85% of our power (including 44% of all heating and tripling the use of solar) to renewables and completely banning fracking.
These policies, which actually match the targets subsequently recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their report this week, dovetail well with Labour’s other big economic ideas. They give the left-led party some of the most ambitious policies against climate change of any in the world, that could provide a really strong lead to other countries.
In many ways, combining radically anti-carbon policies with a progressive restructuring of the economy should be almost painfully obvious. Wind, solar and wave farms will not build and maintain themselves - they will require significant numbers of engineering workers to be employed in a naturally geographically-distributed way around the country. This is to say nothing of the massive amount of construction work involved in making homes and workplaces more energy efficient and providing massively increased public transport. It can all add up to an extremely positive picture for a left that genuinely wants to fight the threat of climate change.
Unfortunately, in other parts of the movement, there are serious tensions and concerns, however, over issues of the environment, and these were very clear two weeks before Labour Party conference at this year's Trades Union Congress (TUC). Despite forward-looking ideas being expressed on the economy in other areas, TUC adopted policy on energy policy that was a significant step backwards in this area.
Two of the large unions, GMB and Prospect, moved a motion that argued that not only is it unrealistic to decarbonise the economy by 2050, but that it is undesirable. This is the Tory, not Labour, target and does not meet IPCC recommendations. We were told, shockingly, that the current Labour policy would be potentially "throwing energy workers under a bus". These strikingly uncomradely words were spoken by Justin Bowden, GMB secretary for the energy sector, who also accused other unions of “campaigning to get other workers sacked” and referred to environmental campaigners in the labour movement as “axe-grinders”. This was vastly more hostile language than had been used at any point in the congress, including the noisy and more-publicised Brexit/People's Vote debate.
The motion goes so far as to state that only 'energy workers' (not a specifically defined term – all workers used energy in some way) can express binding opinions on energy policy, and described the concept of “just transition” as vague. The motion severely downplays renewables, and instead offers adaptations to gas and nuclear power as they way forward. Supporting all this, a representative from Prospect (a strongly private-sector union) made a speech saying that further negotiations are needed on carbon targets – suggesting some Alice-in-Wonderland reality in which nature itself can be negotiated with.
Despite strong opposition from unions with better environmental polices - such as public sector PCS, the postal CWU and transport sector TSSA – the motion passed and is now, somewhat absurdly, TUC policy. So, the umbrella body that represents most workers' organisations in Britain now has environmental policies that are a retrograde drag on Labour and the entire left, and fall far short of what the world's leading experts say is necessary. A subsequent motion on fracking was less problematic, but this is not the time to be downplaying the seriousness of climate change because it happens to be economically inconvenient.
Justin Bowden has been in the news again this week, in a GMB press release responding to the IPCC report. His tune has in no way changed: he's still downplaying wind and solar power, which he claims rather contentiously has no hope of providing a significant component of power, in favour of massive investment in nuclear and hydrogen power. Not only are these not renewables, they are opportunities for companies that GMB is partnered with to make a lot of money from government initiatives. This is the sort of thinking that leads Community the Union, the main organisation of steelworkers, to oppose nationalisation of the steel industry and Unite the Union to support nuclear weapons renewal and the third Heathrow runway.
It needs to be stated that we absolutely understand that unions have to represent their members, but that is precisely why we talk about just transition. Looking at the way some of the unions are currently attempting to 'protect jobs' by protecting employers from environmental regulation reminds me of some of the grim tales contained within the Battle for Grangemouth, the book that Mark Lyons, former Unite rep at the massive privatised gas works, published through the union itself.
Lyons recalls in the book how their viciously profit-hungry employer was very keen to use himself and other trade union activists as components of their political strategy to prevent regulations from harming the company's bottom line. The quid pro quo for this partnership was... the union officials all getting sacked on the grounds that they were excessively engaged in politics! I think it's remarkably useful that Unite itself put out a book that demonstrates in very clear terms that trying to partner with these corporations does not illicit loyalty from them towards any workforce, no matter what sacrifices you are willing to make on values and principles.
Will pressure from the unions prevent Labour in government from taking radical action over the environment? We cannot rule it out, but we should be trying to apply counter pressure to both the party and the unions.
The precise reason that “just transition” is not vague is that when strong workers' organisation has intersected with a genuine progressive vision, other alternatives have occurred. We can point to the history the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation in the 1970s which enabled workers to impose “green bans”, a form of ecological strike, against out-of-control development and construction companies to impose sustainable development that government was failing to stand for. Closer to home, and enjoying a welcome revival, is the legacy of the Lucas Combine workers. This was the historic initiative by engineering workers making products primarily for the arms trade, who came up with a fully worked-out alternative set of products based on social usefulness as a way to save jobs in the face of economic and technological change. A new film made about Lucas, simply titled as the Plan, is out this Autumn.
A corporate vision of production is one that says that workers depend on corporate profits, and therefore are in conflict with anything that might challenge those profits. This is exactly the same capitalist framing of the issues that argues that the big banks can't be held responsible for the financial crash, or that developers aren't responsible for the housing crisis.
Just as much as we challenge those narratives, we have to make an argument within the labour movement about how to make an ecologically sound economy that is also socially just, and this does mean arguing with those in the movement who are still accepting fossil-fuel industry arguments about why business can't change.
More articles from this author
- The James Connolly Reader - book review
- A Redder Shade of Green - book review
- Alternative models and silent revolutions
- Union Power: The United Electrical Workers in Erie, Pennsylvania - book review
- The Battle of Grangemouth: A Worker's Story
- No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age
- No way to remember anything