Sunday 11 October 2009

Climate Change - What Happens To The Workers?

From environmental campaigners to governments, everyone keeps talking about how this December’s UN climate conference in Copenhagen is make-or-break – that “failure is not an option”. If the conference succeeds, it will require massive social and economic changes to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, far beyond the isolated actions of individuals recycling more often or buying energy efficient light bulbs.

However, expecting governments to make changes that are equitable or just seems like naïve and wishful thinking. On Tuesday I attended an event in East Ham organised by Oxfam, where my local MP Stephen Timms (right), who is also Financial Secretary to the Treasury, spoke about the importance of an agreement in Copenhagen but defended the expansion of flights from London City Airport, on the basis that EU's emission trading scheme would offset additional emissions. It was clear that some industries like aviation with powerful lobbies within government are protected, not least because they have convinced ministers like Timms that voters care more about cheap flights than the impact of climate change. Coal-fired power stations, which are at the centre of the government’s energy policies, enjoy a degree of protection too. This means that the extra burden of reaching emissions targets must be borne by more rapid reductions in other industries – who to maintain their profit levels will inevitably passed this burden on to their employees through more job cuts and worsening employment conditions and to us, through higher charges.

Timms was also evasive about the possibility that the government, as the majority shareholder in publicly owned banks like RBS, would use its clout to move investment away from carbon polluting industries towards sustainable production and ‘green jobs’. “There may be a case,” said Timms, but obviously not one that much thought has been given to and, as the occupation of the Vestas factory on the Isle of Wight over the summer has shown, ‘green jobs’ are no more protected from the demand for profit of the market than any other industry. The government’s promise of thousands of new jobs in a new low-carbon economy looks incredibly hollow in the face of the narrow profit-driven decision by a cash-rich company to close a plant directly involved in renewable energy, simply because it make even more money for shareholders by manufacturing elsewhere.

The Vestas dispute has been heralded for showing how environmental campaigners and trades unions can work together, but in other areas the unions and climate activists stand on opposite sides: my own union, Unite, is a member of the pro-expansion lobbying group Future Heathrow, alongside BAA and the airlines, and vehemently rejects arguments that a third runway at Heathrow is detrimental to the environment. So too does the TUC general secretary Brendan Barber. The short-term promise of jobs in the midst of a recession might appeal to union leaders, providing they forget how often these promises have been made and broken in the past and ignore the profit-driven ‘rationalisation’ within the aviation industry that already means redundancies, which are likely to continue in future as airlines are forced to pay the price for their excess carbon. But if other carbon-polluting industries must scale down or close to allow some like aviation to expand, what happens to workers in these industries? How do we convince unions that it is in the interest of their members to move to a low carbon economy in a socially just way?

The issue of whether climate change is fundamentally a class issue is why I attended a conference yesterday organised by Workers Climate Action (WCA), which has played a prominent role in supporting workers at Vestas.

Set up in 2007 to build alliances between the labour and climate justice movements, WCA argues that working-class organisation and class struggle are central to fighting climate change. After years of climate change denial, capitalism now largely accepts that carbon reductions are not only necessary but also inevitable. But if corporations and the markets are allowed to dictate how this will be achieved, there can be no ‘just transition’ towards a lower carbon economy. Instead, ordinary workers, their families and communities will bear the brunt of environmental decision-making, undermining support for climate justice and encouraging outright opposition to ‘middle-class’ environmental activists. A just transition requires planning: investment in green jobs, reskilling and compensation for workers and communities facing dramatic change in carbon-polluting industries has to be more than an afterthought.

The most interesting discussion at the conference was led by Paul Hampton of the Alliance for Workers Liberty, who outlined some of the key historical examples of workers-led action in defence of the environment. The most important, he argued, was the Australian ‘green bans’ movement centred on the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation (BLF).

During the 1960s, a rank and file caucus within the BLF had transformed it from a corrupt and undemocratic union to one that built its members’ confidence and successfully defended pay and conditions. With the election of Jack Mundey as its president in 1968, its started to use its industrial muscle on wider issues and in the early 1970s supported the request of different groups of Sydney residents to halt environmentally destructive construction projects. Between 1971 and 1974, there were 42 ‘green bans’, the first in the suburb of Hunters Hill, where the BLF refused to take part in construction on the last remaining undeveloped bushland in the city and organised strikes against attempts to use non-union labour to get around the ban. BLF militancy also prevented the demolition of historic buildings in an area known as The Rocks and stopped the Royal Botanic Gardens from being turned into a car park for the Sydney Opera House.

The BLF was able to intervene so effectively because of a boom in construction, but in a period of increasing austerity in the mid 1970s, workers at Lucas Aerospace adopted different tactics (discussed in more detail in an article by Hilary Wainwright and Andy Bowman in the current issue of Red Pepper). In response to the threat of job cuts, he firm’s unions formed an unofficial combine committee that drew up a plan for diversifying what the company produced into more socially useful production, based in large part on the environmental benefits of products such as solar energy collection, wind generators, hybrid fuel cells and new forms of transport.

Ultimately both the BLF and Lucas Aerospace workers were defeated – the first by corrupt union officials at a federal level and the second by the refusal of the management to negotiate and the limitations of a proposal dependent for investment on the nationalisation of the company. But what these examples also shared was a highly organised, exceptionally democratic rank and file trade union movement that sought solutions based on worker’s control – conditions that no longer exist in Britain.

This pointed to what for me was the conference’s biggest dilemma: rebuilding rank and file organisation undoubtedly strengthens the prospect of a workers-led ‘just transition’ but the threat of climate chaos means climate justice activists can’t afford to wait for ideal conditions in the unions. Fortunately WCA activists seem pragmatic enough to recognise that it is still possible to argue a position somewhere between relishing (as some have done) the disaster of thousands of workers losing their jobs in the energy and car industries and defending (as union leaders often do) the damaging nature of these businesses.

On a practical level, this can mean starting from where we are now: pushing for a greater emphasis within unions on the environmental impacts of conditions at work and for the establishment of more environmental reps. It should be clear that simply proposing the kind of ‘alternative plans’ that existed in the 1970s ignores the context in which they emerged but the idea of a ‘just transition’ does lends rather itself to (cough) ‘transitional’ demands – not least that employees are allowed to participate in creating new policies and solutions for greater sustainability at work.

But perhaps more importantly of all, it means that climate activists who call themselves 'anti-capitalist' have to be prepared to organise more often at what is capitalism's front-line - the workplace. In doing so, we need to start seeing the workers in ‘dirty’ industries as potential allies rather than lumping them together with the bosses as ‘the enemy’.

With this in mind, I was reminded of a couple of friends of mine from Brighton who used to work at EDO MBM, the (non-unionised) engineering firm in Moulescoomb that has been at the centre of protests by the Smash EDO campaign over military contracts. Both friends, one an engineer and the other an admin worker, loathed the protesters for the abuse they received and for damage targeted at employees’ cars, but both were equally scathing about the incompetence and duplicity of the management and had no real enthusiasm for the contracts the company took on. It was just a job (in fact the engineer friend eventually left and now designs cash registers). But protesters saw everyone at EDO MBM not as fellow human beings but as "scum" with ‘"blood on their hands", people deserving of the dole - or worse.

If we want to avoid the same level of contempt from other workers that my friends had towards protesters, we need to recognise that this kind of tactic is idiotic. Staff, for example, at Heathrow who have already faced redundancies and cuts in their pay and conditions don’t necessarily share their union leadership’s blind optimism about the benefits of airport expansion. But they'll never likely to become allies unless we are prepared to talk to them.

In the week that E.On announced its decision to shelve plans for a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, a crucial victory for climate justice activists but one that may have a negative impact on its employees, how we achieve a just transition to a more sustainable economy needs greater discussion and debate within the climate justice movement. And that means not just between ourselves but with those most likely to be affected.

We have a window of opportunity between now and 2016 to develop links with staff at Kongsnorth. It’s one we shouldn’t ignore.


HarpyMarx said...

"my own union, Unite, is a member of the pro-expansion lobbying group Future Heathrow, alongside BAA and the airlines, and vehemently rejects arguments that a third runway at Heathrow is detrimental to the environment."

It is the same with the GMB nationally, they are pro-expansion, my own branch passed a resolution stating our opposition to the expansion of Heathrow.

It sounded, from your report, like an interesting conference.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, Mr Stephen Timms has up to now not given much thought about the plight of residents in his own constituency who suffer from aircraft noise from London City Airport.

When London City Airport was built in 1987, it was a small airfield limited to 30,000 and only light aircraft were permitted. The airport told people there would be no further expansion as it is a residential area. But all the promises have been broken. They have extended the runway, built more aircraft stands, they are using bigger and noisier jet which replaced the smaller propeller planes. So why mislead people?

Why is Newham Council approving building more new homes, so close to the flight path?. If they support the airport, then they should not be building new homes.

I can't open my windows to enjoy to enjoy breeze and I can hear aircraft noise through my double glazing. The local parks are unusable.

It was never like this and I could not hear any aircraft noise whenI bought my flat. But the airport is using larger jet planes which are the problem.

At a time when we should be cutting down on emissions you have Newham Council and the airport supporting expansion from 76,000 to 120,000 flights.

Did Mr Timms consider the impact on local residents or on school children with flights 1 every 90 seconds (during peak hours)?

Newham Council have been scandalous in the manner in which they pushed through expansion.

I suggest people have a look at the Flight the Flight blog. This is a residents campaign group.

A couple of articles of interest from the FTF blog.

(1) How Newham Council made its decision -

(2) Newham Council failings -

Newcomers should look at:

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