Unions & Climate Change

How do we build a trade union movement that promotes solutions to the climate crisis and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections?


Presentation Slides

Kate Lee, Union Aid Abroad, Australia

Clara Paillard, Public & Commercial Services Union (PCS), UK

Sean Sweeney, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, US


Trade Unions vs. Climate Change

6th July, 2016 / Tandiwe Gross / guest blogger

While the world has applauded the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2016 to restrict the global rise in temperature to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, it faces a striking contradiction. The goal of the Paris Agreement is to get to zero net emissions in the second half of this century, while the World Bank estimates that by this time the world economy will be three times larger than it is today.

In order to achieve the zero emissions goal, a fundamental policy shift is needed. However, in Paris world leaders did not agree to actually reduce emissions, they only agreed to increase emissions at a lower rate than it would be the case in a “business as usual” scenario.

Are trade unions doing enough to challenge prevailing "green economy" thinking?
Is the trade union movement doing enough to “change the system not the climate”?
[Image: Julien B – Flickr/cc]
The demands of the trade union movement for COP21 were to realize job potential of climate action (green jobs), to deliver on climate finance and support the most vulnerable workers affected by climate change (decent work), and to commit to securing a just transition for workers and their communities (just transition). These are good messages, but they are not enough to meet the challenge of climate change.

International trade union bodies have largely accepted pro-market ideas and borrow from the “green economy narrative”: the idea that investors investing in the green economy will make profits, with workers getting a share and unions having a voice in shaping this process.

Unfortunately, the green economy discourse is failing workers and the environment: a fundamental “greening” of the economy is simply not happening in the majority of countries with fossil energies still being on the rise.

We won’t be able to stabilize the climate if we can’t control the energy system

In this context, a new narrative has emerged in the trade union movement: a narrative which calls for a radical transformation of the political economy. The key idea is that renewable energies have the potential to solve the climate challenge if they are democratically controlled.

The Trade Unions for Energy Democracy TUEDlogomovement is therefore based on a threefold strategy: resist (fight fossil fuel); reclaim (bring energy under public control); restructure (into a democratically-controlled energy sector based on renewable energies).

In the current scenario, indigenous communities are suffering from displacement and rights violations by mega energy projects for example in mining to satisfy the energy needs of the Global North.

Transnational corporations try to strengthen their grip on the energy sector through Free Trade and Investment Agreements, curtailing the ability of democratically elected government to implement progressive energy policies. An infamous example is the case of Swedish energy company Vattenfall which is suing Germany for over €700 million in compensation for the country’s decision to phase out nuclear energy.

In South East Asia, coal is estimated to increase from representing currently 30% of energy sources to 50% by 2050. This will mean massive displacement and pollution conflicts with communities around coal mines and processing plants.

Imagine the biggest social movement in the world aligning with communities against climate change

The good news is that in many parts of the world, local communities are opposing regressive policies such as fracking, coal mines and nuclear plants. This is a big chance to build strong alliances with other social movements by reconciling social and environmental demands.

The PCS union in the UK is part of the "Art not Oil" coalition
The PCS union in the UK is part of the “Art not Oil” coalition

We can already draw on numerous inspiring examples of alliances: nurses in New York standing up against fracking because of the health and safety risks, communities in the Philippines aligning with workers against privatization and joint action of trade unionists and environmentalists in the UK’s Tate museum against zero hour contracts and the museums’ sponsoring by the oil company British Petroleum.

These are inspiring examples, but on the large scale we are nowhere close to where we should be. We need a serious commitment from our movement, globally and locally, which has a clear vision of the alternatives, such as a democratically-controlled, affordable and renewable energy sector which respects workers’ rights and the rights of communities.

Is there a union that is prepared to design its struggle for workers’ rights and social justice through the lens of climate change? Maybe that is the union of the 21st century.



Art Not Oil Coalition: Ending oil industry sponsorship of the arts

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED)

Greener Jobs Alliance, UK

This Changes Everything – Capitalism vs. the Climate (book by Naomi Klein & film by Avi Lewis)


This is what energy democracy looks like (TUED)


Sam Gindin, “When History Knocks: Naomi Klein rightly blames capitalism for climate change. But she doesn’t go far enough“, Jacobin, December 30th 2014

This Changes Everything: Study Guide & Lesson Plans

TUED Working Paper 4: Power to the People: Toward Democratic Control of Electricity Generation.

TUED Working Paper 6: Facing up to the Failure of Carbon Markets: Carbon Markets After Paris.

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