Conflicting voices within the trade union movement suggests a complex relationship between organised labour and forward-looking climate policy

Trade unions have always played an integral role in the industrialisation of the global economic order. The first meeting of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in 1868 established a national body dedicated to advancing the interests of the British working classes, both in their individual struggles in the workplace, and in their collective struggle in Parliament. With 38% of workers working in industry at the dawn of the 20th century, trade unions became an increasingly important check on the UK’s economy to mitigate the exploitative effects of capitalism.

An increasingly industrial population led to an increase in trade union power. In May of 1926, the entire UK economy was brought to a standstill for nine days as the TUC called the UK’s only ever General Strike in support of the Miners’ Federation. When union membership was at its highest in the 70’s and 80’s, the unions represented the major voice of working class power across the country. In a period where ecological issues were not as well understood as they are now, what constituted right and wrong for the trade unions was more clear-cut.

With the rise in salience of climate related issues since the millennium, the role of Britain’s trade unions have become increasingly complex. Instinctively progressive, trade union leaders generally understand that some of the industries they represent are detrimental to the climate. But when it is your job to represent the interests of your members, and your members work in an environmentally damaging industry, your role can become a very tricky balancing act.

Currently, the TUC has a programme for a ‘Just Transition’, focusing on the importance of futureproofing the economy, ensuring that every workplace has a green plan for the future and fighting against the offshoring of British industry. Its current General Secretary, Paul Nowak, has criticised the current direction of the UK economy, noting that it was “limping towards a green future” and has made a point of saying that “all of our unions” are committed to a green future.

However, the truth of the latter claim is tenuous. The controversial recent decision of the Conservative government to expand oil extraction in the North Sea was seemingly welcomed by the GMB, one of the largest unions in the country, and its leader, Gary Smith.

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In a criticism of Labour’s pledge to halt all new oil and gas developments if the party attains government, Smith described the plan as “naïve” and stated further that promises of green industrial jobs for GMB oil workers had been promised “time and time again” without any major developments.

Herein lies the fundamental issue for the trade union movement’s relationship to a green transition: it harms the most fundamental principle of trade unionism, to protect the interests of its members. 

The most ecologically harmful industries tend to be amongst the most unionized. When Gary Smith argues in favour of potential new licences for oil and gas, he argues in the interests of his members. With the Conservatives’ sharp turn away from the limited environmentalism of Boris Johnson, Smith is correct in saying that promises of a sustainable future seem to be, at best, a distant pipedream.

Despite this, there are many in the trade union movement who feel that it is the unions themselves who should be at the forefront of the push towards an ecologically responsible future.

Perhaps the most vocal union about the need for a just transition is the University and College Union (the UCU). Representing over 120,000 academic and academic-related staff across the country, the UCU has members from a varied range of academic disciplines, from those studying ancient history to people directly involved with advancing climate science in a university setting. Recently rolled out was the UCU’s Green New Deal campaign, under which individual union branches are submitting claims to their respective universities regarding the institution’s sustainability practices.

The first to launch such a claim is the UCU at the University of Liverpool, who are now engaged in discussions with the university to push for further internal commitments to green policies. Frederick McKendrick, a PhD student and UCU member involved with the Green New Deal campaign in Liverpool stated that the negotiations were a good step forward and that the university had been relatively receptive to the claim, even if they have not acknowledged it as a form of collective bargaining.

When asked about the hesitancy of other unions to agitate for tighter environmental policies within their respective sectors, McKendrick acknowledged the differing positions of educational unions compared to unions representing workers in environmentally unsustainable fields, stating that there isn’t “one golden bullet” that can be used across every union. 

However, McKendrick did emphasise the importance of trade unions in the green movement, praising the collaboration between the UCU and other unions at the University of Liverpool in their collaborative efforts to modernise sustainability practices.

“People rarely focus on the fact that a collective group of people can do far much more than the individual”, said McKendrick in defence of the power of unions to push forward societal progress. And here McKendrick is right. 

Throughout modern history, unions across the globe have been at the heart of social progress and revolution. In Brazil, it was continued trade union agitation under the leadership of Lula da Silva, the current President, that led to the democratisation process that ended a near two decade long dictatorship. In Soviet Poland, it was Solidarity, the nation’s first independent trade union during the communist era, that proved imperative in the transition away from repressive authoritarianism towards free and fair elections. Within this country, it was the party of the trade unions, comprised then of hundreds of working class voices in Parliament, who forged our National Health Service in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Collective action through trade unionism has been the locus of progressive change time and time again. Today, the biggest challenge facing our progression as a species is climate change. Now, more than ever, a united voice from our trade unions is needed to ensure that a push towards a green economy is both fair and advanced quickly in a scenario where time is very much of the essence.