Labor Seeing Green After Copenhagen Climate Talks

Michelle Chen

A young woman looks at an ad for alternative energy sources in Copenhagen on December 11, 2009. Security in the city has been tightened ahead of demonstrations on the streets during the weekend, as the COP15 climate summit continues.

The Copenhagen conference is raising tensions and hopes for labor’s environmental future. While some unions are hesitant about sweeping climate-change regulations that could emerge from Congress, unions are wising up to the fact that the shift toward a cleaner economy is inevitable, and won’t be painless for working people. Labor’s task now is to get ahead of the game and brace itself for the shock.

So the Global Union Federations have published Green Growth for jobs and social justice,” a compilation of manifestos and position statements outlining the ways workers might not only survive but prosper in the green transition:

Harmful greenhouse gas emissions can and must be reduced to protect the environment. At the same time, the global employment crisis can and must be solved by creating sustainable jobs. These are not mutually exclusive objectives, but can be accomplished with a strong, legally-binding, comprehensive global agreement, ensuring that an ambitious reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is coupled with equally strong and far-sighted social justice, employment and industrial policies.

Easier said than done. As we’ve pointed out previously, economic anxieties have kept mine workers stuck in a monstrously polluting industry. Around the world, workers in poor countries, and poor workers in rich countries, will absorb much of the burden of both climate change and the economic disruptions stemming from climate solutions. Meanwhile, in many communities, green jobs have yet to materialize on the scale and volume needed to make a dent in the recession.

Unpacking the rhetoric behind the just transition” slogan, Guy Ryder, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, says the phrase isn’t just about placating anxious workers. For the transition to work, labor needs an agenda that tackles environmental and economic inequity.

Trade unions are at the frontline of the changes in production that will be required. Governments need to recognise the role of unions as a source of information, support and transformation….

Success in tackling climate change hinges on the workplace. Almost three-quarters of global greenhouse gases come from manufacturing, energy production or supply, transport and construction. Workers need pro-active and preventive policies for adaptation to climate change and to cope with the potential impacts of mitigation policies. Collective bargaining must be recognised as a tool for reducing environmental impacts at the workplace.

Peter Waldorff, General Secretary of Public Services International, wants to see a major role for public utilities in steering the green transition, which could keep the private sector from impeding the movement with inertia or political obstruction.

…government leadership, regulation and the provision of quality public services, in collaboration with trade unions, is the only way to provide sound and dependable adaptation solutions for developing countries. Market-based instruments can neither drive the structural changes needed, nor raise the financial resources required. Climate change is far too crucial an issue to be left to unpredictable market forces.

Public-public partnerships between utilities in developed and developing countries have a key role to play in the transfer of technology and skills, at low cost and without suffering the vagaries of the market.

Philip Jennings of the UNI Global Union doesn’t think labor should hold back from articulating its self-interest in the climate justice debate:

All this is not motivated solely by altruism. While there are dedicated environmentalists among corporate executives, the bottom line is that the green economy will yield enormous profits for those committed to making changes from which everyone will benefit….

UNI believes that a net job increase can result from the transition to the green economy. However, it is imperative that governments and companies recognise that unions must be partners in this transition, to ensure that the shift to a green economy is fair and that workers’ rights are respected.

These statements may be read as a rallying cry for broad-based cooperation. But more radical labor and environmental activists might take a more cynical view, worrying that the talk of partnership” will boil down to squishy compromises that leave everyone unsatisfied.

The bottom line is, as the planet spirals toward cataclysm, the question of what to do about climate change is no longer political, it’s existential. No one knows how this story will end, but unions and corporations can agree on the one ending that everyone wants to avoid. When political leaders return from grandstanding in Copenhagen, labor will have an opportunity and responsibility to keep the conversation going at home, where the real work gets done.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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