A carbon neutral European Union by 2050 is now the official target of the European Commission with the flagship initiative of the European Green Deal to implement it. The process leading there requires a significantly steeper emissions reduction trajectory than what had been achieved in the past three decades. This will have massive effects on jobs, labour relations and income distribution. It has been clear that this poses a huge challenge for trade unions, as referred to in one of my earlier papers.
It has also been recognised early on that addressing climate emergency and to manage the epochal transformation to a net zero carbon economy can only succeed if it is socially balanced and just. The COVID-19 health emergency and the related economic crisis with its devastating effect on jobs and livelihoods also demonstrates why this claim is so important. It may sound tempting again to think in terms of `any jobs better than no jobs` and the ‘jobs vs. environment’ dilemma is suddenly back on the table. With the two emergencies, the stakes have only got higher and the concept of just transition – a long-term trade union demand – is more relevant than ever before. How do trade unions face up these challenges now?
Despite their principled stand in favour of decarbonization, trade union strategies are characterized by internal tensions and dilemmas arising from concerns over job losses in the traditionally unionized manufacturing and energy-intensive industries (Räthzel and Uzzell 2012, Stevis 2018).
Stevis and Felli (2015) differentiate between labour unions in terms of political strategy as ‘business’ or ‘social movement’ unionism. While ‘business unionists’ would limit themselves to obtaining a fair share from a growing economy, ‘social movement unionists’ believe that unions ought to have a say about the organization of the political economy because they see themselves as engaged citizens.
Trade unions at supra-national level (ITUC and ETUC) are promoting the concept of just transition and call for ambitious climate policy targets based on an understanding of the broader societal implications and thus come closer to the approach of social movement unionism.
A just transition does not happen in a vacuum, but in the real-life work environments that are determined by the capital-labour relationship. Trade unions on the ground, at local, regional, sectoral or company level follow a more cautious approach, along the lines of business unionism, as e.g. statements by IndustriALL and IG Metall on climate policy goals demonstrate.
In their traditional role, at the workplace level, unions were used to manage change in the work organisation that is driven by the profit motive of capital (Riso and Conteras, 2019). Examples include union and works council practices under the pressure of globalisation or during the economic crisis applying concession bargaining practices (Benassi, 2016). In these cases, the legitimacy of the change itself was rightly questioned and at least one way of fending off its effects on employees was also to try to keep the change itself at bay.
In the case of decarbonisation, the situation is different: `change` here serves the common interest of humanity. Still, implementing climate policies can well be conflictual, as workplace level employment transitions take place within the traditional capital – labour nexus. These transitions often have the patterns very familiar from business restructuring cases (e.g., lay-offs, higher flexibility, higher work pressure, etc), that trade unions have been up in arms about.
Thomas and Doerfinger (2019) call such trade union strategies as hedging, where trade unions accept the scientific consensus on climate change and in principle support the need for decarbonization policies, but seek to minimize compliance costs, advocate incremental approaches and are reluctant to proactively engage with the transition-related employment implications.
In a recent ETUI publication (Galgoczi 2019), plant level cases also demonstrated that trade unions were mostly acting as ‘business unions’ in terms of concrete policies also at the national level and in particular in the ‘micro-management’ of the labour consequences of a green transition at workplace level. Driving the change forward posed a harder challenge in both the energy and the automobile sector, since it was an external force – the EU – that was setting the policy targets and the pace of the change. Thus, unions as well as employers acted defensively and were in favour of softer emission targets.
In the green transformation there is thus an apparent contradiction between pushing change forward with ambition and at the same time manage its consequences. This contradiction of roles often appears in tensions between different levels of trade union action. With the higher stakes of a net-zero carbon EU, a much more comprehensive just transition framework is needed, one that encourages change. Even with the latest Just Transition Mechanism proposal, we are not yet there!
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