Unions can be very important for climate justice

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Unions can be very important for climate justice

Anabella Rosemberg works for the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). She talks with Danny Chivers about unions and climate change.


Anabella Rosemberg by C Choupas

Talking about climate change in the unions is not easy. There are so many more problems now, for example, austerity and murdered trade unionists. But about 10 years ago, in the ITUC Congress, we started bringing unions from the Global South to talk about climate with unions from industrialized countries. The Southern unions talked about how the high public costs of climate disasters was making it very difficult to work for everything they were fighting for – social protection, health, and education. So now it wasn’t about the unions ‘going green’, it was about international support.

At the same time, many of the causes of climate change are connected to problems with social inequality – greed in big business, politicians listening to lobbyists and not citizens, and privatising energy. So it was a good idea to add this to our list of things to work on.

Also we are talking here about big changes in important industries such as energy and forestry. So we must be part of that discussion to help the needs of workers.

From Copenhagen to Paris: the unions speak

In the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009 unions from around the world spoke about climate for the first time. For us those talks were a beginning. The unions’ response was: sometimes you lose, sometimes you win, but you keep fighting.

We went to the 2015 Paris climate talks with three important ideas. First, ambition - because the effect on most workers on the planet is going to be very big if there is more than two degrees Celsius of global warming. Second, finance - with the industrialized nations giving money for changes in energy and the cost of climate damage in the South. Third, fairness and equality in the Paris agreement.

The Paris agreement is not enough. Politicians have agreed to 1.5 degrees but not to ways to make it possible. On climate finance, the Paris agreement does not contain any figures or targets. On fairness and equality there is some agreement for the first time that environmental justice and secure jobs for workers are connected.

Not just jobs or climate

In general, the unions agree that climate is very important. They agree that the activists in the ‘Break Free’ direct actions at fossil-fuel sites in May 2016 showed courage. But there are problems. Many of the workers at the fossil-fuel sites can only work there because we have no alternatives yet.

Companies and workers are not the same. They don’t have the same interests. If we think they are the same and act that way, then we are making the companies stronger. Actions like Break Free want fairness and equality in energy change, but no one has spoken to the workers or unions on most of the occupied sites. No-one came and asked, ‘What do you, the fossil-fuel workers, want as an alternative for you and your communities?’ But that’s normal for these kinds of actions, and it does not mean it will not happen later.

Together in climate action

We do not expect a lot of global action from unions on climate, but local unions are taking action, for example, in Canada, as part of the climate justice movement, or in Argentina against fracking. In the Philippines, after Typhoon Haiyan, there was a lot of action by trade unions around climate justice, including Break Free. In Tunisia, unions are asking for environmental justice in their constitution.

Not all unions agree about everything. Some unions support fracking or mining if there are no alternative jobs. This is usually in the building industry.

Governments are not ready for the change to clean energy and so I think there will be more disagreements between environmentalists and unions.

A good way to bring environmentalists and unions together is to find other problems they agree on. For example, Greenpeace US is working on electoral reform with unions, NGOs, faith groups and many others. In Europe and Latin America, unions are working with environmental groups for better free-trade deals.

I hope that the unions are going in the right direction. There are a lot of problems but I think things are changing for the better.



(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).