Are energy trade unions ‘playing fast and loose’ with climate change?

On 15th January the Scottish Parliament debated a motion from Roseanna Cunningham SNP MSP, on securing a just transition to a carbon-neutral economy, writes Sam Mason. Remarkable in this is the seeming level of consensus in the Scottish Parliament to give meaning to the words of the Paris climate agreement.

Taking into account the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities through the establishment of a Just Transition Commission – a demand of the STUC. It’s not perfect but with Labour MSP Claudia Beamish getting an amendment in this debate to establish the Commission on a statutory basis it’s something the UK Labour Party should be looking to emulate.

It’s also huge testament to the Scotland Just Transition Partnership which illustrates how trade unions can work constructively with environmental NGOs bridging the so called ‘jobs versus environment’ divide.

So why the GMB Scotland statement released the day before the debate criticising the Scottish Government, and warning “MSPs against ‘playing fast and loose’ with the livelihoods of workers across our energy sector”?  A strange comment when a key role of this group is to advise on transitioning to a carbon neutral economy “in a way which does not negatively affect the current workforce and overall economy.”


It’s even more curious considering that before the Christmas break, four trade unions – GMB, Prospect, Unison, and Unite – released a pamphlet Demanding a Just Transition for Energy Workers setting out a “blueprint” for workers demands as we move to a low carbon economy.

On the face of it, this blueprint marks a welcome sea-change in the discourse of trade unions in combining to organise their members in the energy sector with respect to climate change and the energy transition agenda. However, a closer reading of the small print exposes this as a Just Transition for a perpetuation of the gas industry, not a carbon neutral economy.

The transition these unions are talking about is one intent on keeping a role for nuclear and gas as part of a “balanced low-carbon energy mix”.  It is about excluding the major part of the UK workforce from having a say in climate change policy at both the level of the TUC and within the Labour Party. For anyone interested, worth to read the transcript of the debate at the start of day three of TUC Congress last year where the GMB motion on Just Transition and energy worker voice – the background to the pamphlet – was narrowly passed.

No trade union leader today would stand up and deny climate change is happening. But what these trade unions are denying is a future for their members by buying into a techno “ecomodernist” fix to climate change. In this instant maintaining a role for natural gas by converting it to hydrogento be blended into the gas grid by extracting carbon and storing it through carbon capture and storage. A little bit like the NHS – free at the point of use but increasingly privatised in the background – but in this case, energy that is carbon free at the point of use.

Green herring

But there is also another green ‘herring’ in the debate. This narrow interest of the ‘big four’ unions to protect their gas and nuclear interests has been done at the expense of a wider political and social debate about the future economy and industrial strategy. Thereby ignoring the overwhelming majority of workers whose own jobs are threatened by a continued pursuit of fossil fuels. And needless to say wider justice issues, including the equality aspect of climate change and Just Transition.

It is this kind of energy worker protectionism, and who gets to have a say on energy – excluding the many – that continues to divide us as a movement.

Climate change impacts the entire working class and if we revert to a position that only those unions in a particular sector can have a say on policy affecting members in that sector, surely this renders the Trade Union Congress meaningless if we’re not linking struggles to wider collective interests.


The labour movement has well established principles setting out what a Just Transition is and should mean.  What we lack is a coherent strategy to how we apply these, how we challenge the power imbalance between capital and labour, and centre our response on justice and solidarity both in the UK and globally.

A valued trade union concept of meaningful consultation will only happen when workers are in control of the Just Transition process and part of the solutions in re-visioning a new economy, along with the communities in which they reside. And likewise, this will only occur when we put this back into the public sphere and out of a market framing. Until then big corporations will continue to hold us captive to their fossil fuel profit solutions, and this won’t mean jobs for workers either inside or outside fossil fuel energy work.

Returning to the GMB, not facing up to these realities is playing fast and loose with members when it comes to climate change. Fossil fuels jobs are already disappearing, climate change or not. Young people don’t want to work in ‘dirty energy’ and as Tahir Latif from PCS said in his recent blog, trade unions must demand jobs that protect our planet, not destroy it.

New energy workers

Energy workers are and always will be vital to our economy. But what we need to start talking about is a newly defined energy worker. Someone working in renewables or storage, supporting a publicly owned energy system, and working in communities retrofitting and insulating our energy inefficient housing stock. New energy workers will be highly skilled – including those working in construction learning new building methods such as the interaction with distributed energy and storage in buildings, and in education redesigning the syllabus for the future energy worker – unionised, and well paid under collective bargaining agreements.

If we’ve any hope of getting to the nirvana of a zero-carbon economy, we need to let go of our fossil fuel past and think boldly about what could be a jobs rich future. Climate change, and its emerging twin of automation/digitalisation, is an economic disrupter. Transition therefore has to be part of a political programme that considers the intersections of labour and the environment, rooted in an eco-socialist approach that starts to dismantle our currently socially and ecologically destructive economic model.

We also need the Labour Party to have courage to move beyond sectional interests and address climate change and Just Transition as part of a whole economy approach. Every union rightly needs to protect their members interests in this process but we don’t hold the monopoly on the answers. It is tinkering at the edges of energy transition such as with hydrogen gas that is playing fast and loose with workers livelihoods, and ultimately the future for all workers and communities.

Reprinted from RedGreen Labour

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