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12 July 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 1:27pm

How a Green New Deal would allow workers to lead the struggle against climate crisis

It is for the people whose jobs are affected to decide what a just transition looks like: it is not for politicians or activists to dictate to them. 

By Lauren Townsend

The landmark IPCC report on the climate crisis stated that we have just over a decade to radically change how we organise our societies and economies, before we face the prospect of catastrophic and irreversible climate breakdown. It was a dramatic and terrifying wake-up call. But as activists and Labour Party members, we believe this state of emergency is no excuse to water down our socialist values. Quite the opposite: it makes an even stronger case for building a society in the interests of working people. That’s why we’re calling on the Labour Party to adopt a Green New Deal, so that workers are front and centre in the response to climate change.

But of course workers are not simply a disconnected group of people selling their labour; they are organised, represented and defended by a trade union movement. This weekend, thousands of trade union members will gather for the Durham Miners’ Gala to remember the struggles of their movement. We see a Green New Deal as a continuation of these struggles. We believe the global transition away from fossil fuels can never be just unless it is led by workers around the world, and that means trade unions playing a leading role. It is for the people whose jobs are affected to decide what a just transition looks like: it is not for politicians or activists to dictate to them. 

Too often, green activists call for the replacement of fossil fuel jobs by renewable jobs in the abstract, neglecting the fact there are real workers in the here and now with decent and dignified work who want to know what will happen to them if their industries are phased out. We expect Labour to work side-by-side with the unions that represent these workers to ensure that through the transition all energy workers are offered retraining, a new job on equivalent terms and conditions, covered by collective agreements and fully supported in their housing and income.

A Green New Deal should not be an aspiration, but a practical guide on how to defend and extend the rights of workers today and in the future. We support the repeal of anti-trade union legislation, such as the Trade Union Act of 1984, the restoration of collective bargaining rights, and other policies aimed at increasing union density in parallel to a Green New Deal.

Realising a Green New Deal also means accepting the renewables industry has not necessarily been good to workers, despite being good for the planet. Unions we have spoken to cite a “start-up culture” in many renewable companies which makes organising workers difficult, and relations with trade unions tepid. Health and safety issues are a concern. In 2013, a horrifying photo emerged of two workers huddled atop a wind turbine on fire in the Netherlands. Unable to escape, they burned to death in full view of those below. In the UK, the jobs currently being produced by the renewables industry are often not as good as those they replace — not least because the current government has cut subsidies to the renewables sector. Implementing a Green New Deal means being honest about the renewables industry, and radically improving it.

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Of course, the most effective way a Green New Deal could reform the renewables sector in the UK is by taking it into public ownership. We want the Labour Party to go further than it currently is, by pledging to create democratically-owned energy companies in every city and region. The energy sector is so vast and diverse that Labour could abandon a one-size-fits-all style of public ownership in favour of new forms at a local, regional and national level. This would give the government, in harness with the trade unions, full control over the transition away from fossil fuels. Not only that, but public ownership would make democratic control of the energy easier to implement, by laying the groundwork for workers on boards and employee ownership — two measures that are already Labour policy.

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Public ownership of the energy sector would also mean profits could be reinvested back into the energy sector, reducing bills and improving service for energy consumers. In this way a Green New Deal could support the trade union’s complementary mission of campaigning for a better quality of life for its members outside of the workplace. Some trade unions, like Unite, already do this by offering tiers of membership for people who are not in work, and then supporting them in their communities. A Green New Deal can complement this work by achieving clean air, more green spaces, cheap or free public transport, energy-efficient homes, and reduced work time. 

Indeed, when it comes to reduced working time, we’re calling for a four-day week with no reduction in pay. The TUC has already called for a four-day week to be implemented by 2100, but since new research shows a shorter working week is necessary to tackle the climate crisis, we believe it can be introduced much sooner, with a Green New Deal acting as the instrument through which it is delivered. 

Most importantly, a Green New Deal is the only just way to respond to climate crisis, because workers did not cause this crisis in the first place. We refuse to allow the climate crisis to be a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis, when the elite avoided retribution, while ordinary workers were forced to pay the price. This April, the boss of British Gas was awarded a 44 per cent pay rise a year after cutting 4,000 jobs because of “significantly reduced profit.” This is an intolerable situation and if a Green New Deal cannot address it, it is worthless.

Like the financial crisis before it, how we respond to the climate crisis is up to us. We can allow it to be a class war waged by the rich as they hoard ever more resources and wealth for themselves, or we can use it as a moment to transform society in the interests of workers. We’re pushing Labour to adopt a Green New Deal because only the latter option is acceptable. But we can’t do it without workers, and without trade unions, as equal partners.

Lauren Townsend is a Labour councillor, trade union organiser and spokesperson for Labour for a Green New Deal

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