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Unite chief: “I’ve seen zilch on Labour’s green prosperity plan”

At this week’s TUC conference, Sharon Graham and other union leaders reflected the split in the left over net zero.

By Jonny Ball

Before the 2021 German federal election a new phrase entered the political lexicon: the traffic-light coalition. In Germany it indicated a governing alliance between the “red” Social Democrats, the “yellow” liberal FDP, and “green”, er, Greens. All three sit together in Germany’s Bundestag parliament today.

Forget the “yellow” liberals for a moment, and it seems like a natural partnership for the contemporary left: the political leaders of the broad environmentalist movement managing the transition to net zero as the partners of the more traditional, worker-oriented centre left.

But all is not what it seems. There’s more than a little simmering tension between the two poles of modern progressive politics. Some of that was on display at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) conference in Liverpool earlier this week, where New Statesman Spotlight spoke to leaders of the UK’s workers’ movement about the journey to a net zero economy.

On Sunday evening, Congress Hall – “the workers’ parliament”, a Morning Star editorial informed me – was addressed by the first female president of the US’s TUC equivalent – Liz Shuler of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO for short). Her transatlantic enthusiasm and call-and-response delivery jarred slightly with the sleepy hall.

“In the US we have a bunch of new investments coming down from our federal government,” she told the room. “We’ve been waiting for this investment for a very long time – it’s the Inflation Reduction Act.”

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President Joe Biden’s flagship programme of green stimulus spending has an explicitly pro-labour flavour. At a speech in Milwaukee last month, Biden said that “the middle class built America, but unions built the middle class”. He says he wants to create stable, well-paid jobs in new, net zero industries.

“But it’s up to us to organise those jobs and make them good union jobs,” Shuler told TUC delegates, striking a more cautious tone. “The clean-energy industry and renewable industry in the US is non-union and low road. So that is our worry. These jobs need to be good union jobs.”

[See also: Keir Starmer’s non-stop Blairisms]

Similar sentiments were expressed to me by Paul Nowak, general-secretary of the TUC, in an interview last month: “Offshore wind has got a much worse health and safety record than offshore oil and gas,” he said. “Some of the work is really low paid… barely above minimum wage. So I absolutely get union concerns.” For good measure, he added that “we’re not going to get rid of oil and gas completely. Certainly not in the next couple of years. And oil and gas also have a role to play in the chemicals industry – beyond energy, in other sectors, it’s absolutely key.”

Nowak got on stage to a Public Enemy soundtrack at the conference on Monday (11 September), to declare that “without strong unions, the shift to net zero will see good jobs destroyed”. This kind of thinking is a million miles from the street-based, maximalist activism of Just Stop Oil or Extinction Rebellion.

Labour, for its part in this debate, has committed to ending new oil and gas licences (while maintaining the current ones), and has promised a programme of Bidenomics, somehow to be delivered on a shoestring budget (Biden’s spending outlays could rise into the trillions of dollars). But the details are thin.

If anyone was to have a clearer picture of what (an eventual) £28bn annual spend on a green prosperity plan might look like, you’d think it would be the leader of Unite, a union representing 1.4 million workers, and the biggest institutional donor to the Labour Party.

“[I’ve seen] absolutely nothing,” said Sharon Graham, Unite’s general secretary, to me – “zilch”.

“Everybody knows,” she continued, “the oil and gas members know that at some point we’re moving towards net zero. But at this point they can’t tell us what the [alternative] jobs are. [Labour] say there are 480,000 green jobs” – there are differing figures, but the party’s climate mission policy document in fact promises a million.

“Is driving a delivery bike a green job?” Graham said. “You ask them to say what they are, and it’s ‘we can’t tell you, but they’re gonna be there, don’t worry about it’… They’re saying they’re going to shut off oil and gas licenses, but nobody knows what’s going to replace them.” She reiterated the lack of detail on retraining and on where exactly the investment will go.

One union delegate, speaking onstage for one of the scheduled motions, perhaps summed up the predicament best: “Policy documents, bankers and industry leaders have adopted the language of the ‘just transition’,” she said. “But they interpret it in their own interests. The people who don’t talk about it are the workers whose jobs will be affected.”

“It’s the working class that’s chucked out there to deal with it,” Graham told me.

If the journey to net zero is to succeed – and the unity of the green agenda with a redistributive politics of production is surely the future of the left – then both traditions need to be pulling in the same direction.

This article was originally published on the Green Transition newsletter. To see previous editions and subscribe, click here.

[See also: Trade union militancy will outlast the Tories]

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