Just Transitions
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Just Transitions

Social Justice in the Shift Towards a Low-Carbon World

Edouard Morena, Dunja Krause, Dimitris Stevis, Edouard Morena, Dunja Krause, Dimitris Stevis

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eBook - ePub

Just Transitions

Social Justice in the Shift Towards a Low-Carbon World

Edouard Morena, Dunja Krause, Dimitris Stevis, Edouard Morena, Dunja Krause, Dimitris Stevis

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About This Book

In the field of 'climate change', no terrain goes uncontested. The terminological tug of war between activists and corporations, scientists and governments, has seen radical notions of 'sustainability' emptied of urgency and subordinated to the interests of capital. 'Just Transition' is the latest such battleground, and the conceptual keystone of the post-COP21 climate policy world. But what does it really mean? Just Transition emerged as a framework developed within the trade union movement to encompass a range of social interventions needed to secure workers' and frontline communities' jobs and livelihoods as economies shift to sustainable production. Just Transitions draws on a range of perspectives from the global North and South to interrogate the overlaps, synergies and tensions between various understandings of the Just Transition approach. As the concept is entering the mainstream, has it lost its radical edge, and if so, can it be recovered? Written by academics and activists from around the globe, this unique edited collection is the first book entirely devoted to Just Transition.

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Pluto Press

‘No jobs on a dead planet’:
The international trade union
movement and just transition

Anabella Rosemberg


Over the past 15 years, the international labour movement has succeeded in finding its place and imposing its demands in the international climate conversation. Tremendous progress has been made since the late 1990s, a period characterised by deep suspicion between environmentalists and trade unionists, as well as a general lack of understanding on the labour side of how the environmental and climate crises affected the very possibility of protecting workers’ rights and securing new ones. The trade union movement’s growing presence and involvement in the international climate space is correlated with the emergence and development of a concept: just transition. Particularly since the 2009 United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen (COP15), the concept has come to represent the trade union movement’s contribution to the climate debate. A combination of factors relating to the political and economic context and internal trade union dynamics allowed a very diverse trade union constituency to embrace the concept, and with that, opened the way for trade unions to be perceived as a constructive, forward-looking force in the climate debate.
In this chapter, I will look at how the development of the just transition concept acted as the main conduit through which the international trade union movement went from a defensive, ‘jobs vs environment’ approach to climate action to a far more forward-looking and ambitious one. I discuss the different stages that led the international trade union movement to develop and adopt an ambitious position on climate change – a position that was not ‘labour-centric’ but integrated a broad climate justice approach that could appeal to a wider audience, while reassuring the trade union movement on its role in defending workers’ interests. I will pay particular attention to the role of just transition in that evolution as well as the changing dynamics within the international trade union movement that enabled that positive shift to happen. I will also discuss the efforts that were deployed by trade unions – both internally and externally – to broaden the scope of support for just transition in the run-up to the Paris Climate Conference (COP21, 2015), as well as efforts to better align trade union positions with those of the international climate movement.
As a disclaimer, this chapter will not expand on efforts within the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to develop the specific content of just transition policies and strategies. A number of other articles and reports address this issue (Rosemberg, 2017). This chapter will rather look at the rationale for using the concept and how the concept, in less than two decades, has come to represent, at least in the international climate space, the idea that social justice and equity must be at the heart of the low-carbon transition.


In the early 2000s, the dominant narrative on the link between jobs and environment was a negative one: ‘It’s either Kyoto or jobs.’ Sustainable development was the terme du jour (NBC News, 2005). When trade unions did get involved, as was the case at the 1992 Rio Conference on Sustainable Development, their efforts were essentially focused on strengthening the so-called ‘social dimension’ of sustainability. This defensive, ‘and social too’ approach logically limited the role and place of unions in global environmental and sustainability debates.
It was not until the early 2000s that the first attempts were made to articulate policy demands following the adoption of the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation – the outcome of the 2002 Earth Summit. If not marked by significant progress on the policy front, the Earth Summit forced the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU, the predecessor of the ITUC) to articulate positions on specific sustainability issues. There again, however, union contributions on issues like water or food continued to focus on their social aspects instead of the articulation between the social and the environmental. Nonetheless, from 2002 onwards, two concepts began to be increasingly circulated and referred to in international union discussions and policy documents; concepts that signalled a growing desire to bridge the environmental and social divide: green jobs and just transition.
The relatively low visibility of unions and union proposals in international processes reflected the limited interest and involvement of national trade union centres and union federations in international affairs and processes. There was an overall lack of understanding on how distant and abstract global issues and international processes – like sustainable development or climate change – were relevant to their day-to-day struggles in the workplace or national contexts. There were no real efforts to inform, train, or organise union representatives on sustainability and environmental issues. When unionists did take an interest in international processes, few of them had formal mandates from their unions to engage in advocacy or campaigning. At the international level, the fact that trade unions were rarely recognised as a distinct constituency in environment-related discussions – apart from the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) – further distanced national union centres from the international space.
Perhaps most importantly, trade unions at the national level did not view the environment or climate change as issues deserving union attention at the international level – nor, in many cases, at the national level for that matter. The ICFTU’s largest affiliate, for instance, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), blocked any effort to positively advocate on environment at the international level. This was the case at the ICFTU’s Miyazaki Congress (2004). Due to AFL-CIO pressures, the ICFTU in its Congress resolution, while officially condemning the Bush Administration’s rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, abstained from calling on the United States to re-enter it (ICFTU, 2004). The ICFTU was therefore unable to publicly endorse the only multilateral agreement – the Kyoto Protocol – committing governments to concrete emission reduction targets.
It is worth mentioning that a handful of unions were in favour of ambitious climate action. A noteworthy example was the Spanish CCOO (Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras), and more particularly its confederal secretary, Joaquin Nieto. Since the 1980s, Nieto had gone to great lengths to include environmental prerogatives into his union’s work, and to develop a loose international network of like-minded ‘union environmentalists’ to coordinate actions and weigh in on European and international debates. This core group of committed individuals would later play a central role in developing and coordinating international union efforts on climate change and the environment.
From 2004 onwards, a series of developments profoundly transformed the international trade union movement’s outlook and strategy in relation to environmental issues. From a ‘lowest common denominator approach’, the movement began advocating both stronger climate ambition and a just transition for those who would be directly affected by the low-carbon transition. Most importantly, and reconnecting with the fundamentals of labour internationalism, the movement now increasingly prioritised global action and justice over national interests as expressed by governments and powerful national economic players. In other words, the union movement found its rightful place at the heart of the global struggle for climate justice.


In 2006, there was a change in the architecture of the international trade union movement. The two largest international trade union bodies – the ICFTU and the World Confederation of Labour (WCL) – merged to create the ITUC. The new organisation brought in new affiliates, including the formerly communist-linked Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) in France, GEFONT Nepal and CGT Argentina, which had previously been barred from joining the IFCTU and WCL. This transition period provided unions with an opportunity to reflect on the past and discuss the future role of international trade unionism in the face of new global challenges, including the environment and climate change. In other words, conditions were met to discuss the environmental crisis and its inclusion within the ITUC’s mandate.
It is in this context that, in 2006, the ICFTU and WCL, in partnership with the recently created Sustainlabour foundation (2004, see below), co-hosted the first Trade Union Assembly on Labour and Environment in the UN Environment Programme’s offices in Nairobi. The Assembly was attended by over two hundred unionists from across the globe who shared a common commitment to environmental and climate action, and, in most cases, worked on topics that were directly and indirectly related to the environment such as toxics, water, energy, rights at the workplace and corporate social responsibility. Attended by both the ICFTU and WCL General Secretaries, the Assembly signalled a historic evolution in the international union movement’s approach to the environment – especially when compared to the Miyazaki Congress two years earlier (ICFTU, 2004). In its final resolution, the Assembly agreed on a series of objectives including the need:
To take urgent action on climate change in support of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol; to develop new and additional agreements for both developed and developing countries, taking account of common but differentiated responsibilities; to anticipate and minimize the negative effects and maximize the positive effects on employment of mitigation; and to ensure the participation of trade unions in decision-making on climate change strategies. (UNEP, 2007:118)
The ‘union environmentalists’ who attended the Assembly left it with a stronger political mandate, and a greater sense of recognition and confidence in their ability to build a collective international union voice on environmental issues.
Building on the work of the Assembly, environmental protection was included into the ITUC’s constitution at its founding Congress in Vienna (ITUC, 2006). In preparation for the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference, Guy Ryder, the newly elected General Secretary (and current Director General of the International Labour Organization (ILO)), instructed staff to draft a policy platform centred on green jobs and just transition, which was presented as the flipside of climate ambition1 (Martin Murillo, 2013). Henceforth, international trade union efforts on the environment would no longer be the remit of a small and marginalised group of individuals but formed part of the international union movement’s core strategy. Nor, for that matter, would they be constrained by one union’s veto power. From a ‘lowest common denominator’ approach, the international trade union movement moved towards a more ambitious and affirmative stance on environmental issues.

Building a common narrative: From green jobs to just transition

With the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, the ITUC was in a strong position to articulate a collective response that combined social and environmental concerns. By then, the organisation had already done a significant amount of work on green jobs and their potential in a wide range of sectors – most notably in energy and transport. The combined efforts of the ITUC, and a group of individuals in the ILO – who saw an opportunity for the oldest UN organisation to become relevant in the environmental discussion – resulted in the first Green Jobs Report (Renner et al., 2008). UNEP and the International Organisation of Employers (the ITUC’s business counterpart in the ILO) officially endorsed the report.
Regrettably, the report did not receive the expected or deserved attention. This was partly due to the fact that, at the time, most of the global climate community’s attention was fixated on McKinsey’s marginal cost curves, which illustrated how cheap climate action was when compared to the quite onerous – at least in the short term – investment plan suggested by the union movement (Enkvist et al., 2007). It was also related to the fact that during the financial crisis, the austerity narrative won out. The priority in 2008 was to cut back on public spending and reduce consumer demand to absorb the financial costs of the bank bailouts. In most countries, the result was austerity, as well as stagnating and even shrinking wages. While the green jobs narrative was one of hope and a first positive connection between labour and the environment, the unfavourable economic context meant that it did not yield the expected policy outcomes.
It is also worth noting that the green jobs narrative – and the green growth and green economy narratives more generally – received a mixed reception from trade unions. Three main critiques surfaced during the 2008–12 period. They were especially salient in the context of the Rio+20 conference in 2012, where the green economy and green growth narratives held centre stage. The first critique came from more radical union activists who argued that the green jobs narrative upheld and even reinforced existing global power dynamics, especially between the Global North and South. In particular, they argued that only rich economies in the Global North would attract green investments.
A second group of unions was worried that green jobs policies would negatively impact workers in polluting sectors. Instead of ‘green jobs’, they preferred the term ‘greener jobs’, thereby shifting the focus to the greening of polluting industries, rather than their full-scale removal. This second set of critiques revealed the wider union movement’s inability – at the time – to address the challenges faced by sectors negatively impacted by climate policies. The green jobs agenda, while critical for building a narrative of change and progress, insufficiently addressed these challenges.
The third critique came from unions who were worried that new green jobs would not lead to improved working conditions, including gender relations at work. The importance of aligning green jobs with the decent work agenda – i.e., ‘jobs that are productive, provide adequate incomes and social protection, respect the rights of workers and give workers a say in decisions which will affect their lives’ (ILO, 2012:6) – was critical. For unions, this meant reaching out and organising workers in the new green industries.
These criticisms aside, the international trade union movement’s focus on green jobs did nevertheless create useful and fruitful connections between jobs and the environment – connections that would feed into the just transition work. Instead of being on the defensive, unions were beginning to imagine the kinds of jobs they wanted for the future – and in the process visualising what would and would not form part of that future. This evolution in the movement’s overall outlook was especially palpable during the Second Trade Union Assembly on Labour and Environment in Rio de Janeiro in 2012 (in the context of the Rio+20 Conference). The Assembly’s final resolution was a clear endorsement of the overall strategy to date, albeit more nuanced when it came to the way forward (ITUC et al., 2012). In the resolution, the Assembly called on the ITUC to better addres...

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