Global labour’s challenge to climate change

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I originally published this on The Guardian and am republishing it here.

At the end November 2013, Philip Jennings, the general secretary for the global union federation UNI Global Union spoke at a climate conference in Toronto. His message was simple: “there is nothing more important facing humanity than the dangers of a warming planet. We have no time to lose.”

For Jennings, who is from Welsh mining stock, the threat of global warming amounts to a “class war”, with the world’s poorest people paying the highest price for the carbon production of the richest. “While billionaires prepare safe havens for themselves and their money,” he said, “workers will bear the cost of climate change.”

For global unions like UNI Global, the climate struggle is starting to merge with the struggle for workers rights, especially in the third world. “For unions, employment and decent work is core business and climate change is not employment friendly,” said Jennings.

Bangladesh is a country where climate action is at the forefront of significant struggles by organised labour. As a nation, it is facing enormous risk from extreme weather and sea level rise, both exacerbated by global warming. In fact, Bangladesh is considered the country most vulnerable to climate change, according to Maplecroft’s 2013 Climate Change and Environmental Risk Atlas:

“With global brands investing heavily in vulnerable growth markets to take advantage of the spending power of rising middle class populations, we are seeing increasing business exposure to extreme climate related events on multiple levels, including their operations, supply chains and consumer base,” said James Allan, one of the authors.

“Cyclone Phailin demonstrates the critical need for business to monitor the changing frequency and intensity of climate related events, especially where infrastructure and logistics are weak.”

The massive workforce that textile sweatshops that feed the world’s major clothing brands rely upon come from farmers fleeing swamped regional areas. When they’re not busy evacuating their homes due to flooding, the workers in Bangladesh’s slums are at risk of workplace accidents in largely unregulated factories, construction sites and sweatshops.

For unions, this poses a challenge.

Global warming is clearly having major impacts on working people; not just in their workplace, but their personal lives and in their communities. The catastrophic Cyclone Phailin hit India in October 2013 killing 36 and uprooting over 550,000 people; Cyclone Mahasen hit Bangladesh and Burma in May 2013 causing one million people to be evacuated and killing 14. The workers in low-lying areas are living and working in ground zero for climate change.

As organisations committed to improving the working lives of their members, what priority or response should unions and global unions give to climate change?

This was the question I asked Sharan Burrow, the president of the International Trade Union Confederation, the global union’s peak representative body, in July this year.

Burrow was the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions before being elected to the ITUC in 2010, and Australian unions under her leadership played a key role in working with environment groups and supporting national climate action.

The global unions response has been to launch an international campaign to support climate action. The objective, says Burrow, is “to mobilise union members in the lead up to Paris and Peru” and “achieve a just transition focusing on skills, jobs and technology”.

“The last IPCC reports were shocking,” Burrow said, “and the picture is clear. We need to decarbonise our societies and economies.”

One of the greatest climate threat facing the 170 million workers represented by the ITUC is displacement. “Workers in places like Africa are already experiencing climate displacement. Thousands of agriculture workers in Africa are being uprooted by drought and natural disasters,” she said. “Over the next 25 years, the destruction of regional industry through climate displacement is a bigger risk than the closure of industries due to other economic reasons.” The desertification in parts of Africa is not just seeing industries wiped out, but entire communities.

The global union agenda is to support actions limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius, with the central mission being the just transition. “The just transition must start now,” Burrow said.

ITUC research suggests that even a small investment in renewable energy and related industries could create tens of millions of jobs, as well as safeguard industries like steel, concrete and aluminium by cleaning them up. “Aluminium has a future,” she said, “it’s just the energy mix.”

“We can transition,” Burrow said,” if we tackle fear head on.”

Facing unions like UNI Global Union and their national affiliates, representing service workers such as finance workers, garment makers, call centre workers, post officers and cleaners are hostile multi-national corporations, many of whom are at the cutting edge of union-busting tactics.

Jennings, in an interview with The Guardian, explained the scale of the challenge that global unions like UNI face:

The center of the world’s union busting industry is the US. Companies adopt an almost paramilitary approach to place fear, threaten livelihoods and dismissal of staff. These are iron fist tactics used by household names from Walmart to T-Mobile.

Labour standards and rights in many countries, including the US, are often scant or non-existent; often they simply serve to give legal punitive powers to employers. With multinational corporations prepared in some nations to take, as Jennings says, “paramilitary” approaches to prevent the unionisation of their workforce, and working people in developing nations facing serious injury, death or deportation, unions face a tough choices.

Although global warming is increasingly affecting workers, unions often have to focus on “traditional” industrial matters like safety or wages. Climate campaigning can sometimes be portrayed as a luxury, but with the UN World Meteorological Organization predicting a “climate hell” and more disasters and uncertainty, union leaders like Burrow and Jennings warn climate change is union business and that climate change would mean the biggest industrial change of our generation.

“The time for a peaceful transition is starting to run out,” said Jennings. “The world must cut global emissions by 50% compared to 1990 levels and leave more than half of fossil fuel reserves in the ground to give us a chance of limiting rising temperatures to 2 degrees. It means that the world needs to achieve zero emission societies by 2050.”

Burrow says the biggest barriers to change is lack of political will. “Our leaders lack the political will to change, and can be dominated by self-interested corporations, who support populist political parties who want to scare people.”

The global union climate motto is “no jobs on a dead planet“. The role of unions globally is to empower working people, said Burrow. “We need to mobilise for an ambitious global agreement. There is no Planet B.”

(The Work in a Warming World conference brought together unionists, environmental groups and academics to debate the impact of global warming on workplaces and workers. You can download the talk I presented at the conference here.)

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