[This is the first in a series of posts as representatives of trade unions around the world head off to Copenhagen. It is sross-posted with the Labor Network for Sustainability]
While world leaders play the “blame game” for their failure to negotiate a binding climate agreement in Copenhagen, trade unions from around the world, almost unnoticed, have forged their own common approach to climate protection.
Unions in different countries and industries inevitably have different interests. But remarkably they have been able to come together as a unified force around the necessity for protecting the climate, protecting workers, and protecting the world’s poor.
As world leaders assemble in Copenhagen for the global climate conference, they will be joined by a global labor delegation of 250 trade unionists from around the world demanding a just transition to an environmentally and socially sustainable global economy.
According to Guy Ryder, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) which represents unions from around the world,
The science shows clearly that the longer we wait, the higher the human, environmental and economic costs will be. We need governments to make ambitious commitments which will set in stone the core elements of a treaty that must be completed as a matter of urgency. This means legally-binding targets on emissions and longer-term financing to assist developing countries to adapt, as well as ‘just transition’ strategies to deal with the social and employment dimensions.
Not all unions and federations agree with the ITUC position on every issue. The Solidarity union in Poland and the AFL-CIO in the US have different positions on the issue of emission reduction targets, for example. But they have not tried to block the ITUC’s overall approach.
During the cold war era, the world’s trade unions were divided among two major and several minor federations. Since then, however, trade unions have increasingly drawn together across national borders. In 2006, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) was created, which represents 170 million workers through 312 affiliated organizations in 157 countries. It has provided the arena in which unions from around the world have shaped a common approach to climate change.
The forging of a common position has been based on the idea of creating an overall global strategy that includes the needs of working people in different parts of the world, different countries, and different industries. The ITUC says its platform was developed through “an exhaustive 18-month process of negotiation involving trade unions from every part of the world, and reflects the concerns and proposals of working people from developing and industrialized countries.” It represents a “dual commitment towards the environment and society.” It calls for both “urgently needed emissions reductions” and for “changing the way we produce, consume, and interact.”
The global labor strategy is based on the idea that fixing global warming is not just a matter of a few adjustments, but rather requires global systemic change – a transition to a different kind of economy. That transition provides the opportunity to build a world that is far more just as well as far more sustainable.
The ITUC statement to the Copenhagen conference observes that rebuilding our economies on a sustainable, low-carbon basis cannot just be left to the market. It requires public investment, innovation, skill development, social protection, and social cooperation.
The global fuel, food, unemployment, and climate crises all originate in a “socially unjust and environmentally unsustainable model” which has “translated wealth creation into environmental degradation and the concentration of income into the hands of a few.” These multiple crisis must be addressed in a coherent way that “transforms our societies and workplaces into sustainable ones” to ensure jobs and livelihoods now and in the future.
The ITUC climate protection strategy is based on a “just transition” to a low-carbon future. That requires a “just path for the transition between and within countries.” Its proposals therefore address not only protecting the environment, but also protecting workers and the global poor from the negative effects of climate change and climate change policies at both a national and an international level.
Workers and their organizations matter for the politics of global warming. Almost three-quarters of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) come from manufacturing, energy production and supply, transportation, and construction; workers in these sectors have a critical role to play in implementing a transition to a just green economy. Whether they, and the labor movement as a whole, support or oppose climate protection will have a significant effect on public policy. Labor movements play an important political role in countries around the world, helping determine the political context in which public policy decisions are made. And labor forms one of the few countervailing powers that can express common interests of ordinary people against the special interests of global corporations.
If individual countries, industries, unions, and social groups simply pursue their own short-term interests without regard to the needs of the whole, it will bring to birth a world that is unsustainable for everyone – including themselves.
For trade unionists, “climate change raises important questions about social justice, equity and human rights across countries and generations.” Solidarity, not greed, must provide the answers to those questions.
As the ITUC’s statement to the 2008 Bali climate conference put it,
History will judge us by how we exercise the conscious options that we still have within our reach. Will we truly face up to this monumental challenge? Trade unions want everyone to accept this challenge together, in solidarity and common action.