Labor’s Road to Copenhagen


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.”

The global trade union movement has committed itself to the IPPC’s science-based targets.  In its statement to the Copenhagen negotiations, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which represents 170 million workers in trade unions around the world, said,

“We reaffirm the commitment of the global trade union movement to achieving an agreement that will limit the global temperature to raise no more than 2 degrees C. . . .  trade unions urge Governments at the UNFCCC [climate change negotiations] in Copenhagen to follow the IPCC scenario for reducing global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 85% lower than their 1990 levels by the year 2050 and emphasize the need for interim targets for this to be achieved, including a corresponding reduction of at least 25-40% by developed countries by 2020 below 1990 levels.”

Shortly before the Copenhagen Conference was scheduled to open, Guy Ryder, General Secretary of the ITUC, reaffirmed this position: “The world simply cannot afford further delays in action to avoid catastrophic climate change.  Political leadership is critically important at this juncture, and unless momentum is regained, with world will pay a heavy price.”

Not every union or federation worldwide fully endorses these targets.  For example, the Solidarity union in Poland, which has almost a million coal-related jobs, has warned that EU climate protection measures will simply shift coal production from Poland to the Ukraine.  The AFL-CIO has not endorsed the IPCC targets, and in a non-public statement distributed by the AFL-CIO at climate negotiations a year ago said that the US’s “high degree of dependence on fossil fuels generally, and on coal for electricity generation, poses unique challenges for structuring near-term climate change policies that would not unduly harm workers, the economy, and consumers.”  But they have not tried to block the ITUC’s 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.

A just transition

At the core of global labor’s strategy for climate protection is the idea of a “just transition” to a low-carbon future.

A just transition means that the burden of change that benefits everyone will not be placed disproportionately on a few.  It means that those most vulnerable to change will be protected.  It means that the process of change will increase social justice for workers, women, the poor, and all oppressed groups.

Such a just transition is essential to produce the “broad and sustainable political consensus” necessary to make climate protection policy work in the long run.  

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which represents 170 million workers in unions all over the world, campaigned for language embodying the just transition principle in the negotiating text of the Copenhagen agreement.  Such language was submitted by Argentina and proposed as part of the “shared vision” by the Chair of the negotiations in May.  It read:

"An economic transition is needed that shifts global economic growth patterns towards a low emission economy based on more sustainable production and consumption, promoting sustainable lifestyles and climate-resilient development while ensuring a just transition of the workforce."

Since then this language has been “bracketed,” meaning that at least one government has questioned or opposed it.  Unions around the world have been lobbying their governments to keep it in.

The ITUC says a just transition can be achieved:

"Through socially responsible and green investment, low-carbon development strategies, and by providing decent work and social protection for those whose livelihoods, incomes and employment are affected by the need to adapt to climate change and by the need to reduce emissions to levels that avert dangerous climate change."

Bob Baugh, executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council and co-chair of the AFL-CIO Energy Task Force, elaborates:

"What the trade union movement wants is an industrial and environmental policy that delivers a good, just transition for a world moving to a greener economy.  You can’t have a just transition without workers and their communities having a voice.  Also, a just transition requires investments to retain and create good jobs, modernize industry, education and training, and provide assistance for any workers and their families who may be adversely affected."

While just transition policies will of course be different in different countries and communities, the basic elements are likely to include:

–Major public and private investment under long-term sustainable industrial policies to create green jobs and workplaces.

–Identification in advance of the employment effects of climate protection.

–Advance planning to compensate for adverse affects of climate protection.

–Social protections, including social insurance, income maintenance, job placement, and secure access to health, energy, water, and sanitation.

–Training and education for new careers for those affected.

–Wide consultation among stakeholders.

–A “diversification and climate change adaptation plan” for every region and community at risk to provide an alternative to a “free-market adaptation” that will only lead to suffering and opposition to climate measures.

–Protection for the economic life of communities, including new energy technologies and economic diversification.

The ITUC has also pointed out that climate change is not “gender neutral.”  “Women are generally more vulnerable, representing the majority of the world’s poor and powerless.”  The 2004 Asian Tsunami, for example, killed four times as many women as men.  Trade unionists believe that “climate justice cannot be achieved without gender justice.”

Climate-protecting development

One of the most contentious issues in climate negotiations is how to share the burden of climate protection between the rich developed countries of the North and the poor developing countries of the South.

The ITUC represents unionized workers in all parts of the world, including both the developed and the developing countries.  For that reason it has had to work hard to develop a consensus based on an approach to climate protection that recognizes the needs of workers in developing countries while also protecting workers in developed countries.

The ITUC’s approach starts from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreement that developed and developing countries have “common” but “differentiated” responsibilities.

The ITUC agrees:

“Developed countries must take the lead on emission reductions, and provide sufficient funding for adaptation if we want to have a chance for achieving sustainable development and social justice.  Developing countries can change the nature of their growth if they are provided with the necessary funding and technology to undertake those measures.”

Drawing on a traditional labor theme, the ITUC calls on governments and society to show “solidarity with those who are most vulnerable around the world.”

Such solidarity first of all means countering global warming and its effects on the most vulnerable.  Trade unions consider the best way for developed countries to exercise solidarity with developing countries is by cutting their own emissions in order to limit further suffering and irreversible changes, and by creating the means for other countries to participate in reduction efforts.

The ITUC calls for developing countries to participate through targets on renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean coal technology, and forest protection.  Developed countries need to support these efforts through finance and technology transfer.


Why workers matter for climate protection

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."


[Joe Uehlein is the founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability, dedicated to engaging trade unions, workers and their allies to support economic, social, and environmental sustainability.  Before founding LNS, Joe was the Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department and former director of the AFL-CIO Center for Strategic Campaigns. Joe is also a founder and board member of Ceres, a member of the National Advisory Board of the Union of Concerned Scientists and a senior advisor to the Blue Green Alliance.]

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