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Take the Wheel and Steer! Trade Unions and the Just Transition

Judith Gouverneur and Nina Netzer

The transition toward sustainable societies has consequences for labor markets worldwide—and it places trade unions in a dilemma. On the one hand, unions have to fulfill their core functions of fighting for adequate wages, more employment, and better working conditions. On the other hand, they are confronted with the fact that, in light of changing planetary realities, traditional responses to the threat of job loss address only the symptoms of the problem, but do not offer a real cure.

Parts of the trade union movement, as well as some individual unions, have accepted the reality that they need to become active participants in the transition toward sustainability. Most prominently, this stance is reflected in the “just transition” model, which reflects the trade union movement's ambiguous role in the transformation process. (See Box 21–1.) The concept makes a strong point of advancing the social dimension of sustainability; however, it is not a real departure from growth-based policies, but is based instead on the assumption that a low-carbon economy can be brought about mainly through technological innovation.

The just transition approach does acknowledge that technological change is not socially neutral. Nora Räthzel and David Uzzell, who have been investigating the role of trade unions in the context of globalization and global environmental degradation, observe that, “if workers are not to become the victims of technological change, technological and social transformations need to go hand in hand.” Trade unions need to claim a central role in designing and targeting the transition process. At the same time, a successful transition that takes seriously the three dimensions of sustainability—economic, ecological, and social—cannot be achieved without a strong trade union movement.

No Jobs on a Dead Planet

The transition toward sustainability requires fundamental changes to our current growth-fixated economy that is built on the exploitation of finite

Box 21–1. The Just Transition Framework

The concept of a “just transition” is a trade union approach to fighting climate change. It was first mentioned at the end of the 1990s in Canadian union articles as “an attempt to reconcile the union movement's efforts to provide workers with decent jobs and the need to protect the environment.” Since then, the idea has become an established tool for the trade union movement. It aims to smooth the shift toward a more sustainable society and to provide hope for the capacity of a “green economy” to sustain decent jobs and livelihoods for all.

Adopted unanimously at the 2nd International Trade Union Confederation Congress in 2010, one of the concept's purposes is to strengthen the idea that environmental and social policies are not contradictory but, on the contrary, can reinforce each other. In contrast to other approaches aimed at reconciling economic growth and climate protection, the just transition approach puts a strong focus on the social dimension. Consequently, a just transition is to be inclusive of all stakeholders and guarantees that its unavoidable negative employment impacts and social costs have to be shared by all. A recent key achievement was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change's recognition of the just transition concept.

Source: See endnote 1.

resources and fossil fuels. It will necessarily lead to job losses in some sectors (such as emission-intensive industries) and to benefits in other sectors (such as renewable energy industries). In general, a socioecological transformation can be expected to have four broad impacts on labor markets:

• Job substitution, where employment will shift within or between sectors, such as from fossil fuels to renewables;

• Job elimination, where there will be no direct replacement for certain jobs, such as those in the European coal sector and in the oil refining industry;

• Transformation and redefinition of existing jobs, such as in industrial sectors that are oriented toward energy or resource savings; and

• Job displacement as a consequence of carbon leakage, such as relocation of enterprises to other countries that have laxer constraints on greenhouse gas emissions.

No one can predict precisely how these different impacts will be distributed across the economy, when they will appear, and how they will influence each other. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 38 percent of all workers worldwide are employed in carbon-intensive sectors, such as fossil fuel extraction and industrial manufacturing. On average, they are relatively low skilled. That means that badly managed transitions run a high risk of leading to unemployment or wage cuts in carbon-intensive sectors and to a general increase in income disparities.

In contrast, a transition process that is organized according to principles of a just transition—one that is socially just and bottom up—can create very positive effects on labor markets. Economic sectors such as energy-efficient housing, public transport, recycling, sustainable forestry, and renewable energy offer huge employment opportunities. According to the ILO, green policies, if combined with job support, could help raise employment by 14.3 million worldwide. An estimated 11.7 million of these jobs would be created in developing countries and 2.6 million in industrialized countries, helping to reduce social inequalities. Beyond these positive employment effects, green jobs offer the potential to create more decent jobs because growth in green sectors generally leads to more jobs requiring higher qualification, as well as broad-based distributional effects that unlock the potential of deprived areas and groups. To realize this potential, however, decisive political action is needed.

In recent years, the employment impacts of moving toward greater sustainability have been aggravated by the consequences of the global financial and economic crisis of 2007–08. According to the ILO, an estimated 50 million jobs have been lost worldwide since 2008, on top of the 200 million people already unemployed and 1.5 billion people in vulnerable jobs. The crisis has had the biggest impacts on developing countries and on vulnerable groups such as women, youth, small-scale farmers, and workers in the informal sector.

When the repercussions of the global financial crisis necessitated financial stimulus packages around the world, the idea of a “green economy” came to prominence. The so-called Global Green New Deal was touted as a way to stimulate growth to a level that would be sufficient to restore national economies to pre-crisis levels, while also promoting climate protection. Although the varying approaches to the green economy share the aim of developing a new economic model, the suggested reforms differ widely in their quality and scope. (See Table 21–1.)

These different approaches to the green economy reflect in part the positioning of relevant actors, such as various United Nations agencies and international institutions. The standpoints of these actors, however, often do not reflect direct alignment with a particular approach but instead combine features of the different concepts. (See Table 21–2.)

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