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Trade Unions as Reluctant Agents of Change?

The trade union movement sees the answer to the economic and sustainability crises in promoting the employment potential of a green economy. In comparison to green-economy or green-growth approaches pursued by other actors, trade unions (summarized under the term “just transition”) have strengthened the social dimension of the socioecological transforma-

Table 21–1. Green Economy Approaches: An Overview

tion in connection with a strong focus on employment issues. Although trade unions acknowledge the important role that they play at the intersection of labor and sustainability issues, they remain reluctant to accept their potential role as a main driver of a green transformation process.

This persistent indecision is reflected in the trade union movement's choice of measures to address the sustainability crisis. Of the three basic

Table 21–2. Selected Proponents of the Green Economy

strategies toward sustainability—consistency (eco-innovation), efficiency, and sufficiency—trade unions focus primarily on consistency, that is, the restructuring of economies through ecological innovations and technologies, as well as elements of efficiency, that is, measures aimed at decoupling economic growth and environmental damage through enhanced efficiency and resource productivity. By contrast, the more system-challenging question of sufficiency—how lifestyles and business need to change to end the overuse of goods, resources, and energy—has been largely neglected.

This is understandable insofar as the trade union movement, with its traditional goals of advancing worker interests, is deeply anchored within an economic system that bases wealth generation on continuous growth of production and consumption. In view of the worldwide sustainability crisis, however, trade unions have to face the fact that especially industrialized countries have a moral duty to discuss options of degrowth, or how the current primacy of consistency and efficiency can be supplemented by a focus on sufficiency. As a consequence, in addition to challenging the centrality of gross domestic product (GDP) as an overarching policy objective, trade union strategy development must also include the downscaling of production and consumption.

Such downsizing is a challenge for trade unions not only because they need to redefine their understanding of labor in shrinking economies, but also because a socioecological transformation will completely disrupt union organizational structures. The traditional bastions of trade union activism and membership, such as coal mining, steel, and automotive industries, are mainly polluting and energy-intensive industries, and trade unions are reluctant to forsake jobs in these sectors in the course of the socioecological transformation. This is compounded by the fact that trade union structures have to be developed from scratch in the emerging green sectors. Small and medium-sized enterprises, such as those specializing in energy-efficient building retrofits, predominate in this sector, but they typically lack established links to trade unions, and many do not even have a workers' council. Overall, this is not an easy step for the labor movement to take. It will likely cause friction within the movement, posing more serious difficulties to certain unions than to others. In preparation for the United Nations climate change conference in Bali, Indonesia, in 2007, the International Trade Union Confederation stated that: “Trade Unions are aware that certain sectors will suffer from efforts aimed at mitigating climate change. Sectors linked to fossil fuel energy and other energy-intensive sectors will be profoundly transformed by emissions reduction policies.” International unions tend to take a more progressive stance and to develop broader visions than local unions in carbon-intensive sectors that are confronted with the daily hardships of restructuring processes or job losses—for which advocating for sustainability may at times mean advocating against their own sector and labor force.

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