Trade unions face the challenge of integrating just transition measures (whether at an individual company or across an entire industry) and formulating a broader concept and guiding principles for sustainable work. Unions can reshape the discussion about the socioecological transformation by bringing to bear their organizing capacities and their expertise in the fields of social, labor, and industrial policy.
A main starting point is related to the reorganization of work. Work continues to be a central part of life, and the way we organize and distribute it has important impacts on social inclusion and identity-forming processes. Today, however, work fulfills its social functions less and less. From both an ecological and social perspective, the way we currently organize work is failing—and certainly not working sustainably. During the last several decades, work has become increasingly precarious, flexible, and informal. This has led to a steady weakening, and in some areas even a complete breach, of the basic promises upon which the acceptance of the current work organization is based: first, the reasonable expectation to be able to contribute meaningfully to society through one's work, and, second, to receive proper recognition for making this contribution, both in a material and non-material sense. Yet although these expectations are not being met, people have not abandoned them.
Rather, the multiple crises have opened the space for a critical reexamination of the way in which work is organized, reviving public debates about the (social) value of work and labor market structures. This is important— and it is a mandate for action, as Begoña María-Tomé Gil of Spain's Union Institute of Work, Environment and Health (ISTAS) argues: “Environmental unionism will have to redefine what labor should be in order for it to meet true human needs. Labor should not be reduced to a mere process of earning a living, in the same way as modern unionism should not be limited to bargaining for better salaries for the labor force in the capitalist market.” Current debates about sustainable work showcase core areas in which trade unions could become important drivers of a socioecological transformation. But they also indicate how unions have failed to firmly steer the debate in a direction that is favorable to the core values of the union movement, and that offers a chance to consolidate and strengthen union influence. The pressure caused by the economic and financial crisis has given some visibility and even political traction to what had been a mostly academic conversation on sustainable work. Yet the issue has been framed first and foremost in economic terms. The multiple green-jobs approaches, which have quickly gained prominence among an array of institutions and actors, including trade unions, barely address the social aspects of gainful employment.
By contrast, a second strategy discussed in the context of labor and sustainability offers broader leverage to achieve social sustainability. It takes into account the meaning that the organization of work has both for individuals and for social distribution patterns of income, as well as for income-related factors such as health or education. The concepts discussed in this vein take a critical view of the ability of growth and efficiency to provide viable long-term solutions. They include debates about sustainable models of prosperity and alternative meanings of work beyond employment-centered perspectives.
Although the models vary in the details, they have in common a broader concept of work combined with working-hour reductions and appropriate social protection schemes. Suggestions for a fair (re)distribution of gainful employment are paired with the acceptance and recognition of all forms of work, including caregiving or community work. These approaches acknowledge the feminist critique of labor concepts focused on the male-dominated standard employment relationship. They integrate other critical perspectives about fundamental changes in the world of work, such as the blurring of meaningful boundaries between work and life, and rising demands for individual time management and flexibility with regard to job location and working hours. In this way, the discussion about sustainable work has been removed from a strictly academic circle and now is advanced by different social actors, including globalizationcritical movements like Attac, parts of the labor movement, feminist groups, and churches.
These new actors have given momentum to the debate but have failed to establish extended concepts of work as a serious political alternative. This is where trade unions could make an important contribution by openly communicating and discussing such models. On a more concrete level, trade unions are indispensable when it comes to securing equitable (re)distribution of paid work, which requires continuing education and training, adapting social protection systems to the changed concept of work, limiting the intensification of work, and regulating staffing levels in company and wage agreements.
It is obvious that a reorganization of work as a key concept of social sustainability cannot be successful without trade union engagement. It is also true, however, that collective regulatory strategies have lost relevance given the unprecedented fragmentation of work patterns. Establishing new work models with shorter hours is one of the central and most prominent demands in the context of the sustainable work agenda. It requires trade unions to build broad alliances—and thus to make the political choice to make the organization of work primarily a matter of social justice, inclusion, and sustainable systemic change in order to level the field for new coalitions and to increase pressure for political reforms.