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Unite Policy Conference backs climate action

This article by Ian Allinson was first published by RS21.

It welcomes Unite’s backing for action, including protests and strikes but warns of the dangers of relying on technofixes…

Unite’s policy conference, delayed from 2020 because of Covid, finally got underway in Liverpool today as a hybrid in-person / online event. The first debate was titled the Green Industrial Revolution and included two ‘composite’ motions which merged the text of multiple motions from different union bodies.

Composite 10 represented a big step forward for Unite, with practical actions in relation to the climate crisis. Amongst other things, it commits Unite to mobilising for the COP26 protests, encourages solidarity with the climate strikes (one is planned for 5 November), calls for the creation of climate action subcommittees in workplaces and the Unite structures, encourages disinvestment from fossil fuel producers, analysis of the potential impacts of the climate crisis and the responses to it on employment in each Unite region and sector, guidelines for bargaining over decarbonisation, inviting speakers from climate strikes or the Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group to all union bodies, and campaigning for the right to strike over climate (see guide). It was positive that the Executive Council backed the composite, but frustrating that they did so with reservations, claiming that affiliating to the Campaign Against Climate Change would conflict with our efforts to organise in carbon intensive industries. These industries are going to face closure or radical change as a result of the climate crisis. We need a just transition for working class people in Britain and poor people around the world. We’re not going to get that by dragging our feet on pushing for the transition – workers need to make allies of climate campaigners rather than our polluting employers.

The contradictions were even clearer in Composite 9, which was also passed with Executive support. It included much good content but centred the techno-utopian fixes being promoted by fossil capital and carbon intensive industries who want to continue business as usual. Electric vehicles, carbon capture and storage and hydrogen (unlike nuclear) have some role to play, but ignore the need to reduce energy consumption and the need for a just transition on a global scale, rather than pillaging poorer countries for the raw materials for unsustainable solutions in the Global North.

Foot dragging on just transition and promotion of techno-utopias both relate to the rotten politics of partnership with employers that are still far too prevalent in Unite. rs21 members at the conference distributed a leaflet taking up the arguments about climate change as well as other key issues such as inflation and pay, fire and rehire, democratising Unite, the Labour Party, Proportional Representation (likely to be one of few contentious debates), migrant rights, the Police Bill and the Covid crisis. A key strategic aim for the left should be the convergence of the workers’ and climate movements. Building workplace action for the climate strike on Friday 5 November and the union/worker blocs on the demonstrations on Saturday 6 November are big opportunities. Every Unite activist should get involved with their local COP26 coalition hub and with wemaketomorrow which is coordinating the union/worker blocs. Tomorrow we will be helping distribute a leaflet from Unite Rank & File.

Tomorrow Sharon Graham, the new General Secretary, will take part in a two-hour Q&A with delegates – an opportunity for her to flesh out her plans and for delegates to raise their concerns and priorities.

The text of the two composite motions is below


Composite #10: Climate Emergency

Conference welcomes:

  • the energy, principles and commitment of the school students striking over the climate emergency. We note that the science is unequivocal on the reality of climate change, and the reality that human economic activity is the driving force;
  • the school students’ movement as a profoundly democratic and collective initiative, and recognises these young people as the trade unionists of the future.

Conference notes that:

  1. the Earth’s temperature has already risen by 1 degree above pre-industrial levels;
  2. the urgent need for action on the climate emergency, both in response to existing negative impacts such as extreme weather, fires, droughts, floods and loss of habitat and species; and to avoid the catastrophic and irreversible climate damage which we increasingly realise the world is on course for, after the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report;
  3. the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018 warned that we only have 12 years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees. Carbon emissions need to be cut by 45% by 2030, and reach zero carbon by 2050 in order to avoid a dangerous tipping point;
  4. the tremendous impact of the school students’ strikes initiated by Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion (XR) rebellions in shifting government complacency over climate change forcing them to amend the 2008 Climate Change Act;
  5. the shift in public attitudes to climate change, as quoted in the Government’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 2019 public attitudes tracker: “In March 2019, 80% of the public said they were either fairly concerned (45%) or very concerned (35%) about climate change…the highest since the survey started in 2012…Seven in ten people (69%) said that climate change is already having an impact in the UK”;
  6. Unite is a signatory to the ‘One Million Climate Jobs’ report produced by the Campaign Against Climate Change trade union group;
  7. the urgent need for action on the climate emergency, in response to existing negative immediate impacts such as extreme weather, fires, droughts, floods and loss of habitat and species;
  8. climate change is already impacting all aspects of our lives; from more extreme weather conditions, to reduction of species biodiversity, to the plight of climate refugees to air pollution. Fires in Australia in December 2019 and flooding in Jakarta, Indonesia in January 2020 have again highlighted what the stakes are and the urgency;
  9. the participation of workers in the ‘Earth strikes’ including solidarity strikes, rallies and protests—most notably in Britain on 20 September 2019;
  10. that the 2019 TUC Congress passed a resolution initiated by members of the University and College Union (UCU) calling for workplace action and solidarity with the Earth Strike on 20 September 2020—which was supported by Unite;
  11. that school students have continued to call national strikes;
  12. That the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties (COP) (also known as COP 26) is scheduled to take place in Glasgow in November 2021. Importantly this will review UN member states effectiveness in implementing the Paris Agreement from the COP21 talks in 2015;
  13. that an estimated 500,000 people joined protests at the COP25 talks in Madrid after the summit was moved from Chile;
  14. that UN ‘COP’ Climate Change Conferences have become a major focus for campaigners.

Conference believes:

  1. the issue of climate change is affecting and will continue to affect our members’ lives; we need strong policies to support our members on this. It is a trade union issue;
  2. that our trade unions can make a big difference to the movement against climate change and that a fightback in the workplace is a crucial part of the fight to reduce carbon emissions;
  3. that the brilliant stand of the school students deserves our full solidarity. They have given us all hope for the future;
  4. the school students’ “Fridays for Future” protests have been significant in dragging the arguments over climate change, and the threat it poses to millions of people, to the centre of political discourse, not just in Britain but globally;
  5. that the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November offers an important and unprecedented opportunity in Britain for protests that can pile pressure on governments around the world – not least our own – to take action on climate change;
  6. the future of our planet is at risk if we do not organise to force governments to cut emissions at least in line with the 2018 IPPC report;
  7. that the harshest impact of climate change will fall (is already falling) on those least able to protect themselves – the poor and the dispossessed. Conference therefore believes that governmental action is essential if there is to be any hope of minimising this impact and, as the transport sector is responsible for over 20% of the carbon released to the atmosphere, any climate solution will inevitably impact on our members in the transport industries;
  8. opposing climate change is a trade union issue;
  9. that many pension schemes and employers, especially the banking sector, continue to invest heavily into fossil fuel without any visible plan to switch this investment out of fossil fuels to renewable energy;
  10. that Unite has a responsibility to engage with employers about the issue of climate change and their duty to act responsibly vis-à-vis climate change
  11. that we cannot longer wait for our government of choice to implement policy to tackle climate change. We believe that a radical refocus on to environmental demands in the workplace is necessary to tackle the impending crisis and to ensure a just transition to a decarbonised economy, protecting jobs and livelihoods.

Conference recognises that a ‘just transition’ (that protects the lives, livelihoods and rights of working people, the poor and the disadvantaged) to a decarbonised economy is not only right, but is the only way the movement against climate chaos will secure the mass support needed to win, and avoid a rich minority protecting themselves at the expense of the planet and the vast majority of people.

Conference joins our Assistant General Secretary Steve Turner in congratulating the school students striking around the world for real climate action and welcomes the decision of the 2019 TUC to support those school students and to call for a solidarity action.

Conference has no confidence that governments dominated by millionaires and industrialists will seek solutions in the interests of the poor or dispossessed – the vast majority of working people.

Conference instructs the EC to:

  1. consider affiliating/reaffiliating to the Campaign Against Climate Change which initiated the ‘One Million Climate Jobs’ campaign;
  2. fully involve Unite in arrangements for the protests in Glasgow in November, including by providing adequate transport (chartered train, for example);
  3. publicly state our support and solidarity with the climate strikers and with the wider movement for rapid and effective climate action;
  4. encourage all units of our union to invite climate strikers and/or speakers from the Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group to speak at their meetings within the next 12 months;
  5. encourage all units of our union to give practical peaceful support to the climate strikes, without adults taking it over, e.g. promoting the strikes on social media, encouraging members to attend, and taking our flags or banners to such events if agreed with the school strikers;
  6. actively seek contact with the school students’ “Fridays for Future” campaign, with the object of initiating dialogue to seek an environmentally-friendly transport policy, which reflect their concerns and our members’ interests;
  7. call on all units of our union to organise to make COP26 in Glasgow a major focus of campaigning for effective action on the climate emergency;
  8. call on employers and local authorities to declare a climate emergency and involve workers and communities in planning, implementing and monitoring to rapidly achieve zero carbon emissions, including ending investments in fossil fuels;
  9. call on employers to recognise Unite green/environmental reps and give them work time for their activities;
  10. campaign for legal recognition of Green/Environmental reps similar to that of Health and Safety Reps;
  11. provide adequate training for reps including carbon literacy training and training to scope supply lines;
  12. create climate action groups or subcommittees at workplace level and within our structures;
  13. carry out a major exercise, along similar lines to the work on automation, to understand the potential impacts of the climate crisis, and the responses to it, on employment in each Unite region and sector;
  14. produce a set of guidelines and a model policy that reps and officers can agree with employers regarding employer investment strategies;
  15. encourage union reps and union members to become member-nominated pensions trustees. Once elected they should be encouraged to join the Association of Member Nominated Trustees who have already significant information available to encourage more ethical investments within pension funds;
  16. encourage reps and officers to raise this with employers and demand that as soon as possible they create and act on a time-scaled plan to disinvest from fossil fuel producers consistent both with a ‘just transition’ and with the scale of the climate emergency facing humanity;
  17. develop a campaign to call for support for this within our membership;
  18. ensure that Unite as an organisation continues to focus on its carbon footprint and how that can be minimised;
  19. produce guidance on what climate-related demands to include in collective bargaining, including ones which could be the basis of a lawful “trade dispute” under current legislation;
  20. campaign for a legal right to strike and to repeal all legislation that makes it harder to strike over climate;
  21. start collating victories and good practice in workplaces via Work Voice Pay, providing good practice and benchmarks for employers across all industrial sectors;
  22. ensure that our union is visible and seen as a relevant and useful organisation within the climate movement and that participants in the climate movement are encouraged to join our union;
  23. campaign for massive public investment in the jobs required to address climate emergency, including massive improvements in renewable energy, housing improvements (e.g. increased insulation) and public transport;
  24. campaign for the return of a Labour government committed to working for the many, not the few, as a necessary first step to ensuring governmental industrial and environmental policies protect our members as well as the environment;
  25. actively seek contact with other unions to develop and promote the above to make clear that an economic system driven by a ‘buy cheap, sell dear’ philosophy will inevitably lead to a degradation of the environment – globally, but also in the workplace.

Composite #9: Climate Change and Just Transition

Conference notes:

  • That both the UK and Scottish Governments have declared a climate change emergency;
  • The contribution made to this decision by Sir David Attenborough, protests by Extinction Rebellion and schoolchildren led by Great Thunberg;
  • That the UK still does not have a plan that puts workers, their future skills and affected communities at the heart of energy policy. Unite members across the Oil & Gas and Chemicals sector, most specifically those engaged in offshore oil and gas, refining and chemical/pharmaceutical production are highly skilled and can be central to the future development of the UK economy, including the development of a low carbon future;
  • That in 2015 the UK Government scrapped the £1bn funding competition for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS);
  • That the growing climate emergency is having a catastrophic impact across the globe, from rising sea levels to melting ice caps, Australian bush fires to parched wastelands. Our health, both physical and mental, is suffering from dangerously increasing levels of air pollution and whole communities of the poorest and most vulnerable on our planet are being left exposed to waste dumps, chemical pollutants, water and food shortages. We face an environmental disaster;
  • The failure of governments to act collectively or in many cases even recognise the issue of climate change, poses a major threat to the future of our planet and the lives of those who today occupy it, especially the elderly generation. The USA, Saudi Arabia and Australia in particular, are countries in denial of the impact of climate change and by no small coincidence are also heavily reliant on fossil fuel use and/or export to drive their economies;
  • That objective scientific data is clear and that urgent measures are now necessary to address the growing climate emergency;
  • That of the millions of people that have already lost their lives, homes and livelihoods as a result of climate change, it is having a disproportionate impact on the health and life expectations of both the very young and elderly; both groups are more acutely vulnerable to the effects of rising temperatures, poor air quality and community upheaval;
  • That pensioner poverty and cuts to publicly funded local services in the UK, has meant that many elderly people living in areas susceptible to flooding, rising sea levels and poor air quality are less able to cope with the resulting conditions, less likely to have adequate insurance protection or the funds to adequately control the temperature in their homes.

Conference accepts that climate change affects all generations but also recognises that its effects on the elderly can be more acute.

Conference congratulates the Labour Party on calling out the issue as a climate emergency in parliament and congratulates the union and Labour Party for its work on a ‘Green New Deal’ and ‘just transition’ ensuring trade unions, workers and communities are at the heart of any transition from fossil fuel use to more environmentally sustainable alternatives.

Conference welcomes the initiative from our manufacturing members on the ‘Manufacturing Matters’ industrial strategy, detailing how such a transition must involve adequate state intervention, investment and support to protect jobs, incomes, skills and the communities that currently host such jobs.

Conference further congratulates the Union and Labour Party for its active pursuit of a net carbon neutral economy by 2030. We reject the argument of the government that a limited range of measures implemented by 2050 are adequate to address the challenges we face.

Conference recognises the role that individuals can play in lowering emissions by changing diet, reducing food waste, and modifying energy use alongside travel patterns, and prioritising more sustainable public transport options. However, conference believes it is with the direct intervention of the state that we will see real change towards a more sustainable future.

Much of the technology already exists that would make a dramatic and lasting difference to our planet and the free transfer of such technology to the developing world should form a core element of any global plan, a form of ‘environmental reparations’ for the damage already caused by the developed world.

Such measures taken should include:

  • Adoption of Labour’s ‘Green New Deal’ and our union’s ‘Manufacturing Matters’ strategy;
  • Transitioning energy generation alongside heavy energy use industries from fossil fuels to sustainable energy use with investment in a balance of tidal, wind, nuclear and solar energy technologies;
  • The development of carbon capture and storage alongside hydrogen and biofuel manufacture and distribution;
  • A ‘just transition’ to electric and hydrogen powered transport, including investment in UK battery and power train manufacturing alongside recycling capabilities;
  • Shortening supply chains and investing in UK manufacturing to support the union’s ‘build local – buy UK’ ‘Manufacturing Matters’ industrial strategy;
  • Retrofitting our housing stock and regulating new build for a carbon free future;
  • Improving our forestry and agricultural management and the reforestation of the UK;
  • Developing public policy supporting an integrated, accessible and affordable public transport.

Conference is aware that ‘just transition’ is about the fair treatment of workers and communities most affected by change as we move to a lower carbon world.

Change is already happening. While UK international policy makers and others talk of a ‘just transition’, it is action that is now required.

This must deal with the global climate emergency but, in doing, must also secure futures for workers within industries that may be detrimentally affected, ensuring a collective response supporting the investment in their futures and that of their communities.

Conference understands the absolute necessity to deliver a low carbon economy to prevent the climate emergency destroying our planet. Conference supports decisive international action to prevent the catastrophic impact that increasing global temperatures are having on countries and communities across the world.

We understand that to achieve a low carbon economic future international actions are necessary and that Governments must act now to develop new policies to deliver on global emissions targets and transform energy creation.

Furthermore, conference is clear that it is our role to ensure that the continued development in the UK and Ireland to deliver well paid secure jobs across all phases of their delivery from construction to operation.

Conference pledges to build a worker-led campaign for a future that works for all demanding the implementation of progressive policies that deliver the maintenance of jobs and skills. This includes influencing strategic political decision making around the future of the affected sectors and energy policy focussing on the potential in these areas to both protect existing jobs and ensure skills utilisation, while embracing new opportunities in emerging markets such as offshore renewables, decommissioning and carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects.

Conference believes that carbon capture technology can help decarbonise the whole economy, enabling energy intensive industries to become more competitive in a low carbon world.

Evidence from the International Energy Agency and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that CCS is essential to deliver the UN Paris Climate Change Agreement.

Conference further believes that CCS technology will protect and revitalise energy intensive industries creating and retaining jobs.

Unite members applaud the commitment made by organisations and governments to achieving real reductions in greenhouse emissions, ensuring that the world’s ecosystem is global and locally sustainable for generations to come. Recent events have only highlighted the sense of urgency with which such work needs to be carried out.

However, as a trade union our members must remain our priority. The difficult question of any realistic ‘just transition’ has quite rightly been at the heart of debate within our movement. Ensuring that both workers’ rights, their employment and livelihoods are central to any solution.

Unite represents a broad range of workers across all sectors of the economy, which gives a greater ability to understand and see first-hand the overall impact of such change upon our members. Clearly there are industries that are more able to transition given current technology and infrastructure than others, as well as those which require significant technological development in order to achieve the same ends and as such this must be recognised within any future environmental policies adopted by Unite.

Any such policies must:

  • Campaign for a statutory code for quality employment with full protection of terms and conditions in any redeployment, mirror pension packages and full consultation in any changes that involve work functions;
  • Recognise that there simply cannot be a one size fits all approach across industries;
  • Accept sectoral differences in terms of both practicality, technological constraints and possibility.

Conference recognises that many of the production processes used across our industrial sectors can be contributors to greenhouse gases.

Conference also recognises that these processes provide jobs for our members.

However, Conference also recognises that there will be no jobs on a dead planet.

Unite must consider the potential impact on our industrial sectors of climate change coupled with changing production methods, including the threat from automation, and consequentially take steps to protect jobs and ensure that where there are threats to jobs there is a ‘just transition’ – securing workers’ rights and livelihoods while shifting to sustainable production.

Conference applauds the section of the 2019 Labour Party Manifesto which called for the development of a new green deal, aimed at combatting climate change and growing well paid, skilled, unionised manufacturing jobs in the UK. Despite the outcome of the 2019 election, many of the ideas contained in the manifesto are still urgently needed and worth fighting for, especially issues around manufacturing and climate breakdown.

Recent Transport for London (TfL) contracts to build buses and trains for Crossrail highlight the inability of wo called market forces to protect jobs in the UK. These contracts have been won by manufacturers based in Europe, with no consideration for the social impact of job loss, further undermining our manufacturing base and hindering the development of manufacturing facilities, skills and supply chains in the UK.

There should be a requirement in all public service procurement contracts for a social impact assessment especially including apprentices for young workers. This is increasingly important as an alternative to precarious employment and youth exploitation in the gig economy. The UK workforce has transferable skills enabling a ‘just transition’ to a low carbon economy to be a realisable goal.

A growing efficient planned public transport system based on need not greed is a prerequisite of combatting climate breakdown and air pollution in urban centres, in tandem with this is a green ‐ manufacturing and public procurement policy able to match the growing threat posed by climate breakdown.

Conference accepts the fact that climate change is a result of global warming caused by human activities. This is a grave danger for future generations. To take no action will be a betrayal for all yet to come.

Conference therefore calls for Unite to:

  • Campaign for a ‘just transition’ across all sectors of our economy so that economic and social justice are at the heart of every decision taken to deliver a decarbonised energy system. This should entail the delivery of a national industrial and political strategy inclusive of the impacted sectors that prioritises investment in a decarbonised energy system that delivers a fair and ‘Just Transition’, including the rapid development of Carbon Capture and Storage, Energy from Waste, and future fuels to deliver a Green New Deal wot all sectors of the UK economy;
  • Ensure that this is a workers’ ‘just transition’, campaigning that future climate jobs are secure, sustainable, good jobs delivered through collective bargaining and that those workers and communities whose industries are threatened by the necessary changes to develop a low carbon world have jobs protected and their skills fully utilised in the sustainable industries of the future;
  • Develop:
    • Model agreements for negotiating a ‘just transition’ which protects jobs;
    • Analysis of each sector’s impact due to climate change;
    • Sector specific education/communication for members on the impact of climate change, including a need for a ‘just transition’ which protects jobs;
    • The core ideas of Labour’s Green New Deal’ and campaign publicly and vigorously with the Labour Party for rebuilding a manufacturing economy focused on developing a green economy with combatting climate breakdown and an industrial strategy with well-paid manufacturing jobs as its priorities;
  • Campaign, with the TUC, STUC and other bodies to commit the UK and the Scottish Governments for CCS technology to be developed as a matter of urgency;
  • Campaign within the TUC, Labour Party and other sympathetic political and community organisations to deliver the above actions and raise the importance of taking urgent action via a ‘green new deal’ to address the climate emergency, addressing its devastating impact on the elderly and the most vulnerable people in our society;
  • Use its resources to force government and corporations we have relationships with to take all necessary steps to support investment in, and the development and use of, technologies that reduce our reliance on fossil fuels;
  • Lobby the government to support a ‘just transition’ from fossil fuel to sustainable energy generation and use. With trade unions, workers and our communities at the heart of any discussions alongside the protection of jobs, wages, skills and communities;
  • Miss no opportunity in challenging climate change denial, whether by governments, corporations or other bodies, using all available economic and political leverage at our disposal.

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