To Bring About a Just Transition, Unions and the Climate Movement Must Work Together

by Chris Saltmarsh

7 December 2020

Photo: Irenic Rhonda/Flickr Design: Bronte Dow

The UK government is legally bound to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Last week, Boris Johnson pledged to get 68% of the way there by 2030. But despite headline-grabbing announcements, including a ban on new petrol and diesel cars from 2030, Johnson’s ‘green industrial revolution’ will not get us close to these targets. Even if we were on track, the government’s plans would leave it too late to avoid the tipping points at which catastrophic climate change becomes unstoppable.

Meeting legal and moral climate obligations implies totally shifting the energy base of the global economy in a few short decades. Notwithstanding the inadequacy of government climate ambition in the Global North, we are still facing an economic transition of tremendous scale and speed.

One consequence of this transition for workers in high-carbon industries is potential job losses and greater precarity. As discussed in a recent report produced by Platform London, Friends of the Earth Scotland and Greenpeace, oil and gas workers already experience insecure employment, with about 80% employed as contractors. Matt*, a drilling safety adviser in Aberdeen, told the report: “I carry the risk of what I say and do. I have no employment rights as a limited company. I have to pay for my own training and everything else, which used to be covered by my employer.”

This year, thousands of jobs in the aviation industry have been lost as companies have restructured in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Ray, a Unite rep and aerospace worker in Edinburgh who asked us not to include his surname, tells Novara Media that Covid-19 has “brought all those issues into sharp focus”, and demonstrated that companies will readily use a crisis to further intensify the exploitation of workers or offshore labour altogether.


If workers – rather than the companies profiting from the exploitation of workers and the planet – are made to bear the brunt of this energy transition, it will be a generational injustice. This is the context in which the concept of a ‘just transition’ arose from the trade union movement. The just transition approach advocates investment in an energy transition which guarantees well-paid, secure jobs for affected workers, rather than abandoning them to structural unemployment.

A just transition could be emancipatory. The need to decarbonise our economy offers an opportunity not just to shift the type of energy we rely on, but the mode of production within the energy sector itself. An end goal of workers’ control and the democratic planning of energy would put the provision of jobs and the possibility of a clean energy future into the hands of those who might otherwise be forced to sacrifice their security and livelihoods for the sake of decarbonisation.

There are two movements with an obvious stake in this vision. In the labour movement, trade unions represent workers and fight for their interests. Meanwhile in the climate movement, NGOs campaign for decarbonisation and climate justice. Yet until now, each has generally operated with mutual suspicion of the other, with trade unions fearing climate activists will throw them under the bus to decarbonise at any cost, and climate activists left frustrated by many unions’ support for high-carbon industries.

We are entering a crucial decade for decarbonisation. But how do we put workers at the centre of the energy transition? Novara Media spoke to active members of three of the most significant trade unions in the context of energy transition. Unite and GMB are general unions with members working across the economy, including in sectors like oil and gas, aviation, and manufacturing. RMT primarily represents transport workers, but it also represents more offshore oil and gas workers than any other union.

A movement without workers?

For the workers we spoke to, there was a sense that climate organisations haven’t done a good job of prioritising the struggles and interests of workers affected by climate demands. Calvin Lawson is a train guard based out of Newcastle Central Station and an RMT health and safety rep at the depo. He tells us that while much of the climate movement “has these discussions” about a just transition, “they don’t necessarily understand the issues of working class people.” He argues there is an abstraction to the climate movement’s debates about net zero targets and technocratic policy discussions which does not speak to the material needs of workers. “I know a lot of union reps who worry more about putting food on people’s tables than they do about the oceans rising. It’s not an immediate problem for some people, so it’s hard to deal with.”

When workers in both clean energy and polluting industries engage in workplace struggle, the climate movement rarely shows up in solidarity. Heathrow workers are currently on strike over salary cuts. British Gas workers are balloting for strike action over threats to fire and rehire workers on worsened conditions. Meanwhile, workers at BiFab wind turbine manufacturing yards in Scotland have been fighting for years to protect their jobs from offshoring, with the Scottish government looking to withdraw the support it has provided since workers’ occupied the yards in 2017. Where has the climate movement been in these disputes?


The climate movement is composed of a rich mix of organisations, including loose collectives, direct-action networks, community groups and national campaigns. But climate NGOs stand out from the crowd, dominating the movement in terms of resources. Organisations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF are household names, but they are only the most recognisable of a densely populated field of organisations all working on policy, awareness, lobbying and campaigning. Many of them have the ear of government, legislators and political parties, whilst influencing media coverage and often setting the agenda for the wider movement.

When some NGOs celebrate weak climate commitments from fossil fuel companies, with no criticism of how these companies treat their workers, they signal support for an energy transition in which these same firms produce clean energy but exploit workers all the same. Gabrielle Jeliazkov, just-transition campaigner at Platform London, told Novara Media: “The climate movement should be showing up at these picket lines, wherever they’re happening.”

Indeed, if the climate movement wants a full energy transition, it needs workers on its side. They are, after all, among the most knowledgeable people when it comes to new energy technologies. Alternatively, if an energy transition threatens workers’ livelihoods, workers will quite rightly resist it. This isn’t about making a climate activist of every energy worker; in Jeliazkov’s opinion, “someone working 50 hours a week on a temporary contract isn’t going to spend their few hours not working fighting to stay within 1.5 ºC degrees of climate limits. They’re going to fight for a job, housing, and food security.” But there’s no reason climate organisations shouldn’t include these basic needs in their core campaign demands.

Greening the unions.

It’s unavoidable that unions have varied records when it comes to climate policy. Alex Brent, secretary of GMB’s South London Universities branch and co-founder of GMB for a Green New Deal, describes his union’s approach to climate as “conservative”. GMB, the UK’s third-largest union, supports fracking and airport expansion. Since 2018, the UK’s largest general union, Unite, has opposed fracking, but alongside GMB it remains prominent in supporting Heathrow expansion and opposes bringing forward bans on polluting fuels.

Members have mixed feelings about their unions’ positions. “On the one hand, Unite support Heathrow expansion, which in terms of the short-term [priorities of] members and jobs seems like a common-sense position,” says Ray. “But clearly it’s problematic if you’re looking to be serious about climate justice.” Len McCluskey, Unite’s general secretary, has defended the union’s support for Heathrow expansion, arguing “these are good, skilled jobs”, and that in the absence of a radical vision for alternatives, he is “bound to support members whose families and communities depend on those jobs”.


After decades of assault on trade unions’ power, most operate in ‘survival mode’ for themselves and the industries that employ their members. But this short-termism is a sticking plaster, delaying the eventual abandonment of workers by energy companies whilst locking the economy into dangerous levels of emissions which will only hit the working class hardest. If unions are waiting for someone else to bring a radical alternative to the table, it won’t arrive. If they bring it themselves, there’s a chance they can help secure the long-term futures of workers and their communities.

On this front, Unite has taken steps forward in recent years. The union supported the youth climate strikes at the Trades Union Congress and, unlike GMB, supported a Green New Deal including a 2030 decarbonisation target at the 2019 Labour party conference. Meanwhile, RMT is generally considered to have stronger climate policy, and has in the past worked proactively with climate organisations. Calvin, however, argues that strong policy doesn’t always translate into proactive strategies. “I don’t think RMT has been so aggressive on climate change activism,” he says.

Ray proposes unions adopt a strategy which begins with a political campaign “to nationalise these companies and for government support to retrain and re-skill these workers”, engaging members in the demands with “a huge campaign of education for reps, activists and members”.

From there, and with a strategy for each sector, Ray says direct action would be key: “I think union leaders have a responsibility right now, with the pandemic hitting everyone hard, to support and encourage that kind of direct action.” If our goal is publicly owned sustainable energy, Jeliazkov argues, “one of the most obvious levers of power to get there [is] energy workers”. If many workers are already taking direct action to protect their jobs and conditions, arguably unions already have the resources to deploy such tactics proactively for a just transition, in addition to defensive fights.

So why aren’t they? Ray thinks the conversation too often happens without workers: “The barrier is not seeing the members and the activists who’re affected as part of the solution, and seeing the strategy as somehow in committees and lawyers and governments.” Calvin, who is involved in setting up the RMT Environmental Action Group, says it’s on grassroots union activists to push for resources and make themselves part of the solution. “I think across unions, it’s down to volunteer members to organise and coordinate it themselves,” he tells Novara Media, arguing union leaders and staff are busy with competing priorities, and that members should bring the urgency of the climate crisis to their attention.

Launched in October 2020, GMB for a Green New Deal has already ruffled feathers by staking out a position at odds with the union’s leadership. “I do think that this is a conversation that does need to be happening within the union, and certainly among these workers,” says Alex. Ultimately, GMB’s members in polluting industries will be among the most affected by climate change in this country. Alex says the campaign “isn’t necessarily about raising awareness”, but building the confidence to be bold. “Workers aren’t stupid. They know what’s going on,” he tells Novara Media.


Platform London’s co-produced report quotes Steve*, an information management lead in Aberdeenshire: “I’d like to see the renewables industry blow up and become something we can be proud of and have it pick up some of the slack of the decline of oil and gas.” The report gives the impression that this is already the hope of many oil and gas workers. But it needs to become the goal of a struggle. Alex says we have to try, even if we need to be realistic about our capacity: “Turning the clock is not something you do in the space of a year, maybe even two years, and even with the urgency of the climate emergency it might not be enough.”

Agitating for a just transition.

It is in all our interests for the labour movement and climate movement to work together to advance a combined vision for workers’ and climate justice. Right now, neither trade unions nor climate organisations are bringing the radical politics or militant strategy needed for a just transition. That needs to change.

Unions are democratic organisations, but member engagement is usually low. Were members to get organised, they could shift the leadership by intervening in general secretary elections, force policy debates on key issues, and agitate for resources to be allocated to climate organising. Jeliazkov points out that if navigating national union democracy can seem overwhelming, “local branches have so much autonomy over where they are organising and what they’re doing. If there’s an issue related to climate justice in their area, there’s an opportunity for members to get to work and organise together.”

The dominance of organisations which are constrained by charity law, liberal ideology, corporate structures and capital funding has limited the climate movement from pursuing practical solidarity with workers and developing demands and strategies that prioritise a just transition. There remains an important role for climate NGOs – they provide the movement with the capacity to develop policy and lobby government – but they ought to be just one element of a movement ecosystem, and be willing to work in partnership with workers and their unions.

The struggle for a just transition will be waged through the organisational vehicles available to us. Campaign formations will inevitably rise and fall, but building grassroots power through those institutions which have endured will be crucial for giving our movement longevity. When you hear calls to ‘join a union’, do it. But don’t leave it at that. Join a union and agitate for a militant labour movement fighting for a just transition. Do the same in climate organisations. That’s how we have a shot at winning.

*Names have been changed.

Chris Saltmarsh is currently writing a book about climate justice (forthcoming on Pluto Press, September 2021).

This piece was amended on 7 December 2020 to clarify Platform London’s report was also produced by Friends of the Earth Scotland and Greenpeace.

  • The Climate Focus is part of Novara Media’s Decade Project, an inquiry into the defining issues of the 2020s. The Decade Project is generously supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (London Office).


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