Graham Petersen, GJA Secretary
07879 492339
environment, employment & skills

A Trade Union Guide to Just Transition

Just Transition in the UK

The history of unions has been one of trying to mitigate the worst impacts of industrialisation and de-industrialisation. The decimation of the coal industry in the 1980s is only one of many cases of change at the expense of workers and their communities. 

One of the first attempts by the trade union movement to develop a plan that went beyond defending the existing production model took place in the 1970’s. In 1976 arms manufacturer, Lucas Aerospace announced redundancies. The Lucas Alternative Corporate Plan was drawn up by the union reps from different unions through a joint committee. It was ultimately unsuccessful but became a shining example of an approach that addressed both preventing redundancies and the production of socially useful products. They designed and tested such things as wind turbines, electric vehicles and kidney machines. We are now at the point in history where unions need that kind of imaginative and pro-active approach. It’s a tragedy that over 40 years later, this remains the only case study with this scale of ambition. The new Lucas Plan is a trade union initiative to revive the spirit of the original struggle by drawing on the lessons of the past. If you want to find out more there is further information here.

Activity: The Lucas Alternative Corporate Plan 1976 

A documentary is available to download or stream. There is a 30-minute version that can be used to show at meetings or for more information. Find it here.

Why should Just Transition be a trade union priority?

'One Million Climate Jobs Now' banner
Photo: Kirklees Campaign Against Climate Change

We are facing an unprecedented global emergency. Unless greenhouse gases are significantly reduced in the short term, then global warming will have further devastating impacts across the world. The world of work will be fundamentally affected. However, it is also where many of the solutions to the crisis can be found. Consequently, tackling climate change and its effects should be central to what goes on in the workplace.

Despite this, there is no guarantee that the ‘transition’ to a zero-carbon economy will take place. Even if it does happen it may be ‘unjust’ and at the expense of workers and communities. There is a real danger that governments, employers and trade unions will go on record as saying that a just transition to a zero economy is needed but fail to take the level of action required to ensure it happens.

Arguments against Just Transition being a union priority

  1. Trades unions need to prioritise the issues that members really care about – pay and working conditions’
  2. There is no point in workers in the UK supporting action on climate change when other countries are increasing their greenhouse gas emissions’
  3. ‘The issue is so big that unions don’t have the capacity to respond’
  4. ‘There is no consensus on how you deal with the problem so how can unions present a united front?’


Activity: Read the statements above.

For each one, identify at least one counter-argument.

Research on Trade Union Just Transition Policies

In 2017, research into the climate policies of 17 major trade unions in the UK was conducted by a Masters degree student, Catherine Hookes. To read the research, facilitated by the Campaign against Climate Change (CACCTU), and titled, Trade Union engagement with climate change in the UK. 

In September 2018, ‘UK Trade Unions engagement with climate change and the need for a ‘just transition,’ a dissertation by Paul Drury, at De Montfort University, was facilitated by the GJA in conjunction with the National Union of Students (NUS) and their Dissertations for Good project. ‘One of the main findings from the interviews related to the need to explain what ‘just transition’ means to grassroots members, and what it will mean for their jobs in the future. There was a desire to make ‘just transition’ real, tangible and meaningful.’

Just Transition as an opportunity to address equality issues

'What's good for the planet is gapped for the economy' Banner
Photo: Adam

The impact of climate change hits disadvantaged groups harder. Moving to a zero-carbon economy will not automatically redress these inequalities. Unions will need to ensure that employer and government strategies have equality at their core. As the TUC has stated

‘a just transition must provide fairness and overcome injustices experienced by all workers, male and female, young and old, black and white, in the global north and south’.

‘Who is included in a Just Transition? Considering social equity in Canada’s shift to a zero-carbon economy’ Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood and Zaee Deshpande

European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC)

The ETUC represents 45 million members from 38 countries. In May 2018 it published a report Involving trade unions in climate action to build a just transition  

The report contains some worrying results:

  • 61% of trade unions’ organisations estimate they do not have, in terms of resources, a sufficient ability to properly participate in discussions linked to decarbonisation strategies.  
  • When asked about the main barriers to trade union’s involvement in the discussions, the lack of priority given to green transition issues is the answer most frequently given. (See bar chart below)


Activity: Watch the ETUC video

Involving Trade Unions in climate action to build a Just Transition (2 minutes)