Graham Petersen, GJA Secretary
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environment, employment & skills

A Trade Union Guide to Just Transition

International policies that support a just transition

Climate change is a global justice issue – because the world’s poorest countries and people who have done least to cause climate change are often faced with its sharpest impacts. Workers around the world are faced with similar challenges. That’s why it’s important to understand the existing international standards that can be used in developing just transition policies. 

United Nations (UN) Policies

There are 3 international protocols linked to Just Transition. The fact that UK governments have agreed these policies gives them even more relevance.

1. The UN Paris Agreement 2015– Every year since 1995 the United Nations has organised a climate change conference (Conference of the Parties (COP). At COP21, held in Paris in December 2015, the agreement referenced just transition for the first time. This followed intense lobbying by the ITUC. The wording in the Annex to the Agreement reads: 

‘Taking into account the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities’

Acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind. Parties should when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity.’

This commitment has been signed by the UK government and most other governments around the world. It also commits governments to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, and to continue efforts to maintain it under 1.5 degrees. Countries will have to submit Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) setting out their ambition and how they will achieve it. These will be reviewed every 5 years. This will be done at the UK COP26 conference to be held in the UK in 2020.

The Paris COP Agreement, 2015

2. The UN Solidarity and Just Transition Silesia Declaration 2018 – The declaration has been signed by 50 Governments, including the UK, and it outlines 7 measures on Just Transition implementation. These measures are not very specific and the one that calls for procedures to be put in place notes: ‘the importance of a participatory and representative process of social dialogue involving all social partners to promote high employment rates, adequate social protection, labour standards and well-being of workers and their communities, when developing national determined contributions, long-term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies and adaptation planning processes.’

Cop 24 Just Transition Declaration

3. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – The UK Government has also signed up to these UN goals. They set 169 targets in 17 areas that should be achieved by 2030. Of the 17 goals just transition particularly relates to SDG 8 on Decent Work and SDG 13 on Climate Action, even though it is not specifically mentioned among the target indicators.

The UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD) has been set up to monitor progress on implementation of the SDGs.

Their report ‘Measuring Up’, July 2018,  found out that of 143 relevant targets, ‘the UK is performing well on 24% (green), with 57% where there are gaps in policy coverage or performance is not adequate (amber), and 15% where there is little or no policy in place to address the target or the performance is poor (red).’

The SDG Knowledge Hub has produced a brief, Just Transition in focus, May 2018, that highlights the linkages with the SDGs


Other international organisations

International Labour Organisation (ILO) 

The ILO is the United Nations Agency covering employment. It is a tripartite organisation which means it brings together 3 groups – governments, employers and workers organisations. In 2015 it published Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies for all

The 9 key policy areas to address environmental, economic and social sustainability simultaneously include: 

  1. Macroeconomic and growth policies 
  2. Industrial and sectoral policies 
  3. Enterprise policies 
  4. Skills development 
  5. Occupational safety and health 
  6. Social protection 
  7. Active labour market policies  
  8. Rights
  9. Social dialogue and tripartism

Activity: ‘Green economies for all’

Watch the short video produced by The ILO (1 min 24 secs) to promote just transition of the workforce.


The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) has published a detailed report Just transition of the workforce, and the creation of decent work and quality jobs, October 2016, 

The UNFCC and the ILO signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 2017 to promote decent work and a ‘just transition’ of the workforce. 

These guidelines can be used by unions to support demands for consultation across the 9 ILO policy areas above. However, the ILO and UNFCC documents have no legal status and so the other 2 groups – governments and employers – can ignore them. It is only in the areas of ‘Occupational safety and health, and to a lesser extent, ‘Skills development,’ where union legal rights exist in the UK to require consultation.

For more information about the international dimension you can visit the GJA course Climate Change Awareness, Module 2 – International Responses

At international level the TUC works with a range of bodies including:

International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)

The ITUC represents over 200 million union members worldwide.  In June 2019 the ITUC announced a day of global action on climate change. It called on unions to find out their employers plans to climate-proof their operations and jobs. A Campaign Guide provided resources for the global day of workplace action, including a model letter to send to employers and questions to ask in the meeting.

Activity: Asking your employer

Unions were invited by the ITUC to put 3 questions to their employer

1. Do you measure CO2 emissions? • If yes, can we develop a plan for reducing emissions? 

If no, can we agree to a process to measure our emissions? 

2. Will we have net-zero emissions by 2050, or have a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030?

3. What will we do to get there?

The ITUC guide contains a model letter (Page 7) that includes the 3 questions. If your employer has not given you any of this information, then adapting the letter and using it could be a good way of starting to find out what your employer has and hasn’t done.

In 2016 the ITUC established a Just Transition Centre.  One of its aims is to record examples of union best practice in tackling climate change. A number of useful resources can be found here.

As well as union resources it has published Just Transition – a Business Guide, May 2018

This contains employer’s case studies and recommendations on social dialogue topics with unions. Unions sometimes have different experiences with some of the multi-nationals referenced. For example, Vestas, the Danish Renewable Energy company, notoriously failed to apply just transition principles to its workforce on the Isle of Wight, when it closed the only factory making wind turbines in the UK in 2009. Read the Guardian article here.


Extract from Just Transition – a Business Guide for employers 

Topics for social dialogue can include: 

  • Developing improved processes, services, knowledge, innovations or new technologies that reduce emissions and waste or promote productivity and resource efficiency. 
  • Analysing and agreeing different options for climate action by the company or its sector, including pathways to net-zero emissions. 
  • Forecasting and finding ways to maximise the positive impacts of company-level climate action on workers and communities, as well as minimising its negative impacts. 
  • Forecasting skills needs and employment opportunities at different levels, and designing appropriate skills training services. 
  • Locally, to design and deliver policies and actions that help to diversify and revive communities and their economies. 
  • Locally and nationally, developing and advocating for government policies that support just transition, particularly for vulnerable workers and communities, and drive job creation, decent work, development and poverty eradication.

(‘Just Transition: A Business Guide from the JT Centre and the B Team)


The consultation process described in the Business Guide for Employers is sometimes referred to as ‘social dialogue’. In other parts of Europe this has a much stronger tradition than in the UK. Unions are often referred to as ‘social partners’ and in a number of countries this relationship is underpinned by industrial relations policy and practice. There is a view that this approach will not be capable of delivering a Just Transition in the timescale required and that unions need a more radical approach that challenges the current economic model if there is to be a social transformation. It is rooted in the slogan ‘system change not climate change’.

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) published Trade Unions and Just Transition: the search for a transformative politics, Working Paper No.11, April 2018, 

The paper contains a detailed analysis of just transition and a critique on the limitations of social dialogue. An alternative view is that social dialogue can contribute to the process of social transformation. The GJA recognises that there are different experiences of social dialogue but it can be an important stage in the process of transforming the world of work. The call for trade union membership of Just Transition agencies reflects this approach.

Activity: Social dialogue v Social Transformation

‘Just Transition in practice will just mean a bit of token consultation without unions having any real say in the decisions that will affect them. For that reason, does it make much difference that the UK government is failing to engage with unions on how it intends to implement its climate change obligations?’ 

Do you think that ‘social dialogue’ is a diversion from the ‘social transformation’ that is needed?

Examples of international trade union action which support a Just Transition


In March 2017, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), won a Just Transition deal for workers at the Hazelwood power station in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria In Australia. When it closed with 5 months’ notice, a deal was negotiated between labour unions, the owner of the power plant and government that provided a smoother transition for the dislocated workers. The agreement resulted in a fund of $15.3 million dollars that assisted 150 workers in their transition. The money was used to provide pay-outs for early retirements, for incentives for employers that hired dislocated workers and skills training.



In 2017, the United Steel Workers (USW) published a guide Climate Change and Just Transition: What will workers need?’, 2017. It was produced in conjunction with the Adapting Canadian Workplaces (ACW) project. In 2018, the Canadian Labour Congress who have been instrumental in setting up the Task Force on the Just Transition for Canadian Coal-Power Workers and Communities to provide the government with expert advice on how to make that transition a fair one. The Task Force includes representatives with expertise in sustainable development, workforce development, and the electricity sector and representatives from labour associations, unions, and municipalities



Reel News conducted a 14 week tour in 2018 looking at examples of climate action and just transition in the United States. They came across some inspiring examples of trade union and community action  A summary of their videos and speaking tour can be found here. 

New York – The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IFBEW) ‘Transitioning to a 21st century energy system’, July 2019. This White Paper contains forward-looking detailed policy proposals for New York State across the energy sector.

Unions have also successfully negotiated a Labour Agreement for union recognition throughout the supply chain for new offshore wind construction