Graham Petersen, GJA Secretary
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environment, employment & skills

Module 3: Trade Union Response


If climate change is to be tackled effectively then there needs to be radical changes in our workplaces and the way we produce and consume goods and materials. Renewable energy, sustainable forestry and agriculture, and emission-free manufacturing, construction, transport and services are all needed if the goal of keeping temperatures below 2 degrees is to be met. This means workers worldwide are on the frontline in tackling climate change and the transition to a low carbon economy.

The trade union movement is the largest democratic movement in the world. In Britain the TUC represents more than 6.3 million workers in 52 unions. Globally the trade union movement has approximately 175 million members in more than 150 countries. Combatting climate change and helping workers and the communities they live in adapt to a changing world is a key trade union issue.

This module will look at how the trade union movement is stepping up to the challenge of climate change.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)

‘The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) promotes and defends the rights and interests of workers worldwide. It does this through supporting international cooperation between trade unions and regional organisations like the Asia-Pacific Regional Organisation (ITUC-AP), the African Regional Organisation ITUC-AF), the American Regional Organisation (TUCA) and the European Trade Union Confederation.

Worldwide people are losing their lives and livelihood through climate change. The ITUC sees this as a major issue as it campaigns for workers’ rights, health and safety, and an end to poverty. As countries shift to renewable energies and a low carbon economy then workers and communities dependent on the fossil fuel industries for their income will suffer unless the transition is managed carefully. So a key aim of the ITUC is to develop a strategy for ‘a just transition’ for workers and communities, ‘to ensure we are all part of a sustainable, low carbon economy and benefit from decent and green jobs.’ (1)

Watch the interview with Sharan Burrow, the ITUC General Secretary talking about the effects on the world’s workforce of a changing climate.

As Sharan explained in the interview, prior to the 2015 Paris Summit the ITUC launched ‘a call for dialogue’ over ‘a just transition.’ Below is a section from that ITUC document outlining exactly what is meant by a just transition.

A just transition will:

  • invest in jobs – decent work opportunities in sectors which reduce emissions and help communities adapt to climate change
  • respect the contribution that workers in fossil-fuel industries have made to today’s prosperity and provide them with income support, retraining and redeployment opportunities, as well as secure pensions for older workers
  • guarantee social protection and human rights
  • invest in community renewal to gain the hope and trust of regions and townships at the forefront of the energy transition, industrial transformation or climate impacts
  • support innovation and technology sharing to enable a rapid transformation of energy and manufacturing companies along with all other economic sectors, and the involvement of workers and communities in the sectoral plans for transforming megacities
  • formalise jobs associated with rescue, restoring communities and building resilience to climate disasters
  • be based on social dialogue with all relevant parties, collective bargaining with workers and their unions for workplace change, resource productivity and skills development with the monitoring of agreements which are public and legally enforceable.

Call for Dialogue: Climate Action Requires Just Transition (2)

Watch the following video where Peter Colley (National Research Director for the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union in Australia) talks about what a just transition means for one set of workers, those working in the coal industry.

Ending Climate Change Demands a JustTransition for Coal Workers

The Paris Treaty

In Paris, on the 10th of December, a shortened version of the draft climate agreement was released. Trade unionists, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and activists were dismayed to see that its calls for a just transition and decent work featured only in the Preamble to the Paris Agreement and not in the operational articles of the treaty itself.

The removal of all reference to human rights and gender equality in the final draft of the agreement was also disappointing.

“Combating climate change and helping communities adapt is about protecting rights, of children, particularly the poorest and most disadvantaged, and other vulnerable groups, including migrants, indigenous peoples, and women,” said Joni Pegram, climate change policy advisor at Unicef UK. (3)

Other concerns were the lack of a strong review mechanism to make sure that countries were meeting their targets on carbon reduction. The structure for delivering finance to poorer and more vulnerable countries was also unclear. (4)

After Paris

The race to stabilise the climate has begun but tragically, too many governments still lack ambition for the survival of their people. But trade unions know that the road was never to Paris, but through Paris and our resolve to manage a just transition in the face of the largest and most rapid industrial transformation in human history is stronger than ever.”

Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary

The Paris Agreement was a disappointment to many with its lack of ambition and mechanisms to limit global temperature rise to below 2 degrees. However there remained a renewed determination to build awareness within the trade union movement of the need for action on climate change and to work alongside other social movements, nationally and internationally to fight for a just transition to a zero carbon economy.

Watch the following video where trade union leaders and those from environmental organisations talk about moving forward after Paris.

Unions4Climate: Uniting for a JustTransition to a Zero-Carbon Economy

The Trades Union Congress (TUC)

The TUC is the organisation that brings unions together in the UK to draw up common policies on issues that matter to people at work. It represents more than 5.5 million workers in 52 unions.

The TUC’s work on energy and climate change covers three main areas:

Greening the workplace

In 2014, the TUC produced a report: The Union Effect- Greening the Workplace. It showed the central role union representatives have played in green workplace initiatives. It included case studies and data on best practice in energy, resources, recycling, waste management and green travel plans. The TUC now wants statutory rights for trade union environment reps, both in terms of training and facility time. Their role would be to:

  • promote environmentally sustainable workplace initiatives and practices
  • carry out environmental risk assessments and audits
  • consult on workplace environmental policies, practices and management systems
  • receive relevant training (5)

Energy and Industry Policy

The TUC believes that a diverse and balanced low carbon energy policy provides the best guarantee for sustaining secure energy supply. Their policy supports a mix of nuclear power, renewable energy (notably wind and solar power), and clean coal and gas power stations, provided they have adapted to lowering their carbon emissions through carbon capture & storage technology. However, unions are divided over new nuclear power, with some strongly opposed on grounds of cost, safety and the dangerous waste which has the potential to be harmful for tens of thousands of years.

Some trade unions have clear policy opposing shale gas extraction on environmental and climate change grounds. The TUC’s approach to ‘fracking’ is based on the “precautionary principle,” which effectively means supporting a suspension of shale gas exploration, because of the occupational, environmental and regulatory issues involved.

A common theme running through the work of the TUC has been the principle of a just transition, with unions arguing for consultations and investment in green jobs and skills.

A TUC-Greenpeace report, Green Collar Nation, sets out the ways in which its aspirations are shared between the trade union and environmental movements.(6)

More recently, because of the work of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, this now includes fundamental issues of democratic control of energy policy and supply and wider social justice issues. Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is an international network which calls for publically and democratically owned energy. This would mean restructuring the global energy system to scale up renewable energy, energy efficiency and job creation.(7)

Watch the following animation that explains what is meant by energy democracy.

This Is What Energy Democracy Looks Like


The TUC and its affiliates have strongly supported the efforts of the ITUC to lobby for a strong and effective global agreement on climate change. The Paris Agreement set a new goal to reach zero emissions by the middle of the century. The UK is already legally bound by the Climate Change Act of 2008 to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050, but a law mandating a 100% cut would mean a dramatic increase in ambition.

Responding to former Labour leader Ed Miliband’s call to put the target into law, Energy Minister, Andrea Leadsom told Parliament: “The government believes that we will need to take the step of enshrining the Paris goal for net zero emissions in UK law. The question is not whether but how we do it.”(8)

For the TUC and others, this commitment could provide an opportunity for not just changing the energy and industrial sectors but about transforming the whole economy.

Trade Unions

As well as the common policies agreed by the annual Congress of the TUC, many unions have developed their own policies and campaigns around climate change and the environment. Below are some examples.

Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS)

“Given the scale of the threat posed by climate change to our livelihoods and communities, workers are a key voice in negotiating reductions in workplace greenhouse gas emissions. Being green isn’t an optional extra; it’s a vital part of our trade union agenda.

Chris Baugh, PCS Assistant General Secretary

The Public and Commercial Services Union is the 6th largest trade union in the UK with approximately 200,000 members. They represent workers in the civil service, the public sector and some commercial organisations.

PCS’s environmental and climate change work focuses on the following strands:


There are four ways the union engages with its members in their workplaces on climate change:

  1. campaigning for statutory rights for workplace environmental reps and consultation machinery on sustainability at central government level
  2. organising sustainability forums at departmental or workplace level
  3. providing training and an e-news service for workplace environmental reps
  4. providing a checklist for reps to use in the workplace to systematically monitor environmental impacts in the workplace and to agree plans to address them with the employer e.g. on recycling and waste, energy usage and procurement practice.


PCS is involved in a number of campaigns including the Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union Group. PCS priority is the One Million Climate Jobs campaign as an alternative to the economic and environmental crisis. It’s also active in fossil fuel divestment, energy democracy, just transition and workers’ rights. They increasingly work with environmental and social justice groups to link their campaigning to just transition.

It also campaigns against the following: fracking; fuel poverty; nuclear power; the third runway at Heathrow; TTIP and trade deals.

PCS as an employer

Environmental Action Plans have been developed for their union offices and are monitored throughout the year by a joint committee comprising of staff union reps and PCS. An annual Greener Union Report is published each year that details things like recycling and energy usage.

For more details on PCS’s policy and campaigns around climate change, download the following pdf:

University and College Union (UCU)UCU University and College Union badge

The University and College Union (UCU) represents over 110,000 academics, lecturers, trainers, instructors, researchers, managers, administrators, computer staff, librarians and postgraduates in universities, colleges, prisons, adult education and training organisations across the UK.

UCU’s 2007 Congress committed the union to play its part in ‘greening the campus’ and ‘greening the curriculum’ and to assist campaigns for sustainable national policies and local practices. It does this by:

  • Encouraging health and safety reps and others to train as ‘environment reps’ – to negotiate locally for greener workplace practices and better incorporation of sustainability into the curriculum.
  • Pressing employers in colleges and universities to develop local carbon reduction strategies in conjunction with staff unions and student representatives.
  • Liaising with other trade unions and the TUC to press for greener government policies

International work

The union has represented the Global Union Federation – Education International – at international climate talks. It is pressing for the effective implementation at UK level of UN agreements related to climate change and the sustainable development goals.

UCU Resources

The union has developed a number of resources for climate activists. They include a bi-monthly newsletter ‘Environmental News’ to keep activists up to date. A handbook for environment reps entitled ‘Staff Organising on Sustainability’. These can be accessed on:


“Unions are calling on the UN not only to agree to halt global warming and reverse carbon emissions, Unite….. believes it is crucial that there must be a ‘just transition’ in the changes that lie ahead…… a just transition means a place at the table, investment in green and decent jobs and new skills, a balanced energy, low carbon economy and respect for labour and human rights.” (9)

Len McClusky, Unite General Secretary

UNITE is Britain’s biggest union with 1.42 million members in every type of workplace.Unite the union badge

In a recently published briefing paper, ‘Meeting the Climate Challenge’, Unite sees a balanced energy policy, a just transition to a low carbon economy and the growth of climate jobs as key parts of meeting that challenge.

In addition Unite campaigns around the following:

  • investment in renewable and low-carbon energy
  • new build homes to be fully energy efficient
  • appropriate incentives to improve home and business insulation
  • businesses to audit their energy use to be as efficient as possible
  • support for trade union representatives to promote energy efficient workplaces and meet the climate change challenge.

For more details on UNITE’s policy and campaigns around climate change download the following pdf:


Finally, the trade union, Prospect, represents professionals like scientists, engineers, managers, specialists in a range of industries and organisations, some of which are uniquely placed to influence climate change policy. They have members in the Met Office, the Environment Agency, the energy sector and many research councils. Prospect is active in the Trade Union Sustainable Development Advisory Committee (TUSDAC), one of the main forums for consultation between the government and trade unions on sustainable development and environmental issues.

Their resources can be assessed at:

These are just some examples of individual union policies and good practice in tackling climate change and greening the workplace. You can find details of your union’s policies on their website or by contacting their research department. Trade unions have a long history of taking action on environmental issues as they’ve campaigned for safer, healthier, working and living environments. Consequently, they have a unique and valuable role to play in raising awareness and mobilising people to address the challenge of climate change.

In the following video trade unionists and climate campaigners talk about the importance of the labour movement working together with other social movements to tackle climate change and fight for a just transition to a zero-carbon economy.

After Paris: Organising for a #JustTransition

Published on 10 Dec 2015 ITUC

References and further reading

  2. Call for Dialogue: Climate Action Requires Just Transition
  5.  Go Green at Work-reps handbook: newsletters:

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