This paper has been written for unions and unionists who are perhaps in the early stages of their engagement with climate change and who feel they might benefit from knowing “the story so far” in terms of trade union involvement. But it is also being written with an eye to the future, to generate discussion that may help unions develop the kind of compelling ideas and proposals that can lead to an increase in membership engagement and climate activism. A global movement demanding immediate and effective action on climate change is urgently needed, and unions can play an important and potentially decisive role. However, part of the process of building such a movement will require taking stock, in broad terms, of what has been learned with regard to past efforts both practically and at the level of ideas and core theoretical assumptions.
This paper focuses mainly on the UN level, where the level of union activity has been very significant and worthy of examination. It will be clear from what follows that the climate politics of the international trade union movement has reached an impasse; the same is also true of other movements that have fought for a global climate agreement and have seen their hopes shattered. But this is more than a problem of barking up the wrong tree, or of the wrong set of persons sitting in the seats of power at the wrong time. The “green economy” framework that has informed trade union policy on climate change and sustainability has also reached a political dead end. This is obvious at the UN level and increasingly obvious at the level of the nation state, one or two exceptions notwithstanding. Once regarded as inevitable, the green economic transition as imagined by the more far-sighted wing of the political and corporate establishment now borders on the impossible.
In following how unions have engaged the UN’s climate process, it is also possible to observe and reflect on how the trade union discussion has shifted from the days of the “triumph of the market” neoliberal globalist moment in the early 1990s to the present time, when the impacts of the Great Recession (and the need for jobs) are still all too evident in many parts of the world. In the early 1990s neoliberal capitalism was wiping the floor with unions. Unions of course remain under attack and very much on the defensive. But, in common with other social movements, unions have in recent years begun to engage in a deeper questioning of the political economy of capitalism from both a climate and environmental standpoint and from a socioeconomic perspective. Can politics significantly alter the systemic and profoundly unsustainable features of capitalism, particularly unlimited growth, accumulation, and consumption? In the light of world leaders’ “great inaction” on climate change, this has to be the key question that lies at the heart of the trade union debate in the period ahead.
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