Sean Sweeney, Kylie Benton-Connell and Lara Skinner

June 2015

The term “energy democracy” is now part of the trade union discourse on energy and climate change in a way that was not the case just two or three years ago. A growing number of unions, as well as regional bodies like the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas, are calling for democratic control over energy, for a “reclaiming” of the energy sector to the public sphere and for a just transition to a renewables-based, low-carbon economy. But the actual and potential content behind the term “energy democracy” needs to be fleshed out.

What emerges is that the struggle for democratic control of power generation is expressing itself on several “fronts.” Three fronts are identified and discussed here, and these are very much in the here and now. Energy democracy is being expressed through the growth of cooperatives, municipal control of certain functions and operations, and reform efforts directed at utilities. However there is a fourth front that exists mainly in the form of historical example, namely the “public works” approach to energy transition that worked so successfully during the middle decades of the last century.

It is our view that unions can engage in this struggle in a manner that could increase worker and community control over electrical power generation and, potentially, build unions. But this is not a blueprint for action, more of a mapping exercise that could further inform discussion across the international trade union community. Expressions of energy democracy presently remain very much on the margins of the global economy and they are a long way from disrupting the established energy order. But this could change — especially if unions become seriously engaged.

Download the full paper here.