September 17, 2019
At its 151st annual Congress—held in Brighton, UK, September 8-11, 2019—the UK’s Trades Union Congress (TUC) unanimously adopted a resolution reaffirming its support for the full reclaiming of energy back to public control.
A similar resolution was passed at the TUC’s 2017 Congress, discussed in TUED Bulletin 64: Backing Corbyn, UK’s TUC Votes for Public Ownership of Energy. That resolution urged unions to work with the Labour Party on taking energy back into public ownership. Since then, unions have done just that, and the Brighton vote confirms that unions want full renationalization. A June 2019 report from UNISON, Power to the People: How to Achieve Zero Emissions through Public Ownership of the Retail Operations of the Big Six (pdf), emphasized in particular the need to reclaim retail and customer service operations to public ownership.
“Bringing Energy Home”: Current Labour Party Commitments
Labour’s 2017 election manifesto had recognized: “Across the world, countries are taking public utilities back into public ownership. Labour will learn from these experiences and bring key utilities back into public ownership to deliver lower prices, more accountability and a more sustainable economy.” More recently, Labour’s Bringing Energy Home (pdf), released in May 2019, committed to creating a new National Energy Agency that would own and maintain transmission and high-voltage distribution infrastructure—the national grid—as well as to carry out overall system regulation and planning, and setting of decarbonization targets. Municipal energy agencies and local energy communities would be able to own and operate generation assets.
While supporting Labour’s policy, unions have expressed concerns over leaving the existing “Big Six” supply companies in private hands. These companies dominate 75% of the market, and have become unpopular as a result of rising electricity bills and a rise of disconnections of those unable to keep up with their bills.
The Case for Full Public Ownership
In introducing the new motion calling for the pursuit of full public ownership, Ronnie Draper, General Secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU), noted:
For years we were told that privatisation and liberalization of energy markets would clear the way for an energy transition to renewable energy like wind and solar. EU policy is explicit in this respect. The need to protect the climate –decarbonization—has been used like a political water cannon to break up and flush away public energy systems.
But it is becoming increasingly clear that the current approach to energy and climate policy is in a shambolic state. First of all, it is failing workers and communities. As the BiFab struggle in Fife clearly illustrates, jobs in the renewables sector have mostly failed to materialize. The offshore wind industry is dominated by non-UK companies who enjoy generous subsidies but perform most of the work outside of the UK.
Second, the current policy is also failing to reduce emissions fast enough. The UK and the EU are struggling to meet their 2020 targets, and without a major shift in policy, the 2030 targets will not be met.
Since 2012, governments have turned away from the generous “feed-in-tariff” subsidies systems towards more competitive bidding regimes where the “winner takes all.” This bidding process has driven down contract prices. Investors then see diminishing profit margins and lose interest. Today, even middle of the road policy “experts” have come to accept that the current climate targets and high-risk energy markets are simply not compatible with each other.
Draper also referenced work by TUED, Public Services International’s Research Unit (PSIRU) and the Transnational Institute (TNI). Two years ago, TUED made the case for full public ownership in a discussion paper titled, All, or Something? Towards a “Comprehensive Reclaiming” of the UK Power Sector. Draper added:
Public renewable power is less expensive than private, which not only faces higher interest rates and other costs, but also relies on various subsidies and long-term “power purchase agreements” in order to guarantee profits for investors.
Public ownership not only eliminates those unnecessary costs and provides cheaper power for users, but also allows us to address domestic skills deficits. Under public ownership and a planned approach, we can make use of the skills we have in the present, while we develop the new skills we need for a vibrant, thriving sector in the future.
Labour’s current commitment to reclaiming transmission and distribution is an important step, but it can’t be seen as the policy end game. A comprehensive reclaiming of energy to public control, and a planned, integrated approach to the energy transition under democratic control, will allow us to achieve the scale of change required in the time we have available.
Such an approach can also make good on the efforts of the energy unions, and the TUC, to make “Just Transition” a reality for workers in energy-intensive industries, and to ensure union protections for workers in the green economy.
Unions Support the Global “Climate Strike”
Earlier in the day, the TUC had also unanimously adopted a resolution supporting the calls from youth around the world for global climate strike action. In particular, the resolution called for “a 30-minute workday campaign action to coincide with the global school strike on 20 September.”
TUED has compiled a list of union statements and actions from around the world in support of the youth-led calls for global climate action.