15 November 2019
On September 28, 2019, more than 150 trade union representatives, activists and policy allies from more than a dozen countries came together in New York City for a one-day international conference on “The Green New Deal, Net-Zero Carbon, and the Crucial Role of Public Ownership.” The conference report is now available for download here.
The conference took place against the backdrop of the massive “Global Climate Strike” actions led by young people in numerous countries around the world, coinciding with the UN “Climate Week” of talks in New York City. In the weeks before those actions, TUED organized a “Global Web Forum” on the #Strike4Climate, and subsequently compiled a list of union statements and actions in support of the strikes.
Framing and Meeting Highlights
The conference program was framed around a number of issues and concerns that have emerged out of recent union-led struggles to both defend and extend public ownership of energy in key countries and regions. Over the course of the day’s proceedings, a number of key themes and broadly shared conclusions emerged, including:
- Investor-focused climate policy is not delivering the energy transition
- Privatization of state-owned electricity utilities has failed—but alternatives exist
- Defending public ownership of energy requires a reform agenda that can drive “de-marketization”
- Confidence is rising to reverse electricity privatization where it has happened
- Defending and reclaiming public energy requires building union power
- The transition must take into account the real development needs of the global South, while contesting carbon-intensive “development as usual”
- There is an urgent need for technical, programmatic work to make achieving the ambitious goals of the Green New Deal possible
Each of these is discussed in more detail in the report’s introduction.
Reaching Net-Zero and the Crucial Role of Public Ownership
The conference opened with a presentation by TUED’s John Treat and Sean Sweeney, reviewing TUED’s latest analysis of energy and emissions trends, and the failure of profit-driven climate policy to deliver the energy transition we urgently need. Crucially, although the deployment of renewable energy is growing, overall demand for energy continues to outstrip this growth, so that fossil fuel use continues to rise. Overall investment in renewable energy is inadequate, and annual deployment levels remain far behind what is required to displace fossil fuels even from the power sector at the speed and scale necessary.
These trends amount to a massive policy failure, and this failure is being recognized by growing numbers of trade unions and their allies. The neoliberal “sticks and carrots” approach (carbon pricing, providing “certainties” for investors) has reached the end of its political life. There is now a growing willingness to promote pro-public alternatives that are based on defending and reclaiming public ownership of energy systems, “demarketizing” those systems, and the need to adopt a “global public goods approach.” Both the point of departure and the guiding principle for this effort can be captured in one sentence: Rising emissions anywhere endanger people everywhere; cutting emissions anywhere benefits people everywhere.
TUED’s analysis provided context for contributions from trade union comrades. For instance, union representatives from South Africa, South Korea, Mexico and Puerto Rico discussed ongoing struggles to defend public power utilities against privatization. Contributions from the UK, Australia and the US looked at efforts to fight market-driven climate policy and reclaim power sector assets that had been previously privatized. Additional sessions looked at the challenges of decarbonization beyond the power sector, and at possibilities for internationalism for a “pro-public” future.
Power, Class and “Just Transition”
“Just Transition” emerged as an important cross-cutting theme for the day, with several contributors highlighting the importance of understanding the “just transition” debate in terms of class and social power. Most notably, this theme was taken up by Zwelinzima Vavi, General Secretary of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), during a special presentation, “Their Just Transition, and Ours.” During his presentation, Vavi reflected on how the term “just transition” itself has been “co-opted”:
When the likes of anti-union Richard Branson and other billionaires use the term “just transition,” it makes me very angry. When South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa—another billionaire—refers to the need for a “just transition,” in the same speech where he announced that the national public utility, Eskom, will be broken up or “unbundled” in order to attract private investors, we know the term has been captured, co-opted and corrupted.
Similarly, Natalia Carrau of the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) reinforced the need to understand the challenge of “Just Transition” in class struggle terms:
I should say, ‘just transition’ is not only about ‘social dialogue,’ it’s not only about labor rights—it’s still a matter of capital vs. labor disputes, and we still believe that capital is winning, and we still believe that we should increase this fight, shifting to a more offensive strategy.
TUCA’s landmark Development Platform for the Americas (PLADA) expresses a strong commitment to public ownership and protecting the commons. PLADA is currently being discussed and revised by TUCA affiliates and key social movement allies.
Also present at the conference was Tamara Muñoz Valenzuela of the main national center in Chile, Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT). During discussions, Muñoz Valenzuela expressed CUT’s desire to give visibility to the public ownership issue at COP25 in Santiago (which many readers will know was later cancelled, on October 30th, as a result of the state of emergency declared following a popular uprising against neoliberal austerity).
Respected Norwegian trade union thinker and activist Asbjørn Wahl reinforced the need to understand the challenges involved in the transition in terms of class contradictions and strategies:
It is not a lack of “political will” or “political ambition” that is behind the failure to make progress towards climate targets…. There are contradictory interests behind that failure. No matter how strong the will of the neoliberals in government is, they will not lead us to where we want to go. So we should stop saying there is a “lack of political will.” There is a hell of a lot of will there—but it is not the same as ours.
Larry Brown, President of Canada’s National Union of Public and Government Employees (NUPGE), also drew a connection to the importance of social power, and drew special attention to the inspiration provided by the youth climate strikers:
We’ve seen in recent weeks that the passion and concern of young people about the future is shared by many others around the world, and the trade union movement needs to work with young people, and to link its power, influence and abilities to the passion of young people—realizing that we don’t always have to lead, sometimes we have to follow people who are already ahead of us.
A Proposal for 2020 Mobilization
During his contribution to the conference, Peter Knowlton, outgoing President of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) proposed that unions and other movements organize for a “Workers and Environment Week” in April 2020:
We need to talk about the need to bring millions of workers into the streets for Earth Day on April 22, 2020. But we need to have a continuous series of actions, as was just done this past week, until eight days later, which is May Day 2020, which is the true workers and trade unions holiday. A week of activity between the “bookends” of Earth Day and May Day could be a wonderful opportunity to bring the labor and environmental movements together in a way we haven’t seen before.
The full conference report contains detailed accounts of the day’s contributions and discussions. Its contents can be used to stimulate debate and discussion across the international trade union movement on key pressing issues, such as:
- How to develop and advance arguments for public ownership of energy, transport, and other key sectors;
- How to build an internationalism anchored in programmatic solidarity based on “pro-public” approaches to the energy transition; and,
- How to organize and struggle for a “just transition” for workers and communities around the world that is genuinely transformative, and that can help achieve the radical change we need.
The full report is available for download here.
We welcome questions, comments and critiques.
The TUED Team