Trade Unions and Just Transition: The Search for a Transformative Politics
Sean Sweeney and John Treat
With its origins in the labor movement, the term “Just Transition” has in recent years not only been championed by unions, but has gained a firm foothold in the global policy discourse. But what do unions mean by “Just Transition,” and how can it be achieved? How can worker-focused concerns become integrated into a broad program for social change that can address the need for a socio-ecological transformation?
In late 2015, after more than a decade of tenacious lobbying of government negotiators, union representatives led by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) succeeded in getting the phrase “Just Transition” into the preamble to the Paris Climate Agreement negotiated at COP21. The text affirmed “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities.”
More than two years have passed since COP21, and calls for a Just Transition have emerged from all corners of the global progressive community. Once more or less exclusively a trade union priority, calls for a Just Transition increasingly appear, in varying forms, in the campaigns of major environmental organizations, climate justice and green NGOs, and indigenous and farmers’ movements. However unevenly, Just Transition has begun to feature in discussions around national politics and policy, and unions increasingly refer to the current period as Just Transition’s “implementation phase.”
The Need for an Integrated and Transformative Politics
Unions for the most part understand that they must strive to develop a Just Transition politics that somehow addresses the immediate concerns of workers while keeping the need for a transition of the entire economy in view. A transition that is “just” from the perspective of workers or “the workforce,” but which fails to help achieve the needed socioeconomic transformation, will ultimately accomplish little to address pressing climate-related and broader ecological concerns. Alternatively, policies aimed at driving a socioeconomic transformation that are robust enough to achieve climate and environmental targets, but which ignore the impact on workers in specific locations or industries, risk being unable to secure the support from workers that such a transformation requires in order to be successful.
“Social Dialogue” or “Social Power”?
In this eleventh TUED Working Paper, we argue that, in order to effectively achieve this full range of aims, the international trade union movement must collectively formulate and pursue a comprehensive, integrated approach. Doing so requires a sober examination of the origins and current state of debates over Just Transition.
Unions at all levels of the international trade union movement recognize that a broad transformation of our economy and society is urgently necessary. But the insistence on keeping “Social Dialogue” at the center of such discussions holds trade union debates captive to the narrative of the liberal business establishment, and to a very narrow and de-mobilizing interpretation of Just Transition. Anchored in the particular realities of post-war Europe, Social Dialogue has been effectively elevated to the status of an official ideology in recent years — one that is increasingly out of step with both the challenges facing workers and their organizations, and the pressing demands for action posed by the climate and ecological crisis more broadly.
This paper makes the case for a different and more expansive trade union conversation — one that can address worker-focused concerns while advancing deeper socioeconomic transformation. We call this the “Social Power” approach. This approach is guided by the belief that a Just Transition cannot be accomplished without a deep restructuring of the global political economy. Existing power and ownership relations must be challenged and changed. This is, of course, an extremely difficult task. But if this does not occur, then the vast majority of the world’s working people will never see anything vaguely resembling a Just Transition. We can at least begin by openly acknowledging that this needs to be our movement’s long-term goal, and then organize accordingly.
The paper offers examples from around the world that illustrate how this new approach is cohering within day-to-day trade union struggles, as well as at the level of ideas across the political left.
Download the full paper here.