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Moving the trade unions past fossil fuels

Samantha Mason interviewed by Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, August 9, 2017

The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) has launched a pamphlet, Just Transition and Energy Democracy: a civil service trade union perspective, urging trade union support for the transition away from fossil fuels and restructuring the energy system under public ownership. In this interview SAMANTHA MASON, PCS policy officer and main author of the pamphlet, published in May, talks about combating the pro-fossil-fuel lobby in the unions and the Labour Party, and how to unite social and environmental movements.

Gabriel Levy (GL). Could you describe the PCS’s long engagement with energy and climate policy, which has culminated in the Just Transition pamphlet?

Samantha Mason (SM). We have been engaged with climate change issues, and increasingly with the whole energy debate, for about ten years. This has in large part been due to motions coming to conference from the grassroots membership, and an assistant general secretary, Chris Baugh, leading on this, which has enabled us to develop our policy and campaigning agenda.We participate in meetings with other industrial and energy unions, mainly through the Trade Unions Sustainable Development Advisory Committee. [Note. This committee was set up as a joint government-union forum after the 1997 Kyoto climate talks, but government participation dried up under the Tories. It is now a meeting place for union policy officers, and latterly, industrial officers.]

Some of the unions there represent workers in the fossil fuel and nuclear sectors, so while we’re supposed to look at sustainable development issues, they have been more concerned with pushing fracking [that is, hydraulic fracturing, a mining technique that has been used to raise natural gas production in the US, and some people think might do so in the UK] as part of the TUC’s so called “balance energy policy” – supporting nuclear, natural gas, Carbon Capture and Storage, and the Heathrow third runway. [Note. See for example the TUC Powering Ahead document.]

We have real problems with this, as PCS is opposed to almost everything in the policy, on the basis of our national conference decisions. We have had a divide opening up between these pro-fracking unions on one side, and the PCS, and other unions who want to develop a policy for both social change and environmental change, on the other. The TUC says their policy is a result of Congress decisions. But they do little or nothing to take the debate forward.

Since 2014 we have been involved with Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, a global initiative that provides space for deeper level policy discussions with other unions confronting similar problems. Their agenda is set out in their founding document “resist, reclaim, restructure” – that is, resist the energy giants, reclaim the energy space, and restructure it. This is about confronting the fossil fuel corporates, transition to 100% renewable energy, and, as part of that, fighting fuel poverty and guaranteeing workers’ rights and conditions too. By “energy democracy”, we mean public ownership and democratic control of our energy system, which will underwrite a just transition away from fossil fuels, that is, a transition in the interests of workers and communities. Some of the big UK unions – the GMB, Unite and Unison – also support TUED but still it has not helped to move the agenda forward.

In May last year, David Hall at the Public Services International Research Unit produced a paper which talks about how we could take back the energy system into public ownership, and how we could afford to do that. David’s paper was responding to a report by Jefferies, a stockbroking firm, that said it would cost £185 million. He debunked that. He said, yes of course it would cost money, but not nearly as much as they are claiming.

We started work on our pamphlet as a response to the unions who say, “you don’t have members in the energy sector. It’s not your members that are affected by this”. David Hall’s paper, which made specific reference to government policy, monitoring and regulatory roles, was a light-bulb moment. The state, and thereby the civil service, have a critical role to play in the energy transition, in terms of these functions. We then moved away from purely energy questions, to considering: what about the civil service context and how could we develop this developing the ideas in the Climate Jobs campaign of a National Climate Service? We spoke to PCS workplace representatives at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, who were very helpful.

One thing we have a consensus on, across all the unions, is nationalisation – although our union prefers to talk in terms of public ownership. But, beyond that, we have never been able to move further.

Energy transition vs jobs: a false choice

GL. It’s difficult to understand unions that so strongly support fracking. Apart from a few jobs in gas field exploration, it may never employ many people in the UK. It has not produced a single cubic metre of gas in this country, and in my opinion may never do so. So why the fierce support?

SM. The support for fracking is mainly from the GMB, who have signed an agreement with the industry body, UK Oil and Gas, that once fracking for shale gas starts, they will be able to organise in the sector. The GMB’s arguments have moved along the way. They argue that we need gas due to large dependency for space heating – and nobody refutes that. Then they say that we have declining reserves in the North Sea, and that these need to be replaced by other indigenous sources, and that fracking is the way to do it. Then there would be jobs in future for their members and – this is where their argument is now shifting – if we don’’t develop a home-grown industry, then we are importing gas from places such as Qatar that have poor human rights records. A more recent argument they have come out with is that importing liquefied natural gas (LNG) has a high environmental cost in terms of methane emissions, and that a home-grown industry would have lower methane emissions.

Our response is that: 1. There is no gas being produced at the moment, and that the investment could be put into renewable energy. In the north west – Lancashire is a big hot spot at the moment – offshore wind is viable and could be an alternative. 2. The claims made about the numbers of jobs that could be created – ranging from 32,000 to more than 70,000 – are false. There have been many articles debunking these claims. 3. There are health and safety risks around fracking, and there are environmental issues with the chemicals used in the fracking process. 4. As for transporting LNG – yes, I agree, there is a significant methane emissions issue. But I’m not sure how that justifies us developing our own indigenous fracking industry.

I have been particularly incensed about the argument about human rights breaches. There is no denying that there are human rights breaches in Qatar – but if you are going to go down that line, then you have to speak also about the human rights breaches in many many other countries with which the UK does trade.

For us, fracking is just a quick profits exercise that will rip up the countryside. There’s no local democracy or consultation. It totally ignores all the other discussion around energy policy more broadly, about the spatial location of energy, solar, renewables, and community energy that would provide thousands of jobs. It avoids doing the demand-side reduction and energy efficiency measures we need, all of which we have been advocating through the “one million climate jobs” campaign.

GL. Is there a discussion more widely in the unions about energy policy?

SM. Yes. At the TUC congress in September last year, the Transport and Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA, a small union representing railway staff) put a very ambitious motion on climate change, basically saying “keep the fossil fuels in the ground”. It also urged an end to airport expansion. With all the other things going on, such as Brexit, the health service cuts, and so on, the only significant debate at the congress was on this motion. Everything else went through on the nod.

The motion was lost in a very binary debate, where it was posed as “jobs vs environment”. Unite, GMB and Prospect, who have members in the fossil fuel and nuclear industries, said they could not support this because it would endanger jobs for their members. Some majored on airport expansion and the Heathrow third runway, which the TUC supports. Others attacked the “keep it in the ground” arguments. By and large, the public sector unions, including Unison, aligned with PCS and TSSA to support transition away from fossil fuels. Unite and the GMB were opposed.

It was disappointing to lose the debate, but it was a salutary lesson in how we need to start developing arguments and engage with the two-thirds of the labour movement that are supporting the fossil fuel agenda. But we also recognise that the fear of losing jobs is also real, so we need to start articulating a credible alternative in the transition to a fossil free economy, and how workers will be protected as part of that process.

Note. It’s well worth reading the verbatim record of the debate, on line here. (See Proceedings Day Two, pages 134-153.)

GL. How does the Hinkley C nuclear power station project fit into the debates that you have mentioned? There are unions, including the GMB, who have attacked Jeremy Corbyn for his unwillingness to support it. Has this formed part of the debate?

SM. Not at the TUC Congress. The PCS is opposed to Hinkley C, and at our last conference we reaffirmed our policy of opposition to nuclear power development. The problem with such sectors is that you tend to get highly-paid, highly-skilled jobs – that are also highly unionised – in them. And so the unions are supporting it particularly as is rightly pointed out, the renewables sector is largely unorganised. GMB, Unite and Prospect are supporting Hinkley C, just as they support Trident. Their arguments are that nuclear is the answer to the intermittency of renewables despite near universal agreement that Hinkley is a bad deal.

GL. Not only is it a bad deal, it’s a complete breach of so-called “market principles”. Everyone else has to sell electricity into a market, but Hinkley C gets a high, fixed price for its electricity, guaranteed by the government for 30 years. The project does not have to compete in the market at all. When the state has to move in, it’s supporting big centralised nuclear, not decentralised renewables.

SM. There has not been a debate – not one that I have heard about – in Unite or the other unions about this, about the costs of investment, about the alternatives. They talk about jobs – but what jobs are being created? How many? Unions often talk in one liners: “jobs”, “highly skilled workers” and so on, and PCS is guilty of this too. We need to do more detailed analysis, to define the jobs that would be needed in a low- or zero-carbon economy.

GL. I suppose we should all be aiming to bring the debates out from behind closed doors and into the most open possible forums.

SM. Yes. The debate is very limited in big set-piece conferences. There are conversations going on at regional level: for example, the North West regional TUC has a sustainability and environment committee. But rank-and-file fossil fuel workers are only going to have the opportunity to go into discussions on union policy if they happen to be involved in their local trades council, for example. Workers in the energy sector are alienated and isolated from policy discussions. They only get told a limited amount about them. Obviously workers are aware of the issues. They don’t live in a vacuum. But the unions are not bringing them in to policy conversations.

This is why meetings such as the Lucas plan conference are so important. That meeting was  held last year, to mark the 40th anniversary of the plan proposed by trade unionists at Lucas Aerospace, an arms manufacturer, to move to socially useful applications of the company’s technology and their skills.

In the PCS we have an annual forum for our environmental workplace reps, we have an E-network and other ways of communicating. People have access to information. Very few unions are doing that. Probably only PCS has a member of staff with a role like mine, working primarily on energy and environmental issues; certainly there is no equivalent in Unite or the GMB. People do it part-time, as part of jobs with wider policy briefs.

GL. What about energy workers, oil workers for example? Obviously, the movement away from fossil fuels will result in these industries going into decline, and the number of people doing these sort of jobs will fall. But right now the big picture is dominated by capitalist companies and capitalist governments. What can the labour movement say to these workers about the transition? There is no easy answer, is there?

SM. No, there’s no easy answer. First, we have to acknowledge that the process of change is going to be slow. Second, we have to acknowledge the difficulties. We have to face the ideological discussions, and the political processes. This is what blocks us in the trade unions. Politics comes down to power, and in trade unions comes down to power. For example marginalisation of public sector unions in sustainability and energy debates. But what everyone struggles with – and this is global, it’s not unique to us here – is that there is fear. How do we overcome that fear?

GL. Fear of what? Please spell it out.

SM. Fear of change, how we move from the fossil fuel world we are in now to the world we need to get to. The problem is – and that’s what we tried to articulate in the pamphlet – it is about a political transition. You have to look at the whole system. This is why we get frustrated with some of the big NGOs, who see it as being about green capitalism. Green jobs are fine, but what is a green job? If the workers are still low paid, and still getting screwed, what progress has been made?

We know that the power of fossil fuel companies is enormous. It’s partly having the courage to confront those things, to shift the whole political agenda.

The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn

GL. Is there a shift to the left in the unions, as there has been in the Labour party – and has this made any difference to energy policies?

SM. Since 2010, since the financial crisis, we have in some ways seen the trade union movement shift to the right in the sense there hasn’t seen the rise of a more militant trade unionism. The movement has been on the defensive for some years, and now it seems for many union leaders, it’s about, “let’s just scrabble for the last few fragments, few crumbs we can get from the capitalists’ table”, whereas we can actually have a more confrontational and offensive approach.

Alex Nunns’s book, The Candidate, about Corbyn, makes the point that since 2000 the unions have swung to the left. Well, there have been some individual leaders, such as Mark Serwotka and other senior elected officials in PCS, and Bob Crow of the RMT when he was alive, who have pursued a left agenda, but generally speaking, I don’t see a shift to the left in debates such as the one about energy. I don’t see a grasp of the transformations needed, or the possibilities for unions and workers in the energy transition, particularly linked to a social and economic justice agenda.

And what about the last year and a half, since Corbyn became party leader? Labour published an interesting energy policy document last year.

It has made some difference in putting climate change and energy issues on the agenda but they are still supporting nuclear in their manifesto for example. Although coming out against fracking at the election was a big step. It will be interesting to see whether this arises in debates at the 2017 TUC Congress. At the moment discussion is all on “industrial strategy” and has co-opted the space to discuss sustainability or energy policy issues.

GL. What about the Labour Party itself?

SM. Trade unionists in the UK group of TUED met with Alan Whitehead, the shadow energy minister, in the spring. He had said, let’s keep this up and have monthly meetings, which was really encouraging. Then the election was called. People from a number of unions felt we should try to get the energy democracy agenda reflected in the manifesto. We put in a statement to Alan Whitehead, outlining our views, and, although we can’t claim credit for this, much of that was reflected in the manifesto.

One exciting thing in the Labour Party’s election manifesto are references to democratic control of the energy system. People in the Labour Party are looking at various forms of democratic control. There has been a discussion on co-operatives and other forms, and relevant legal structures such as the Industrial Common Ownership Act of 1976 that promoted an industrial democracy agenda. (Note. On this Act, which provided a legal basis for cooperatives, see this wikipedia article.)

In our pamphlet, we talk about worker-public partnerships – rather than public-public partnership, which has been the subject of a lot of academic debate – and there is a reason that we put it like that. We want to stress that this is about energy democracy, about reframing and revitalising our public services, not just rebuilding them, but doing them differently.

We want to look at the social relations, not to go back to past types of nationalisation, where workers were delivering services, but were still just as alienated from the process as the public, with no processes of democratic control. We want to look at models for example in Barcelona, where they have a different vision, of decision-taking in community assemblies.

GL. What about the Labour election manifesto commitments on public ownership? It refers to “regaining control” electricity distribution networks by changing the licence conditions; supporting “publicly owned, locally accountable energy companies and cooperatives” to compete with the “big six”, and moving the national grid to public ownership “over time”.

SM. The manifesto talks about price caps on energy, does not talk about nationalising the “big six”, although there was some confusion in the media about this. (Note. See an accurate report here.) They are saying, let’s create local energy companies, supported by regional development banks, and let’s develop community energy projects and co-ops.

In terms of public control, the most important thing is to get back the grid – the transmission and distribution. The big six are suppliers, who generate electricity. There is a debate about whether to nationalise generation, but the consensus among those working on energy democracy is that the important thing is the transmission and distribution systems.

Developing strategies

GL. Counterposing defence of jobs to combating global warming is a false choice. And, as you have said, approaches to the big issues raised have to be holistic, otherwise they are meaningless. So how do we move the discussion further forward?

SM. We have to articulate the alternative or transition in detail, not generalised statements such as “there’s lots of jobs in renewables”. Take the example of Copeland, where there was a by-election shortly before the general election. It is a constituency in which a large number of jobs are dependent on the nuclear industry. This is a big concern locally. It can’t be binary: “good energy policies, or jobs”. I understand the reality. If you’re faced with losing your job in a community like that, it’s a huge issue. If you’re faced with losing your job in London, it’s different. It may not be good or like for like work but there’s work you can find. In Copeland, there is not.

In some of these areas, the companies have a powerful hold over people. In Barrow in Furness, for example, BAe Systems not only employs thousands of people, but is also involved in education and housing, and is really integrated into the community. It’s similar to communities in other countries where the extractive industries operate – in mining areas in Latin America, for example.

Another example is the North Sea oil and gas industry. Over the last couple of years, when the oil price has dropped, and the companies have used that situation to attack workers’ terms and conditions, health and safety standards, and to cut jobs. The unions have rightly put up a fight against this.

But during such disputes it’s very unusual to hear anything being said about the future of the industry, the future of work in these areas. You have the unions backing government policy on maximising economic recovery of oil and gas resources. These resources are more difficult to recover, and will require more technology. But there is no guarantee that there will be more jobs.

Take another example: we, the PCS, oppose the third runway at Heathrow. That’s a national policy decision. We have members, mainly working in security at Heathrow, who don’t support our position. The big unions at Heathrow are supporting the expansion. Reps say [to us]: “we have to go to meetings with management and say that our union is not supporting this”, and they find it difficult.

We have done many meetings with them down there, to try to align our positions, to give them confidence that the union is not going to walk away from protecting their current jobs in terms of pay and conditions. Obviously, if the Heathrow expansion goes ahead, we expect workers to be organised and their conditions protected. No union is going to abandon them, even if we disagree with the energy policy, or the airport expansion, in which they are working.

Unless we start developing the alternatives – which can not be done by an individual union like the PCS, it has to be done collectively – then we will not shift the debate. We can not just shout into the void, “we could have climate jobs”, because that doesn’t mean anything to someone who feels that their job is in danger, who has to go home, pay their gas bill,  pay their mortgage or whatever. They can sit in a meeting and agree with the policy, but we all know the reality when faced with day to day every day life.

We are working with our aviation group and our transport sector group to develop an integrated transport strategy. We have an academic, Roger Seifert at Wolverhampton, who has done alot of work for us on alternative visions. What we have not yet done is to bring the climate change aspects into the transport strategy. We need to ask, what does the strategy really look like? We can talk about electric vehicles, public ownership etc, the transport unions will agree with that, but we don’t have a refined understanding – what does it mean for jobs?

We have an enormous pool of knowledge: six and a half million union members in this country. How do we organise? How do we get those people into discussions? Some of that we are going to try to do through the Lucas plan Just Transition working group, set up after the conference in November last year. One of four working groups, including arms conversion, local planning and automation.

GL. And the idea is to develop a Lucas plan-type discussion about the economy as a whole as of 2017?

SM. Yes. And how we start organising workers. The arms conversion stuff is of course a debate that’s been going on for years. about demilitarisation etc. The automation group is focused on the democratic issues around robotisation in industry. The idea of the Just Transition working group is to start a movement from below, and use the auspices of the Lucas plan to try to involve some of these workers that I have been talking about, that are not being involved in these discussions.

Uniting social and environmental movements

GL. When people, say, in their twenties, start thinking about climate change, and decide to do something about it, their instinct is often to lie down on a runway, occupy a power station, or take whatever form of direct action. Is there a way to brings such people together with trade unionists to discuss the issues? How?

SM. PCS is almost unique among unions, in that we work with those activists. We have a policy of supporting civil disobedience. We are at the moment supporting the action by Reclaim the Power, a direct action group, who are doing a month of rolling action against fracking at Preston New Road. On 14 July they had a day specifically focused on climate jobs, renewables and divestment where PCS had a speaker and encouraged members to get along.

GL. They are campaigning to get the Cuadrilla fracking project mothballed, I think.

SM. Yes. We work closely with groups such as Reclaim the Power. I would not say that that is typical of the environmental movement either. Many of them don’t like trade unionists and don’t understand working-class issues. We need to say that frankly. Alot of the environmental movement is quite middle class. But there are good, progressive groups and we have good relationships with them. At Heathrow, some demonstrators did a sit-down protest on the runway a couple of years ago. For our union, this was a civil liberties issue. We said to the protesters, we are fully backing you; it’s a justice issue; no way should you be sent to prison for taking this action. And they work with us. They wanted, where possible, for what they were saying to resonate with our actions.

In the climate movement, when we were organising the climate march in the UK before the international climate negotiations in Paris in 2015, we had the most difficult debates about the slogans. We argued for a slogan of “climate, justice, jobs” and working class issues. Some of the NGOs said, “we can’t have ‘jobs’ in there, that’s too political, our members won’t like it, they won’t come to the demonstration”.

GL. They really were against using the word “jobs”?

SM. Yes. You wouldn’t believe some of the debates we had. It was a very wide disparate group that included NGOs, some trade unions – very few, PCS, UCU and someone came from the TUC – and smaller groups as well. It was open to anyone to come to the organising meetings. We split into different working groups on communications, logistics and so on. When we looked at communications, we wanted a big banner for the march, saying “climate justice, jobs”. Some of the NGOs – I would call them corporate NGOs – just did not want “jobs” in there. Not all NGOs are the same. On climate change we are working very closely with more progressive groups such as Friends of the Earth.

On the day of the march, there were groups hoping to emphasise the impact of climate change on front-line communities, on communities in the global south. small island nations. We wanted a strong message around this, by having representatives of those people at the front of the march. Although it’s disputed, they were effectively removed, as people dressed as carnival animals crowded them out from the front of the march.

GL. I remember that groups representing the global south were kicked off the front of the march in Paris.

SM. Well the situation in London was the same. Many of us had hoped that a group called Wretched of the Earth would be at the front. They organise around black issues and front-line community issues, and they had hoped to go at the front, to confront the colonialism implicit in the fossil-fuel-based economy. Some people didn’t like the very strong political message that they were sending.

If we’re going to move this campaign, we can not just talk about polar bears stranded on ice caps; we need to talk about millions of working people who have to earn a living, and communities that will be displaced by climate change.

In the US in 2015, prior to the summit that UN general secretary Ban Ki-Moon had called, the same issues had come up. There was a divide between people who just wanted to deal with climate change, and insisted “we’ve got to do something about it”, without considering any of the economic or ideological aspects of it.

We need to link the environmental, economic and social issues. These things are interwoven and can not be separated. 10 August 2017.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.