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Beyond "Just Transition"

By Dr Eurig Scandrett - The Jimmy Reid Foundation, December 3, 2021


It is no use simply saying to South Wales miners that all around them is an ecological disaster. They already know. They live in it. They have lived in it for generations. They carry it in their lungs… you cannot just say to people who have committed their lives and their communities to certain kinds of production that this has all got to be changed… Everything will have to be done by negotiation, by equitable negotiation, and it will have to be taken steadily along the way. Otherwise, you will find … that there is a middle-class environmental group protesting against the damage and there’s a trade-union group supporting the coming of the work. Now for socialists this is a terrible conflict to get into. Because if each group does not really listen to what the other is saying, there will be a sterile conflict which will postpone any real solutions at a time when it is already a matter for argument whether there is still time for the solutions. Raymond Williams (1982/1989)

The idea of ‘Just Transition’ (JT) has gained traction in recent years. With its roots in the union movement at the end of the twentieth century, it has developed into a concept with diverse and contested meanings. This engagement with JT has created spaces within the urgent policy areas of climate change mitigation to address potential job losses and the disproportionate impact up on the poorest communities, and more positively, to work for the generation of good quality, unionised jobs and greater social equality in a green economy. This is a fast-moving and often technical area of policy development. In Scotland, the Just Transition Commission (2021) reported in May 2021 after meeting over a period of two years, and relevant technical and policy reports are published with increasing frequency.

This paper is not a detailed contribution to these debates, on which others are more competent to comment, although it will inevitably touch on these. The paper aims to take a somewhat longer-term and more abstracted view of JT. It asks what do we mean by ‘Just’ and to what are we expecting to ‘Transition’ to? It argues that, in the discussions over the meanings of JT, the collective interests of workers, low-income communities and the environment are central, and require mechanisms to facilitate challenging dialogues between these interests.

There is an inevitable tendency, in developing positions on JT, to seek common ground between the two principal social movements that have driven JT debates: unions and environmental NGOs; or else between different unions or different industrial sectors. This process of seeking common ground can lead to a dilution of principle on all sides, a common denominator that all can live with, but with which none is entirely satisfied. While the process of negotiating common ground is a necessary and useful process for practical purposes, and a process at which the union movement is particularly adept, this paper argues that JT also provides the opportunity for a deeper dialogue in which all key stakeholders – the environment and working-class people who are either dependent on or excluded from the current unsustainable economy – can seek to incorporate the principles of the others. There are areas where the union movement and the environmental movement disagree. These areas of disagreement could be seen as potentially fertile grounds for deep dialogue in order to seek meaningful and lasting resolution.

This paper is, therefore, not intended to reflect the policy of any union or environmental group, but rather constitute a contribution to a debate within these movements and outwith them as well. It is, in places, designed to challenge. Indeed, it makes the case that the union and environmental movements can best learn from one another by being willing to be challenged by each other. All social movements reflect the interests of their participants, members, opinion formers and supporters and are contingent upon the social and political conditions in which they are acting. This is a strength, but also leads to ‘blind spots’ which are best addressed through collective self-reflection and challenges in solidarity from comrades in the struggle.

It is argued here that JT provides an opportunity to explore, for example, the tension well known in unions between representing the immediate interests of members and the long-term interests of the working-class; and in the environmental movement between the disproportionately educated, white, professional middle-class membership of the NGOs and the communities most directly affected by environmental devastation.

As has been recognised in some of the debates about JT, the idea can be located in a radical working-class tradition which, in Britain includes defence diversification, the East Kilbride Rolls Royce boycott of Chilean engines, the Lucas Aerospace Alternative Plan, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in, amongst others. JT can be more than a mechanism to address climate change, for it can also be a process which can be applied to transitions of many kinds that the labour movement and the left more generally have long advocated: the transition to a more democratic economy, more equal society and socially beneficial system of production, distribution and exchange. The paper, therefore, argues that the union movement, along with environmental and anti-poverty movements would benefit from going ‘beyond’ just transition.

Climate emergency

In the year prior to the COVID-19 emergency, a climate emergency was declared in Scotland and across the UK and by many other governments and elected legislatures. The climate emergency was mostly strong on rhetoric and relatively weak on action and was prompted by the outbreak of civil disruption by a range of actors concerned with the inaction and complacency of governments following the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. This Agreement demonstrated the gap between action and necessity. The combined impact of all the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of the ‘Parties’ to the Framework Convention on Climate Change would be disastrous and lead the world into a chaotic climate future. Prominent among the groups leading the demands that action should be stronger and quicker were Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the Youth Climate Action’s (YCA) school strikes (now Fridays for the Future), who joined the range of environmental NGOs with a long history of campaigning on climate change. The pressure continued to build in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow, not least with the uncharacteristically strident language of the UN General Secretary’s introduction to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2021) report called Code Red for Humanity.

Although the pressure of scientific research, visible signs of drought, forest fires and floods, and the new waves of social movements have raised the stakes and forced the declaration of a climate emergency, this climate emergency has been known about for decades. It had been experienced for decades throughout the world by farm workers whose crops failed due to drought or inundation, and by climate refugees whose homes had been washed away in floods. It was known by the oil corporations when they lobbied to throw doubt on the science (Michaels 2008:198). It had already been known for decades before the UN’s international mechanism for policy development, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), was initiated in 1992. The scientific body of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports to the 2015 Paris Conference of Parties (COP) and again to the 2021 Glasgow COP26 provided stark clarity that the sum of our global activities to prevent climate change is failing, and failing significantly. The campaigning NGOs and grassroots movements that have accompanied COPs have been shouting into the brick walls of vested interests who are intent on ensuring that any climate change policy guarantees the continuation of current inequalities, injustices and defended privileges.

It is the collective defence of vested privilege that is the main barrier to addressing climate chaos, which is manifest through the lack of political will amongst governments for the kind of economic transformation necessary – the system change called for by the climate justice movement. Tackling climate change is not just a technical or economic argument, it is a political one, a question of political will to effectively challenge the power of the corporations. The challenge, therefore, is whether to prioritise the interests of the corporations, the profits of their investors and shareholders, and the system that makes workers dependent on them or whether to prioritise the long-term interests of working people, their families, their health, the environment and the planet, against these vested interests. The union movement faces the contradiction between these choices most starkly, defending the short-term interests of workers within an unsustainable and unequal system designed for the interests of corporate profit and on which we depend, but which is leading to catastrophic climate chaos against the interests of workers. As Magdoff and Foster (2011:62) put it, workers are ‘forced to take the jobs capitalists choose to provide’, even if workers, through collective and individual effort, sometimes make of this necessity, dignified work. This state of affairs has to change and is changing: the union movement is essential for, and central to the just transition to sustainable society and is increasingly becoming active.

This paper, therefore, presents a case for the union movement, and for the left in general, to build on the current small steps towards a JT and the mobilisations of youth and wider civil society, to go beyond just transition in order to contribute to the dismantling of the power structures and vested interests that are preventing climate justice. It will make the case for why unions need to contribute to the efforts to tackle climate change as an issue of social justice, and why that involves dismantling the capitalist economic system that is the cause of climate injustice, through greater workers’ control of the economy. It will explore the concept of JT, a distinctively union contribution to the way out of the crisis, which has recently been taken up by other areas of society, not always in helpful ways.

The paper will argue that there are some key principles that are necessary for a just transition, and that any programme claiming the phrase ‘just transition’ must include – this is the what of just transition. Secondly, there are some key aspects of the delivery of a just transition which are necessary in order for it to be a genuine transition and to be just – this is the how of just transition. And, finally, the paper looks at how the union movement and our allies can ensure that not only is the transition just, but that the kind of society that we are transitioning to is just. This is to go beyond just transition to a just future, which is essentially the why of just transition.

The key principles of what a JT constitutes are: i) that it transitions to a ‘real zero’ greenhouse gas emission economy (defined below) so that climate chaos is averted, international justice is respected and the survival of future generations is protected; and ii) that it has at its core, the collective interests and participation of the workers and communities who will be affected, directly and indirectly, by the transition. We can refer to these what principles as ecological limits and economic democracy.

In order to ensure that ecological limits and economic democracy are both central to just transition requires some deep dialogue between the union and environmental movements, as well as community action – the how of JT. A discussion of how a just transition can be achieved includes the role of the state in planning, but also building alliances with other key actors, in particular the environmental justice movements, and international solidarity. This is where the possibilities of deep dialogue are central, where building common cause requires clarifying the distinction between comrades and adversaries and seeking a process of mutual challenge and critical self-reflection between allies.

It is clear to see why we need a JT, given the pressing urgency of climate change and workers currently dependent on the economy that causes it. However, the why of JT leads us to other areas of challenge to the union and environmental movements and which JT can provide a means of addressing. The processes of economic democracy for the union movement and the principles of dialogue implied in JT can be deployed to address other areas of the economy that have been identified as unsustainable and dangerous to working people but on which working people are dependent. Environmentalists and trade unionists, each living with our own contradictions, have been in conflict in areas such as chemicals production and use, nuclear power, weapons manufacturing and defence. At the same time, there have been important innovations within the union movement that have attempted to address these, and the principles of JT can apply to these.

And finally, the why of JT also leads to a discussion of the kind of society that we want to inhabit, which is not based upon exploitation of workers or the environment or driven by the profit motive of capitalist and their investors. It is rather based on quality of life for all. If quality of life is to be assured for all it will need to be divorced from income, and for all to have meaningful work, this needs to be separated from dependence on employment. JT it is argued, along with other innovations of the union movement, contains the potential to move in the direction of this vision. Combining ecological limits with economic democracy takes us to an ecological democracy.

Ecological limits and economic democracy

The international scientific consensus is that the average global temperature must not exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels if we are to prevent runaway climate chaos affecting the entire globe. The current levels of NDCs, in which each nation-state sets its own targets and – predominantly market-based – mechanisms, would exceed 3oC. The move towards NDCs as a mechanism for climate mitigation came after the collapse of the previous framework – the Kyoto protocol – which was also based on market mechanisms (emissions trading, joint implementation, clean development mechanism etc) driving greenhouse gas reductions in the richer, ‘developed’ world whilst transferring technologies to the poorer, ‘developing’ world towards a reduced emissions, world capitalist system. What happened under the Kyoto protocol is that the emission reductions were inadequate, but the world capitalist system was protected from any significant interference from environmental concerns.

One thing that Kyoto did correctly acknowledge was the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ of different countries – in short, the enormous inequality in culpability for climate change. Around the time of the Kyoto protocol, per capita carbon emissions varied from about 20kg per year in the USA to 0.3kg per capita in Bangladesh. Moreover, understood historically, by the time of the Paris COP, two thirds of the entire carbon budget had already been used, almost entirely by the industrialised countries (IPCC 2014). Environmentalists have called this the ‘carbon debt’, the historical legacy of global greenhouse gas emissions which made rich countries rich at the expense of the capacity of the rest of the world. A commensurate and proportionate approach to common but differentiated responsibilities would mean that the rich countries should cease greenhouse gas emissions immediately, and start compensating the rest of the world for the carbon debt it had accumulated, if not also paying reparations for the damage it has caused. It is for this reason that we should be talking about a ‘real zero emissions’ economy in Scotland – not ‘low carbon’ (more efficient business as usual), and not ‘net zero carbon’ (continued emissions in the hope of technological compensation for our exhaustion of the carbon budget).

The Scottish Government’s targets are based on achieving ‘net zero emissions’ by 2045. ‘Net zero’ is a situation in which ongoing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are compensated by mechanisms such as offsetting and carbon capture for removing the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In an influential critique, an alliance of environmental and social justice organisations led by Friends of the Earth International (2021) argued that the concept of ‘net zero’ is a deception designed to allow corporations to profit from increasing fossil fuel extraction and use, and will not address the urgency of the climate crisis. The report argues that ‘net zero’ targets should be replaced with ‘‘real zero’ strategies [which] require emissions to really go to zero, or as close to zero as possible’ (Friends of the Earth International 2021:4)

Under ‘net zero’ strategies, in principle, fossil fuel extraction can continue on the basis that the greenhouse gas impact will be neutralised. However, many of the ‘negative emission technologies’ are still in the process of development and of unproven efficiencies and the ‘Nature Based Solutions’ that would be required to offset ongoing emissions would involve colonial scale expropriation of land. ‘Net zero’ is predicated on the interests of corporate profits which can be made from commodification of emissions. ‘Real zero’ on the other hand, which is necessary for global temperature to remain below 1.5 oC, requires a complete phase-out of fossil fuel burning.

‘The term ‘real zero’ encompasses … two requirements: reducing emissions to as close to zero as possible and using ecological approaches to remove residual emissions’ (Friends of the Earth International 2021:18). ‘Net zero’ leads to a scenario where the Scottish Government can continue to argue for ‘maximum economic extraction’ of the remaining oil and gas in the North Sea, the UK government can approve the development of new coalfields in Cumbria and oilfields such as Cambo, west of Shetland. Essentially, the principle of ‘net zero’ leads in practice to policy-complacency about continuing fossil fuel exploitation in the face of corporate interests and excessive reliance on technological and demand-led solutions. It also potentially allows for increased emissions in the short-term, in the expectation that the technologies will be sufficiently efficient to compensate in order to reach net zero targets.

What the environmental movement is calling ‘real zero’ requires a cessation of new fossil fuel extraction and a rapid decommissioning of existing extraction and import of fossil fuels, with policy focus on the social and political changes required in a fossil-free society. This is particularly pertinent to wealthier industrial and post-industrial countries which have already more than exhausted their fair share of the global carbon budget. The purpose of using ‘real zero’ is to increase the level of ambition and address the inconsistencies of market-driven ‘solutions’. ‘Real zero’ policy targets will focus the collective mind on moving towards a sustainable, fossil free society rather than relying on technical fixes within an unsustainable economy.

In fact, the wealth of the industrialised countries was generated precisely by exhausting the carbon budget, as the growth was generated by exploiting fossil fuels, and exploiting the labour of those who extracted, distributed and produced the energy. The wealth was amassed primarily by a small proportion of the populations within the industrialised countries (and an even smaller proportion of other countries). In other words, it is a question of class. The investment decisions of the global wealthy elite have caused the climate emergency that we all face, and which the poorest face most acutely. The energy fixed by the world’s prehistoric plant life over the 5m years of the carboniferous era was being converted into wealth for a tiny proportion of the world’s population over a period of less than two hundred years – an unprecedented scale of colonial dispossession. The consumption levels that this exploitation permitted ensured that many workers well outside those who were accumulating this wealth, bought into this exploitation. The wealth in the pockets of the 1%, gained at the expense of the rest of the world and the future of the planet, would not be given up voluntarily.

The labour movement has historically been caught in this contradiction. In the industrial and colonising countries, such as Britain, through collective bargaining, workers have improved our access to some of this wealth generated, in wages, pensions and working conditions, whilst political activity has enabled some of the wealth to be shared throughout society. At the same time as negotiating the distribution of wealth generated with the burning of fossil fuels, unions have developed solidarity with workers in the parts of the world whose access to the carbon budget is now threatened. Within the union movement, there have been important initiatives to challenge the twin injustice of climate change and global inequality, the most significant of which has been the idea of the just transition.

Originally, JT was the principle that, with union involvement in leading a transition to an economy which can operate within the limitations of climate change, it will be possible to ensure that workers’ jobs, conditions and incomes could be protected. Whilst not embraced throughout the union movement, JT has gained traction in recent years. The Paris Agreement in 2015 referred to a JT in its Preamble, thanks to the lobbying of unions. The STUC has established policy in support of just transition and joined with Friends of the Earth Scotland and other unions and environmentalists to establish the Just Transition Partnership in 2017. This led directly to the establishment by the Scottish Government of the Just Transition Commission between 2019 and 2021. There have been other initiatives badged as just transitions across the world, most notably within Germany, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. However, even with this achievement, the union movement retains an ambiguous relationship to environmentalism, and the environmental movement similarly has an ambiguous relationship with organised labour. Friends of the Earth International (2021), for example, does not address the collective interests of workers in industrial and post-industrial societies, but it would be a mistake for unions in Scotland to ignore it. This is the challenge that JT needs to face and has the potential to do so.

As a recent PCS (n.d.) pamphlet identifies ‘Just Transition’, in this sense, as the brainchild of the union movement in the US in the 1980s, working with environmentalists to achieve the necessary transition to an ecologically sustainable economy and society whilst maintaining the achievements of the union movement in the protection of jobs and of workers’ conditions in the workplace and beyond. However, in recent years, JT has come to have a very wide range of contested and contradictory meanings. As Stevis et al. (2020) comment in their extensive research into just transitions, the ‘one concept’ has ‘many meanings’ and, in some cases, unions do not feature at all.

There are some versions of JT which may be regarded as particularly weak from both union and environmental perspectives. Some ignore workers altogether and aim for a ‘fair’ process in which the costs of transition are shared across society. Extinction Rebellion’s initial set of demands included a ‘… rapid and just transition’, but with no reference to the union movement. The transition envisaged by Extinction Rebellion would be overseen by a citizens’ assembly of randomly selected individuals without the process of collectivism central to union organisation. There are many versions of JT, including those reflected in the Scottish Government’s approach, which rely on nudging vested interests and leaving market mechanisms to shift the impact of the economy in the right direction, with some union involvement in Fair Work provision and equal access to job opportunities.

The Just Transition Commission was established by the Scottish Government following lobbying by the Just Transition Partnership. The terms of reference for the Commission were set by the Government (including working to the Government’s ‘net zero’ targets) and membership was drawn from business as well as union, environmental and academic representatives. The definition of JT which the Commission worked to was as follows:

‘The imperative of a just transition is that Governments design policies in a way that ensures the benefits of climate change action are shared widely, while the costs do not unfairly burden those least able to pay, or whose livelihoods are directly or indirectly at risk as the economy shifts and changes.’

For the delivery of a just transition, its report advocated social partnership working, involving Government, business, unions and communities.

In what may be regarded as a stronger version of JT, the collective action of workers through unions set the agenda and determine the parameters for the transition in deep dialogue with the environmental movement, whilst the state leads the transition plan on this basis. Business is, therefore, involved in the delivery of a JT in social partnership, but not agenda setting. In this scenario, the current state of affairs is understood as an ecologically unsustainable means of production which operates in the interests of the accumulation of capital and the enrichment of its owners to the detriment of workers and the environment. Therefore, workers, collectively organised and in alliance with progressive social movements in defence of the environment, need to control both the transition and the end-point.

Unions represent the interests of workers in their employment relations irrespective of the social usefulness of the products of that work. Unions represent workers producing weapons that are being used against workers in other parts of the world, of workers extracting fossil fuels that are causing climate change, of workers producing toxic chemicals which are a hazard to their own health as well as the environment. As the Lucas Aerospace Joint Shop Stewards Combine demonstrated, this is not because workers support bombing workers, damaging the climate or polluting communities, but rather because unions defend workers in their employment. Given greater control over production, workers will prioritise socially useful, healthy and safe production (Wainwright and Elliot 1982).

For this reason, the principles of the strong version of JT – a dialogue between movements towards economic democracy within ecological limits – must apply to other areas of the economy that damage the environment and workers’ quality of life. Whilst the urgency of climate change, and the recognition of JT by the Paris Agreement, mean that climate-affecting industries (and primarily energy and fossil fuel industries) have been the primary focus on JT discussions, the principle applies much more widely to other forms of ecologically and socially destructive industries. Defence diversification has a similarly long and parallel history with inspiration from the Lucas Aerospace Alternative Plan. JTs are also needed for nuclear weapons, nuclear power, pesticides, and toxics more generally (Danson et al. 2016; Watterson et al. 2021).

In the late 1990s what was then the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), with Alan Dalton as its Health, Safety and Environment co-ordinator, organised an innovative event on pesticides. A longstanding campaigner in the hazards movement, Dalton recognised that the TGWU represented members who manufactured pesticides in industry, used pesticides in municipal maintenance, campaigned against pesticides in NGOs, and were no longer working due to ill health through exposure to pesticides. How was the union to defend the jobs of all these workers? Dalton transcended the contradiction through dialogue and instead posed the question – how can the union move to work for the kind of society where the jobs of some workers are not dependent on a process that is damaging the health of other workers?

With its roots in initiatives such as alternative plans, socially useful production, defence diversification, toxics use reduction, work-ins and international solidarity action, the principle of the JT is that it is not in workers’ interests to produce goods and services which damage the lives and futures of other workers. On the contrary, with collective control of the means of production, distribution and exchange, workers would produce what is good for all workers and would stop producing things, providing services and using production processes that harm other workers, such as weapons, toxins and climate destroying fossil fuels. It is this, strong version of JT that this paper argues is the interpretation that is necessary to deliver the kind of radical change needed for the climate and for workers, and for a global good quality of life.

What constitutes socially useful production is, of course, subject to contestation. It is recognised that many unions, especially those that represent workers in directly affected sectors such as energy, defence and chemicals have policies opposed to the arguments here. The point is that the decisions about what is produced and how, and where investments are made, are currently largely made outside any democratically accountable process. Indeed, such decisions are largely based on returns on private investment, or at best governments seeking to respond to markets. The vision of the Lucas Aerospace Alternative Plan in the 1970s was that if decisions about investment, product development and production processes were made by workers themselves through collective democratic means, then there is the possibility of shifting the economy towards production based on what workers believe to be socially useful. The principle of JT opens up the possibility that such collective democratic processes include dialogue with other interests that are similarly disenfranchised by the interests of corporations and their shareholders. If the climate crisis can be tackled through a JT involving dialogues between unions and environmentalists, then so can the arms trade and the crisis of biodiversity loss through agricultural chemicals. There are already examples of such dialogues in practice, involving unions, environmentalists, peace activists and anti-colonial and global solidarity movements, from Hazards campaigns to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition to the Asian Network for the Rights of Occupational and Environmental Victims (Jenkins and Marsden 2019).

A JT is essential and urgent. While the fossil-fuel dependent economy is shedding jobs without significantly decarbonising, the number of jobs that can be created in a fossil-free economy exceeds those that would be lost by decarbonising the economy. Research identified the potential for 217,900 jobs in the sustainable ‘new economy’ (largely in renewable energy generation, decommissioning fossil and nuclear facilities, buildings retrofitting, forestry and training) which would more than replace the 156,700 jobs lost in the fossil fuel dependent ‘old economy’ (see Minio-Paluello 2015). The STUC (2020) calculated that over 360,000 jobs could be created with an emergency £13bn COVID-recovery infrastructure stimulus over two years. And Jeliazkov et al.s (2020) identified that economic issues and training constraints, not resistance to change, were the main barriers to offshore workers’ transitioning from oil extraction to renewables.

Here lies a contradiction highlighted by environmental economists which a stronger version of JT has the potential to address. Jobs generated in a market economy are not necessarily good for society or the environment. Martinez Alier (2002) pointed out, the cost-benefit logic of economic decision-making in market economies tends to shift costs onto workers, poorer communities and the environment. Even state-generated quasi-markets and government incentives do not significantly affect this logic. Jobs can be created in causing pollution and cleaning up pollution, causing problems and resolving problems, false solutions as well as genuine solutions, as well as producing goods that are socially useful and environmentally beneficial. All of these activities create jobs and, of course, many of them also generate profit for investors. The contribution of JT to this problem is that it has the opportunity to open up the issue of jobs and production for a socially and environmentally beneficial economy to deep dialogue between stakeholders who represent the interests who need to benefit – workers and the environment.

Workers and their unions need to be active in this JT process without compromising on the necessity of radical change for the planet. Combining ecological limits with economic democracy requires a systematic dialogue between the union and environmental movements. Deep dialogue is not an argument or a compromise, but a radical process of taking seriously the analysis of allies where we disagree and seeking to transcend them. For the purposes of dialogue, unions will need to suspend, temporarily and confidentially, the policy positions which have been agreed through rigorous internal democratic processes and listen hard to the analysis of the environmental movement, for example that extraction of fossil fuels must stop. At the same time, environmentalists need to suspend (for the purposes of the dialogue) their insistence on the urgency of leaving fossil fuels in the ground and listen hard to the challenges that come from unions about the necessity for protecting the livelihoods of the working-class. It is only through such difficult dialogue, based on solidarity and collective self-reflection, will the mutual exploitation of class and climate for capital accumulation be challenged.

Union and environmental movements have a long history of fighting powerful enemies which are eager to criticise and undermine them. This is not a conducive context for self-reflection and learning from our weaknesses and contradictions. However, both movements have done this in the past, very successfully. The union movement has acknowledged its tendency to male domination in the past and is now among the leading advocates of gender equality. The environmental movement has recognised a tendency to privilege a romanticised version of the natural environment over the welfare of the people who have the least access to resources, and has subsequently championed environmental justice.

At the same time, both movements include contradictions which they need to negotiate in their normal practices. In a dialogical methodology, contradictions are opportunities for change. Unions represent the interests of their members in the short-term, whilst also representing the interests of the working-class as a whole in the long-term. At times these two roles can be in contradiction, such as when short-term jobs creation can lead to long-term damage to the health and welfare of working people. Environmentalists represent the interests of the environment, usually as interpreted through science and social analysis, but the movements, members and opinion formers are disproportionately white, educated, professional workers, whereas BAME and industrial and unemployed workers are under-represented. This can inadvertently lead to oversights and inconsistencies in environmentalists’ positions. There are many union and environmental activists who are aware of these contradictions and the risks that they pose, and take active steps to seek to address them. One such mechanism is through significant dialogue with each other.

How can we achieve a Just Transition?

The role of the state, and its industrial strategy, is crucial to this process. The STUC (2019) has published an analysis of the reasons for the failure to realise jobs in the low carbon and renewable energy sector. We also know from comparative international research that, although there has never yet been a successful transition to ‘real zero’ whilst protecting the employment conditions of those workers directly affected by the transition, there are certainly patterns in what is more effective in taking steps in that direction. Cha (2019), for example, in looking at lessons from the transition from coal extraction in the Ruhr Valley in Germany pointed to three essential areas of state investment: infrastructure, tertiary education and environmental protection. Cha also highlighted the importance of a strong public sector and strong unions to the achievements of this transition. Stevis et al. (2020) covered a range of just transition initiatives, concluding state intervention is an essential component even in more liberal market economies, where, as Snell (2020) pointed out there are particular challenges for the labour movement. It is clear that the market will not deliver a just transition and state intervention will need to be increased. The COVID emergency has demonstrated that state intervention is possible, even for a Conservative government, and that responding to an emergency is both possible and, largely, popular. The barriers to JT are not economic, technical or skills-shortages. They are political.

In many political parties including British Labour and US Democrats, the prospect of a Green New Deal has been initiated, deploying state resources (some diverted and some new) to shift the economy to what is needed to stop climate change and promote green growth. It is valuable to recognise that the ‘original’ New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt was as much designed to address the fortunes of capitalism as the economy as a whole. In the capitalist world in the 1930s, capital needed state intervention and it needed labour compliance. Today, capital’s demands on the state are different – directly propping up failing financial institutions and security for investment. The capitalist class today is less concerned about sustaining a society or a planet that they share with the rest of the world, and more concerned with protecting themselves from the disaster that they are imposing on the rest of the world.

The Scottish Government has largely shown itself to be reluctant to plan the economy through an industrial strategy, and has excessively relied upon nudges in the market, using what influence it believes it can with the corporations it believes must deliver the transition. This is the case in most parts of the neo-liberal world, where governments seek to nudge the market in the direction of decarbonisation without affecting the vested interests of the class that is benefiting most from the profits that the fossil fuel industry (with state support) is generating. The balance of power between capital and the state needs to shift, and even then, governments are likely to deliver only when pushed from social movements from below. This is why unions committed to a strong JT need to work with allies across the world that have leverage on corporations and governments to drive through the change, including the environmental justice movement.

The carbon economy needs to be understood in its entirety, as a global system driven by profit that exploits people and the environment throughout its production processes, from cradle to grave. Climate change is merely the waste stream which global ecological systems are unable to absorb. But social and environmental devastation follow the industry from extraction through distribution and processing for use and the associated industries that it stimulates. Moreover, this devastation is experienced most acutely by the poorest, most marginalised and socially excluded and indigenous communities, simply because it is cheaper for them to be exploited (Martinez Alier 2002). Throughout the world, however, such communities are resisting the fossil fuel industrial complex and the threats to their livelihoods, health and the environment. This is the growing movement for environmental justice.

The Environmental Justice Atlas ( is a project that is documenting such resistance to environmental damage, including but not restricted to those opposing the fossil-fuel industry. There are thousands of such protests throughout the world, and together they constitute what may be regarded as a climate justice movement even though the motivation of these protests is diverse, from the preservation of traditional lands of indigenous peoples, the protection of sacred sites in belief systems, the health of children and the maintenance of livelihoods. However, they are all challenging the same system that also causes climate change and collectively they are putting pressure on that system and the investment capital that drives it. Some campaigns win their battles, many do not, but together they are making new developments more expensive and complicated, lead to escalating violence and repression, and straining the capacity for states to protect – and capital to profit from – the fossil fuel industry. Some scholars have even suggested that the global environmental justice movement constitutes ‘for the ‘post-industrial’ age what the workers’ movement was for the industrial period’ and may have more agency in challenging the interests of capital than the labour movement (Temper et al. 2018:573). Certainly, in alliance, the two movements are formidable. The dialogue between the union and environmental movements is not restricted to western NGOs.

Beyond Just Transition

Within Scottish civil society including the union movement, there are already strong arguments for the Scottish Government to intervene more in order to generate a jobs-led recovery and transition to a ‘real zero’ economy. But, whilst the job count can be demonstrated to be higher in a ‘real zero’ economy, there will be fewer of certain kinds of jobs which are currently defended by unions. In a real zero economy, there will be no coal miners or oil rig workers, and fewer if any airline pilots and car manufacturers, and many other kinds of jobs will be very different. There will be different jobs in decommissioning, manufacturing and construction, but technology will enable this production to occur with less labour and more of us will work in public services and other state employment. Moreover, declining employment in all manufacturing appears to be a global phenomenon, not just as a result of technologically driven labour productivity gains, but rather as a result of output saturation. Benanav (2019:25) has argued: ‘More and more is produced with fewer workers … but not because technological change is giving rise to high rates of productivity growth. On the contrary, productivity growth in manufacturing appears rapid today only because the yardstick of output growth, against which it is measured, is shrinking’. Thus, even with an expansion of jobs in renewables and retrofitting, output saturation and productivity increases will likely depress overall employment over time. Industrial strategy to stimulate jobs in the new economy is a necessary, but not sufficient criterion for just transition. What is also needed is separating income from wage labour in the first instance, and quality of life from consumption in the future.

As Carley and Spappens (1998) described it, social policy must aim, not just for efficiency, in the sense of producing goods and services with fewer resources, but also for sufficiency: generating a good quality of life with fewer goods and services. The union movement would add that such sufficiency must be equally distributed so that quality of life is universal, and not achieved for some at the expense of others. Quality of life will need to be based less on the purchasing power that drives high consumption, and more on good, accessible public services and more ‘life’ in the work-life balance. It will involve less dependence on employment and more emphasis on the quality of life of working people. The union movement needs to emphasise the necessity not just of more jobs, but of sufficient socially useful work distributed fairly and a good quality of life.

While unions have understandably focussed on the generation of jobs – well paid, secure, unionised jobs – to replace the jobs which will be lost in the high carbon industries (rather than the precarious, fragmented, low paid jobs that the market is producing), the shift in discourse of just transition towards a broader understanding allows unions to focus alternatively on the protection of incomes without dependence on employment (or employers); or, further, on quality of life, of which purchasing power becomes a poor measure as time becomes more self-directed and essential services are provided by the state.

The labour movement has a proud history of defending, not just the terms and conditions of workers, but also the quality of life of workers: the shorter working day and week; weekends and holidays; parental and other forms of leave; health and welfare; and international solidarity and the defence of human rights. Today, faced with developments in technology, casualisation of employment and climate emergency, the logical extension of the principles of unions requires the end of the relationship between quality of life and waged work. The quality of life of working people cannot be reduced to the levels of consumption commensurate with the purchasing power realised by wages. Gorz (1988:221), whose predictions about the increase in precarious work in private services are prescient, maintained that ‘the liberation from work and the idea of ‘working less so everyone can work’ were, after all, at the origin of the struggle of the labour movement’.

The idea of separating quality of life from waged work appears to be utopian, but it has been a central part of union and labour movement demands since the movement’s inception. From opposition to the bosses’ control over working life in the early factories, to the reduction in the working week and working day, and now in the demands for work-life balance, these are all demands for separating quality of life from waged labour (albeit without abolishing the latter). The establishment of the NHS on the basis of a service free at the point of need, funded through progressive taxation, separates our health from our ability to pay, which is a step in the direction of quality of life independent of wages. As the achievements of collective bargaining and the welfare state have been eroded by successive governments in the neo-liberal era, the labour movement has continued to be a consistent voice for the enhancement of the quality of life of working people.

Gorz proposed we should move away from the notion that ‘work’ is the same as ‘employment’, which developed with early capitalism and the factory system. On the contrary, ‘work’ can mean a whole range of activities carried out not for the benefit of economic gain but for quality of life. Gorz draws attention to the importance of work as ‘autonomous activity’ performed by choice, as an end in itself, for fulfilment, the desire for creativity, pleasure, re-creation, or indeed the value of contributing to others. A good job might provide fulfilment, but the impact of neo-liberalism, productivity pressures, cuts, technology and managerialism increasingly push the fulfilment out. Under waged labour conditions, work becomes labour. Rather than the division of work into that which is for economic ends but may be socially unnecessary or even destructive, that which is for necessity and that which is autonomous, a more appropriate division is between that which is socially necessary and, therefore, required by society, and that which is autonomously and freely chosen by workers. Gorz argues for a citizens’ income to facilitate this, but the citizens’ income is not an end in itself if it is not linked to the decoupling of waged work from income.

This decoupling of wages from work was achieved, briefly, in the furlough scheme for large numbers of workers. It could be applied in a more targeted way to workers in the high carbon intensity sectors and the regions where these workers are concentrated in order to facilitate a rapid transition. For example, employees in high carbon sectors may be broadly categorised into late career, mid-career and early career, for whom the just transition will have different implications. For late career workers, employment in the high carbon industries is most likely to be replaced with income and services which will enable quality of life to be retained while their experience and expertise drawn on by society. This might take the form of early retirement or an extended furlough scheme, which might be funded in the early stages by the state, using accumulated oil revenue through a transition tax and ending the subsidies for the oil corporations. According to Friends of the Earth Scotland (2019), £30bn is currently allocated for tax relief on decommissioning oil installations alone. Essentially workers in this category could be paid not to work. Lifelong education has an important role here as both access to quality of life and for society to benefit from the experience and expertise of these early-retired workers.

Early career employees include labour entrants: school and college leavers, university graduates and those recently employed in the industry. The task for this group is career reorientation initiated by state provision of public service. There is much to be said for state guarantee of work for public benefit for those leaving full-time education, as is commonplace in many countries (although often as an alternative to military service), and the current Scottish Government’s Youth Guarantee is a step in that direction. It is the mid-career workers who are in most need of the replacement jobs with comparable terms and conditions, which are either utilising existing skills in the growing renewables and retrofitting sector which the industrial strategy will need to stimulate, or else through retraining into alternative employment in land-based, education or public service.

In this more nuanced approach, Gorz’s separation of work from income and the separation of purchasing power from quality of life could be applied in a targeted and incremental way, concentrating resources into workers and regions where a rapid just transition to a real zero economy would start. Everyone else, of course, would be affected by the significant change to lifestyle and life choices that a just transition will require, and the entire labour movement needs to be involved in this transition.

The COVID-19 lockdown demonstrated the fragility of the economy, exposing the neglect of public sector employment and, despite the government’s emergency furlough scheme, leading to widespread losses of precarious, zero hours, self-employed and gig economy service-sector jobs. The recovery has been dominated by getting the economy going again – the same economy that was failing before the lockdown. A successful recovery has been interpreted by the Westminster government and industry as more people shopping, drinking, eating, getting haircuts and nail manicures, and flying to holiday destinations.

But the COVID-19 lockdown also gave a glimpse of how things could be different. The furlough scheme was widely supported and ended up with 25% of the workforce being paid by the state not to work, while the roads were filled with children on bicycles, wildlife returned to town centres, and the consumption of fossil fuels plummeted. For many, their precarity was exacerbated whereas others glimpsed the possibility of a good quality of life with reduced impact on the global environment. The union movement has seen the opportunity for a just recovery, a ‘people’s recovery’, rather than returning to an economy increasingly reliant on casualised and precarious work to maintain a basic livelihood. There is an opportunity for the elements of a good quality of life glimpsed in the response to the pandemic to be distributed to all.

The shock to the economy of the COVID-19 pandemic needs to be replicated under controlled conditions: planned, better-managed, prepared for and targeted. The JT needs to be an economic shock. Otherwise, path-dependency will mean a ‘transition’ will not be a transition at all, but rather more of the same unequal and environmentally destructive economy that has been constructed in the interests of profit and that workers have inherited. COVID-19 has demonstrated that a rapid change in life can occur very quickly – not always for the better but in some ways a glimpse of elements of what a transformed society could be like.

As Benanav (2019:15) put it: ‘Reaching towards a post-scarcity world – in which all individuals are guaranteed access to whatever they need to make a life, without exception – can become the basis on which humanity mounts a battle against climate change. It can also be the foundation on which we remake the world … Finding our way forward requires a break between work and income … but also between profit and income’.

To be consistent with the movement’s own principles, unions in Scotland need to take a bolder position in advocating a just transition. The principle of solidarity, of internationalism, of defending the interests of workers against that of capital, lead to the conclusion that a rapid transformation of the economy towards one that is ‘real zero’ at home and repays our carbon debt internationally is essential. The stronger versions of JT, based on dialogue between the union and environmental movements, transcending differences into radical solutions, can provide a basis for transformation of the economy beyond tackling climate change. Moreover, the opportunities for JT extend to moving beyond employment to quality of life. Since the origins of the movement, unions have always existed for the purposes of defending and enhancing the quality of life of the working-class, building solidarity between workers so that an injury to one is understood as an injury to all.


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World Carbon Dioxide emissions (no date)

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