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Swedish workers, decarbonisation and the dilemmas of a just transition

By Johan Gärdebo - Democracy in Action, June 9, 2022

As Sweden's trade unions join the green economy, will they be able to manage the tensions between climate policies and party politics?

Ulf Karlström walks into the staff canteen having finished his morning shift. At one of the tables sit the representatives from Karlström’s union, IF Metall (the biggest union for factory and metal workers in Sweden). At another are the white collar workers and blast furnace managers. “Where are you going to sit?” someone asks, loud enough for everyone to hear. Karlström hesitates, only to be beckoned over by one of the managers, “Ulf, sit with us”.

Despite bearing all the hallmarks of a high school popularity contest, this scene took place at the Luleå plant of SSAB – a Swedish multinational and Northern Europe’s largest steel manufacturer – and is indicative of the conflicted loyalties seen in trade unions throughout Swedish industry today.

In 2021, Karlström was elected as trade union chairperson for the Pig Iron Division at SSAB Luleå. At the time, Karlström was serving as a local politician for the Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigration, right-wing populist party opposed to the climate politics of the centre-left Social Democrats. It was the latter who founded the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, or LO (Landsorganisationen), and still recruits members from LO’s ranks for political positions.

SSAB Luleå’s union members, who were fully aware of Karlström’s affiliation with the Sweden Democrats, did not consider this an obstacle to him representing their interests as workers. The leadership of IF Metall, which is part of LO, took a rather different view, leading to Karlström’s expulsion from the union. The issue was one of political loyalty, an issue of particular concern to the union’s ‘boomers’ (those born between 1946 and 1964).

A party for workers or a workers’ party?

Trade union members currently find themselves at the centre of a tug-of-war between the Social Democrats and the Sweden Democrats. This struggle between what has traditionally been viewed as the ‘party for workers’ and the new ‘workers’ party’ became national news in spring 2021 when Mats Fredlund, representative of the Transport Workers’ Union, was expelled for serving as an elected politician for the Sweden Democrats. Similar cases were also reported in the Union of Commercial Employees and the Teacher’s Union. The union leadership stated that the expulsions were driven by the fact that the Sweden Democrats’ värdegrund – a Swedish term alluding to a value system or core principles – was incompatible with that of LO’s Social Democrat trade unions.

This argument conveniently sidesteps the reality that over 60% of LO members now support political parties other than the Social Democrats. The Sweden Democrats have particularly large support among IF Metall members, suggesting affinity, rather than antagonism, between the core principles of Sweden Democrat and Social Democrat workers. It is this overlap that terrifies the LO leadership.

While the Sweden Democrats have been siphoning off Social Democrat voters since the early 2000s, it was not until summer 2020, when Susanna Gideonsson took over as LO’s chairperson, that explicit strategies were launched to bring conservative union members back into the union fold. Driving such initiatives is the overarching question: how can LO become better at listening to, and promoting, Swedish workers and the realities they face?

A Green Shift? Mining and Resistance in Fennoscandia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Sápmi

Mirko Nikolic, Editor, et. al. - Yes to Life, No to Mining, September 2021

This report from Yes to Life, No to Mining Network (YLNM) explores how and why many nations – and the mining industry – are re-framing mining as a solution to climate change in order to facilitate domestic extraction of so-called ‘strategic’, ‘critical’ and ‘transition’ minerals required for renewable energy, military and digital technologies. 

Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish authorities have granted concessions for tens of thousands of hectares of land, with mining pressure increasing particularly dramatically in Sápmi – the home territory of the Indigenous Sámi Peoples. 

YLNM’s new research examines state and corporate claims that mining in Europe represents a gold standard of regulation and corporate practice that justifies creating new mining sacrifice zones in the name of climate action.

Without exception, the authors – in all nations – report a vast gap between this rhetoric and the realities of mining at Europe’s new extractive frontiers, highlighting systemic rights violations and ecological harm.

Read the text (PDF).

Nordic and German unions collaborate, aim to be Just Transition "frontrunners"

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, March 18, 2021

The Road to a Carbon-Free Europe. Each country report, about 25 pages, summarizes the national climate goals and policies, especially as related to Just Transition, for Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland , Norway, and Sweden. A Synthesis Report brings together the main findings, and presents the resulting policy recommendations, jointly adopted by the Council of Nordic Trade Unions (NFS) and the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) in November and December 2020.

The Synthesis Report calls for holistic climate change policies to navigate the broad-based transformation of society that will result from climate change, incorporating Just Transition principles as outlined by the ILO Decent Work Agenda and its four pillars: social dialogue, social protection, rights at work and job creation. Because Germany and the Nordic countries are export-oriented economies dependent on trade, and facing similar challenges in the emissions-heavy sectors of their economies, the report sees many common opportunities for zero-emission innovations and technology.

The Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal

The Road Towards a Carbon Free Society: A Nordic-German Trade Union Cooperation on Just Transition

By Dr Philipp Fink - Friedrich Ebrt Stiftung, December 2020

This project, “The Road Towards a Carbon Free Society A Nordic-German Trade Union Cooperation on Just Transition”, is a collaboration between the Council of Nordic Trade Unions (NFS), the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung (FES) and the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB).

Represented by the Council of Nordic Trade Unions (NFS) in the project are 13 national Trade Union Confederations within NFS, from five Nordic Countries: Denmark (FH, Akademikerne), Finland (SAK, STTK), Iceland (ASÍ, BSRB, BHM), Norway (LO-N, Unio, YS) and Sweden (LO-S, TCO, Saco).

About the reports

A total of six country reports on the Just Transition path of the participating countries (Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) have been formulated.

Each contains an analysis of the climate policies, economic and societal consequences, an evaluation of the respective national instruments and offers European perspectives.

The main findings of the country reports are brought together in a synthesis. It features policy recommendations that aim to help guide the transition to a decarbonised society and an economy that is just and sustainable. The reports and their results are presented and discussed in a series of events nationally as well as in terms of Nordic and European cooperation and at the international level.

Synthesis

A Just Transition towards a carbon neutral future is the most urgent environmental, social and economic issue of our times. This project aims to develop strategies and requirements from a trade union perspective on how to manage the process to a carbon free society.

The participating labour organisations are united in their vision that this goal can only be reached if the social costs of this transition process are socially mitigated.

This means harmonising efforts to combat climate change with the aim of ensuring decent working and living conditions.

To this end, the participating labour organisations have not only analysed their respective countries’ transition path towards a fossil free future but have also formulated joint policy recommendations for the national and European arenas, jointly adopted by the NFS and the DGB in November and December 2020.

The ensuing discussions and debate have strengthened the cooperation and dialogue between the Nordic and the German trade union movements on common challenges and solutions.

Read the text (Link).

A Great Victory Has Been Won over Fossil Capital

By Ulf Jarnefjord - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, October 28, 2020

On Monday, September 28, 2020, Sweden’s largest oil refinery, Preem, decided to withdraw its application for an expansion of its refinery in Lysekil on the Swedish west coast.

After massive protests from the climate and environmental movement for several years, Preem announced that they had withdrawn their application to expand the oil refinery in Lysekil. This is a great benefit for the climate, for democracy, for the environmental movement, and for everyone’s future. The message is that activism pays off.

It would have been completely irresponsible to further expand fossil fuels when we are in a climate emergency, and time is running out quickly for the small carbon budget that remains. We have just 7 years to limit emissions in line with the 1.5-degree target.

In the days before the announcement, Greenpeace had blocked the port of Lysekil with its ship Rainbow Warrior, to prevent an oil tanker from entering the port and unloading its cargo. Climate activists from Greenpeace also climbed and chained themselves to the cranes at the crude oil terminal.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg has Tweeted that Preem’s decision to suspend the expansion of the oil refinery in Lysekil is a “huge victory for the climate and the environmental movement,” since otherwise it would have been impossible to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The youth organization Fridays For Future emphasizes that it is not time to pay tribute to the oil giant: “This decision is not because Preem has suddenly acquired a moral compass. Preem is still an oil company and we should not allow them to use this decision as a way to paint themselves green and appear responsible. We will ensure that this becomes a turning point for the fossil fuel industry in Sweden and serves as an example when Preem starts planning new environmental crimes.”

If we are to succeed in reducing emissions and meet our commitments in accordance with the Paris Agreement as quickly as necessary, there is also no choice between “better” and “worse” fossil fuels. We must invest all our resources in completely dismantling the entire fossil fuel economy, quickly. It is not possible to consider heavy oil as a useful residual product when we know that the oil must remain in the ground.

A Fair Climate Policy for Workers: Implementing a just transition in various European countries and Canada

By Pia Björkbacka - The Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions SAK, June 26, 2020

Both the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the target of carbon neutrality by the year 2035 set out in the government programme of Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin refer to a just transition for workers towards a low-carbon society. Such a just transition has long been sought by the trade union movement and is an important condition for achieving ambitious climate policy objectives.

The programme of the Marin government states that the government will work with labour market organisations to harmonise economic and labour market policies. Achieving climate objectives will also require co-operation with the social partners, and sectoral assessments in particular.

A just transition has been selected as one approach to reaching the target of a carbon neutral Finland by 2035. The government will pledge to implement emission reduction measures in a socially and regionally equitable way that involves all sectors of society. The government programme envisages establishing a round table on climate policy in Finland under the committee on sustainable development. Bringing together the various actors in society will ensure that climate measures serve the general interests of society and enjoy broad public support.

(Government Programme of Prime Minister Marin 2019)

The implementation of climate policy is causing restructuring in various sectors, meaning that climate policy decisions and actions also have social implications.

The European Commission has estimated that mitigating climate change will create more jobs in the European Union than it will cost (European Commission, 2019), but the changes will be sectoral. Even though labour market restructuring – which is also guided by climate policy - is creating new employment opportunities, it also brings fears of unemployment.

Realising employment opportunities requires substantial investment in employee skills and innovation. It is very important for the benefits and costs of low-carbon restructuring to be evenly shared across various sectors, occupations, population groups and regions. Successfully transitioning to a carbon-neutral society will not only require emission reduction measures and business and energy policies, but also employment, social welfare, education and regional policies.

The principle of a just transition will seek to meet these challenges. This means implementing emission reductions in a way that is fair to workers. It is about creating new, decent and sustainable jobs, in-service training for new employment, and security of earnings. The goal of a just transition is to increase the participation and commitment of workers in deciding policies for mitigating climate change nationally, regionally and within businesses, thereby promoting a smooth transition to a carbon-neutral society.

Read the text (PDF).

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