You are here

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED)

Amid Rolling Blackouts, Energy Workers Fight For Clean Public Power In South Africa

By Casey Williams - In These Times, March 31, 2022

Can South Africa transition from a reliance on coal to clean power while maintaining jobs? The energy workers fighting for a just transition think so.

The lights went out around Johannesburg on a Monday morning in November 2021, not to flicker back on until early that Friday in some areas. It marked the last rolling blackout of a year troubled by more outages than any in recent memory. The fate of Eskom, the beleaguered power utility behind the crisis, is now at the center of South Africa’s struggle for a just energy transition — a break from fossil fuels without leaving behind frontline communities or energy workers.

As a public company, Eskom has a constitutional mandate to guarantee electricity as a basic right. But the utility struggles to meet that mandate with its aging equipment, staggering debt, corruption and rules that require it to break even, which drive exorbitant rate hikes. Moreover, the electricity running through Eskom’s wires comes almost entirely from coal, smothering the country’s eastern coal belt in deadly pollution and adding planet-warming emissions to the atmosphere — and putting the utility at odds with South Africa’s decarbonization commitments and global calls for renewable energy. South Africa, the 26th-largest country by population, ranks 14th in carbon output worldwide and is responsible for 1% of global emissions, because of this reliance on coal.

Few believe Eskom will survive in its current state, and what comes next is the subject of a high-stakes debate — and is about more than the climate. The state-owned company employs 45,000 workers and supports 82,000 coal jobs in a country where more than a third of the population is out of work. Eskom is a union shop, as are South Africa’s biggest coal mines.

The government’s plan, already underway, is to invite private companies into the energy sector on the dubious grounds that clean energy is bound to win in a competitive market. The powerful miners and metalworkers unions oppose privatization, which they worry will hobble their organizations, if not eliminate the jobs they’re entrusted to protect. 

The unions have reason to worry. European multinationals have installed most of South Africa’s wind and solar capacity so far, importing technicians and hardware. The local jobs that come with them are often low-paid and temporary, vanishing once plants get up and running. Workers with permanent jobs, meanwhile, have struggled with for-profit energy companies over the right to strike.

While some union leaders and workers have responded to the threat of privatization by defending coal mines and the union jobs they offer, unions also say they support decarbonization efforts. There are currents within the labor movement organizing for a just transition to turn Eskom into a unionized, public and clean power utility, run by and for the South African people.

This tug-of-war holds lessons for workers everywhere: The South African labor movement has largely succeeded in making the public debate about ownership and power— about who owns energy resources and who decides how they’re used — rather than simply about renewables versus coal. Still, the temptation for labor to double down on coal jobs remains strong as the South African economy flags and unemployment spikes, emblematic of how hard it can be to fight for long-term goals if jobs are under threat.

Challenges and perspectives of a just transition in Europe

Unions and Climate Change: Toward Global Public Goods

COP26 Report Back: Climate Justice Activists Speak Out

COP26: workers must focus on solutions, not empty promises

By staff - Canadian Union of Public Employees, November 17, 2021

World leaders – including Canada’s Justin Trudeau – have again sadly under-performed with their feeble response to the climate emergency at COP26. There is little doubt that leadership from our governments is too weak, and that the influence of polluters on them is too strong. But despite the disappointing results of these international discussions, we must not lose hope. Unions and workers must now focus their energies on real solutions and centre our efforts on creating better ways of working that cut greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

COP26 wrapped up in Glasgow, Scotland, with a mild new agreement that will not hold global temperatures from rising more than 1.5℃. The planet is currently on track to warm 2.7℃ by the end of this century.

We now need to focus even more, and concretely, on job creation that results from greening our economy. For example, CUPE is partnered with the Green Economy Network that calls for job growth in low-carbon, public energy and transportation. Jobs can also be created that will help communities adapt to climate change through reforesting urban spaces and re-naturalizing waterfronts and coastlines. Cutting waste, bolstering recycling, and composting programs all grow good jobs. Plus, all CUPE jobs can be altered to cut emissions. Just Transition programs are necessary to protect workers and communities in these important and necessary changes.

Before COP26, CUPE participated in a Trade Union Task Force. The Trade Union Program for a Public Low-Carbon Energy Future was launched in Glasgow at the start of the COP26 to rally the international trade union movement to support a fundamental shift in climate and energy policy centred on a socially-just energy transition.

A people’s summit was also organized by environmental and development NGOs, trade unions, grassroots community campaigners, faith groups, youth groups, migrant and racial justice networks and others. That summit convened a diverse and impressive series of discussions outlining solutions working people can advocate for and pressure governments to support. The strengthening of broad social justice coalitions calling for real climate change solutions is a positive outcome of the COP process.

While COP26 under-delivered in stemming the phase-out of coal and fossil fuels that are at the root of the climate crisis, it has again inspired workers and other social justice and climate activists to invest their energy toward real solutions.

Trade Union Program for a Public, Low-Carbon Energy Future

By various unions - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, November 9, 2021

The following “Trade Union Program for a Public, Low-Carbon, Energy Future” (“Program”) is the result of the work of a Trade Union Task Force consisting of more than 30 unions. Focusing mainly on the power sector, the Program is an attempt to rally the international trade union movement behind an ambitious political effort to bring about a fundamental shift in climate and energy policy. This shift is needed both to correct the failures of the market model and to ensure that the energy transition is socially just, economically viable, and effective in terms of reaching climate goals.

Recognising That:

  • Access to a healthy environment has been declared a human right by the UN Human Rights Council, in recognition of the interconnected human rights crises of environmental degradation and climate change.
  • Lack of adequate access to energy remains a major source of poverty, inequality and insecurity, in violation of human rights and contrary to the aims of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Widespread electrification of many energy-dependent processes will be necessary to meet agreed, science-based decarbonisation targets.
  • Ensuring access to affordable, safe, secure, reliable, low-carbon electricity will therefore be essential to meeting most future energy needs.
  • All known methods of capturing, transforming, and distributing energy for use involve some degree of environmental disruption.
  • Neoliberal climate and energy policies – which are tied to privatisation and commodification – have failed to halt the rise of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Privatisation, marketisation, and liberalisation of electrical power systems have led to price increases, falling levels of service quality, and inadequate investment.
  • The transition required to meet decarbonisation targets will entail substantial changes affecting workers, especially in many energy-related areas of employment, and many of these changes may be very disruptive if their impacts are not addressed.
  • Many countries in the global south continue to face a crippling legacy of colonialism and debt, constraining their ability to procure the technologies and resources needed to ensure universal access to electricity.

Union Struggles Against Climate Change

In Celebration: Jack Mundey and the Green Bans

(TUED Working Paper #14) Beyond Disruption: How Reclaimed Utilities Can Help Cities Meet Their Climate Goals

By Sean Sweeney and John Treat - Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, November 3, 2021

In TUED Working Paper 14, Beyond Disruption: How Reclaimed Utilities Can Help Cities Meet Their Climate Goals, Sean Sweeney and John Treat showcase how the energy transition that was promised has yet to come to fruition. They argue specifically the arguments around cities leading the transition have not been fully accurate and provide a sober analysis of where we stand.

As Sweeney and Treat argue, “the incumbent energy companies will not be dis­rupted out of existence; rather, they will remain dominant as market players and, under the current neoliberal framework, they will help perpetuate an energy for profit regime. If this is not changed, then cities will not be able to reach their energy and decarbonization targets. There is a need, therefore, to develop an alternative approach, one that goes beyond disruption (in a politi­cal sense).”

Through the piece they outline an “alternative approach that is offered shifts attention away from disruption of the incumbent companies toward the need to focus efforts on reclaiming these companies to public ownership.”

This Working Paper, released during COP 26 in Glasgow provides a clear-eyed analysis of the challenges ahead but also highlights an alternative public-goods approach to overcoming the worst of the crisis. Download the PDF here.

Read the text (PDF).

Clean Power to the People

By Al Weinrub - Organizing Upgrade, October 27, 2021

As predicted, the climate has been screaming out with intensified ferocity at the assault on the earth by the global fossil fuel economy. Extreme weather conditions are wreaking havoc on communities across the world, leading many climate activists in the U.S. and elsewhere to declare a climate emergency, requiring an urgent, intensified transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

But thinking of this transition as mainly a shift in energy technology, as de-carbonizing the economy, is to misunderstand the deep roots of the climate crisis in an extractive economic system based on racialized social and economic inequality.

Emphasizing de-carbonization of energy without broad institutional transformation—an approach called carbon fundamentalism—leaves us still at the mercy of the corporate energy establishment. That approach, as we shall see, is actually amplifying the already devastating impacts of the climate crisis. “It ignores the specific needs of people of color, it promotes programs that force low-income people to pay unfairly for carbon reduction, it exposes our communities to increased risks, and it sacrifices justice in the urgent rush to reduce carbon,” says Jessica Tovar of the Local Clean Energy Alliance. “Time and again, it ends up throwing people of color under the bus.”

We need more than clean energy to address the climate crisis. We need to move from a large, centralized private utility model to a locally based, decentralized energy model. We need an energy system centered on democracy and justice.

Pages

The Fine Print I:

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this site are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) unless otherwise indicated and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s, nor should it be assumed that any of these authors automatically support the IWW or endorse any of its positions.

Further: the inclusion of a link on our site (other than the link to the main IWW site) does not imply endorsement by or an alliance with the IWW. These sites have been chosen by our members due to their perceived relevance to the IWW EUC and are included here for informational purposes only. If you have any suggestions or comments on any of the links included (or not included) above, please contact us.

The Fine Print II:

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc.

It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.