“Trade unions hear different stories – about climate change and what the response should be – from employers, industry bodies, the government and climate campaigners; they have no ‘honest broker’ to adjudicate between these stories. How can trade unions find an honest broker? Or can they become their own honest broker?”
This was the quote that set off my research – heard at the 2016 Trade Union Congress, expressing a need and desire for trade unions to collaborate and build their own capacity around tackling climate change. Although this will involve most workplaces, and as a country we have respectable targets for carbon reduction, the UK is not far advanced in working with all stakeholders to get the right changes to happen fast. Trade unions already have plenty on their plate, with austerity and low pay, reduced density of membership, and then Brexit to worry about.
In my home region of Yorkshire and the Humber there is a sizeable cluster of heavy industries, with energy and carbon-intensive processes, that have a big challenge to meet the low-carbon targets. Think Sheffield steel, and less famously, glass manufacture in Leeds and cement and chemical plants around the Humber estuary. The experience of ‘industrial transition’ locally has often been traumatic, with communities devastated by the loss of employment in coalmines and steel mills over the last 40 years.
So, the stakes are high – the materials manufactured are needed for infrastructure development, the jobs are precious to communities, the North of England suffers from under-investment and low skills compared with the financial centres of the South-East. Trade unions represent more than 6 million workers in the UK, and offer a potential route for the knowledge of those workers to contribute to the low-carbon transition, and ensure that the changes work to make our cities more just. There is a further political dimension, with ideas emerging from the new Labour Party leadership as to what constitutes a ‘good economy’ and the influential industrial unions adjusting their expectations.
My PhD research will focus in to create a case study of the trade unions organising in the energy-intensive industries in Yorkshire and the Humber, and the regional TUC’s Task Force on Just Transition. My approach is action research, reflecting the ‘live’ nature of the topic, the need to build knowledge on the ground that supports trade unions to play a bigger role, and my existing involvement in the Task Force.
The research problem has been defined in collaboration with a small group of trade unionists, and has led to some agreed ideas for interventions, which I will facilitate, working closely with the Task Force. From this process I will collect data through interviews, focus groups, observation and document analysis, and reflect with others about what has helped. There is relatively little written about the role of trade unions on climate change, but I will use these existing models to underpin my questions, and aim to develop this framework further. What are the barriers, and what are the opportunities to move this agenda forward? What are the power dynamics and where are they being challenged? What are the connections between how trade unions think about climate change and how they want to address pay inequality, working hours, gender and youth gaps, renewed membership growth, regional economic disparities, digitalisation and automation, and the ever-looming B-word?
So far, the experience has been fascinating as I have followed the Task Force members to Brussels to participate in an ETUC conference on Just Transition, and sat in on meetings developing a low carbon training course for trade union workplace representatives. These early chances to build relationships and gain insight into thinking have helped to ground my research project. I am looking forward to observing the training and also visiting some of the industrial workplaces around the region, and most of all to continuing to talk with and learn from trade unionists who are proud of their industries’ material and social contribution, and have so much to contribute themselves a just low carbon transition.