Sunday 17 February 2008

More thoughts from the Trade Union Conference on Climate Change

I posted a very sketchy report from the conference the day after it happened. I thought it was time to highlight what I got from the conference, particularly highlighting some ideas that might prove useful to others.

Opening Plenary:

  1. This IS a trade union issue. Poor people contribute least to carbon emissions. Poor people will suffer most from the consequences of climate change. There are many possible responses to climate change, some of which will be at the expense of working people, others could benefit us. Working people need a say.
  2. Free market competition is a serious barrier to taking appropriate steps to tackle climate change. Companies and countries fear to do what's needed in case they are undercut by competitors. The sort of intervention that trade unionists want for many reasons would be a big help in tackling climate change and in ensuring that tackling it isn't simply at our expense.
  3. Climate Change will result in the rise and fall of whole industries. Livelihoods are at stake. We need to ensure the transition to a low or zero carbon economy takes account of social justice.
  4. A low-carbon economy is likely to be more labour intensive and therefore net positive for jobs.
  5. We need to lobby for the right government policies, look at how our industries and workplaces should change, and include it in our every-day union work (recruiting and organising, bargaining, campaigning).
  6. Matt Wrack from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) described the increases in heathland fires and flooding over the last decade. You can't blame climate change for any particular incident, but it is responsible for an increased risk and frequency of these events.
  7. The TUC is pushing for "Environmental Reps" in the workplace, along the same lines as Health & Safety Reps or Union Learning Reps.
  8. Linda Newman from the University and College Union (UCU) spoke about how young people were taking a lead on climate change. She also talked about how the union had responded to proposals for car park charging in her workplace. They had ring-fenced the money collected and used it to fund the "green travel plan" (which many workplaces now have) so that it was genuinely being spent on alternatives for staff. They were playing a part in the wider campaign, working with education unions internationally and looking at their own carbon footprint.
  9. Christine Blower from the National Union of Teachers (NUT) talked about how kids were worried about climate change. They were much more positive about the future in schools which involved kids in learning and doing something positive to tackle it. The NUT had had to campaign against gagging (e.g. attempts to stop "An Inconvenient Truth" being shown in schools). They were promoting "walking buses" to reduce the need for parents to take kids to school by car. It only required some people to be involved in escorting them, so could still help kids whose parents' working hours otherwise prevented them walking their kids to school. She highlighted the impact of the closure of rural schools on climate change and the environment. Christine quoted Bishop James Jones comment that this was an issue where those with power were least affected and those most affected had least power. Christine argued that this was another reason why unions had to take it up.
  10. Michael Meacher MP recognised that unions were sometimes cautious about tackling climate change because of the threat to jobs. He believed that there was no option but to act to tackle climate change and that doing so would produce a big net increase in jobs. He argued that instead of fighting wars for the remaining oil, we should be investing in renewables (particularly offshore wind for the UK). He argued that airlines should be required to reduce emissions year by year, for a big expansion of railways. He argued for increased tax on the most polluting cars and more resources going into electric and hydrogen cars. Every sector of industry and services should be tracking its carbon footprint. He argued that there was a lot of room for improvement in energy efficiency, from households, appliances etc. The wasted heat from US power stations was equivalent to Japan's total needs. If US cars improved efficiency by just 3% per year, there would be need for the US to import oil. Tightening building standards would help both jobs and the environment. He argued for a more ambitious climate change bill, with targets that reflected the actual need to cut emissions, with annual targets, and which didn't omit aviation and shipping. He argued that many government policies would actually increase emissions, in particular its reckless drive for profit at all costs. This would lead to inequality, death and destruction. We can never overcome climate change with the economic order that created it.
Workshop on Greening the Workplace:
  1. In the workshop on "Greening the Workplace", Paul Hampton from the Labour Research Department talked about the hidden tradition of unions tackling environmental issues. In the 19th century Frederick Engels had written about pollution and William Morris had reported on environmental strikes. Unions in the UK had been central to the outlawing of Agent Orange (245T). Seafarers had stopped nuclear waste being dumped at sea. Dockers had acted to stop a Canadian ship unloading toxic waste. Workers had walked out from a PFI hospital in protest at excessive temperatures.
  2. Paul talked about the experience of trade unionists thinking about the social use of what they produce and trying to take more control of it. In the 1970s the stewards at Lucas Aerospace made alternative plans to produce socially useful products. Given that 50% of emissions are from the workplace, we have to take responsibility for this.
  3. Paul acknowledged that there was also a bad tradition in the movement, for example the efforts by the NUM for a while to deny the reality of acid rain.
  4. Unions had been engaging globally on environmental issues for a long time too, for example sending a delegation to the first UN conference on climate change in 1972. However, these debates seemed to get nowhere and the issue didn't start to re-emerge until the late 1980s. The TUC had called for "green shop stewards" and Norman Willis had called for "green strikes". Again, these initiatives had not been adequately followed through.
  5. Paul thought that the failure to follow through often reflected the weakness of the labour movement in that period. People were now seeing that tackling climate change can be part of revitalising the unions.
  6. The LRD had done a survey of reps on climate change. It had got a very large response with a wide range of ideas. At BAe energy saving had been part of the case for a shorter working week. In one paint factory the union had agreed new bonuses based on health & safety and environmental impact. These had been successful in reducing toxic waste being washed down the drains, saved the employer money and rewarded employees. Some workplaces were negotiating the introduction of wind turbines. Energy efficiency was an easy area to produce successes. On transport there were lots of ideas such as common locks for bikes, loans for cycling equipment, changing working hours, providing lockers and showers, and changing the car fleet to include electric and dual-fuel cars.
  7. In each workplace people should think about the right tactics to be effective. Does it make sense to use existing joint union committees? Use Health & Safety Reps? Or to push for Environmental Reps?
  8. Showing DVDs is a good way of raising awareness. As long as you don't charge, you are allowed to show "An Inconvenient Truth". It would be better if we had our own film which was shorter and with a more relevant message though.
  9. Parking is a contentious issue. Spending the money from parking charges to subsidise public transport passes is one idea.
  10. Get motions through your union bodies to change your union's policy and get more support from the top. There's already quite a bit to build on.
  11. Caroline Malloy had been seconded from the TGWU to lead the TUC's Green Workplaces project. She reported that the enthusiasm reflected in the turnout at the conference matched her experience.
  12. At the British Museum the fact that people were finding it too hot to work in summer more often had been a key factor in getting people involved.
  13. At Friends Provident the union often did stalls to talk to staff, but had found the ones on climate change had attracted most interest.
  14. The TUC project had started about 18 months ago and would run until July 2008. It was funded by the Carbon Trust and run by the TUC and DEFRA through the Trade Union Sustainable Development Advisory Committee (TUSDAC).
  15. New funding was coming through the Union Modernisation Fund from the Department of BERR (replacement for DTI), applications for funding had to be in next month.
  16. Caroline believed that unions could raise awareness and measurably reduce carbon emissions, avoid the danger of companies lecturing people from above, and avoid the fears that can arise from the changes necessary.
  17. Many workplaces now have green champions or green teams set up by management. Some were good. However, they tend to come and go without union involvement to provide some stability. Unions also have expertise and relationships that help get things done in the workplace. Caroline advised that it was important to get a senior management champion for what you were doing.
  18. Caroline advised how to get started. Get the reps together. Get support from or appropriate positions in your union structures. Do a survey of the workforce to gauge views and raise interest. Examples were available from the TUC. The issues identified were similar in most workplaces: recycling, transport and energy use. Caroline suggested asking separately about waste & recycling, otherwise people can miss the other issues. Many organisations will already have had some sort of external review. Many have company policies - are people aware of them? Ask if people want to get more involved. Find out the key players in the company.
  19. It can be hard to monitor where power is being used. Often it is easy to find out the level of night-time power use because this is at a different tariff.
  20. Communicate what you are doing, and offer training (the TUC offer some). Why not involve Union Learning Reps? Local Energy Agencies will want to get involved, and can often provide freebies.
  21. Cutting paper use can be very easy, just by setting up PCs to use the duplex feature (double sided) by default.
  22. At Scottish Power, they had replaced old CRT monitors with modern flat-screens that use far less energy. Working time and travel were other key areas to look at.
  23. In the discussion, the point was made that the environmental impact of a business can extend far beyond the workplace. For example, the investment choices made by a financial institution, the choice of parts of suppliers. It was important to press for the maximum openness in the business as a whole in order to tackle climate change.
  24. One delegate raised concerns that Environmental Reps could become separated from the rest of the union structure. Another felt they were an opportunity to bring in new people and that we should campaign for them to have legal rights. Caroline responded that whether to use them was a tactical question.
  25. One delegate highlighted that many of the problems were down to lack of employer investment and the absence of government pressure on them to invest. The TUC culture of "partnership" with employers was an obstacle to applying the necessary pressure to government which didn't challenge or adequately regulate business. Another highlighted the crisis of political representation for trade unionists, leaving many feeling they had little voice on this issue or others.
  26. A delegate suggested increasing the mileage rates paid to staff who cycled while traveling for work.
  27. Caroline suggested that we should push for a windfall tax on energy companies to claw back the profits they are making from emissions trading.
Workshop on Sustainable Cities:
This was introduced by Glyn Robbins, Tower Hamlets Defend Council Housing.
  1. There is a lot of sham sustainability, just as there is sham "affordability".
  2. Government policy is that new homes should be zero carbon by 2016, but in reality this means only houses that get planning permission after 2016 have to be zero carbon. The construction industry is lobbying against even this. The government plans for 3m new homes are meant to be complete by 2016, so the new regulations would have no impact on them.
  3. The problems with housing can't just be left to the unregulated market. Housing Associations are part of that market too. The fight to Defend Council Housing is crucial to ensure we can have good quality, affordable and sustainable housing. Glyn recognised the problems there had been with council housing, but the move away from it had made things even worse.
  4. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) had done a survey of workers under 30 years old, to identify the top issues they were concerned about. Housing and Climate Change had come top.
  5. There was discussion on empty buildings due to speculation, second homes, regulation on new public buildings and whether high-rise could ever be sustainable.
  6. One delegate highlighted the billions spent on bailing out Northern Rock, and said that could have bought more than enough solar cells for the needs of the entire UK.
  7. The construction industry generates 100m tonnes of landfill each year. 30% of materials delivered to site are never used. Making the construction industry more accountable is vital to tackling climate change.
  8. I pointed out that workers in construction face many other problems too, with more than one death a week in 2007, blacklists in operation and widespread abuse of agency labour.
  9. A delegate from UNISON pointed out that the privatisation of water and sewerage meant less control over the environmental impact of housing.
  10. A delegate from Sheffield highlighted the cheap public transport policies tried there in the 1980s until Blunkett gave in to Thatcher and abolished them. It would have been cheaper to have free fares - would that be a better use of money than the Iraq war? If that didn't free enough it could be funded by increasing taxation on the rich.
  11. A delegate from the rail industry recommended George Monbiot's book "Heat" (I've read it too - very interesting) and said that the Climate Outreach Information Network (COIN) do training.
  12. A council tenant highlighted how privatisation had undermined the skills of people working on housing. After privatisation there was little redress. They urged support for Camden council workers who were fighting against job cuts. We need victories to boost confidence to fight other battles, including unions' adherence to New Labour.
  13. If the government forced the construction industry to improve, none of the companies would suffer a competitive disadvantage.
Closing Plenary:
I'll do this another day!

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