[Second in the series “Labor goes to Copenhagen”]

At the core of global labor’s strategy for climate protection is the idea of a “just transition” to a low-carbon economy.

A just transition means that the burden of change that benefits everyone will not be placed disproportionately on a few.  It means that those most vulnerable to change will be protected.  It means that the process of change will increase social justice for workers, women, the poor, and all oppressed groups. 

Such a just transition is essential to produce the “broad and sustainable political consensus” necessary to make climate protection policy work in the long run.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), which represents 170 million workers in unions all over the world, campaigned for language embodying the just transition principle in the negotiating text of the Copenhagen agreement.  Such language was submitted by Argentina and proposed as part of the “shared vision” by the Chair of the negotiations in May.  It read:

An economic transition is needed that shifts global economic growth patterns towards a low emission economy based on more sustainable production and consumption, promoting sustainable lifestyles and climate-resilient development while ensuring a just transition of the workforce.

Since then this language has been “bracketed,” meaning that at least one government has questioned or opposed it.  Unions around the world have been lobbying their governments to keep it in.

The ITUC says a just transition can be achieved:

Through socially responsible and green investment, low-carbon development strategies, and by providing decent work and social protection for those whose livelihoods, incomes and employment are affected by the need to adapt to climate change and by the need to reduce emissions to levels that avert dangerous climate change.

Bob Baugh, executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council and co-chair of the AFL-CIO Energy Task Force, elaborates:

What the trade union movement wants is an industrial and environmental policy that delivers a good, just transition for a world moving to a greener economy.  You can’t have a just transition without workers and their communities having a voice.  Also, a just transition requires investments to retain and create good jobs, modernize industry, education and training, and provide assistance for any workers and their families who may be adversely affected.

While just transition policies will of course be different in different countries and communities, the basic elements are likely to include:

  • Major public and private investment under long-term sustainable industrial policies to create green jobs and workplaces.
  • Identification  in advance of the employment effects of climate protection.
  • Advance planning to compensate for adverse affects of climate protection.
  • Social protections, including social insurance, income maintenance, job placement, and secure access to  health, energy, water, and sanitation.
  • Training and education for new careers for those affected.
  • Wide consultation among stakeholders.
  • A “diversification and climate change adaptation plan” for every region and community at risk to provide an alternative to a “free-market adaptation” that will only lead to suffering and opposition to climate measures.
  • Protection for the economic life of communities, including new energy technologies and economic diversification.

The ITUC has also pointed out that climate change is not “gender neutral.”  “Women are generally more vulnerable, representing the majority of the world’s poor and powerless.”  The 2004 Asian Tsunami, for example, killed four times as many women as men.  Trade unionists believe that “climate justice cannot be achieved without gender justice.”

The global trade union movement recognizes that certain sectors, for example fossil fuel and energy-intensive industries, will be significantly impacted by carbon reduction.  This includes such industries as steel, iron, aluminum, power generation, and road transportation.  Protecting workers in such sectors requires investment in low carbon technologies and industries, energy efficiency, and retraining.  Active labor market policies that redeploy workers from high-carbon to “green” jobs are essential to avoid bottlenecks in the development of the new green economy.

The issues of economic justice, however, go far beyond simply protecting those in existing jobs.  Rather, it means making the transition to a green economy the means to create one that is fairer overall.  “Trade unions propose that employment, income, wealth distribution, purchasing power, gender equity and measures to tackle poverty” should be placed “at the center of discussions.”