The Green New Deal and the Role of Trade Unions

In early December PCS’ Young Members’ Network hosted a well-attended panel session on the Green New Deal and the role of trade unions. The UK is gripped by a climate emergency, a pandemic, and a global recession. Bushfires across the world have reminded us that climate change is not some distant threat but is costing lives and livelihoods in the here and now.

Our wide-ranging discussion covered the nature of the climate emergency and the practical steps young trade unionists can take to address it. A Green New Deal – large-scale public investment in decarbonising society – would not only help avert climate catastrophe; it would also stimulate the economy and revive many deindustrialised communities.

The Crisis

Opening the discussion, Nadia Whittome MP accused the Government of greenwashing. While plans to bring forward emissions reduction targets and launch a so-called ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ sound good, the funding does not match the rhetoric. She described the Glasgow 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) as the ‘last chance saloon’ and called on the Government to put forward bold proposals, substantially strengthen its own environmental commitments, and prevent companies from offshoring the production of emissions to the Global South.

Nadia recognised that the climate crisis is a class crisis and warned that climate activism must not be perceived as a culture war, or a white middle class hobby, with little relevance to the lives of working people. She claimed that a Green New Deal has the potential to create a greener and more people-friendly economy. Indeed, affordable and reliable public transport would cut emissions and alleviate the travails of commuting. Similarly, a large-scale programme of building and retrofitting energy efficient homes would cut greenhouse gases and heating bills.

Robert Maisey, a representative from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, distinguished between a ‘progressive’ and a socialist response to the climate emergency. While progressives are guided by vague moral sentiments – and seek to mitigate the worst aspects of free market capitalism – socialists recognise that capitalism must be replaced with economic planning because its prioritisation of profit cannot accommodate the interests of the environment. Robert argued that humanity is in a race against time and must transition to a carbon-neutral economy within a generation. He observed that such urgent and dramatic change cannot be achieved through subsidies, taxes, and other market-based mechanisms, but demands state intervention and a Green New Deal.

PCS representative Tom Youngman outlined the practical steps workers can take to combat climate change. He called on trade unionists to negotiate for terms of employment which safeguard the environment (e.g. an extra day’s leave when going on holiday via land, rather than air, to offset the additional time spent travelling) and to work with employers to explore how offices can be run more efficiently. Tom also urged attendees to support climate activists. When Greta Thunberg visited Bristol, Tom’s PCS Branch invited two school strikers to discuss their experiences with members. Following this, 70 workers joined a climate protest.

Robert Magowan, a PCS advocate, highlighted a report published by PCS, in collaboration with Green New Deal UK (GND UK), on the future of Gatwick Airport. While Covid-19 poses widespread job losses across the aviation industry, a Green New Deal could create 16,000 jobs in the Gatwick Diamond Region through redirecting skilled workers into decarbonising the economy. Although this would require public money, it would cost approximately less than half of the £1.25 billion tax break Gatwick receives every year.

The final panellist, Danni Paffard, Head of Organising at GND UK, argued that the pandemic has changed the public’s opinion on the role of the state. GND UK seeks to create the socio-political conditions within which a Green New Deal could be adopted through developing its activist base, building public support for a Green New Deal, and pressuring politicians.

General Strike

In the ensuing discussion there was a lively debate on whether trade unions should undertake a general strike if the Government fails to combat climate change. While everyone agreed that unions should be permitted to take industrial action over political issues, there were differing views on whether a general strike is a viable strategy.

One panellist felt that a general strike would be doomed to failure. The UK’s draconian anti-trade union legislation expressly prevents such action and any union which defies the law would swiftly see its assets sequestered. Instead, the panellist argued that trade unions should focus on capturing control of the Labour Party (the political wing of the labour movement) and using that as an instrument for change. In contrast, another panellist supported the notion of a general strike and argued that the anti-trade union laws would be rendered unenforceable if a widespread grassroots movement took hold.

Organising

Overall, the event highlighted the practical measures trade unionists can take to combat climate change and prompted attendees to explore the nature of capitalism, the climate crisis, and the methods of change available to the labour movement. Political education is vital and the discussion has provided a firm basis upon which the Young Members’ Network can build in the new year.

Under Left Unity’s leadership PCS has declared a climate emergency, strengthened the case for a just transition through its policy work, supported wider social movements in tackling climate change, trained workplace green representatives, and established a national Green Forum.

If you share Left Unity’s commitment to socialism, the environment, and campaigning for societal change, join us.

Robert Eagleton (Vice-Chair of PCS’ Young Members’ Network).

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