Recent issues of New Labor Forum include articles promoting the concept of energy democracy, and bringing an international perspective. In “Sustaining the Unsustainable: Why Renewable Energy Companies Are Not Climate Warriors” (New Labor Forum, August), author Sean Sweeney argues that renewable energy companies “are party to a “race to the bottom” capitalist dynamic that exploits workers – citing the example of alleged forced Uyghur labour in China-based solar companies, and the offshoring of manufacturing for the Scottish wind industry. He also argues that “large wind and solar interests’ “me first” behavior is propping up a policy architecture that is sucking in large amounts of public money to make their private operations profitable. They are sustaining a model of energy transition that has already shown itself to be incapable of meeting climate targets. In so doing, these companies have not just gone over to the political dark side, they helped design it.”
The theme of the Spring New Labor Forum was A Public Energy Response to the Climate Emergency , and includes these three articles: “Beyond Coal: Why South Africa Should Reform and Rebuild Its Public Utility”; “Ireland’s Energy System: The Historical Case for Hope in Climate Action”; and “Mexico’s Wall of Resistance: Why AMLO’s Fight for Energy Sovereignty Needs Our Support” .
The author of Sustaining the Unsustainable is Sean Sweeney, who is Director of the International Program on Labor, Climate & Environment at the School of Labor and Urban Studies, City University of New York, and is also the coordinator of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED). In August, TUED convened a Global Forum, “COP26: What Do Unions Want?” – with participation from 69 unions, including the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC), the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA), the UK’s Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), and Public Services International (PSI). Presentations are summarized in TUED Bulletin 111, (Aug. 18), and are available on YouTube here .
In a new discussion paper released in January by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), authors Sean Sweeney and John Treat argue that momentum has not really shifted away from fossil fuels, and the optimistic, “green growth” narrative is overstated. Analysing a wide range of major data sources about the global energy system, the authors conclude that optimism in a clean energy revolution is “misplaced, misleading, and disarming. It must therefore be rejected, and replaced with a more sober perspective that draws hope and confidence not from a selective and self-deceiving interpretation of the data, but from the rising global movement for climate justice and energy democracy, armed with clear programmatic goals and a firm commitment to achieve them.”
The authors of Energy Transition: Are we winning? give credit to unions and activists for their demands to extend public control and social ownership to power generation, and for opening up a global debate about the need for just transition measures. However, they call for the union movement to address its “ambition deficit” towards the deep restructuring of the global economy required for ambitious deployment of renewable energy. Energy systems controlled by ordinary people in partnership with well-run and accountable public agencies are needed to truly move the world away from fossil fuels.
Labour organizations are decrying the lack of language pertaining to just transition policies in the final negotiating agreement of the Climate Conference in Lima in December.
Organizations such as BlueGreen Alliance and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) lobbied leaders prior to the Conference, providing recommendations and wording suggestions to facilitate the inclusion of worker protection and reducing inequality in the climate agreement. BlueGreen advocated for improved international collaboration on best practices for just transition, and joined TUED in calling on the parties to prepare data on the positive and negative employment impacts of climate policies to support decision-making.
While a number of governments did raise labour issues at the Conference, co-chairs ultimately left them out of the text altogether. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, however, there was an overall trend of greater recognition of the centrality of just transition to sound climate policy, an active role played by labour organizations at the Conference, and the ongoing expansion and diversification of the climate justice movement, including increasing attention to labour issues. See Lima climate conference deceives, but not the climate movement. A similar assessment was made by the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Climate talks advance slowly, but activism on the rise.