The US secretary of energy, Ernest Moniz, speaking at the Washington seminar.

Winning a Just Transition to a sustainable economy


IndustriALL Global Union, the ITUC and the US trade union congress, AFL-CIO, met in Washington DC from 23-24 March to discuss how the global labour movement will tackle policy pressures resulting from the Paris Agreement reached at the COP21 climate summit last December. 

The particular focus of the meeting was how to achieve a Just Transition for affected workers. Several of IndustriALL’s affiliates from automotive, energy and mining unions joined the meeting and brought valuable sector specific insights to the table.

The US secretary of energy Ernest Moniz also joined the discussion as well as the WWF's Samantha Smith and David Crane, former CEO of NRG.

Workers in the energy sector, particularly in coal, but also in heavily energy-dependent industries, will be strongly affected by efforts to control greenhouse gases and limit climate change in accordance with the Paris Agreement.

Renewable energies will grow rapidly in the future to make up a greater proportion of the overall energy mix, but in the meantime the labour movement needs to make sure that workers do not pay the price for the environmental footprint of their industries.

North American unions stressed the prospects of technologies including advanced carbon capture and storage/sequestration (CCS), but also the need for national Just Transition funds to ease the problems that workers will face.

Brian Kohler, IndustriALL’s director for sustainabity, said:

Our first priority will always be to defend today's workers in existing jobs, by demanding an industrial transformation to make their jobs more sustainable. However, radical changes are coming to some sectors – and if we are unwilling to fight for a Just Transition for those workers, they will surely face an unjust one.

Global greenhouse emissions need to peak now – this February was already the warmest ever recorded – otherwise the Paris Agreement to keep global warming below 2C° will not be met and the social, economic and environmental consequences experienced by everyone, globally, will be catastrophic.

In some aspects, the trade union movement has overlapping interests with environmental NGOs; in other aspects we share some concerns with our employers. However, the expertise for industrial transformation and how to make this change socially fair and just, lies within the labour movement. We demand a seat at the table with governments and other stakeholders when the fate of workers, their families and entire communities depending on these industries are decided. As the UWUA's Mike Langford put it, “If we're not at the table, you can bet we'll be on the menu!”

The importance of environmental justice in this context is clear: especially in the developing world, many communities largely depend on single industries such as mining, but these plants are often also the largest environmental delinquents due to weak or lacking national environmental regulations and older technologies.

A Just Transition will not happen by itself and the so-called free market will not deliver it. It requires intense lobbying and discourse with both companies and governments – otherwise workers will fall victim to a last-minute scramble for solutions to meet the Paris Agreement without the necessary socio-economic considerations. IndustriALL, the ITUC and the AFL-CIO agreed that action is required and that it is needed now.

IndustriALL's general secretary, Jyrki Raina, concluded:

It is our responsibility to show leadership at this crucial moment in history. We cannot negotiate with the laws of physics; but we can – and will – advocate sustainable industrial policies and demand justice and decent work for all of today's and tomorrow's workers.