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What a ‘Just Transition’ Would Really Look Like

Any strategy for combatting climate change that doesn't focus on delivering well-paid, unionised jobs is doomed to fail – we need a vision of a Green New Deal with workers at its heart.

Joe Biden has launched his presidency with proposals for an ambitious $2 trillion investment in clean energy and the creation of green jobs across the country.

While the British government’s ten-point plan launched in November pales in comparison, there’s no escaping the fact that taking action to mitigate environmental catastrophe is something we can no longer delay. Since there is no feasible future featuring high-carbon industries, the jobs in these sectors must be ‘greened’.

But rather than repeating the devastation of 1980s deindustrialisation, this time around, workers must be foregrounded as a priority – or they face the ‘double crisis’ of soaring unemployment rates due to Covid, and mass job losses as their sectors are decarbonised.

The pandemic has led to conversations around the term ‘key worker’, and a re-examination of the social purpose of work in our societies. In building back better post-Covid, we must link the need for decent work which sustains livelihoods with the purpose of taking action on the environment.

But what does a ‘just transition’ look like? And how can we establish a criteria to ensure that definitions of ‘green’ and ‘good’ are genuinely meaningful?

When we talk about a  ‘just transition’, there is risk of pitting workers’ interests against those of the abstract ‘environment’, often suggesting that these are mutually exclusive. But workers also live on this planet, and stand to lose from environmental catastrophe, on top of facing the immediate concern of protecting their livelihoods.

If any conflict of interest is present, it is between the drive of capitalism towards growth, consumption, and sky-high profits on the one hand, and the need to conserve and redistribute existing resources in order to preserve the planet and life on it on the other.

So a first priority for a progressive understanding of a just transition is to repeatedly emphasise that the vision of the world we are transitioning to is environmentally and socially good.

What is Good Work?

The vision of good work has been under consistent assault from decades of anti-union legislation and declining workplace conditions. Protections which formerly would have been standard expectations for the workplace now feel like a utopian and distant dream. But we must revive these in order to build a brighter future.

A useful guideline in defining decent work across the global workforce is the research conducted in the 1980s by Swedish trade unionists, used by the Trades Union Congress (TUC). They identify the following principles as being essential for ‘good work’:

  • Job security
  • Fair share of production earnings
  • Co-determination in the company
  • A work organisation for cooperation
  • Professional know-how in all work
  • Training
  • Working hours based on social demands
  • Equality in the workplace
  • A working environment without risk to health and safety

The TUC goes further, more explicitly identifying collective bargaining as key to ‘good work’, and pointing out that ‘in workplaces where there is a union presence and where negotiations take place collectively, the issues around good work are more likely to be raised with employers’.

Union presence keeps up the pressure on employers to maintain decent pay and working conditions and could ensure the gains for workers which are won in the transition to zero-carbon jobs, are secured in perpetuity. Otherwise, there is a risk of standards being dialled down as companies offset their green credentials by curtailing workers’ rights to cut costs and maintain large profits – as seen with recent ‘fire and rehire’ schemes.

The longevity and security of roles themselves is also important to consider in defining ‘good’. In ‘greening’ roles, such as the construction of green infrastructure or retrofitting houses, there are important questions about the future of these roles once the ‘product’ has been created. In order to prioritise job security, unionisation of green workplaces is vital.

It is also important to note that decent work does not begin and end in the workplace. Work and pay cannot be divorced from wider factors such as social security, unpaid labour, immigration law, housing and childcare. A truly ‘just transition’ should reinforce decent working conditions with a wider package of progressive social policy to ensure that workers get a good deal in all aspects of their lives. This could include taking action on stratospheric housing costs, the hostile environment, and a lack of childcare preventing women from accessing the labour market.

How Can We Secure Socially ‘Good’ Work?

The employment market is currently riven with inequalities. BAME and gender pay gaps persist, and BAME workers and women are more likely to be in insecure ‘gig economy’ jobs, to name just a couple. Investing in, creating, and defining ‘good’ jobs must address the disadvantages in the labour market faced by groups with protected characteristics.

The TUC highlights this, pointing to the risks for those at the sharpest edge of the labour market of having poor working practices thrust upon them. It cites the need for ‘measures to prevent people with protected characteristics experiencing disproportionate impacts’ of poor work and job losses, and ‘prioritising progress towards equality rather than pushing it into reverse’.

The Feminist Recovery Plan for Canada and the Women’s Budget Group briefing paper on the Feminist Green New Deal, as well as grassroots projects such as Cooperation Jackson and the Sunrise Movement, foreground the urgent need to address racial and gender justice in a just transition. A significant feature in these recommendations is the opportunity to redress material and social inequalities through targeted action on sectors disproportionately represented by BAME, migrant, and female workers. This includes investment and job creation in zero-carbon sectors such as health and social care, and increased state support for childcare.

Ensuring that a ‘just transition’ is equally felt must also address the workforce on a global level – the spirit of internationalism should be revived in our definition of ‘good’ and ‘green’. This means that decent work in the Global North cannot come at the expense of the Global South, with poor conditions being ‘outsourced’ to the latter. Similarly, decent environmental standards must be secured all along the global supply chain.

The Process of Transition: How Do We Define ‘Just’?

Defining ‘just’ in transition is not as simple as ensuring new jobs are created. Details are essential in ensuring that those same workers in high-carbon jobs losing work will have the opportunity to transition into zero-carbon or green jobs. It’s worth noting the recent cuts to the Union Learning Fund, the learning and skills organisation of the TUC, and the risks this throws up for delivering good quality, free training for workers. The process of reskilling needs adequate funding and time, and workers should have agency in determining the kind of work they transition into.

Action around green transition is awash with corporate greenwashing and tokenistic gestures. This means we often fall short of ensuring decent work which guarantees a transition into an environmentally and socially just world. NEF’s work on securing a just transition recognises the pivotal role of unions, and the need to secure a fair deal for workers. While Biden’s plan is certainly comprehensive—and pushing the British government to raise their game is imperative—we can’t lose sight of the need for new ‘green’ jobs to meet high standards for the workers and their communities.