The answer is collective action – Tony Kearns of the CWU

Tony Kearns is the Senior Deputy General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union. This is an edited version of the speech he gave to the Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union conference.

 Trade unions have been involved in this issue for quite a number of years. The shop workers’ union in 1957 put a motion to the Trade Union Congress calling for boilers, furnaces and motors to be redesigned “to prevent the poisoning of the atmosphere”. In 1972 the TUC organised a conference of workers on the issue of the environment. Over thirty-five trade unions attended. In 1990 the TUC passed a motion which raised the enormous danger to the people of the world posed by the effects of global warming. Some unions are now trying to put their own house in order. The PCS recently held a staff environment open day that was attended by over two hundred members of staff. The PCS now has over eighty environmental reps. I lead an environmental project group in the Communication Workers Union which aims to make all aspects of how we run the union “greener” – for want of a better phrase. 

 Now there are two types of trade unionists on the issue of the environment but they’ll end up as one type of trade unionist. There are those who already believe and are committed to this issue and there are those who don’t believe in the effects of global warming or are pretending it isn’t happening. But they will end up believing and getting involved in this cause for one simple reason. As the climate changes and as resources dry up the nature of work and employment will change across the planet. The trade unions that are turning a blind eye now will have to get involved at some stage. As the nature of what is produced changes that is going to affect workers on a day to day basis as their jobs change or as their jobs vanish or move, around the country or to the other side of the world. Workers on the other side of the world are going to be exploited by the same capitalists who exploit workers in this part of the world. It is a trade union issue because by the nature of what workers do on a day to day basis they are the producers of carbon emissions – not by will but by default. Trade unions and the workers they represent are going to have to get a grip of this.

 There’s a well-founded criticism that the champions of capitalism’s “second eleven” throughout the industrialised world have been the trade unions because of their protectionism when it comes to the creation and protection of jobs at all costs. Sometimes that manifest itself in defending jobs that continue to destroy the environment and add to climate change. The way I see it is that the environmental movement sprung up out of the new social movements in the 1960s along with things like women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights and the anti-nuclear lobby. Funnily enough these are all the issues that trade unions are now taking up. Climate change is now the last issue for trade unions to engage with. The fact is though that the struggle for the working environment was one of the reasons that trade unions sprung up just after the Industrial Revolution. They struggled for healthy and safe conditions in the workplace. Children were getting maimed and people were being worked to death. It sounds just like what’s happening now in the developing world. For me it’s a logical extension to move from wanting to have a safer environment to work in to wanting a safer environment to live on our planet. I don’t see how anybody can argue that there’s any difference between the day to day work that trade unions do and wanting to ensure that the people we represent go to work in a safe healthy environment. So you can’t stand aside and say “we couldn’t care less about what type of environment you live in” once they’ve stepped out of the workplace.

Unions that are ignoring the issue won’t be able to do so for much longer for two reasons. Their members at some point are going to demand that they start taking climate change seriously. We did a survey of our young members and asked them “what are the issues that you are concerned about?” We expected them to say “wages, hours and bosses”. It wasn’t. Issue number one was housing because due to the ridiculous state of the housing market there’s nowhere decent to live. And issue number two for our members under thirty was the environment. It seems to us that among tomorrow’s generation of trade unionists the very narrow idea of trade unionists only being concerned with work is weakening. We can campaign on any issue we want – hours, jobs, conditions – but if we don’t have a planet we can live on we are wasting our time,

 What are the multi-billion pound companies and the governments we live under going to do when resources get scarce? The film Mad Max might look like a documentary in about fifteen years time. There are going to be wars fought over basic resources as they begin to run out. The capitalists aren’t just going to say “those environmentalists were right and we were wrong”. I understand the point about what we can do as individuals, things like switching off the stand by on our TV, not using as much water. We can all do these things as individuals but the reason governments and big business rams those suggestions down your throat is because it gets them off the hook. It stops them doing what needs to be done. While they are lecturing you about switching off lights – which is right – they present that like it is the answer. It’s not the answer. It takes up Thatcher’s theme that there is no such thing as society, there’s no such thing as collectivism, it’s all about the individual.  What matters for me as a trade unionist is collective action producing results. On this occasion what’s called for is collective action across a broad spectrum of direct action groups, political groups, campaign groups and trade unions coming together to say that “this is the planet we live on and have to make a living on. It’s worth fighting for.” My message is that climate change is a trade union issue. If we are really interested in our members we are interested in them twenty four seven and there’s no bigger issue for my members than having a planet to live on. The answer is collective action across a broad political spectrum and trade unions are already involved and we are going to get even more involved.


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