Earth, wind and fire

After the smashing of the miners’ strike of the 1980s and the many mine and factory closures since, it’s no wonder that fossil-fuel workers are sceptical about plans for a green industrial revolution.

This is an article from the fourth issue of the New Economics Zine. You can read the full issue here.

Last month, over 500 workers at the GKN car factory in Birmingham voted to strike following news that Melrose, GKN’s owner, planned to close their plant and move jobs overseas. Strike leader Frank Duffy said that striking was a last resort after bosses refused an alternative plan that workers developed to manufacture components for electric vehicles instead of traditional petrol- or diesel-powered combustion engines. To meet its climate targets, the UK has committed to ban the sale of internal combustion engines from 2030. GKN has the capability to produce electric vehicle components to support this shift, and has even received government innovation funding, but this won’t translate into green jobs for workers in the Birmingham factory.

A few miles away, and almost 50 years earlier, another group of workers had presented a similar plan to their bosses at Lucas Aerospace and the then-Labour government. In the mid-1970s, threatened with mass redundancies, workers at 15 Lucas Aerospace plants developed what became known as the Lucas Plan to save jobs and reorient production towards socially valuable products. Instead of producing hardware for publicly-funded military contracts, workers argued for government support to produce kidney dialysis machines, wind turbines, heat pumps and solar and fuel cell technology. Climate change was not yet the emergency it is today, but against the backdrop of the Cold War and the peace and anti-nuclear movements, workers at Lucas Aerospace were thinking about how their skills could contribute to a safer world. In rejecting this worker-led plan, the company closed the door on a just transition for those workers and ushered in a period of restructuring and job losses that contributed to the decline of manufacturing in the UK.

The Lucas Plan was the very definition of what would become known as the just transition’: the idea that workers and communities must be protected during industrial change — whether forced by globalisation, automation or the climate crisis — and are well placed to determine what that process should look like. The just transition concept emerged from the US trade union movement between the 1970s and 90s, when unions argued for support for workers impacted by, first, disarmament and, later, environmental protections. Since then it has been variously defined: narrowly, as compensation and training for workers in fossil-fuel industries, or broadly, as a set of policies to smooth the effects of cutting carbon emissions on the poorest in society.

Climate change was not yet the emergency it is today, but against the backdrop of the Cold War and the peace and anti-nuclear movements, workers at Lucas Aerospace were thinking about how their skills could contribute to a safer world.”

The climate crisis, and the need to shift from a fossil-fuel to a low-carbon economy, has enormous implications for workers, many of whom are understandably concerned about their livelihoods. After all, how many examples are there of a just transition in practice? Germany and Spain are moving away from coal through negotiated just transition agreements with unions, civil society and businesses. But these are limited examples, focused on one industry rather than wholesale economic transformation, and are happening in countries with a stronger tradition of social dialogue between unions, business and government, and greater union power than in the UK.

Here, our most enduring recent experience of industrial change is the deindustrialisation of the 1980s and 90s, within which the closure of the coal pits, the smashing of the miners’ strike and the loss of over 250,000 mining jobs is the exemplar of an unjust transition. Many of those communities are still dealing with the long-term impact of industrial decline, with a rise in unemployment and precarious work, and persistent poor health outcomes. Still disproportionately reliant on carbon-intensive industry — from steelmaking to gas plants — it’s not surprising that some are sceptical that this time will be different.

And if you look at what most governments and businesses are doing right now, that scepticism is valid. Despite the flurry of net-zero’ commitments and, more recently, the copy-pasting of just-transition language into government statements and business strategies, the world is still on course for a catastrophic temperature rise that will imperil workers and the planet they live on. G20 countries have subsidised fossil-fuel projects by £2.4tn since the 2015 Paris agreement. Meanwhile, unjust transitions continue apace. Last year, thousands of jobs were lost as a result of crashing oil demand, the widespread use of fire-and-rehire practices as private companies protect their pandemic-dented profits at workers’ expense, and missed opportunities to create good, green jobs in the growing renewables sector.

Like promises to reach net-zero emissions, just transition has been effectively co-opted by interests keen to demonstrate that they are part of the solution while shoring up the status quo. We have reached a stage of greenwashing where oil giants BP and Shell proclaim their net-zero targets while expanding fossil-fuel exploration. Even when companies also move to profit from the renewables boom, they do so with the same predation that has characterised their fossil-fuel operations for the last century. Relentlessly extracting resources and labour where they are cheapest, with little regard for workers or their environment, they have no interest in a genuinely just transition.

Like promises to reach net-zero emissions, just transition has been effectively co-opted by interests keen to demonstrate that they are part of the solution while shoring up the status quo.”

Climate justice activists have argued for a justice transition, acknowledging that the green industrial revolution’ already relies on exploiting the Global South for its resources, including minerals like lithium, cobalt and copper which are crucial for renewable energy technology. Most transition plans envisage simply swapping fossil fuels for renewable energy while leaving an inherently exploitative and unjust economic system intact. This perpetuates unfair distribution, in which billions don’t have access to electricity at home and huge tracts of their lands are colonised for food, products or carbon offsets for wealthier countries. A just transition for workers in the Global North, based on the growth imperative that caused the climate crisis, is not really just. For this reason, climate justice demands a transformative global Green New Deal that reduces demand for energy and materials, prioritises public ownership and protects communities and ecosystems in the Global South and North. Within this, the just transition is an opportunity to transform the injustices at the heart of the climate crisis: not just for high-carbon workers but for everyone who is oppressed by contemporary social and economic relations.

Back in Birmingham, private equity-owned GKN wants to profit without retaining relatively well-paid workers in the UK. So workers like Frank Duffy are taking matters into their own hands — and they’re not the only ones. In the US, the biggest mining union has recently called for a just transition that would see members supported out of the mining industry and into renewables. In France, energy unions are fighting off the attempted privatisation of state-owned EDF and arguing for publicly-led decarbonisation. The Campaign Against Climate Change has called for one million climate jobs, and Green New Deal campaigns are making the case for tackling the climate and inequality crises together, with demands for good green jobs in low-carbon industries and social infrastructure like care work.

Connecting these dots requires political education and deep organising in workplaces and in every struggle against class, racial and gender injustice. These are David and Goliath fights, with workers and frontline communities pitted against big business and its defenders in government. Those interests are increasingly adept at co-opting the language of just transition and sowing division between and among workers and grassroots movements. But one thing is clear: if a just transition happens, it will be won by building power and solidarity from below rather than delivered from above.

Image: Cat Finnie

If you value great public services, protecting the planet and reducing inequality, please support NEF today.

Make a one-off donation

£5 £10 £25 £50 £100

Make a monthly donation

£3 £5 £10 £25 £100