Trade union responses to climate change and human insecurity

The United Nations Security Council debate occurred at a time when many of the world's trade unions recognized that climate change and energy security must form part of their historical mission to ensure that development yields personal and community benefits to the working class. In response to calls for action issued by the ITUC, TUAC and several Global Union federations, a Trade Union Working Group on Climate Change has been formed, which now enjoys official status at negotiations under the UNFCCC.

In January 2006, trade unions partnered with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to convene the first Global Trade Union Assembly on Labour and the Environment in Nairobi, Kenya, from which over 200 trade union leaders and activists from all parts of the world issued a statement calling for action linking poverty reduction, environmental protection and decent work (Global Unions, 2006b). This was followed later that year by regional conferences in Brazil and South Africa organized by Sustainlabour, an international foundation that promotes sustainable development in the trade union movement.

On 7 to 8 May 2007 a North American Labor Assembly on Climate Crisis at Cornell University's Global Labor Institute in New York City brought hundreds of trade unionists from around the world, together with representatives from the energy policy community and environmental organizations, to address energy alternatives, job creation, policy options and coalition-building. It adopted a statement urging 'determined action to address the climate crisis, a crisis that threatens life on our planet, as we know it'. Inaction, it said, 'is a far greater threat to workers and communities than is taking decisive action now and in the years ahead' (North American Labor Assembly on Climate Crisis, 2007).

The emerging trade union consensus firmly rejects the 'jobs/environment dichotomy'. As the United Steel Workers Association (USWA) states in Securing Our Children's World: 'In the last five years, we can clearly see that the 3 million manufacturing jobs that vanished from the US economy had almost nothing to do with domestic environmental regulation, and everything to do with US corporate trade policy' (USWA, 2002, p29). As well, it rejects solutions based on the model of privatization and government cutbacks that prevailed during the last decade. An officer of Public Services International (PSI) made the point to the 2007 Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development:

Ever since the Enron nightmare, public decision-makers have been scrambling to fix the problems of energy privatization, deregulation and liberalization. The failure of such policy approaches has been well documented, and [these approaches] have been particularly egregious when they are intended to either reduce government debt or reduce corruption. The private sector has an important role to play; but only where they do more than provide a temporary reduction of government borrowing and able to deliver equitable and safe energy services to all. Too often, they have failed our citizens and our planet, particularly, especially in developing countries, where we see major global corporations abandon their commitments when profits are too low or risks too high. (Boys, 2005)

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