At the University and College Union (UCU) we are calling on the wider UK trade union movement to back the climate change walkouts on 20 September. The work done by Greta Thunberg and school students around the world has been inspirational and now it’s time for the rest of us to catch up.
As trade unionists it is important that we raise awareness of the impact of climate change, and we will be doing that with our motion to the TUC at the start of September.
In securing a safer planet, we also have to think about a longer-term reconfiguration of the British economy and how we ensure a just transition as we move to a greener economy. Tackling climate change doesn’t have to cost us dear. In fact, it can make us more prosperous and more secure.
Productivity in Britain has been declining since the imposition of austerity in 2010, and is now nearly stagnant. Business leaders have little reason to believe that expanding their operations through the introduction of new technology will yield sufficient returns on investment. Few have confidence that demand for their goods and services will hold up in the face of declining real wages, which has caused people to struggle even to pay for essentials.
With little reason to innovate, employers have fallen back on reducing staff pay, benefits and conditions, reinforcing the decline in real wages and causing enormous increases in precarious work.
Neoliberal economists still hold that any state intervention in an economy, even one in such distress as the contemporary British economy, is counterproductive. They argue that every pound the state invests is a pound taken from the private sector. But, as the economist Mariana Muzzucato has demonstrated in her book The Entrepreneurial State, the myth of a lumbering, bureaucratic state vs a dynamic, innovative private sector is inaccurate.
State expenditure drives innovation when private enterprise refuses to do so. It paves the way for future product development by business, and creates demand by putting money in the people’s pockets. It can also drive forward innovation by giving educational opportunities in further and higher education that allow young adults to move into new and exciting sectors of work such as “green collar jobs”.
Mazzucato’s work owes much to the economics of Keynes. In Economics for the Many, edited by John McDonnell, the economist Ann Pettifor makes a compelling case for a green new deal. Keynes argued for public works to kickstart the 1930s economy and implementing a similar programme now could shift the UK economy from its dependence on carbon-based fuels to renewable energy sources. The widespread use of recyclable materials, for example, would help to create an environmentally sustainable economy, create jobs and drive innovation and productivity.
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We should strive to ensure that workers are lifted up by the tide of innovation and investment promised by the green new deal, not swept aside by it. In Spain, coal miners’ unions have agreed a landmark settlement with the Spanish government whereby economically inefficient mines will be closed. But, crucially, investment will be put into ensuring that work needed to make the mines safe will go to former miners. There will also be a significant infrastructure investment in communities – again favouring former miners – and new jobs in the creation of sustainable energy infrastructure.
A green new deal, agreed between the state and representatives of workers, can ensure a sustainable and viable economy for the 21st century on the basis of a just transition that is real for workers moving from a carbon-based to a sustainable jobs market.
Climate change is considered to not be an industrial issue, so workers are prevented from taking industrial action to challenge it. But tackling climate change will be central to the development of the British economy in the 21st century and an essential way of improving the lives of working people.
We must, therefore, also work to challenge the excessively restrictive trade union laws in the UK which prevent workers from tackling issues that are central to their working lives. But for now, a good start would be for workers in Britain, through their own unions, to join UCU in supporting the 30-minute climate change walkout on 20 September.
Jo Grady is the general secretary of the University and College Union