Today, school climate activists have called for workers internationally to unite in a global strike, urging governments to take radical action to end the climate emergency. It’s a bold message from young people. They know climate change is a class issue and an international threat to the future of all of us. Action must therefore come from workers and their unions.
At this stage, UK unions will be unlikely to deliver large-scale strike action on the issue – not least because of the huge constraints imposed by anti-union laws, which mean that strikes for ‘political’ purposes are automatically unlawful. But the strike call should alert the trade union movement to the urgency of the climate crisis. We need to build to a point where workers are willing and confident to take such direct action.
For my union, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), climate change is and has always been a workplace issue. Firefighters were on the frontline this summer, as wildfires tore across swathes of moorland and forests, as flooding destroyed homes and businesses and, in the case of the Whaley Bridge dam collapse, threatened an entire town.
As we approach Labour’s annual conference, a social, economic and environmental transformation is on the horizon. The socialist green new deal, set to dominate the agenda, has the potential to radically turn around the climate crisis debate, raising the need to shift power and wealth away from the profiteering corporate polluters.
Central to this action must be trade unions. We are the voices of the workers who will be worst affected by the climate crisis and of those in the industries that will need to undergo huge changes. There is a view from the right that jobs, and therefore workers, are somehow in contention with environmental action. Under a socialist green new deal, with workers’ voices and trade unions at its heart, that is simply not true.
Driving the green new deal is the urgent need to move the UK to a net-zero carbon emission economy. But any target for achieving net-zero is meaningless without the tools for a war-scale mobilisation of resources – resources that need to be under democratic control rather than in the hands of profit driven corporations.
We should make no mistake about it: an international system driven by the demands of profit cannot and will not deliver the necessary changes. The fossil-fuel giants who have let the Earth burn may now pay lip-service to the need for a renewable future, but they fundamentally will not forgo a source of profit that is still lucrative. We must take them on with huge investment in publicly-owned renewable energy and the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels.
Earlier this year, Rebecca Long-Bailey laid out Labour’s plan to bring the UK’s energy network back into public ownership. The public purse built the infrastructure for the distribution of energy into every home and Labour is right to end private exploitation of the network for profit.
But, for a truly new deal on the environment, a national distribution network will not be enough. As unions have argued for years, we will need an army of trained, highly skilled energy workers to deliver a green industrial revolution.
A socialist green new deal needs to address the needs of workers – of the majority. We therefore need to plan for the creation of millions of new jobs, new systems of training, and a modern and integrated public transport system. We need modern, safe and sustainable homes for all.
The shrieking response from the Big Six energy giants – British Gas, EDF Energy, E.ON, Npower, Scottish Power and SSE – to even modest reforms to protect consumers, like the energy price cap, proved that they are not part of the solution. But their workers, and democratic engagement through their unions, must be.
A socialist green new deal must, at its heart, be about shifting power from those at the top to the majority. It’s about democratising our society, our economy and our world. That is a big aim – but, in the face of a global and growing and crisis, that’s what is needed. As conference delegates consider exactly what Labour’s radical plan for the environment looks like, we all need to think big. Let’s not shy away from that.
Matt Wrack is speaking at the Labour for a Green New Deal rally on Saturday at 4.30pm at Hove Lawns.