What the TUC Congress showed about climate change and trade unions

'It is vital that trade unions can have these debates and arrive at a position that works for workers in the long-term.'

Alex Maguire was a trade union shop steward and is now a union official. 

The TUC Congress debate over whether to restate its policy of supporting the expansion of nuclear power and hydrogen as the default means of heating buildings (Composite Nine) that took place on September 13, highlighted the nuances of inter trade union relationships.

Essentially, the unions with members in the nuclear industry – Unite and GMB – were in favour of it and focused on potential job losses that would be caused by the shrinking of the nuclear sector. The unions without members in this industry were against the policy and advocated focusing on solar and wind power.

No clear answers

The reasons given for voting against the motion were convincing, as UCU and Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) pointed out, the length of time taken to build new nuclear power plants – 12-14 years – and the difficulties in storing nuclear waste. However, there was no clear answer as to what would happen to the jobs of workers in the industry.

Unite and GMB won the day (as two of the three largest unions they would be expected to win in a block vote), but the debate was interesting. There were speeches against the motion from PCS and UCU, and speeches in favour from GMB and Unite.

UNISON, National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), and Transport Salaried Staff Association (TSSA) all signified their opposition to the motion, but wisely decided not to bother speaking against it. It would have been genuinely interesting to have heard from the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) given their general secretary, Matt Wrack, is one of the labour movement’s most prominent voices on climate change and its members are on the front-line against climate emergencies.

Clash of members’ interests

This disagreement happened because one set of members’ interests clashed with those in other unions, this is hardly unknown in the labour movement. The UCU’s position was clearly outlined when its speaker, Vicky Blake (also UCU president) stated “we are committed to pressuring the government to take strong action against climate change.”

This is a policy platform that will be broadly popular with most of UCU’s membership (as they do not have to think about material consequences of job losses in the energy sector), and one would hope that this commitment to pressuring the government over climate change does not detract from UCU’s fight against precarious work in academia.

In contrast, GMB’s position was demonstrated when Kevin Buchanon, the GMB representative, asked “what do we stand for if it’s not the defence of our member’s jobs?” Buchanon then declared that a defeat of “the GMB to reflect on the consequences of that decision and how we best represent our members and our future in this Congress.”

 While an emotive response, threatening disaffiliation over the restatement of policy was a tad excessive, though it did highlight the pressure that GMB is under from its members and is only slightly more combative than GMB’s recent discussions with the Labour Party over a Green New Deal. After the debate was won, Buchanon would perhaps have been best served putting his toys firmly back in his pram.

The course of this debate showcased how inter trade union dynamics are complex and nuanced. Unions each have their different interests which will largely be dictated by the industries they work and recruit in; this does not make their policy positions morally good or bad per say.

Unions need to be respectful to each other’s members’ interests

While the GMB’s renewable energy position does leave much to be desired, it is right that it stands up for its members and reflects their immediate concerns; unlike the UCU, it does not have the luxury of a policy platform separated entirely from workers’ interests and concerns. Indeed, the UCU’s speech in opposition to the motion – compared to the much more conciliatory PCS speech – did contain an element of craft union snobbery and demonstrated that trade unions do need to remember to be respectful of each other’s members’ interests if any progress is to be achieved.

Important unions with member in energy sector won the debate

However, there is a danger that the debate will remain too polarised and relations within the labour movement will continue to be strained. It is vital that trade unions can have these debates and arrive at a position that works for workers in the long-term; thus, it is important that the unions with members within the industry won the debate.

Therefore, the TUC is vital as a forum where these discussions can be had and new perspectives on problems articulated without undermining the position and concerns of workers who will be affected by proposed changes. Condemning one union as outdated or backwards because it has concerns about its members in the energy sector is not helpful.

Green New Deal and future conflict?

This is not just a debate limited to the trade union movement as it is also playing out across the rest of the labour movement.

The Labour conference passed two Green New Deal (GND) policies – one backing nuclear proposed by GMB, and the other motion, which was prompted by the TSSA and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), calls on Labour to back a “socialist green new deal.”

With both the GMB’s version of the Green New Deal and another variant of the GND, which does not support the expansion of nuclear power being passed, we are guaranteed future conflict.

It will be interesting what the Labour leadership choose to adopt from each deal. Either way, GMB will have plenty to say about it.

Any transition to a greener economy must create good jobs, without trade union input this will not happen. However, to have this input, organised labour must be unified; the TUC Congress debate on nuclear power showed how fraught this debate is, and developments at the Labour conference indicate we are no closer to a unified position. The labour movement must do better, sooner or later workers will have industrial changes forced on them and their representatives cannot afford to squabble in the interim.

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