Riding the Just Transition Roller Coaster
The US union delegation to COP 15 is twice the size of our delegations to the previous COPs in Bali and Poznan, Poland. Its growth reflects the growth of our interest and engagement as a union movement in climate change. The focus of our efforts with our union brothers and sisters in Copenhagen resonates with our own efforts to shape domestic climate legislations.
Since the beginning of our interventions, the ITUC and its affiliates has had the goal of injecting a social and economic dimension in what had been an environmental discussion. In simple terms, we want a cleaner planet and good jobs. Over the past year the term “a just transition” came to capture the ideas we were promoting in a climate agreement.
The Green Jobs resolution passed by the recent AFL-CIO convention summarized what we have sought in U.S. climate legislation as well as internationally with the ITUC:
“A just transition to a greener economy requires an aggressive sustained commitment of national resources to create and retain good union jobs in the United States, increase per capita income, modernize industry, develop and deploy technology and educate and train current and future workers. It requires assistance for any workers, families or communities that may be adversely affected by the transition, and a democratic voice for workers in their workplaces and in their communities.”
In the U.S we fought for investments to create and retain good jobs in the economic stimulus legislation last fall and in the climate legislation currently under consideration in Congress. But, there is a lesson we have learned that everyone needs to think about. The world wants the United States to move on carbon emissions and it also wanted us to pass stimulus legislation to help get the economy back on its feet. The AFL-CIO fought to invest in both with an $80 billion down payment on a new energy policy designed to create jobs.
The Recovery Act also reinforced our domestic investment procurement criteria, generally referred to as Buy America. All existing treaty obligations are recognized and may be granted for a variety of reasons, all in compliance with WTO rules. Nonetheless, the EU among others, accused the U.S. of protectionism and starting trade wars. We saw this as free trade orthodoxy trying to undermine a legal common sense investment policy.
This should serve as a cautionary tale as all our unions push for a cleaner planet and good jobs. We must be able to invest in new technology and employment without the fear that this will be turned into a trade fight because one nation’s investment becomes another nation’s accusation of illegal subsidies. It won’t help the environment, nor will it serve the economic needs for job creation that every nation desires. There must be a far more balanced approach to climate and trade policy.
In the meantime, we are in Copenhagen still fighting to get just transition recognised. We have been making progress but it is a roller coaster ride. Negotiations on climate text, much like collective bargaining, can mean agonising over the meaning of every word, their nuance and even the order in which they appear. It’s never a real deal until the words are on the paper and the parties sign the agreement. Then we can go home and begin making the transition a just one.