Unions and environmentalism – uneasy bedfellows?
Unions are increasingly working with the environmental movement. We represent – or stand in solidarity with – many of those most likely to be badly hit by climate change. Union campaigns for health and safety in the workplace have always had much in common with wider campaigns against pollution. Many environmentalists have a similar commitment to social justice and internationalism that inform the best kinds of trade unionism – the victims of environmental degradation are usually the people for whom unions speak. Unions know that we need big changes in the way the economy work – and have helped put the concept of just transition on the international agenda.
But there are problems too.
Some conflicts are inevitable. Environmentalists want to close down polluting activities that may employ lots of people. Unions wants clean coal, while some environmentalists want no coal at all. Unions want jobs at airports, environmentalists are less keen.
But while this can cause many difficulties, it does not add up to a strategic reason not to work together when we do agree. Unions are always dealing with industrial and workplace change. Many greens recognise the employment aspects of the changes they seek. Unions recognise that the various proposals for green new deals are designed to create new and worthwhile jobs. And it wasn’t environmentalism that closed Britain’s coal mines.
(As an aside, given the politics of many climate change deniers, Mrs Thatcher was an early believer in climate change. Here she is from 1990: “The danger of global warming is as yet unseen, but real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations.”)
Nor is environmentalism a homogenous movement, indeed it is probably far more diverse than trade unionism. You can certainly describe yourself as both – and many do.
But there are currents within the environmental movement that are more of a problem – and I don’t mean just the fringe nutjobs who really don’t like humans very much.
Two recent publications from the New Economics Foundation have crystallised those worries for me.
First is Growth isn’t possible.
I simply refute that statement. Of course environmentalists have rightly stressed that traditional economics often fails to factor in the environmental and other wider costs for society of economic activity (what economists call externalities). This means that some kinds of growth are not worth having as they end up doing more damage than their benefits. Asbestos is an example that unions understand.
But arguing that “future growth will have a different form from past growth” or that “real growth is harder than we thought” is a completely different argument from saying that growth is impossible. Indeed to imply that growth itself is what does the damage is a mirror image of those who ignore externalities. Neither side has to ask hard questions about how to assess different kinds of growth. Investment in decarbonisation is good for both the environment and economic growth
These arguments are put much better in Matthew Lockwood’s two-part critique at Political Climate. So I’ll move on.
Now I’m all for a discussion of working time.
The TUC has just marked Work Your Proper Hours Day which is when we measure just how much unpaid overtime people are doing (though it has a rather different tone at these times of mass unemployment, than it did in the boom years).
We support Europe’s legal maximum on working time, which was set for health and safety reasons. We campaign hard to extend flexible working so that people have legal rights to vary their working hours when possible.
I also think that unions can do more to emphasise the autonomy agenda. Perhaps the key indicator of whether people enjoy their job is the amount of autonomy they have in it. Having a say over your working hours is a fundamental measure of autonomy.
There is an interesting debate about why people have not chosen (or demanded) to take the proceeds of economic growth in the form of shorter working weeks, though I suspect that it may boil down to those who can afford this have the interesting jobs, while those who would like to can’t afford it.
But the impetus for 21 hours is different. It argues that:
A ‘normal’ working week of 21 hours could help to address a range of urgent, interlinked problems: overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life.
Let’s look at these in turn.
- Many of us do overwork, but a 21 hour working week is an entirely arbitrary target. Why not 28 or 35 hours?
- Linking unemployment to working time is dangerous. There is not a fixed amount of work to go round (the lump of labour fallacy). If people spend less because they earn half of what they earned before, then unemployment could rise as demand falls. On the other hand there would be shortages of skilled workers that would make some capital investment no longer viable – and hit public services. Talk of phasing this in or raising wages doesn’t quite cut the mustard.
- Over-consumption would, I suppose fall, if living standards fell – and people had less to spend. But this seems to be an argument that poverty is good for the environment. Perhaps it is – but it is a profoundly reactionary argument.
- High-carbon emissions would possibly go the way of over-consumption. But it may be more complicated than that as I am not sure that people in their leisure time naturally adopt a lower carbon lifestyle than when they are at work. It may cost less to heat Congress House during the week than it does to heat every TUC employee’s home during the week-end. This argument is closely connected to my problems with their views on growth. If your job is installing solar heating then the longer you work the better (at least for the environment, if not you or your family).
- It is well established that unemployment is bad for your well-being and employment is good – though there are also marginal and highly-stressed jobs that are not much fun. Part-time workers are the most content, so there may be some force to the low-well being argument. But again why 21 hours? Some people may well feel under-employed – and want more.
- Shortening the working week would not in itself reduce entrenched inequalities – indeed it would make inequalities between those who sell their labour and those who realise rents from assets even greater. I suppose that any chance of implementing a 21 hour working week would require such a radical – if not draconian – alteration in society to stop people suffering extreme poverty that inequalities might reduce, but not from the policy itself.
- The concluding points are harder to measure – and involve all kinds of value judgements. But it is not obvious that the main barrier to a more environmentally friendly life style is lack of time to live sustainably or that if you give people more time off that’s what they will choose to do. They may just commute further.
In other words this is not an agenda that speaks to trade unions – or really adds up to a practical proposal.
What links these two reports is the view that economic activity is bad, and that therefore there should be less of it. Roll on the next recession.
While NEF does other work of great interest and progressive intent (such as this work on loan sharks), this is not a view that unions can embrace – and indeed gets in the way of thinking hard about how we reduce the carbon content of economic growth or the politics of working time.
Fortunately as Political Climate shows, this is not the only environmentalist take on these issues. For unless we can put together progressive programmes that tackle both climate change and inequality then it will be harder to make progress on either.