rs21 member Pete Cannell reports from the Global Climate Jobs conference which took place in Amsterdam earlier this month and brought about critical discussions on the role that workers’ organising must play in the transition to a zero carbon economy.
This article was originally published by Scot.E3
The conference, organised by the Global Climate Jobs network, took place in Amsterdam over three days from October 7. Two of us from Scot.E3 attended. These are my personal notes and reflections on the discussion that took place.
The Global Climate Jobs network brings together campaigning organisations from around the world. What glues them together is the idea that the necessary transition to a zero-carbon economy is both political and practical and requires a huge expansion in jobs that are central to the new economy – in energy production, transport etc. This idea centres campaigning on social justice, a worker led transition and building working class power.
The global reach of the network was underlined by the diversity of the attendance – including groups from Columbia, Mexico, USA, South Africa, Tanzania, England, Scotland, Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium, Luxemburg, Portugal, Spain, Austria, Italy, Turkey and the Philippines.
The venue for the conference was split between two spaces – a social centre, once a church, squatted more than two decades ago and now legalised and ‘De Burcht’, a wonderful building that was once the headquarters of the Amsterdam diamond workers union. The picture shows something of the beauty of the building but its history is also inspirational. In the 19th century there were around 10,000 diamond workers. They were divided by gender and religion. However, after a major strike which brought the entire workforce together a single union was created and commissioned the building.
Highlights from the plenary sessions
Leonor, from the Portuguese group Climaximo, talked about how the cost-of-living crisis runs side by side with the intensifying climate crisis. She argued that building a mass movement to stop climate collapse requires an organisational culture of a different kind – flexible, learning and always thinking about the next steps. Bringing the labour and climate movements together is key. All of this needs a high level of ambition and a clear focus on building social power to stop climate change. We need to be ready to take risks and accelerate our learning cycles. We’ll make mistakes but we must not repeat mistakes. We have seen mass movements rise very fast and we have seen dominant ideas change very quickly – we need to envisage this and think of strategies that can make it happen.
Working people are struggling daily to get by – a programme to tackle the climate crisis is a programme to improve lives and livelihoods. We need to dare to win power – these ideas need to explode in society and go mainstream.
Sean Sweeney from Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) noted that trade unions in the north wanted/want to get a seat at the table of the transition. TUED argues that being at the table is not fine. While renewables have expanded so has the use of fossil fuel. Radical restructuring is needed as the problem is a capitalist system that burns fossil fuels for profit. We need a pathway, a plan of action and crucially we need public ownership of energy. It’s evident that all the countries who say they have targets for net zero will not achieve them.
The solutions we need are not compatible with a system of growth and accumulation. Public ownership and control is essential.
Jonathan Neale started his contribution by saying that the evidence for climate change is increasing fast and most people now agree that something must be done. He argued that the climate movement must change – we have to go for concrete solutions. Stop fossil fuels: Make them illegal. Cover the world with renewable energy. Governments need to do this. Every worker in old industries should get a new job with the climate service. Once we win it in one country it’s easier to spread. It requires a mass grass roots campaign that must go everywhere. It’s a serious project and not just about having a good policy, we have to persuade a mass movement to fight for it: We need to persuade the climate movement. People say we must not divide the movement, but he asserted that there is no other solution on offer. The just transition is the only transition on the table. It requires winning majorities and not diluting our politics as we must persuade people that, on this, we are right. We need action – direct action. Every time workers are losing their jobs, we need action/occupations etc. to insist that they must have climate jobs. Occupation for demands that we can win. We need our own shock doctrine – organising at the grass roots for the things that people need in heat waves, floods. We have to march and protest in the teeth of disaster – ‘no one left behind’. We need fund raising events when the catastrophes are elsewhere. The time for dishonest promises is past. This is a long struggle – explosive growth sometimes, slow at others. We can’t afford to wait to see that their promises are lies in 2040 – we have to start now on the scale that is necessary. Winning once makes it easier elsewhere. In the global south renewable energy must grow to meet their needs. From here to this vision is a huge jump but it must be done.
The theme of public ownership was reinforced by a speaker from Colombia. She started by saying that it is the capitalist system (imperialism) that is to blame and we need to be clear about this. With a progressive government in office, Columbia is looking at the possibility of change for the first time. The country is highly indebted. Renewable energy has increased but is almost entirely in the hands of private companies that are propped up and subsidised by public resources. Carbon emissions are principally from land use and deforestation – Columbia is a producer of primary raw materials. Transition requires public ownership and social control. Just transition is a question of rethinking the role of the state and the working class. She argued that large scale utilities are essential – things like roof top solar contribute but can’t be the answer on the scale that’s needed. In Latin America this is a moment when it is necessary to fight for public power.
Some of the contributions reflected significant rethinking in the climate movement. A contributor from XR in the Netherlands talked about how the focus of direct action has changed in recent months. There has been action against a private jet terminal and action at a big steel plant. This shift stems from frustration that labour and climate movements are not working together against a common enemy while NGOs talk about capitalism but not about class struggle. There has been progress in building a climate justice network in the Netherland’s largest trade union. A contribution from Friends of the Earth (Netherlands) remarked on an ongoing shift from consumerist demands to more concrete demands and demands on big polluting companies. But most of these actions have been from the outside with the consequence that workers see them as attacks on them which may have increased their resistance to climate transition agenda. Workers were arguing against Carbon Capture and Storage and in favour of hydrogen and electricity as the climate movement’s impatience means there’s a lack of dialogue. We need to engage more directly with the workers and not with the trade union bureaucracy. This point was echoed by another contributor who had been involved in producing the Platform report on the views of offshore workers in the UK sector of the North Sea. Platform worked with the offshore unions to reach the workers who contributed to the report. The findings were powerful but mostly the unions have done nothing with them. She argued that it will often be necessary to bypass union officials to speak directly to workers.
On the second day of the conference, I helped present and facilitate a workshop on the strike wave in Britain put on by the rs21. We explored the scale of the movement and attempts to align it with the environmental movement. This provoked a lively discussion and people gave examples from 7-8 different countries of experiments in aligning the workers and environmental movement, including pushing for the wider ecosocialist political struggle. As part of the workshop, we hosted a representative from the Italian GKN Collective. GKN is a British owned company in the automotive and aerospace sector. Faced with a decision to close the factory, the Italian workers occupied it in 2021 and have stayed in occupation ever since. They are now fighting to control it; they’ve retooled the machinery and aim to convert it to renewable transport production led by workers. It’s quite shameful that this occupation has not received more support and solidarity in the UK. Coverage in English is very limited but you can read more here.
I’ve tried to focus on the main themes of the conference but there was much more and much deserving of separate and more detailed reports. The accounts of social movement trade unionism in France were impressive. German delegates spoke about their public transport campaign #wirfahrenzusammen – we’re driving together. Joint activity bringing the youth strike movement together with public transport strikers and public transport users. Safe Landing ran a workshop on workers assemblies. There was intensive discussion of what we mean by just transition and workshops on global debt, the East African Crude Oil pipeline (EACOP), the upcoming European elections, political strikes and how to build on them and how to understand and make an impact on local and global supply chains.
You can find the recordings of all the panels and a selection of workshop sessions here: