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The two crises of our time

The TUC and unions are protecting workers, families and our economy through the coronavirus crisis. We stand ready to do the same with climate change, writes Beth Farhat.



Both the coronavirus and climate change are very serious problems and as the past few weeks have demonstrated, trade unions are part of the solution when it comes to developing progressive policy that protects workers, families and our economy at times of crisis.

For most people, the threat of coronavirus is their number one priority. Most of us are now preoccupied with how we need to stay at home to protect our essential workers.

Though the coronavirus is the threat we face today, tomorrow we will begin thinking about how we mourn our lost loved ones and rebuild our economy.

We should begin by remembering how viruses like Covid-19 cause more damage in countries without well-funded public services or with a lax regulatory state. That is why, first and foremost, we need to properly invest in public services. There are a growing series of challenges posed by an increasingly urbanised world that requires good public health infrastructure, strong state regulation and vital habitat protection to reduce the risks posed by climate change on human health.

To be frank, our government has not done enough over the last decade to invest in the NHS, social care or in disaster preparedness at home or abroad. Austerity has seen everything from cuts to flood defences, to the negligent removal of bursaries for student nurses – both of which have damaged the capacity of our public services to protect people’s lives and livelihoods in the last three months alone.

But there is a fundamental difference between the two crises: Covid-19 is a temporary problem that will, in time, go away. Climate change has been here for many years. It will remain with us for decades and require constant action.

In the same way that TUC and unions have been at the heart of the push for a good economic response during this coronavirus crisis, we stand ready to do the same with climate change and the transition to a low carbon economy.

In the context of moving to a low carbon economy, we need a cross-party commission on long term energy use which involves the workers, unions, industries and consumers affected by this transition. As part of its work, this new cross-party commission must assess the social and regional impacts of a transition to a low carbon economy and be ready to implement the necessary mitigation measures.

Unions have indicated that investment in infrastructure will be vital to supporting the affected sectors, including automotive, aerospace, steel and construction, as well as investment in household energy efficiency programmes and better public transport.

The TUC has spent time talking to workers in affected sectors across the country. One message that came across loud and clear, is that workers respond more positively if there is proper consultation and inclusion in the process of transitioning rather than having changed forced upon them.

Companies should put in place ‘transition agreements’ equivalent to collective bargaining agreements which enable a process of negotiation between employers and employees – agreed with unions – covering issues such as numbers of jobs, pay and conditions, job security, training and skills, health and safety and equal opportunities.

As these new low carbon roles are created, workers will naturally need the skills and expertise to help their companies transition to lower carbon models, this will need a dramatic increase in skills investment. Workers should receive a career review and face-to-face guidance on training. The establishment of lifelong learning accounts for all adults with a personalised budget for training should be created.

Our ambition is that every new job created by the move to a low carbon economy is just as good as those which it will replace. That means trade union recognition, decent pay, terms and conditions, high standards of health and safety, and a fair pension. Anything less does not meet the test of a just transition. A strong robust industrial strategy must focus on creating jobs where they are needed most – in the regions and nations of the UK, particularly areas that have been left behind from deindustrialisation.

This year was going to be the big one in the fight against climate change. While all our efforts are rightly on flattening the Covid-19 curve, when we begin to rebuild our economy and lives, we cannot forget the other crisis of our time.

The TUC is a strong supporter of action to end global warming. We are also, of course, the voice of working people. This means we have a responsibility to champion the cause of a just transition to a new, low carbon economy.

This is a challenging agenda, but it is a challenge we must be determined to meet.

Photo credit: Samuel Zeller/Flickr

Beth Farhat

Beth Farhat is regional secretary of the Northern TUC.


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