Workers are on the front line of the climate crisis. Here's what unions are doing about it.

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Across the world, we've seen more extreme weather events, with the wildfires in Australia and floods in Yorkshire just some of the most recent to hit the headlines.

In Wales, we've had arctic blasts and heatwaves over the last few years. Scientists say evidence linking the increase in extreme weather events to climate change is clear. 

The impact on people’s lives has certainly become very real. And of course, it's emergency services workers who are quite literally on the front line, helping those caught up in these events.

Globally, an estimated 17.2 million people were displaced from their homes because of climate change-related disasters in 2018 alone. Unless we take action now, these sorts of events are going to get worse. And it will be ordinary working people who will bear the brunt.

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that we have just 12 years to limit the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees. This was the ambition of the 2015 Paris Agreement, to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Since then, the school strikes, led by Greta Thunberg and protests by Extinction Rebellion have captured the public's imagination.

There is now widespread recognition of the scale of the emergency that confronts us. According to a recent poll, two-thirds of British people recognise there is a climate emergency. In April last year, the Welsh Government declared a climate emergency. The UK government followed in May.

Union action on the climate crisis

Over half of carbon emissions are work-related. So taking action to reduce emissions within workplaces, using the collective knowledge of workers, makes a lot of sense. After all, it is often the people working on the ground who have the best ideas for solutions and can see where efficiencies can be made.

The trade union movement fully understands the seriousness of the situation and the need to take urgent action. Unions have long been working to tackle the environmental and climate emergency, with campaigns and workplace activism.

At a UK level, the TUC has called for a national commission to plan a just transition to a net-zero economy. It has published A just transition to a greener, fairer economy, a report setting out the principles of a just transition. It says that unions and workers need to have a central voice in how the transition to the new net-zero economy is achieved.

It is important that large scale industrial transformation is something that is done with, not to workers. This must happen if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past, when communities were left behind by industrial change. Something which we are all too aware of in Wales.

The Wales TUC will be working with the Welsh Government to ensure that workers’ voices are central to the transition to a net-zero economy. The move to a net-zero Wales can mean exciting opportunities. But there must be clear and funded pathways with training and support for the transition across to new jobs. And of course, if the transition is to be truly just, any new jobs must be grounded in core fair work principles.

New jobs created by the transition to a net-zero-economy must offer:

• decent pay, terms and conditions

• skilled work with development opportunities

• secure contracts and decent pensions

• union recognition

• high standards of health and safety

Green reps in the workplace

Back in the late 2000s, many unions introduced the role of ‘green’ reps to champion environmental issues in the workplace. But despite some notable successes, it has often been an uphill struggle. This has especially been true during the last decade of austerity. Without legal rights to facility-time (time-off from their job during work hours to attend training and carry out their duties), it is very difficult for green reps to do their role.

Trade unions have long campaigned for green reps to have statutory rights to facility time, but the UK government hasn’t listened. In some cases, unions have been able to negotiate facility time for green reps to carry out their role. But this has been the exception rather than the norm and is usually only possible where there’s supportive management. What we need now are rights for green reps in all workplaces.

In Wales, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act requires public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other to prevent persistent problems including climate change. We think a network of green reps could be key to helping public bodies to deliver on this goal.

What do green reps do?

One of the roles of the green rep is to ensure that efforts to reduce an organisation’s environmental impact are developed collaboratively and in full consultation with workers. This is the best way of making sure that changes are fair, fit for purpose and have the full support of people in the workplace.

Green reps can develop awareness-raising initiatives. They can ensure environmental issues are included in the negotiating and bargaining agenda. When it comes to developing effective workplace policies they are the key link between managers and workers that is all too often missing. We need one in every workplace.

Unions report that employers often bring in environmental measures without proper consultation. When employers don’t listen to workers, it can mean policies are poorly thought out or have unintended consequences. This can make the policies counter-productive, as it can cause bad feeling and create a backlash (even when the policy may be well-intentioned). Where green reps are involved, often better solutions can be found and problems can be avoided. And the benefits to employers can be significant.

Given proper facility time and with a supportive approach from management, green reps can make a huge difference. Especially where a joint environment committee can be formed.

For example, Unite reps at a large scale brewery near Magor led a project from the shop floor, which was supported by management. They gathered ideas for energy savings from workers in each department and took these forward through a project committee. The project produced some amazing results, leading to an overall reduction in the site’s carbon footprint by 40 % and a savings of more than £2 million in bills for the firm in just two years.

There is no one size fits all solution for every workplace but union reps have come up with creative ways to take action on the environment. Often these can have other important co-benefits for workers.

Ideas such as workplace orchards and wildflower gardens are popular and can help improve air quality and biodiversity. They also provide benefits for workers' mental health and wellbeing.

Active travel plans that help promote walking and cycling to work can reduce carbon emissions and reduce harmful air pollution. Being more physically active also improves mental and physical health, and can help combat the negative effects of sitting at a desk for long periods.

Be part of the movement

Big structural and infrastructure changes are needed to make a zero-carbon economy happen. But that doesn’t mean that action in your workplace can’t make a difference.

Unions are stepping up their activity to address the climate crisis. The Wales TUC is supporting this by developing new training and resources for reps in Wales which we’ll be launching later this year.

In the meantime, if you're a workplace rep, we'd like to hear from you about what is happening on environmental issues in your work. Reps can help us by completing this short survey so that we can build up a clearer picture of what is happening across Wales.

We'll use the survey to develop our training and resources to support trade union action on the climate and environmental crisis.

If you want to find out more about our work sign up to receive updates from us. You can also speak to your own union to find out more about their campaigns and resources.