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Theo Hobson
Job title
UCU green rep - University of Liverpool

Trade unionism has always demanded that we imagine how things could be better, whether that’s on pay, working conditions or equality, and I feel that this outlook is needed more than ever as an antidote to climate apathy.

Our Green New Deal claim

I first encountered UCU’s Green New Deal in early 2022. During a branch meeting, our brilliant new green rep put forward a motion on developing a specific local Green New Deal claim for the University of Liverpool. The motion enjoyed widespread support. While I and others had been merely speculating on how trade unions could act on climate change, someone had actually put in the work to think in detail about how this could be attempted in real life. In a coordinated effort, motions on this had also been supported at the university’s UNISON and Unite branch meetings.

As well as calling for the university to decarbonise its operations, the local claim was also intended to drive a fundamental rethink in the way our university structured its research and teaching, nudging it to working towards creating knowledge that will speed the green transition, rather than simply entrenching unsustainable modes of production. In doing so, it asked deep questions about the role of universities and even their funding model.

I soon became part of the highly motivated and committed Liverpool joint trade union (JTU) working group, where we gradually developed a final claim document with five key areas derived from the UCU national framework:

1.     A meaningful reduction in local and global emissions

2.     Adoption of sustainable employment practices

3.     Decolonisation and decarbonisation of the curriculum

4.     A just transition in research

5.     Improvement in the university’s divestment strategy

It was a significant task. But it became easier when the cross-union working group had enough members for at least one of us to focus specifically on each area of the claim. My background in physical sciences made me well prepared to examine the university’s reported emissions data and estimate their compatibility with global emissions limits. Meanwhile, colleagues with a law and sociological background tackled the idea of ‘sustainable employment’ much more effectively than I ever could. In our multi-union interdisciplinary group, everyone had their angle.

During this process, it became clear that deeper conversations with the wider staff networks at the university were necessary—for example, on the matters of research and funding. A complete and sudden break with the fossil fuel industry (as I might have imagined desirable in my younger days) is, unfortunately, not a viable option in all areas of research if the goal is also to protect jobs. This was my first real-world experience of an enduring tension in the work of the Green New Deal between the drive for radical environmental action and a suitable provision to protect jobs. Rather than representing a barrier to progress, this highlighted the long overdue need for new strategies and the careful articulation of demands to ensure a just transition.

As part of our attempts to start to address this tension on the ‘research’ theme, our working group organised a roundtable event with Students Organising for Sustainability UK (SOS-UK), where research staff and student activists discussed, in an open manner, what they saw a just transition in research looking like. The essential contributions from colleagues in these areas resulted in key additions to the Green New Deal claim that emphasised the duty of the university to actively support the transition of research, such as through new match-funding mechanisms, and to meaningfully involving affected staff in decision-making.

Green negotiating 101

Our complete Green New Deal claim was submitted in October 2022 by branch officers at UCU, UNISON, and Unite, alongside the Guild of Students. We had no idea how the claim might be received, but we were pleased when members of the senior leadership and sustainability teams agreed to meet with us. We suspected that an important factor to their agreement was the unity demonstrated by the staff unions and the student representatives. We had also written to local MPs and councillors who kindly provided statements in support of the claim.

We’d got what we wanted—the university had agreed to talk! However, it was at this point it really began to sink in that we’d have to negotiate. I had zero negotiating experience, and I wasn’t alone in that among our working group. In some ways this was a positive, as it demonstrated the potential of the Green New Deal to get members more actively involved in their unions’ action, but it also meant a certain level of dread on our part. Fortunately, experienced negotiators from our unions were on hand to train us and de-mystify the art of negotiation. We got together a negotiating team with representatives from UCU, UNISON, and Unite, learned some basic do’s and don’ts, and started to work out what our priorities and bargaining minimums should be.

Shortly after our claim was submitted, the University of Liverpool released their latest Sustainability Strategy. Initially, we worried that this could undermine our bargaining position (i.e., that the university was not taking sufficient action on climate change), but this turned out to be useful timing. We carried out a mapping exercise, identifying both potential points of agreement and areas where the university strategy would need to go further to meet the demands made in our claim.

The first negotiation meeting was nerve-wracking for me, and I was relieved when we left with a commitment to a further series of meetings covering the five areas of the claim, plus a review. Doing this had required making a strong case for the links between sustainability and employment rights, a new idea in some respects, but one that we hope will continue to gain ground. This was an example of the arguments we’d need to make when progressing action of this sort. Sustainability can’t simply be siloed off from other concerns.

Ongoing negotiations

Our agreed meetings with senior leadership and sustainability teams have been ongoing ever since, and have been largely amicable. During this process, we’ve found many points of agreement and also agreed on some more concrete commitments with the university management. We’re always pushing for more, but, so far, we’ve won:

       A commitment by the university to measure several areas of emissions that were previously unaccounted for

       An agreement for trade union representatives to join meetings with fund managers on the university’s investment portfolio

       Agreement for trade union representatives to meet with administrators coordinating the energy transition at the university

The process has involved disagreements and compromises. The wording of joint articles released with the university and in the Terms of Reference for the meeting series were both carefully negotiated. While we in the JTU continue to consider these meetings as formal negotiations, the university does not recognise them as such, partly as the Green New Deal is not part of any active dispute. On matters like this, where standing firm would have shut down discussions altogether, we have agreed to disagree.

Every workplace is different, but the experience of our green reps network at the University of Liverpool has shown that positive change can be made by coming together. By linking the green transition to employment rights, by appreciating how colleagues can apply their varied expertise, and with solidarity across unions, we have made progress. For me at least, it has been a major source of hope, and has started to offer clues about what a better world might look like.

Why I became a green rep

I think I’d always had some vague idea of the role that trade unions could play in fighting climate change. As a student, I’d had optimistic visions of student and staff unions clubbing together to starve the fossil fuel companies of graduates, eventually using their collective power to shut down extractive industries and force the creation of alternatives. Simple, right?

As it happened, this was to remain a hypothetical for a while. I’ve been a trade union member for all my working life, during which I’ve also been fortunate to work predominantly on research into new green technology like solar cells and batteries. I saw both my research and union participation as ways to work towards greater societal justice, but in practice, they were largely separate efforts.

As the years made it ever clearer that technological fixes alone can’t deliver the transformations needed to stop climate change, with one missed opportunity for global action following the other, the boundless optimism that accompanied my earliest days in research ebbed away. I still understood the central place of researchers in enabling a sustainable economy, but I became increasingly sober about the scale of societal change that was needed to make this happen. So, when an opportunity came along to combine my commitments to green technology and trade unionism, I recognised the opportunity it offered to take a different approach.

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