Scotland has a proud trade union history. From the heyday of Red Clydeside that marked radicals such as Willie Gallagher and John Maclean’s legacies as working-class union legends, to the role of Mary Barbour during the successful rent strikes of this period, to Jimmy Reid’s world renowned speech on alienation, there is no shortage of Scottish labour and trade union history. Unfortunately, as is the case almost everywhere, trade unions have been in decline over the last forty years, following attacks by governments who wanted to undermine the power of trade unions. Governments, rather than improve working class people’s lives by supporting workers’ right to organise, instead charted a path of neoliberalism that deepened the existing inequalities in society, epitomizing the very “rat race” that Jimmy Reid warned us about.
The climate crisis is undoubtedly an existential threat to all. It also provides a major challenge for the trade union movement because of the disproportionate impact it will have on working-class people whom they represent. On paper, Scotland has made considerable strides in climate action, boasting one of the first Just Transition Commissions in the world with trade unions at the table. Lauded globally since its creation, the Commission’s reports have made several recommendations to the government, which the Scottish government has accepted and promised to act on. However, a closer look reveals a more complicated reality. Although trade unions are at the table, their voice is drowned out by industry which has much more significant representation. In addition, while promoting itself as a climate leader most recently at COP26 in Glasgow, the Scottish government came under criticism for its climate policies. ScotWind, one of the largest auctions of offshore wind to date globally concluded in January 2022, but the government has been criticized for selling these assets from under the feet of the Scottish people, with more recent auctions of offshore wind in New York, California and England all raising substantially higher revenue for a lesser amount on a per megawatt basis of offshore wind. One report estimated that a staggering $16 billion was lost in revenue to the public purse.
Even more scathing critiques suggest that the Scottish government has taken a green capitalist approach to the climate crisis. One such example is the fact that fossil fuel companies BP and Shell, drivers of the climate crisis, were granted 20% of the total energy capacity from the ScotWind offshore wind auction. Added to this, the government neglected to pursue a public democratic ownership option, which would have seen the revenue created from the renewable sector go back into the public purse. The Scottish government also promised to build a state-run energy company in 2017 and took some steps towards this but later abandoned it, despite a majority of SNP members voting for it at their Autumn conference in 2021. What is glaringly obvious about these policies is the lack of any sort of guarantees for workers. The current trajectory of low-paid, precarious jobs in the so-called green economy has workers worried for their future. This is not only a worry for the climate but also, as many trade unions have said, a question of justice.
However, while the worsening world of work and climate crisis present great challenges, the current context has also created space for trade unions to build solidarity across political coalitions and sectors. Past energy transitions have provided political opportunities, and today, an opportunity presents itself for trade unions to be at the centre of climate action. Historically, unions have organised and mobilised to secure huge victories from employers and the state. Trade unions must take this opportunity to lead on climate action and make gains for workers in the process.
History provides many lessons to learn from. The last major energy transition in Scotland was an unmitigated disaster for workers and unions. Margaret Thatcher made an example of the coal sector to trample over trade union rights and wage a war on workers that many parts of Scotland have still not recovered from. Scottish trade unions cannot allow further attacks. To secure climate action that delivers justice to working-class communities up and down Scotland, unions must go on the offensive.
Climate Jobs New York is one example of trade unions taking a proactive approach that Scotland could take inspiration from. Unique in that it was propelled by a policy and research initiative at the Worker Institute at Cornell University, the organisation brought together labour unions in New York to determine how climate action could deliver good, unionised jobs. This laid the grounds for a labour coalition which, with the support of the Worker Institute, produced a report that became a blueprint for what building a decarbonized society in New York would entail. Organisers then quickly got to work mobilising and campaigning for climate action, ultimately securing hard-fought victories.
The labour coalition won a union jobs guarantee for an offshore wind project that will deliver half of New York’s energy needs by 2035. They built power across key sectors such as the building trades and then pressured the government to act. This approach is being widely heralded as a success and the approach is taking off in other states in the U.S. For example, Connecticut passed legislation to guarantee unionized wages and benefits for workers on clean energy projects.
This unique and transformative organising approach highlights the impact trade unions can have when they lead on climate. Scotland has some of the largest offshore wind resources in the world and there will be many more auctions to come. This presents an opportunity to apply lessons learned from the recent ScotWind auction, take inspiration from worker wins such as Climate Jobs New York, and build a trade union-led movement that can secure guarantees for workers here in Scotland.
There are promising signs. A recent report by Friends of the Earth Scotland and Platform, titled Our Power: Offshore Workers’ Demands for a Just Energy Transition, has been widely supported by trade unions in Scotland and beyond. The report presents research that centres workers’ demands in the context of Scotland’s energy transition. Scottish trade unions must carve out their own space and build a mass movement that centres workers. Bringing workers along in their decarbonization efforts, and following through with good, unionized climate jobs is a step in the right direction. The challenges are substantial, but the trade union movement is proving yet again, this time in the context of the cost of living crisis, that it can secure vital deals that improve the lives of working-class people. By leading demands for action to tackle the climate crisis, trade unions can not only ensure Scotland transitions to a decarbonized economy, but that it is also a chance for workers to escape the shackles of inequality and precarity.
Vinnie Collins is a PhD candidate at York University, Toronto. Originally from Scotland, he has resided in Canada since 2017.