Without Workers, The Transition Won’t Be Just

Craig Dalzell

In this week’s newsletter, we’re featuring guest writer Vinnie Collins who has been studying efforts in the US and Canada to enact a Just Transition away from environmentally damaging industries such as oil extraction and into areas like renewable energy without leaving workers and communities behind (as has happened so often during previous energy and industrial transitions such as the decline of the coal and steel industries). Collins makes the point that in the US and Canada the strategies have been built around and with trade unions. Whilst he praises Scotland for taking the lead in top-level advice via the Just Transition Commission – which does indeed include trade union voices at its heart – he points out that many of the actual transitions as they are occurring (or not occurring) on the ground could learn lessons from elsewhere.

The transition is going to happen – we’re rapidly approaching the point where sheer economic forces are causing a shift away from fossil fuels where the politics of climate change have failed to do so. That transition may be too slow, may be too late, but it will happen and the old oil barons know better than anyone else that they have no place in the world to come unless they change with it.

But if Scotland doesn’t demand that workers lead that transition, what will be the alternative? Hints of the answer were published last month when SP Energy Networks – who run the electricity grid in the South of Scotland – published their “Just Transition Strategy”. The short answer is that the document does not mention trade unions anywhere. Workers are something that the transition is done to, not with.

To give some context, SPEN are a subsidiary of Scottish Power who are themselves a subsidiary of Spanish firm Iberdrola. Ownership of Iberdrola is via a complex web of hedge funds, asset managers and other financial firms although their two largest shareholders – owning just over 12% of the company between them – are the sovereign wealth funds of the states of Qatar and Norway (something I’m quite mindful of every time I pay my rapidly rising electricity bill to Scottish Power).

In short, this company is about as far from “worker-owned” as its possible to get so it’s perhaps no surprise that their energy strategy takes the form that it does.

The report itself is a tangle of positive sounding buzzwords with very little in the way of actual blueprint involved. Their “medium term” emissions target appears to move faster than what they call “science-based targets” but their largest source of emissions are fugitive emissions which have remained more-or-less unchanged over the past decade. Their annual environmental report identifies the leakage of sulphur hexafluoride (an “inert” gas used in electric substations, but which is a greenhouse gas some 23,000 times as potent as carbon dioxide) as the major source of these emissions and they do appear to be trying to phase out the use of the gas entirely though I guess we’ll have to see how quickly they are able to do that (and what they’ll do with the gas that is already deployed in the systems they’ll be replacing…)

The next two sections of the report discuss transparent governance and stakeholder engagement – I’ll be honest in saying that there’s little in the way of radical policy change here as much of it should be thought of as baseline project management. Companies who provide a service probably should ask their customers what services they need provided and periodically check to ensure that the services they actually provide actually meet those needs.

It’s only in the final section of the report that the company finally turns to its own workforce. In terms of the “Transition” part of the Just Transition, the report references working with “high carbon sectors who are downsizing” and does acknowledge the transferability of many of the skills from those sectors into the new cleaner energy sectors but the focus appears to be in creating new apprenticeship and graduate programmes aimed at younger workers and new entrants to the energy sector. These are essential and the people who will enter those programmes are literally the future of the company, but the “Just” part of the Just Transition much also refer to the those workers currently in the sector who face losing their livelihood through no fault of their own. A single sentence saying that the company “ensure we maintain our current skills through our established training and refresher programmes” is simply not sufficient – again, this should be fairly baseline levels of project management within the sector during “normal” times. The Just Transition is a project taking place within the context of a climate emergency that means that almost everything we do as a society much adapt, change or be actively ended in order to protect what’s left of our planet’s biosphere.

Friends of the Earth Scotland and Platform recently published a report on what a Just Transition would look like if offshore oil workers designed one for themselves. It is absolutely vital that other sectors whose actions are directly contributing to the climate emergency do the same. It is simply not good enough for a complex web of financial houses to filter instructions down from on high and expect workers to simply cope or to move out of the way. The last few months have proven the value of collective action and worker-led leadership. The Scottish Government has shown some willingness to listen to that kind of leadership through the Just Transition Commission but there is clearly still a gaping hole between what’s being said in the political sphere and what’s being done in the industries who are, without instruction to the contrary, moving forward with plans that, despite the marketing being applied, appear to be doing exactly what the Just Transition is supposed to avoid. Nice words and headlines are not enough. Workers must be empowered to create the future they need, or they’ll be left behind by the one created for them, apparently and ironically in their name.

2 thoughts on “Without Workers, The Transition Won’t Be Just”

  1. This topic hit me particularly hard last week as I met a client for a benefits check who has been laid off from his offshore job. He’s been out of work for a few months and I have no idea how easily he will be able to find a job that isn’t unskilled labour.

    It got me thinking about how many offshore workers have already lost their work and if the Just Transition should be already in place to help them.

    1. In 2021, the SNP TUG won a motion at conference calling for a register of workers who needed to be “Justly Transitioned” as well as a record of how many had been. During the TUG’s leadership hustings, Yousaf explicitly mentioned this idea as one he’d support so we’ll see if he still thinks that now that he’s FM. I’m told that there’s a “mini-Programme for Government” coming soon so we’ll see if it gets a mention.


      You’re right though. Until we start actually doing this, folk are going to be allowed to slip through the cracks.

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