British Trade Unions Are Organizing to Tackle the Climate Crisis

Britain’s Conservative government has scrapped policies to reduce carbon emissions while the Labour opposition is also rolling back its own climate commitments. Trade unions are stepping into the political vacuum to demand a working-class ecological agenda.

Thousands took to the streets in London during COP27 to call for immediate and drastic climate actions on a day of global action on November 12, 2022 in London, United Kingdom. (Kristian Buus / In Pictures via Getty Images)

The hotter the world gets, the less the UK government seems to care about climate change. After June’s record-breaking temperatures in Britain, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak proceeded to announce a major U-turn on the country’s carbon emissions reduction commitments in September.

Landlords will no longer be required to insulate their rental properties to higher standards. Sunak also delayed a 2030 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars until 2035 and canceled the phaseout of gas boilers by 2035. The UK was already massively off track to be net zero by 2050: now the legally binding target does not look remotely credible.

The Conservative government’s climate backsliding raises questions about strategy for the climate action movement. On the fifth anniversary of the launch of Extinction Rebellion in the UK, the government is much more focused on criminalizing climate protesters than it is on decarbonizing the economy.

What is to be done? And where do workers fit into the climate action agenda? On October 27, trade unionists from across the labor movement gathered in London to discuss a new workplace-oriented strategy for decarbonization: green collective bargaining.

Climate Bargaining

That’s the focus of a new publication launched at the conference, “Working for Climate Justice: Trade unions in the front line against climate change,” by Ben Crawford and David Whyte, published by the Institute for Employment Rights.

“Trade unions need to make climate change a core area of bargaining and negotiation on behalf of their members,” Crawford and Whyte, academics and trade union activists at the London School of Economics and Queen Mary University London respectively, write. “Working for Climate Justice” is the first time the case for climate bargaining has been articulated in depth.

The main focus of trade union climate work up until now has been set within a “Just Transition” framework, which seeks to ensure workers have a stake in, and benefit from, the green transition. The mechanism for this is usually broad-based stakeholder forums that take place outside of the workplace. Since the 1990s, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) has embraced a “partnership” model of climate action that explicitly shuns an “adversarial” approach and has instead been guided by “the common interest principle,” according to which collective negotiation is unnecessary where the interests of workers and bosses converge.

Crawford and Whyte make the case for a clean break with the common interest principle, which has underpinned UK health and safety law since 1974, on the basis that it “is best suited to maintaining the social and economic status quo.” Instead, the focus should be on “how we recognize and exert our power and collective action as workers in this process.”

Exploitation of workers and the environment are bound together under a system of capital accumulation, most directly through extractive industries that pollute the body while destroying the ecosystem in the same labor process. The tendency in the neoliberal era toward increasing precarity in the workplace is a block on a sustainable economy, they argue, as precarity makes it harder for workers “to push back against anything.”

On the flip side of this, there is a “secret solidarity” between workers and the environment, as both will benefit if workers have greater control over the labor process. Workers with power can protect themselves at work as well as their community by reducing damaging “externalities” from their labor, from preventing pollution to stopping biodiversity loss.

Workers’ Environmentalism

Crawford and Whyte identify a long history of “workers’ environmentalism” upon which we can draw for inspiration. The most remarkable example may be the 1976 Lucas Plan, whereby workers sought to transform production from aerospace to green products like wind turbines, energy-efficient houses, and heat pumps.

Worker climate action in the UK is limited by anti-union laws enacted by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s and subsequently deepened by the 2016 Trade Union Act. These laws have constrained and narrowed the scope of union action.

For instance, union-organized climate strikes coinciding with the enormous school student strikes in 2019 would have been illegal on the basis that they did not relate to a dispute that is immediate or imminent. Workers, Crawford and Whyte argue, need to break out of this legal straitjacket if they are to have any chance of facing the enormous challenges to come from climate breakdown.

Up until now, the main way to get round these limitations has been through the emergence of “green reps” in the workplace, but they have no statutory recognition and tend to silo the issue off from workers’ terms and conditions more broadly. Interviews conducted with trade union officials by the authors found that climate issues “remain relatively rare” in collective bargaining negotiations.

While some unions do not seem too interested in the climate agenda — such as the GMB, the UK’s third-largest union, which supports fracking — a more general problem is one of focus. For the authors, union relationships are “characterized more by competition for members than by cooperation on organizing for sustainability.”

There are some promising examples. The Green New Deal bargaining approach of the University and College Union (UCU) links questions of pay and conditions to environmental challenges. Speaking at the conference, Vicky Blake from the UCU climate and ecological emergency committee said that this approach had recently been implemented in a Further Education collective bargaining claim: “Our policy is to embed climate demands into collective bargaining, not as bolt-ons.”

The civil servants’ Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) has established a National Climate and Bio-Diversity Service, which is a workforce strategy for ensuring the British civil service is equipped with the staff and expertise it needs to deliver the government’s climate targets. John Moloney, PCS assistant general secretary, told the conference that through this model, his union is working on putting a “climate change claim along with a pay claim.”

However, Moloney warned that if unions are going to take climate bargaining seriously, they will need to back it up: “If we are going to treat it like a normal trade union matter, we have to be willing to take action over it.”

In the pamphlet, Crawford and Whyte also highlight the fact that Unite and GMB reps at three UK plants of the auto manufacturer Rolls Royce have developed plans for “green manufacturing.” All of these strategies, the authors argue, contribute to moving unions away “from a reactive mode to a mode that proposes structural and sectoral change.”

Lessons From the North Sea

One of the keys to decarbonization in the UK is North Sea oil and gas. The industry has already shrunk substantially as oil reserves in the North Sea begin to run out, falling from over forty thousand workers directly employed before the 2014 oil price crash to less than thirty thousand today. Meanwhile, offshore windfarms have boomed in that time. Has the transition been “just” up until now?

Not in the slightest. A survey found that 91 percent of North Sea workers have never heard of the “Just Transition” concept, which is no surprise: there has been no workforce planning to transfer workers to the renewables industry. Meanwhile, Scotland’s green energy manufacturing industry has been hollowed out, while big public sector contracts like ScotWind, the Scottish government’s largest-ever offshore wind farm licensing from 2021, have gone to the big multinationals, including oil giants Shell and BP, with few strings attached.

As such, these companies engage in global labor arbitrage, building their supply chains wherever labor is cheapest. The jobs and wider economic benefits of the green energy industry are not reaching the Scottish economy.

As Pete Cannell from the green workers’ initiative Scot.E3 puts it: “Workers in the North Sea have little or no confidence that the transition will be just. They see the change happening now, and they see it’s not just.”

Rosemary Harris from the think tank Platform spoke about a report she worked on called “Our Power,” which developed demands by and for North Sea workers for the green transition: “Workers were concerned with the price of training and the lack of transferability from oil and gas to wind.”

According to Jake Malloy from the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, although there are now seven windfarms off the coast of Scotland, the workers who manned the vessels for maintenance and supply of the windfarms are all foreign workers earning less than £3 an hour. Malloy added that trade unionists who sit on the Scottish government’s Just Transition Commission, as he does, were growing increasingly frustrated, as the process was making no progress:

We haven’t manufactured a single turbine, we have not developed any structures from which we can do this just transition, which is why the oil workers are so nervous about this, because they are seeing it pass them by.

Malloy recently saw Angus Robertson, the Scottish government’s cabinet secretary, boast that Scotland had “won the natural resources lottery twice,” first with oil and then with clean energy power. Robertson claimed that there would be a wiser approach to handling the windfall second time around: “We squandered the first one, we won’t do it with this one.” As Malloy recalls, he sat in the audience thinking, “but we are squandering it.”

Malloy spent twenty-six years working offshore and was present during the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988, when 165 workers died. This was one of the worst workplace disasters of the modern era and led directly to the establishment of the North Sea’s first union, the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee.

In Crawford and Whyte’s report, they highlight W. G. Carson’s classic study of the North Sea oil industry. Carson described the pressure to extract oil from the North Sea as rapidly as possible during the 1980s as “the political economy of speed.” This pressure included a de facto exemption from labor regulations to facilitate this intensity of exploitation. At that time, 90 percent of oil workers were on casualized contracts.

Malloy reminded the conference of the Piper Alpha conflagration and the circumstances behind it: “Precarious work and the political economy of speed were all catalysts to those deaths, absolutely no question about that.”

The necessarily short-term focus of capital on accumulation ultimately motors the political economy of speed. This velocity of extraction and exploitation has perilous consequences for both workers and the environment.


A thread running through the climate bargaining conference was the need for unions to be proactive in setting the agenda, especially when opportunities arise. For example, the huge number of homes that require retrofitting in the UK to improve their energy efficiency will create a mass of skilled jobs where there is currently a shortage. This is a potential open goal for unions if they can get in on the ground floor.

Linda Clarke from the Greener Jobs Alliance steering group said that unions should be pushing for a supply-based training scheme for retrofitters. They should also insist that workers be hired on proper contracts rather than through bogus self-employment schemes, with local authorities taking responsibility for workforce hiring to undercut the construction industry’s exploitative subcontracting model. “The interests of labor and the environment are intertwined in this sector,” Clarke argued. “I really think the construction industry requires a radical transformation.”

Secondly, there is the question of the changing face of Britain’s politics. The Labour Party, which looks odds-on to hold power after the 2024 elections, has promised to launch a publicly owned “Great British Energy” firm. Ben Crawford, whose research focuses on union responses to the climate crisis, discussed this proposal at the conference.

Although the details of Labour’s plan remain sketchy, Crawford fears that it will become a public subsidy to take away the risks of private investment, while the profits still go to business. He argues that unions should put forward their own vision of publicly owned energy in opposition to this outcome.

Chris Saltmarsh from Labour for a Green New Deal warned that we should be aware of Labour leader Keir Starmer’s track record of dishonesty, with a policy commitment for a £28 billion investment in green jobs now potentially off the table. No one at the conference was under any illusion that change will be driven from above, even if (or when) the Tories are out of office.

David Whyte, director of the Centre for Climate Crime and Climate Justice at Queen Mary University, said that unions need to be more ambitious in thinking about how we can reorganize global supply chains. Climate change makes it all the more important for labor organizers to map international supply chains in order to identify the best “choke points,” where they can most effectively disrupt the flow of capital. They also need to understand exactly where the points of climate vulnerability are from a workplace health and safety perspective.

Unions have to become more international in their orientation, Whyte observed, while also drawing upon the experience and know-how of their own members: “The solutions to all of these major dilemmas — about climate organizing, about climate policy and about climate politics — will come from the shopfloor; it won’t just magically arise from the leadership of trade unions.”