AFL-CIO’s Feingold: Unions demand ‘just transition,’ but are G20 leaders listening?
Francis Chung / E&E News / POLITICO via AP

MELBOURNE, Australia—World leaders meeting at the G20 summit in Indonesia, and the COP27 clean energy conference in Egypt have apparently heard world trade unionists’ calls for “a just transition” for workers as the globe makes the difficult move away from depending on fossil fuels, says AFL-CIO International Affairs Department Director Cathy Feingold.

But did they heed it? “We’re moving in the direction of a new social contract” around the world, Feingold replies.

In a telephone interview from the Melbourne, Australia, airport, Feingold, re-elected as a deputy general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), stated unionists are pushing for “a new social contract” around the globe. She was awaiting her plane back to the U.S. from the Nov. 17-22 ITUC meeting there.

The ITUC conference was the third straight overseas assignment for a delegation of U.S. union leaders, following appearance of some of them at global summits in Egypt and Indonesia. It was also the largest: 2,000 delegates, with 50.8% of them women.

The U.S. delegation to the ITUC included AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond, Feingold, Teachers President Randi Weingarten, and Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union President Stuart Appelbaum. U.S. President Joe Biden addressed the ITUC while in Asia for the other meetings.

“We were there” to advocate “policies of a just transition in policies as we transition to a clean energy economy” worldwide, Feingold said of ITUC’s presentations to the world leaders. That transition could especially impact the “more than 60%” of global workers, most of them women, who toil in the unregulated “informal economy.”

But just transition wasn’t the unionists’ sole cause, just their top one.

Others, Feingold said, included the need to bring the more than one billion workers worldwide who toil in shadow employment into the regular economy of wages, benefits and the right to unionize.

And at ITUC, Weingarten re-emphasized importance of unions to democracy—which Biden, in his remarks to the unionists, reiterated. Appelbaum delved into world workers’ conflict with the exploitative corporate behemoth Amazon, which his union and the independent Amazon Labor Union are battling to unionize. That conflict will hit the streets Nov. 25, too.

The fight for democracy includes not just the U.S., but the conflict in Myanmar (Burma), said Feingold. There, a military coup unseated a partially democratic government. That government, though, let the military commit mass expulsions and worse against the Rohingya minority.

In his speech to the group, Feingold noted, Biden said that despite strains in U.S. democracy—in other words, the white supremacist and Trumpite movements that tried to overthrow the constitutional transition of power—“the U.S. has this infrastructure to support it, including the union movement.”

“Given the challenges of war, the climate crisis, and income inequality, the labor movement was urging the G20 to increase their attention to a just transition,” Feingold said. It picked up an open endorsement from United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Cathy Feingold, Director of the AFL-CIO International Department

While G20 leaders meeting in Indonesia may have been receptive, the ITUC’s news reports from the summits reported the reaction from top world labor ministers was mixed. The ministers had their own side summit while the G20 leaders, including Biden, met.

“The ministers commit to protecting workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, adjusting minimum wages on a regular basis and protecting workers from the risk of low-paid work,” the unionists reported after the sessions.

“However, in this troubled bounce-back year” from the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, which threw hundreds of millions of people out of jobs around the globe, “workers expected much more from the ministers.” Expectations included “global policy coordination to protect workers in face of the cost-of-living crisis, job creation plans with an emphasis on just transition, wages and social protection as part of the beginning of a new social contract.”

The ITUC presented its analysis to the global leaders summits, while warning the world is sliding into an economic recession that could harm tens of millions of people.

“Analysis of 35 countries representing 61% of global GDP and 48% of the global population shows that only eight countries have concrete plans to create jobs,” it reported late last year. And “77% of the countries analyzed by the ITUC are failing to invest in sustainable infrastructure and the care economy to create climate-friendly jobs.

“We have a global jobs crisis–with low-paid, insecure work on offer, a childcare and aged care shortage, and a great many jobs that need to become climate-friendly,” it concluded.

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow of Australia, who retired from that job after the end of ITUC’s own meeting in her homeland in 2022, chose to look on the positive side after the global climate change summit in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt.

“Workers must have a place at the table for a transition that stabilizes the planet, economies and our societies,” she said. “Transition plans need to include both climate and employment plans. That requires unions to be involved and own the process, otherwise we risk stoking the fear of those who feel left behind and left out of decision making.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.