At #COP21, unions lobby hard for human rights and “just transition”

PARIS — “Just transition.” That is the term being discussed, debated and tweeted from Paris by global union, Indigenous, social justice, environmental and women climate activists as well as developing countries. If you are like me, you probably wonder what does a “just transition” mean?

I’ve been listening to the discussions and while there may be different emphases and nuances among those lobbying for the phrase to be included in the United Nations agreement it boils down to making sure that the global 99% are not further exploited during the time when countries reduce their carbon emissions. It’s about equality, about human rights and doing the right thing!

Wikipedia says a “Just Transition is a framework for a fair and sustainable shift to a low carbon economy, proposed by trades unions and supported by environmental NGOs.” Indigenous Environmental Network says it means ending the fossil fuel “extractive economies” and building “new community-rooted” economies “that work for people and the planet.”

IndustriALL, a global union that represents 50 million workers in 140 countries in the mining, energy and manufacturing sectors, advocates for a just transition that develops a “sustainable industrial policy,” guarantees “robust social protections” and  an “all-encompassing, flexible approach to helping workers, their families, and their communities deal with changes.”

In other words, no worker, community or country left behind, during the complicated but necessary process of building an all inclusive, equitable global green economy. This “all inclusive” approach includes women workers, countries and workers of the Global South and workers in industrially developed countries who face discrimination based on race, status or national origin.

Even the UN’s International Labor Organization, which is made up of unions, business and governments, adopted a pro “just transition” policy that IndustriALL Director of Health, Safety and Sustainability Brian Kohler says is “quite good.”

Sounds fair that as countries convert their economies, the most vulnerable will need help, right?

Fairness, like progress, is never given. We know that from our own experience in the United States. Nor is fairness the starting point for economic or social policies. The starting point for much of the world’s economies is to maximize profits, not to provide for the common good of the people or planet.

We also know that corporations, banks and hedge funds look for any way to get an advantage over competition and improve their ability to accumulate wealth. Given that fact of capitalist life, it’s a reasonable concern to see schemes like carbon “pricing” and “cap and trade” as just more of the same kind of economics that has created the climate change crisis and the severe wealth inequality in the world.

Political leaders and negotiators representing some 150 countries are currently hammering out the details on reducing carbon emissions and the financing of it. During these two weeks from Nov. 30-Dec. 11, activists, local elected officials, celebrities, unions,

Indigenous and environmental groups of all shapes and sizes are not only holding workshops and forums on just about every topic under the sun, they are lobbying negotiators and government officials to include language that takes into account their interests.

Civil society groups, like unions, have been forced to fight for “just transition” language in the UN agreement. While it is mentioned in a number of places in the draft on the second day of negotiations, Norway proposed to remove it from what is called the “operational portion” (Article 2) of the agreement, angering civil society groups.

“Just transition” language is one of the three labor demands at the conference. According to IndustriALL’s Kohler, the United States originated the change but it is supported by “the EU, Australia, Canada, Norway, Turkey and New Zealand and possible others,” because U.S. “government lawyers are fearful that the language will create legal obligations or liabilities.”

(To see a draft of the UN agreement check here.)

Governments that are open to working with labor, like Brazil and the new Canadian government, were scheduled to meet with unionists in a public dialog over agreement language. But Kohler wrote in his COP21 blog that countries that support leaving the “just transition” text as is may not be “willing to invest very much political capital in seeing it through, since there are hundreds of other issues being negotiated and the French Presidency is rumored to be starting to signal impatience with the overall progress of COP negotiations.” COP stands for Conference of Parties and this is the 21st COP gathering with the first one having taken place in Berlin in 1995.

In addition to intensifying their lobbying efforts, union activists here launched a social media campaign, urging the public to tweet why it’s important to keep strong “just transition” language. Use the hashtags #justtransition and #unions4climate.

Watch this video message from Australian union activist Van Badham.

Photo: Teresa Albano | PW



Teresa Albano
Teresa Albano

Teresa Albano was the first woman editor-in-chief of People’s World, 2003-2010, leading the transition from weekly print to daily online publishing and establishing PW’s social media presence. Albano had been a staff writer for People’s World covering political, labor, and social justice issues for more than 25 years. She traveled throughout the U.S. and abroad, including India, Cuba, Angola, Italy, and Paris to cover the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. An award-winning journalist, Albano has been honored for her writing by the International Labor Communications Association, National Federation of Press Women, and Illinois Woman Press Association.