COP26 Green Futures

Lobbying for a just transition: How international trade unions engage with UN climate negotiations

By Adrien Thomas, Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research

The upcoming climate summit in Glasgow takes place at a crucial point in time. As the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report demonstrates, average temperatures have already risen by 1.1 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels and extreme weather events have multiplied and intensified. This means that stringent decarbonization policies are now necessary in order to fulfil the objectives of the Paris climate agreement.

Climate policies are shaped not only by national governments, but also by a wide variety of non-state actors, such as cities and regions and non-governmental organisations. The role of the international trade union movement in climate negotiations is often overlooked, although unions have been key sponsors of the just transition concept. Taken up by environmental justice groups and indigenous rights groups, but also by businesses and national governments, the just transition concept now occupies a prominent place in global climate politics.

In a recent study, I investigated the formation of international trade unions’ climate policies from the 1990s to the late 2010s, with a particular focus on the elaboration of the just transition concept. Based on an analysis of archive documents and interviews with key decision-makers from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and its pre-2006 predecessor, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), I found that the international trade union movement has developed its climate policies at the nexus of unions’ contentious internal politics, contrasting coalition strategies and the institutional environment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process.

Obstructionist unions

During the early phase of international climate policymaking in the 1990s and the run-up to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the internal politics and organizational set-up of the international union movement constrained its ability to take position on climate policies. Because of international unions’ tradition of consensual decision-making, affiliated unions with a focus on defending the entrenched interests of their members in carbon-intensive industries were able to exert disproportionate influence and obstruct the development of encompassing climate strategies by the international union leadership.

While numerous affiliates, mostly from Europe, were in favour of supporting binding emission reduction targets, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the ICFTU affiliate with the largest membership and greatest political weight, led opposition to a stricter climate engagement. Focused on its fight against the offshoring of manufacturing jobs, the AFL-CIO considered any climate agreement that would not bind developing countries as harmful to the US economy, at the time the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. However, during the debate over a follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol in the second half of the 2000s, internal realignments and the setting up of specific union bodies tasked with drafting policy positions on climate negotiations allowed the international union movement to move away from previous organizational routines and to develop more proactive climate policies.

Climate change and international climate negotiations represent a new topic for unions. As climate change is removed from unions’ primary domains of campaign (work and working conditions), the international union movement has relied on officials with an atypical background and built coalitions with allies able to provide technical expertise, be they companies or multilateral institutions. Such coalitions make it possible for unions to “borrow” resources and influence from other organizations, thereby increasing their capacity to take positions.

In the case of climate policies, unions pursuing narrow economic interests concluded strategic alliances with employer organizations. For instance, an influential AFL-CIO affiliate, the United Mine Workers of America entered a lobbying-coalition with the coal-mining industry organization Bituminous Coal Operators’ Association to lobby policymakers over the Kyoto Protocol. On the other hand, international unions, pursuing more encompassing policy goals, built coalitions with multilateral organizations, such as the International Labour Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme. These coalitions tended to align the international union movement with the issues and targets discussed in the global climate negotiations, positioning it among those working towards an international climate agreement.

Becoming an UNFCCC constituency

Participation in the annual meetings of the Conference of the Parties (COP) and the aim to become an official “constituency” of the UNFCCC (the constituency status was granted to unions in 2008) were also important in shaping and structuring the engagement of international trade unions with climate policies. Demands for input to the UNFCCC process and the lobbying of policymakers compelled unions to formulate positions that could legitimately be put forward at the COP meetings. The participation in the UNFCCC led unions to expand the range of concerns taken into consideration in their climate policies, encompassing the views and interests of targeted groups in a process of frame extension.

In the run-up to the 2009 Copenhagen COP, the ITUC further defined what was to be understood under just transition, focusing on public support for workers negatively affected by decarbonisation, planning of the transition process, social dialogue, retraining for workers and social protection schemes. In 2015, the preamble to the Paris agreement mentioned the need to take “into account the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs.” Despite the fact that the just transition as shaped by the international union movement appears to mostly fit developed countries with social protection schemes and established social dialogue institutions, support for the inclusion of the just transition concept came from various stakeholders and parties to the negotiations during the Paris COP, including developing countries which considered it to be a way of gaining time.

Tensions between different interests and approaches were thus present throughout the successive phases of international unions’ engagement with climate change. As a result of these contradictory pulls, the just transition concept is inherently ambiguous, with priorities shifting between economic security and environmental protection. In practice, the just transition concept allows the simultaneous pursuit of contradictory policies, accommodating both the most climate-ambitious and the more reticent unions.

Similarly, the concept has been taken up both by national governments supporting more stringent mitigation commitments and by governments opposing such commitments and intent on gaining time. A key factor in the success of the just transition concept has thus been its capacity to bridge and temporarily conceal disagreements over the adequate framing of climate policies, making it possible for a broad range of policymakers to endorse it.

Ahead of the Glasgow COP meeting, countries have come up with their updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), outlining their planned actions to achieve the objectives of the Paris agreement. In many countries, national union movements are asking for just transition mechanisms to be included in the NDCs. At national level, other factors can be expected to shape union positions than at international level. Especially the sectoral distribution of union members in the broader national economies is likely to play a key role as unions are weighting up the interests of their members in carbon-intensive industries and of those working in low-carbon activities. Resulting differences in national outlooks risk reopening dissensions within the international union movement, bringing to the fore some of the disagreements previously hidden by the joint advocacy for the just transition concept.


About the author: Adrien Thomas is a Research Scientist in the Labour Market Department at the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research (LISER).

Suggested further reading

Houeland, C, Jordhus-Lier, DC, Angell, FH. (2021) Solidarity tested: The case of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO-Norway) and its contradictory climate change policies. Area  https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12608

Thomas, A. (2021) Framing the just transition: How international trade unions engage with UN climate negotiations, Global Environmental Change, DOI:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2021.102347

Thomas, A. (2021) ‘Heart of steel’: how trade unions lobby the European Union over emissions trading, Environmental Politics, DOI:10.1080/09644016.2021.1871812

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