Unions and a Just Transition

14 January 2020  |  BY Jeremy Moss, UNSW  |  Just Transitions


Ensuring that a climate transition is successful must involve the most efficient mitigation methods implemented as soon as possible. But as well as making deep cuts to our emissions, a transition also has to ensure that whatever policies are adopted achieve a just outcome, especially for the disadvantaged. Increases in taxes, lifestyle restrictions, or the closing of whole fossil fuel industries need to be managed in a way that does not place unfair burdens on those who are least able to bear them. The role of unions in this process will be vital. Unions have the potential to significantly advance the likelihood of a just transition (or hold it back) and we need to be clear about what their options are. Yet, the role of unions will not always be straightforward. While their potential for increasing the likelihood of a just transition is great, their choices will involve short-term disadvantage for some of their members and significant readjustments for some unions as a whole. Identifying what positive role they can play as well as what ‘flashpoints’ there are is key to understanding their role. This will be particularly true in Australia where the fossil fuel industry is so significant.

1. A Just Transition

Before beginning, we need to understand why having a just transition – not merely mitigation – is so important. The core idea is that we ought to put justice at the heart of Australia’s transition planning because the effects of any climate transition on wellbeing will be significant and widespread. Given the problem’s urgency, debate concerning transition strategies and steps is likely to occupy the nation’s public policy agenda. Yet, whatever these measures – from ending fossil fuel subsidies to upgrading public transportation networks – it is clear that large costs and benefits will result. No matter what technologies we choose or policy mechanisms we adopt to achieve a climate transition, each will produce benefits and burdens, which will have to be paid for and shared amongst individuals or groups within society. Sharing benefits and burdens within (and between) societies is a question of distributive justice. In this sense, justice is inescapable.

Such considerations are, of course, not unique to climate transitions. Various industries and professions regularly face closures, mass redundancies and disruption due to international relocation, frequently with devastating effects to the economic, material and psychological well-being of large numbers of people. Given the degree of transformation required for a robust climate transition, impacts are likely to be more widespread than those of, say, the ceasing of logging activities in old growth forests. Because of changes to people’s lifestyles as well as costly new infrastructure, a climate transition will potentially involve a more profound and broader societal adjustment. But it also offers a more profound opportunity as well: shifting high carbon societies to low (or zero) emitting ones which are more equal is an optimal outcome overall. While I can’t defend the claim here, the goal of a just transition ought also to be making society a more equal place. Through better transport, cleaner energy or changing the ownership structure of resources, a just climate transition should also make society better off as well as avoiding the worst of climate change. These considerations bolster the need to focus on ensuring that the transition does pay attention to issues of distributive justice.

A more instrumental reason for focussing on a just transition is that without it we risk alienating people who might feel they are taking on too many of the costs or not getting enough of the benefits. It is at least possible that perceptions of unfairness could lead to a backlash and Australia’s own Trump/Brexit type reaction to a transition. Workers who feel they are not getting a fair deal might not support a transition and make a transition less likely to succeed. All of these motivations for a just transition ought to mean that considerations of justice must be the focal point of a transition strategy, not a cursory ‘co-benefit’ or as a mere afterthought. Incorporating robust principles of justice into a climate transition has the potential to make people substantially better off by not only allowing us to avoid the worst of climate change, but offering the possibility of social transformation.

While acknowledging that reducing inequality is not all that ought to matter when assessing the justice of a transition, it is important to note that these inequalities are important because minimising them leads to an overall increase in important freedoms. For example, through greater investment in public transport and neighbourhoods, people could have their freedom increased overall because those changes would allow them to choose different jobs, neighbourhoods or ways to spend their time. Here we need to note two other important justice-related goals. Reducing the above inequalities could also add to the control that people have in respect of key goods such as energy generation. Providing the opportunity for distributed energy (such as rooftop solar), for instance, might entail additional value as it allows control over individual energy needs, including governments or companies.

One might worry that bringing some of these broader justice based goals into our climate transition decision-making framework will over-complicate an already difficult task. Further, trying to accommodate into the planning process an array of complex disagreements over which justice-based  goals a society ought to pursue, may even hamper progress. For example, requiring that a climate transition address health or education goals might invite the critique that such a goal is excessively ambitious, too controversial and not pragmatically feasible. This is an important point.

But, as philosopher Simon Caney points out, much will depend on what kind of values or goals are at stake. What he calls a ‘maximal’ approach to justice will have very specific and perhaps controversial commitments; for example, it might entail a radical political program (1). No doubt some maximal ideas of distributive justice are like this and would drastically complicate the climate transition process. In contrast, we can find elements of distributive justice that are more minimal and less controversial, where disagreement would not be so great.
There is a further response to the objection that picking a more substantive set of goals will just invite controversy and stymie mitigation efforts. This is that it may in fact be the case that not considering justice-based goals as fundamental will make things worse. Failure to address people’s concerns about who gets the benefits and who bears the costs of a wide-ranging and expensive climate transition seems likely to make such a transition unworkable.

The transformation of the stationary energy sector is a case in point. As some Australian states transition to a greater reliance on renewable energy, debate concerning the impacts on power prices (particularly for low-socioeconomic status households) has intensified. Also controversial are questions of whether energy companies are profiting excessively and whether a switch to renewables will allow reliable and secure electricity supply. Add in the issue of whether there should be more ‘distributed’ energy (in part allowing for greater independence), and we have a complex set of justice-related goals that are (rightly) being considered as part of the switch to renewables. Failure to take these kinds of considerations into account will plausibly make the acceptance of an ambitious climate transition, and thus the associated potential benefits, less likely.

A further point we need to consider in relation to a just transition concerns its scope. There are two related points here. The first is that a climate transition ought to at least focus on removing the risks of harm to others. One way in which we do that is by cutting our domestic emissions. But the other way in which we do that is by phasing out our exports of fossil fuels. Australia is not only a heavy domestic emissions producer, we also export a huge quantity of coal and gas, contributing significantly to global emissions. The amount of emissions produced from Australia’s exports of fossil fuels is double our domestic emissions. Arguably, we are partly causally responsible for those further emissions, though they do not currently count in our domestic emissions budget (1). Given that our emissions have contributed to harming others, should we direct some of our efforts and resources toward the climate transitions of other countries? Or should we focus on making our own reductions as significant as possible? If Australia were to further reduce its domestic emissions this would lessen the burden on other countries to cut their emissions. This might allow other countries to make a smoother climate transition. But a more important reason to think that Australia ought to focus on assisting other countries to transition pertains to the distribution of benefits. Transitioning in Australia will reduce our emissions, but it will also deliver benefits – cleaner environment and so on – to Australia and not to those countries who have been harmed.

2. The Role of Unions

In the most general terms, unions have two major roles in ensuring a just transition. The first and most obvious is as direct advocates for those affected, particularly those whose jobs will be lost. By working to give those affected a voice, meaningful options and so on, unions can try to ensure affected workers are treated fairly. Unions typically perform these vital functions for any sector facing disruption and climate disruption is no different. Indeed, much of the discussion from unions themselves focuses on these kinds of direct outcomes for affected workers. Unions typically demand that those who lose their jobs, coal workers for instance, have access to new jobs which are as well paid or have generous severance packages.

But I’d like to note two more general functions that unions can – and should – play. The first is to advocate for all workers – not just those whose industries must close, such as coal mining. What happens to directly affected workers is a significant element of a just transition, but still only a part; there more than are twelve million employed people, of which coal workers make up around 45,000. Given many of these other jobs will also be affected by climate change and a transition, the role of unions should extend to include advocating for all those affected, whether directly or indirectly.

The second point to note about the scope of unions’ role is the potential to act as ‘norm changers’. In addition to advocating for those directly affected, unions have the potential to have a positive impact on the public debate concerning climate change. Those who oppose significant action on climate change often do so on grounds of being too costly or likely to risk energy or economic security. Because of the links that unions have with their members they can act as a counterweight to these kinds of arguments. But, more importantly, unions ought to be able to assist in promoting a progressive agenda on climate change, that, for instance, includes a discussion of the benefits and opportunities for social change offered by climate action.

The ‘maximal’ view mentioned above – highlighting the possibilities offered by a climate transition to make society a more equal place and so on – is the kind of view that ought to be championed by unions. Unions’ valuable role derives from being able to articulate the benefits that could flow from a transition, which, as we have seen, is important if we are to avoid a backlash against climate transition. Unions advocating for the benefits of a transition has the potential to have a positive effect on how a transition is perceived and hence its likelihood of success. However, such advocacy may conflict with the perceived short-term interests of some unions. Unions representing coal or gas workers may stand in opposition to, or seek to delay action on, for instance, phasing out coal mines or hinder efforts by resisting opposition to the development of new mines. The possibility of new coal mines for export – or even new gas development – represents a threat to the interests of workers not just in Australia but everywhere, given the huge volume of emissions Australia exports produce.

A further potential flashpoint could arise for how affected workers are compensated. Unions such as the CFMMEU who represent workers in coal mines might seek to negotiate severance or assistance packages for those affected. While this has to be one of the key roles that unions play, it is important to note certain limits. For instance, coal companies might sell their assets to fund assistance packages. Yet, if the interests of all workers are to be protected this source of funding cannot be used. For example, in 2017 Rio Tinto sold its Coal & Allied Industries Limited to Yancoal, and in 2018 completed the sale of its final Australian coal assets, with the divestment raising a total of $5.39 billion (2).

On the face of it, this seems like to the right thing to do as Rio is no longer, as far as coal goes, contributing to the risk of climate harms. Yet if a fossil fuel company sells its fossil fuel assets to another company who will continue to exploit those assets, the risk of climate change is not diminished for the simple reason that the contribution will simply continue via another company.

Retiring assets in a safe and sustainable way on the other hand, does not contribute substantially to climate harms. For this reason, unions ought to advocate for fossil fuel companies to retire their assets in a safe and sustainable way and not sell them and seek compensation from other sources.

I have argued that justice considerations ought to play a central role in shaping a climate transition. Justice goals not only determine how quickly we ought to transition, they can also be used to guide how the benefits and burdens of a climate transition should be distributed. The role of unions in this process as advocates and norm changers is significant. Yet if we are to achieve a transition that is just for all workers, then unions ought to focus on broader justice goals and not simply the interests of some sectors.

1. Simon Caney, ‘Just emissions’ (2013) 40(4) Philosophy and Public Affairs 255
2. Stephanie Chalmers, ‘Rio Tinto completes its exit from coal with sale of Queensland mine’ ABC News (online, 28 March 2018)

This article was first presented as part of the ‘Symposium on the Centenary of the International Labour Organistion’, organised by Profs Joo Cheong Tham and Julian Sempill at the Melbourne Law School, July 2019, Melbourne. It first appeared in the conference proceedings: https://law.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/3249423/SymposiumPapers_final_web.pdf