For a Just Transition, we need Workers’ Assemblies

7 Jul, 2023

There is growing support across the labour and climate movements for the concept of “worker-led just transition”. This is the idea that the transition to a low-carbon economy must be “worker-led” in order to ensure that it’s rapid, comprehensive and socially just. It means workers being able to protect themselves, and the communities they live in, from being trampled over during progress towards a cleaner and greener society.

Sharon Graham Unite Quote

Quote from Sharon Graham of Unite the Union

Discussion about this has spread among climate groups and important trade unions which have previously been hesitant to engage on climate. The agenda to the Policy Conference of Unite the Union (by far the largest UK union covering private sector high-carbon industries), which takes place in July 2023, includes a number of motions along these lines (which we’ll post about soon).

This is significant progress. But what does a “worker-led just transition” mean in practice, within aviation, and in other emissions-intensive industries?

Safe Landing has broad brushstroke ideas about the government policy, industry-wide and workplace changes that are necessary. But we also advocate for “Workers’ Assemblies”, based on the approach of Citizens’ Assemblies. These would bring together representative groups of workers across an industrial sector, chosen by sortition. Participants would learn about and discuss transition plans in more depth and detail, before producing informed recommendations about what they think should happen. Such a collective and deliberative process would allow workers to navigate the changes needed for themselves, developing ideas to feed into the democratic structures of trade unions, which have the power to fight and negotiate for them.

 

We cannot leave solutions to our employers

In aviation, as in other sectors, business leaders are pursuing plans in contradiction with the kind of action that climate scientists and recognised international expert bodies are clear needs to happen to meet legally binding emissions targets – let alone more radically curb climate change.

Why Workers' Assemblies?

 

In aviation and elsewhere, business leaders are incentivised to deliver short-term results on time-scales generally at a maximum of a few years. Workers, in contrast, generally hope to have a safe and secure job that continues for decades (or the option of one). For secure, long-term employment with decent and improving terms and conditions to be possible, it is in our interests to have a fast but also well-planned carbon transition. When workers organise, above all in unions, and campaign as a labour movement, we do so because when it comes to issues like pay, terms and conditions, we don’t accept the positions of our employers or take them at face value. We critically evaluate their positions and plans, adopt positions of our own and fight for workers’ interests. The same applies, or should, to sustainability strategies and policies – in spades.

 

If scientists and expert bodies are calling for significant change in aviation, and many other sectors, then workers – who one way or another will be implementing as well as living and working through this transition – need to be informed about, shaping and ideally leading the transformation process, not experiencing it as something done to us. The less we are informed, engaged and leading, the more our employers will act too late, too slow and in ways that benefit them, not workers and society as a whole.

Workers’ Assemblies can provide a mechanism to inform and drive this process.

‘’The European aviation sector is under increasing pressure to become more sustainable and European aerospace workers are central to driving this green and digital transition. As trade unions, we therefore demand that the voice of the workers is heard and considered when strategies are developed for the sector.” – quote from Isabelle Barthès, Deputy General Secretary of industriAll Europe

Mobilising workers’ expertise

In some respects the idea of Workers’ Assemblies is more complicated than the Citizens’ Assemblies advocated for in the broader climate movement. That’s because who the participants are is less immediately clear; assemblies could exist at a much wider range of levels: various parts of or whole workplaces, companies, industries… For some questions, certainly in the aviation industry, assemblies could even be organised internationally.

But Workers’ Assemblies have some clear advantages as mechanisms to drive change. Those who take part in Citizens’ Assemblies are mostly not experts on any aspect of what they discuss; that can be an advantage in terms of fresh eyes, but the knowledge and expertise workers have about their industries is a huge advantage and resource. Discussions of one workplace, company or even industry – as opposed to the whole of society – generally have more possibility for getting into real detail about what the issues are and what needs to be done. And of course, it is precisely in high-carbon industries and workplaces that much of the battle to reshape society to bring down emissions needs to be fought.

 

The bringing together, through a sortition process, of assemblies made up of groups of workers broadly representative of the workforce (or of the union membership in a workforce), with careful planning, well-organised facilitation and expert scientific presentations and advice, can allow informed, respectful and vigorous discussion and exploration of issues. Such a process can generate a flow of good ideas; take debates about just transition much further forward; and generate policies to be debated and adopted as the basis for trade union demands and campaigns.

 

Why not use existing trade union processes?

Safe Landing is a pro-trade union organisation. We advocate for all workers to join trade unions, and participate actively in union structures such as branch meetings and conferences. But the traditional formats of branches, committees, conferences and so on, while valuable and worth strengthening, are often not well suited to developing worker-led plans of any depth and detail.

Branch meetings cannot usually, by their nature, provide time for extensive, deliberative discussion. They usually have to cover multiple topics in a single, usually fairly short meeting. Motions put to them need to be relatively short (usually less than a page) and are therefore simplified, with few specifics. Presentations, diagrams or data are not usually utilised. The same goes, in slightly different ways, for union committee meetings and conferences.

The kind of discussions that take place at union branches don’t really allow for workers to make use of their industrial expertise, or to learn from workers in different roles or sections of the industry about their different areas of expertise (e.g. a worker who manufactures aircraft wings or works in airport security may not be very familiar with specifics around questions of energy and aviation fuel).

Workers’ Assemblies provide a means of addressing these difficulties, and of creating spaces in which necessary discussions can take place. Sortition could be used to assemble a representative group of workers, who would then be given time, resources and expert facilitation to allow them to discuss the issues in much more depth and formulate substantial proposals. This could include the opportunity to hear from, ask questions of and engage in dialogue with scientific and technical specialists.

Workers' Assemblies

 

Assemblies and Trade Unions

The participatory approach of Workers’ Assemblies can be designed to strengthen and support trade union representative democracy by ensuring union leaders and policy-makers have the best possible evidence available about worker ideas and preferences on how their industries should transition. Output from the Workers’ Assembly process can be used to develop union campaigning and lobby positions towards industry leaders and the government. Which ideas from Workers’ Assemblies would be taken up and how will obviously be a matter of debate in union structures.

Motions submitted to the Unite Policy Conference in July include some specifically related to Workers’ Assemblies. We will report more on that soon. We will be there, and are looking forward to the debate.

If you’d like to discuss the idea of Workers’ Assemblies with us, get a speaker for your union branch or other organisation, or try to organise an assembly in your workplace or industry, get in touch at: [email protected]

“The far-reaching changes the industry requires will only be possible if the knowledge and expertise of workers are fully engaged. Workers are demanding a jobs plan for the industry which takes account of climate policies and new technology. Just Transition Committees at national policy, corporate and airport governance levels must give aviation workers a seat at the decision-making table in order to design a sustainable industry with secure jobs, wages and working conditions.”

“To respond to the twin threats of the global climate emergency and the jobs crisis, aviation workers’ extensive experience and expertise must be at the heart of the development of decarbonisation plans.”

– quote from the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF):A Zero-Carbon Future for the Aviation Sector report.

Watch our video about Aviation Workers’ Assemblies on Youtube:

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