Safe Landing at the Unite the Union Conference

10 Jul, 2023

This week Safe Landing members (including Finlay, Tom, and Sacha) will be in Brighton for the Unite the Union Policy Conference. Alongside all the usual conference activities (leafleting, meeting with other bodies, sharing our message), we’ll be taking part in a Fringe event to discuss Workers’ Assemblies and the role they can play in protecting worker rights during the transition to a lower-carbon economy. This discussion has taken on extra importance in recent times with the UK Labour Party pledging to end new oil and gas extraction, a move which has sparked debate and criticism from some unions, including Unite.

Not sure what Workers’ Assemblies are? We’ve got you covered in our most recent blog post! Click here to read.

Join us for our fringe event on Wednesday (lunch time): more info here.

Background on Unite the Union & the challenge ahead

Motions submitted to the upcoming conference of the UK’s biggest private sector trade union, Unite, illustrate growing debate among organised workers – including in high-emitting sectors – about how to promote a rapid and socially just climate transition. In a first for the UK trade union movement, that includes a motion (that we helped to write) calling for “Workers’ Assemblies” to map out detailed policies and strategies for a just transition in workplaces, companies and sectors.

Unite is the UK’s second biggest union. With around a million members, it is by far the biggest union in the private sector and the biggest in high-emitting sectors whose transformation is crucial to tackling UK emissions. These include aerospace and shipbuilding, automotive, steel, chemicals, manufacturing, shipping – and civil aviation. It is a crucial space for discussion and action to develop.

The union’s biennial Policy Conference meets in Brighton during 11-14th July. Quite a few motions submitted focus on climate change and the need for a just transition; if the relevant motions are reached, there is likely to be a major and much-needed debate on fossil fuels. Here we highlight three motions in particular, with each explained below. (Download the full motions document here)

Motion 51 from the North West “Regional Industrial Sector Committee” (RISC) for Aerospace & Shipbuilding (see page 46 in document) sets out the principles for a genuinely worker-led just transition

Motion 52, from the London & Eastern region RISC for local government specifically advocates for Workers’ Assemblies as a key element in enabling worker leadership in the transition process; and an amendment from one of its constituent branches, Greenwich local government, adds a substantial amount of extra detail, both about the ideas behind Workers’ Assemblies and how they can be brought about and work.

We also want to highlight the very first motion on the agenda (Motion 1, page 1), from Unite’s National Industrial Sector Committee (NISC) for the Automotive sector. Although not mainly focused on climate change, the ideas it outlines for union strategy in coming industrial transitions is highly relevant.

Whether you are in Unite or not, these motions are worth reading.

Motions 51 and 52: workers must lead the transition

Sharon Graham Unite Quote

As Motions 51 and 52 both note, Unite has long recognised the urgency of the fight against climate change and the need for a strategy to drive a just transition. However, as the North West motion says, “in many sectors the decarbonisation challenges and the potential technology or policy solutions are complex and difficult to navigate”.

The London & Eastern motion on Workers’ Assemblies argues that Unite “needs to ramp up its actions and industrial strategies to tackle the climate crisis… insufficient progress has been made and it is urgent to integrate sustainability into our union activity, so all workplaces are fit for the energy transition”.

Frequently”, it adds, “the sustainability strategies of various industries across the economy have been dictated by a handful of business leaders, and we lack independent, worker-led visions for the future of these sectors”.

The North West motion explains further: “Business leaders are incentivised to deliver short-term results (e.g. quarterly profits and a rising share price) on time-scales at maximum a few years, rather than ensure long-term sector stability. On the other hand, most workers will hope to have a safe and secure job that continues for decades. When it comes to pay, or employment terms and conditions, we don’t take the positions of our business leaders at face value. It’s our job within trade unions to critically evaluate their plans and fight the corner of workers. The same applies to sustainability strategies…

In [multiple] areas there is a wide array of potential ‘solutions’ and it’s important that workers, who know their sector most intimately, are engaged so that finance is directed to the optimum areas… [if] leaders and organisations back the wrong policies or technologies, we lose vital time and money. Ultimately, workers will pay the price if the business backs the wrong solution, while business leaders and investors will have long since disappeared.

The London and Eastern motion adds: “An open and democratic process, involving discussion to produce recommendations, incorporating worker-owned perspectives to deliver positive action, is most likely to lead to success… [on this basis transition strategies] can benefit us, rather than provide an opportunity for employers to cut headcounts, weaken worker-rights sparking a race to the bottom and delay vital climate action.

Workers’ Assemblies

To develop such perspectives the motion advocates for Unite to “adopt the approach of ‘Workers’ Assemblies’ to produce independent, worker-led visions of the sustainable future for each industrial sector.

More about Workers’ Assemblies here. The core idea is a form of deliberative democracy in which a representative group of workers in a workplace, company or sector (or more widely) can engage in open, respectful and informed discussion with their peers on a given issue or set of issues – specifically, how to transform workplaces and industries to speed up decarbonisation while protecting and promoting workers’ interests.

Workers' Assemblies

There are various ways such assemblies could be organised; but the basic idea is to empower workers with the time, space, facilitation and expert evidence necessary to develop strong recommendations for the future of their industries. The idea is relevant and applicable in virtually any sector, but particularly sectors where employers are dragging their feet over reducing emissions and/or doing so at workers’ expense.

The idea is certainly not to supplant the existing democratic structures and processes of Unite, such as its branches, committees, conferences and industrial combines. In fact, there is a good argument that the policies and proposals passed by these structures need to be taken more seriously and more consistently put into action by the union. Rather, the idea is to create spaces and channels in which workers are supported to develop detailed ideas and demands to feed into debate and decision-making within existing union structures.

The London & Eastern motion to Policy Conference is clear that Workers’ Assemblies “should be implemented in collaboration with Unite Industrial Sectors”. It instructs the union’s National Executive Council to “commission a taskforce to investigate and make recommendations for implementing Workers’ Assemblies”. Noting that the “challenges faced by workers are not unique or confined to individual sectors and in many cases are intrinsically linked cross sector”, it calls to “resource the taskforce, pilot projects, Workers Assemblies and cross-sector coordination adequately”.

The Greenwich local government amendment explains further how assemblies can be run: “The proposal is to approach this problem using ‘Workers’ Assemblies’, which would utilise the deliberative democracy principles of ‘Citizens Assemblies’. Participants would be selected from the relevant union membership using a process of Sortition, and would receive presentations from a range of experts before deliberating on the topic.

The amendment also adds more detail, including on: engaging organisations with experience in Citizens’ Assemblies to determine how such a process can best feed into union structures; determining the most relevant sectors, with a priority list for pilot trials; and exploring the need for and possibilities for both cross-union and cross-sector collaboration.

Lastly, the Greenwich text sets out advantages of the Workers’ Assembly approach that the union should highlight, including effectively utilising members’ collective and individual expert experience; improving the flow of information about members’ views as well as the issues faced in their workplaces and industries; creating channels for involving layers of workers not currently engaged with union structures, and particularly younger members; and strengthening Unite’s profile as a champion of both worker-led democracy and climate justice.

The Automotive Workers’ Motion – a warning shot from the “Tesla model”

The Automotive NISC motion cites the transition to low-carbon industry as one of multiple crises UK manufacturing faces. Rejecting the “Tesla model” in which a shift towards electrical vehicle production has involved a levelling down of jobs, pay and conditions, the motion advocates a “transition on workers’ terms” in which all implementation of new technology is done through collective bargaining.

Failure to develop and enforce such a policy will have dire consequences: in automotive alone, the motion notes, 30% of production jobs may be lost or replaced during the transition to electrification. These are issues the
labour movement should have been pro-actively debated and taken up years or decades ago.

The motion notes the absence of a transition strategy from employers and the government; instead their strategy is to double-down on attacking workers’ conditions and rights, while attempting to deflect blame and divide workers through “anti-immigrant and anti-refugee hatred”. It also criticises the lack of any serious strategy from a Labour Party that “refuses to even acknowledge or talk about these problems”. (Unite is Labour-affiliated and could potentially make a serious difference to the party’s stance.)

The UK automotive sector is a brilliant case-in-point that illustrates the need for workers within a high-carbon sector to proactively push the agenda and national industrial strategy towards more rapid decarbonisation. Anybody within the automotive sector will be able to tell you that the transition from internal combustion engines (ICEs) to electric vehicles (EVs) has been inevitable for some time. Corporate leaders of many of the key British and European automotive manufacturers have spent the last decade or so doubling down on delay tactics: lobbying against ICE ban dates, writing hit-pieces against the environmental impact of EVs and all the while investing in more unsustainable factories (and jobs and associated worker training) producing e.g. large diesel SUV cars, rather than EVs. The result is a now rapidly approaching ICE sale ban date (2030), with little to show in terms of UK-based battery and EV production capacity. Forget just eroding employee T&Cs… we may lose our entire automotive manufacturing capability – this is a massive risk to workers and one we should have seen a mile off more than a decade ago.

Imagine where we could have been now if we had held “Automotive Workers’ Assemblies” and developed worker-led plans and lobbying positions for the decarbonisation of road transport during the 2000s?

It’s now late in the day, but we still have a (rapidly closing) window of opportunity to direct UK industrial strategy towards the manufacture and operation of products which ensure a cleaner, greener, healthier planet for society and long-term sustainable and secure employment for workers. The fight to grasp that opportunity starts this week.

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