Notes from a public meeting held by the Green Party Trade Union group yesterday at Euston…
A Green New Deal – the Green Party was (as you might expect) in on the trend early, but since then pretty well everyone has jumped on the “green jobs” bandwagon (from the UN downwards). But, as Jean Lambert, London’s Green MEP said, the Green New Deal as published last year is not so much a final plan, but the start of a process.
With the world facing a “triple-crunch” – climate change, peak oil and the credit-fuelled financial crisis – she said the Party with its allies was working towards a new model economy – a “deal”, indeed a whole plan for the future of the planet, that was “international, intergenerational and inclusive”.
Some aspects of what were needed were clear, she said. The whole focus of trade policy had to change to focus on production methods and the outcomes for producers, rather than just prices to consumers. There had to be a recognition that we could not rely on the private sector to delivery core public sector services, from water to education. “Even Peter Mandelson is talking about a post office bank. That’s if you can still find a post office.” (Ironic really, since the meeting was just north of the Euston Road – an area that no longer has its own post office, since Crowndale Road closed last year.)
At the EU, Jean said, there was a lot of talk in terms of employment about the flexi-curity agenda – the idea being that workers trade flexibility for security, although she said that there tended to be a strong focus on the first and less on the second, but almost no attention to the third essential in this framework – a strong trade union involvement. (There also needed to be recognition of the need for a social security framework under the employment framework.)
In moving towards a low-carbon, environmentally friendly economy, an effective framework was particularly necessary for vulnerable industries such as coal and vehicle-manufacturing. Those workers needed a structured system of retraining, of subsidies to redirect production. “The rule is to make resources redundant, rather than people.”
Furthermore, Jean said, while the Labour government had been focusing on work as the be all and end all, it had ignored other important contributions to society. “Work is important, but it is not everything. Society doesn’t only rely on formal paid work.”
But still, it was essential to acknowledge that many people were now suffering a deep fear and insecurity about the future. “We have to give them hope that the economy and society can be managed better, that Britons can feel their life belongs to them, rather than their being tied on to a daily treadmill; that their life is grounded in family and community, rather than a cycle of money chasing non-existent money.”
Sian Jones, a member of the (and this really is a mouthful, but she doesn’t talk like this – was very down to earth) Trade Union Sustainable Development Advisory Committee Working Group, complimented Jean on the work she’d done in promoting the idea of having official trade union environmental reps. “We’ve got a network of organised, motivated people in most workplaces who also have a line into their communities,” and this was vital to delivering a sustainable economy, she said.
Most company’s “green policies were now top-down, management-driven, but real change would only come, and workforces would really only sign up, when they were given the chance to work together to deliver something they had been educated in and believed in.
It was easy to see a dichotomy between jobs and the environment, she said, acknowledging that some unions had supported the third runway for Heathrow. “Unions are debating how to work with the new Environment and Climate Change Department. The theme that underlies that is a ‘just transition’.”
Ann Elliot-Day, PCS (the main civil service union) communications officer, said her union, with some 300,000 members, had first mobilised around fair trade and ethical purchasing policies, and had gradually branched out into issues such as climate change, renewable energy, opposing nuclear power and opposing the third runway. She noted that last autumn the TUC had launched a campaign for green reps for trade unions, noting that she was pleased that in the same season the Green Party conference had supported the plan.
“The reason why this is important is that collective action in the workplace can lead to much larger changes than people can make as individuals. Well over 50% of Britain’s carbon emissions are workplace-related.”
She cited a project at the British Museum where the union organised a green fair attended by more than 200 staff, of whom 80 volunteered to be green reps. Flowing from that programme, there had been a 17% cut in the museum’s electricity bill. “These projects can have huge impacts; we just need more of them!”
Tony Kearns, CWU senior deputy general secretary, was definitely the angriest speaker – with some strong words for the government. “Hilary Benn told us how great green reps were, then his own government talked out the amendment [to set them up, moved by John McDonnell last year].”
He said: “That the value of society is judged by consumer spending is a terrible indictment of how people are supposed to live their lives.”
By the usual economic measures there had been nine recessions since the Second World War. “At the end of each of them the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.”
In Germany, the renewable energy sector provided half a million jobs. In Britain, depending on how you counted it, there were 7,000- 30,000. Meanwhile, elderly people were left with the impossible decision “shall we heat or shall we eat”, in inadequately insulated homes. “Instead of spending money on bankers, the government could spend it on insulation, to reduce fuel poverty, improve the economy and create jobs.”
Gordon Brown had said that 3m new homes would be needed in Britain by 2020, although many industry experts had said 5m. Even at the height of the boom, the private sector wasn’t managing to build more than 120,000 a year. “There is going to be a huge shortage of homes, and yet now construction workers are being laid off in their thousands. If the government invested in building homes there would be real jobs, real benefits to people’s lives.”
If, as was being warned, a major car plant was about to be closed, he suggested that these skilled workers and high technology could be turned instead to producing buses, to build up a proper public transport system.