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View: Empower the unions to fight the climate crisis

We must empower the unions to fight the climate crisis, writes Matthew Hull on the COP26 Coalition’s Day of Action. Matthew Hull is Chair of the Green Party Trade Union Group.

At the Green Party’s Autumn Conference in Birmingham, the Trade Union Group was joined by John – a workplace representative at GKN Driveline.

The GKN plant produces drivelines and other parts for the automotive industry, supplying various well-known industry names. Just a few miles from the Conference venue, in Erdington, it has been a feature of the local economy for decades, and the company has operated since the 19th century. But in the space of a few short years, it has been acquired and asset-stripped for sale by a venture capital firm.

The Erdington workers’ efforts to save the plant, their jobs, and the skills-base that has sustained a Birmingham community were extensive. Tactics included lobbying ministers, working through their local MP Jack Dromey, and public campaigning.

Perhaps most notably, for the purposes of this article at least, the GKN plant convener and reps produced a transition plan for GKN Driveline. In partnership with a consultancy and drawing on the expertise of their own engineers, they worked up a proposal for the GKN plant to retool itself for electric vehicle supply chains.

This was no revolutionary screed, but a business case. It included a comparative analysis arguing the GKN plant was competitive, both in the market and in comparison with other GKN plants (there are more than a dozen sites across Europe). Written to demonstrate the long-term viability of a plant plugged into the UK’s electric vehicle industry, it appealed directly both to GKN’s owners as business managers and to the Conservative government rhetoric of ‘levelling up’ and electrification.

GKN’s owners, however, are not interested in being business managers. The venture capitalist owners, Melrose, specialise in acquiring and ‘slim-lining’ manufacturing enterprises before selling them on at a profit. Having met the Unite plant conveners, Jack Dromey, and even government ministers Melrose acknowledged the plan and the claims the workers were making. Melrose then dismissed it out of hand.

The anti-union script running in the background

After months of campaigning, Unite’s representatives at the Erdington plant have negotiated an enhanced redundancy package for the workers set to lose their jobs. Unite’s members voted to accept the package, and the union is working with Jack Dromey and others to ensure the workers affected are best looked after. The transition plan fell on deaf ears.

It would not do to oversimplify the reasons behind what has been done to GKN workers in Erdington. John himself was clear that the eventual outcome was the result of a confluence of different factors: a generalised slowdown in auto manufacture reducing union leverage, and ministers’ unwillingness to match their ‘buy British’ rhetoric with interventions to defend the plant, featured heavily in his telling of the story.

It would be too easy to present the demise of GKN Erdington as a fait accompli, the inevitable result of the 2018 hostile takeover of GKN by the motivated re-sellers at Melrose plc. Unite was never going to win by speaking to the bosses’ hearts; but there can be no denying that the asset-stripping modus operandi practised by Melrose also restricted the union’s ability to speak to the owners’ pockets. A venture capital firm that is disinterested in the actual production of auto parts for a just transition will not be moved by proposals that complicate their project, which was and is to trim down GKN for resale.

There is however a missing piece in the puzzle. Speaking as a shop steward, John was very clear that among all GKN’s sites, the Erdington plant was a sitting duck because of Britain’s legal environment. The UK’s constellation of anti-union and anti-strike laws itself made the Erdington plant especially vulnerable. From the perspective of Melrose, the ease with which UK workers can be fired and the difficulty they have in resisting dismissal through legal means made Erdington a prime target in their project. Decisively pro-boss regulations make the messy and soulless business of axing jobs that much cheaper.

Melrose’s decisions, and the extent to which they were determined to pursue the demise of the Erdington plant, were shaped by Britain’s incredibly lopsided industrial relations architecture. This, at any rate, is the perspective of Unite representatives involved in negotiations to save it.

Not only did anti-union laws shape Melrose’s decision to enact a hostile takeover of GKN in 2018, and their subsequent behaviour, but they also critically limited Unite’s ability to resist. Ballots for industrial action, both consultative and legal, were hampered by restrictions on unions’ ability to operate freely. GKN’s management challenged the legality of strike action, exploiting the various opportunities given to them in UK law to stymie worker action. All in all, this compounded Unite’s inability to identify and use their leverage in a timely and effective fashion.

Many events in labour history are overdetermined. We do not make history in conditions of our own choosing, and the various conditions in which GKN’s workers found themselves made effective resistance critically difficult. It may be that the anti-union and anti-strike laws do not have to be adduced to explain what has happened. From another vantage point, however, the anti-union laws cannot neatly be separated from the various other factors explaining the how, the what, and the why of recent events.

The exact relative importance of the anti-union laws can be left to historians. But we can be sure that they are a script running in the background facilitating the damage that venture capitalists like Melrose do to communities.

This feature of the UK’s economy is not new, and will be familiar to almost everyone involved in the labour movement. Greens and environmentalists should make themselves increasingly familiar with these laws too. 

If the story of GKN teaches us anything – and having listened to John I am confident it can teach us a lot – it is that the anti-union laws considerably reduce our leverage to present and implement concrete plans for a just transition. An opportunity to retain skills and redirect them to more sustainable industry has been lost, in part because the workers and their union were constrained.

If we are to implement plans for a just transition to a zero-carbon economy, we must instead empower working people to develop their skills and enable them to work to transform society through dignified, well-rewarded work in the home, the office, the factory and elsewhere. It is hard to imagine doing this successfully without resisting and repealing the anti-union laws.

Changing models

There has been substantial opposition to the anti-union laws on the part of trade unions. This has taken various forms – in parliament, on the streets, in the workplace. But it is useful to dwell on the less obvious, and frequently less positive, reactions and adaptations to ever more restrictive anti-union laws on the level of union strategy and tactics.

As historians Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson note in their book Striking Women, the growing list of restrictions on legal trade union action have caused a fundamental shift in the function of trade unions in the 21st century.

A series of five Trade Union Acts and Employment Acts between 1979 and 1990 imposed severe limitations on the ability of workers to stage walkouts. In 1984 secondary picketing was outlawed, banning one of the labour movement’s most powerful tools; new requirements for ballots, including postal balloting and minimum turnouts, ensured that industrial action would be slower and more difficult to organise. There are too many to cite in one piece. Each successive restriction had the effect of creating new spaces for employers to exploit, making challenges to the legality of workers’ actions and jamming the gears of collective action before they could really gather momentum.

In response to these growing legal obstacles, and in the aftermath of landmark defeats, Anitha and Pearson argue the trade union movement underwent a transformation in its organisational posture and behaviour. They chart the decline of industrial militancy, referring to the decline from over 29 million strike days in 1979 to just 273,000 days in 2018. They also chart signs that trade unions were beginning to assume the role of membership organisations, supporting workers increasingly as individuals and following new avenues to do so. For example, as strike days fall, submissions to the Employment Tribunal often with union assistance rise sharply from 40,000 in 1979 to 191,000 in 2013 (when the Coalition government’s punishing fee regime causes them to fall precipitously).

Anitha and Pearson identify an overall trajectory from unions as organs of collective action, towards organisations that provide specialised assistance and benefits to each member as an individual worker (sometimes described as a ‘servicing’ model of trade unionism). Political representation is achieved increasingly through the Labour Party and by lobbying at Westminster. There is space in this model for representation of the collective membership to the employer, but the union’s role is increasingly advisory and dependent on finding sympathetic listeners. While there are notable and proud exceptions to this trend, it is hard to deny that it exists.

It is clear how in the aftermath of historic defeat, and increasingly cut off from avenues for creative collective action, trade unions would in practice accommodate themselves to the new legal reality. In the scramble to survive amid what Tony Blair proudly called “the most restrictive [union laws] in the Western world”, with membership rolls shrinking, it is a shift accomplished easily.

But as experiences all across the movement show, this more bureaucratic form of trade unionism is unable to meet the demands of the climate and ecological emergency.

Changing mindsets

A labour movement in retreat will be prone to assume more defensive postures. Severe legal restrictions on the tactics available will only reinforce that tendency.

This vantage point is particularly helpful when considering why trade unions have previously adopted, and continue to adopt, climate wrecking policy positions. A dispositionally conservative union leadership that has internalised the logic of the anti-union laws will be less receptive to overtures promising greener grass in some distant promised land. It will be proportionately more likely to prioritise the narrow defence of its members’ interests, even as the ecological crisis threatens to envelop us all.

This is not just a question of officials and leaders. For many rank-and-file union members, and especially those whose jobs are exposed in a transition, the landmark defeats of yesteryear are only too recent. The fact that many such defeats involved the utter destruction and generational impoverishment of communities bound together by extractive and carbon-intensive industries, like coal mining, means the threat is very real and very much in living memory. The fact that many such communities were promised new and more sustainable jobs, opportunities, and support that never materialised adds to the malaise. If there is among such places and people a scepticism of grand designs from career politicians, that scepticism is well-earned.

None of this is to excuse those policies that pose a threat to our planet. Nor does it glorify or justify those who propose and defend them. But it does suggest the way to beat the trap is to break the mindset and organisational practice that the anti-union laws have served to embed in the movement.

Empowering workers through their unions to take ownership of and drive forward plans for a just transition is one way to set about this. By making resistance to the anti-union laws and their eventual replacement with positive union rights central to our organising and campaigning, we can plant the seeds of workers’ skills and creativity in better soil.

Empower the unions to defeat the climate crisis

This work is already ongoing. A rising general environmental consciousness, however shallow and flawed, has put a transition on every political party’s agenda. The notion that justice for working people must be served is hegemonic such that even the Conservative Party must imitate its rhetoric, even as they fail to match it with any substance.

As the experience at GKN Driveline suggests, workers and their unions are already exploring this political landscape and fashioning futures for themselves and others. At Rolls Royce, workers successfully defended one site and delayed any job losses at two others; together with their union and local MPs, they are developing transition plans and have already secured vital training to re-skill their members to produce greener technologies. Other unions, including the Bakers, Food & Allied Union (BFAWU), have made their workers’ exposure to the climate crisis a key plank of their policy alongside vigorous campaigns to defend jobs and conditions.

The experience at GKN also suggests, however, that something must change if we want workers’ plans to be implemented.

The labour movement is undertaking an orderly retreat. Unions are haemorrhaging their private sector membership: in 2020 private sector membership fell by 110,000, while rising public sector membership rescued overall union membership to bring it to 23.5%.

But if we are concerned with reviving the spirit and practice of collective action, then we must look beyond membership figures to evidence of willingness and capability to strike. And here the picture is even darker. In 2018, just 273,000 working days were lost to strike action, down from the postwar high at 29.5 million in 1979 (and in a workforce that has almost doubled in size).

Most of these strike days were undertaken in fortresses of the public sector. 68% of 2018 strike days were in the education sector, and most of those in a single dispute by the UCU. The highest annual figure since the millennium, 1.4 million days in 2011, was due principally to two huge public sector disputes. The overall prognosis for much of the private sector, which will be critical in any industrial transition to zero carbon, is poor indeed.

Recent developments suggest that union members are chafing against the limited ‘servicing’ model and the climbdown it represents. The election of Sharon Graham as Unite General Secretary in 2021, upsetting pundits’ predictions, signalled a shift towards an industrial approach and a willingness to revive the strike as a central tactic. Graham’s manifesto policy of approving strike ballots in far greater numbers is just one sign of this.

Not only that, but there is a growing awareness that confronting the arbitrary and undemocratic restrictions of the anti-union and anti-strike laws, as well as the mindset they have embedded, is essential to the movement’s health. At Unite’s 2021 policy conference the union reiterated opposition to the anti-union laws, and indicated their willingness to campaign on the issue. The RMT’s recent AGM produced a resolution to oppose the laws, including any attempt to impose further restrictions on transport workers through so-called ‘minimum service levels’.

There are other, perhaps less obvious signs too. Sharon Graham’s insistence on revisiting union structure to bring reps together across each industry (creating ‘combines’), a seemingly strictly bureaucratic move, could implicitly challenge the logic of the anti-union laws that rigidly keep workers apart and prevent action in solidarity with others.

Fighting back and repealing the anti-union laws, to replace them with a positive charter of trade union rights, will depend on our collective ability to make the current legal framework unstable and unenforceable. Considering where we are, the scale of this work should not be underestimated. But as consciousness of the problem grows among trade unionists we can be more confident that we have a basis to push forward. Rising anger among workers in particular sectors – including health and social care – offers hope that a collective spirit is not yet dead.

Understanding this, Greens have an opportunity not just to acknowledge but to embrace the developing environmental and climate consciousness of workers, like those at GKN, Rolls Royce, and elsewhere. We can work to turn this ripple into a wave of transition plans sweeping sectors like manufacturing and beyond into all sectors of the economy.

But doing this requires a commitment to actively resisting, in speech and action, those laws that critically limit democratic space to take control of our working lives.

The recent launch statement of Empower the Unions, a joint project of Earth Strike UK and Free Our Unions, expressed this desire and recognised the necessity of solidarity action to win climate justice. This is the spirit of democratic industrial militancy Greens and the movement for climate justice must assume, recognising that our plans will wither away without the power to implement them. The Green Party Trade Union Group has been joined by Caroline Lucas MP and representatives of the Young Greens in supporting the campaign.

If we want to see more GKN plans not just emerge but emerge triumphant, we must examine the laws that prevent such workers from transforming their working lives. And then we must fight to change them.