Trade unions organize for Paris climate talks

“Strong social forces with the ability to change the course of society do not suddenly erupt at the global level. They have to be built from below.”


Asbjørn Wahl

Asbjørn Wahl

This piece was written by Asbjørn Wahl, International Advisor for the Union of Municipal and General Employees, Norway. It was addressed to the Working Group on Climate Change of the International Transport Workers Federation, which he chairs.

From FAILURE20 to COP21

Climate change is going on. Extreme weather conditions, storms, floodings, landslides, droughts and ice melting are reported ever more regularly from many parts of the world. Millions of people are losing their livelihood, their homes, their jobs – and many also their lives. The successive reports of the United Nation Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have increasingly called for urgent action in order to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases.

However, after having negotiated for 20 years, our political leaders have failed to take necessary action. The result is that emissions are increasing rather than decreasing (61 percent increase from 1990 to 2013). Temperature increase is on course for 4-6ºC rather than maximum 1,5-2.0ºC, something which will mean climate catastrophe.

In Peru last December, a climate summit (COP20) once more ended without showing any ability to do what is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change. COP20 in Lima therefore became FAILURE20. However, COP20 was not expected by anybody to bring a breakthrough. It was seen as an intermezzo, while we have been told that it is at the next summit, COP21 in Paris at the end of this year, that we will have an ambitious and binding global agreement. Given the track record of more than 20 years of government negotiations, we should not so easily count on that.

Time is therefore ripe for a massive mobilization of social forces from below to put pressure on our political leaders. Trade unions will have to play a decisive role in such a mobilization. It is a question on what kind of society we want to develop. It is a question of having a just transition to a society based on clean and renewable energy.

Mobilise up to and in Paris

This mobilisation is now being prepared, and important parts of the trade union movement are already strongly involved. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has taken a leading role in this. General Secretary Sharan Burrow is urging trade unions to get involved at all levels – local, national and international. In France, a broad coalition of almost 100 organisations, including trade unions, have collectively founded the platform Coalition Climat 21 to mobilise and organise for COP21. Since the Mexico Congress of 2010, the ITF has followed up its strong climate change programme, organised seminars, taken part in global summits and mobilisations and developed educational tools, which can be found on our web site.

The ITF has also joined the global Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) network, which coordinates policy development, advocacy work and mobilisations – based on the understanding that in order to be able to carry out the necessary transitions, the energy sector, as well as other strategic sectors in our societies, have to be brought under democratic control. A number of national and international trade union organisations have already joined this network, and others, which support such policies, should do so as well.

An important document, “RESIST, RECLAIM, RESTRUCTURE: Unions and the Struggle for Energy Democracy” has been developed, in addition to some interesting working papers and a short video.

Build alliances back home

However, strong social forces with the ability to change the course of society do not suddenly erupt at the global level. They have to be built from below. The most important things every one of us should do in the current situation in order to build power from below is therefore to create alliances at the local and national level – broad coalitions of movements and organisations which can put pressure on our politicians and keep them accountable.

In Norway we have had a successful process exactly in doing that over the last couple of years. The organisation of two climate change conferences has been used to build unity around a number of demands and a deeper understanding of the challenges of climate change. It is no secret that the ITF climate change document and motion from the Mexico congress inspired a number of trade union organisations to involve themselves in this campaign. You can find a short article on these experiences on the ITF Climate Change blog site.

A calendar of activities

The international trade union movement as well as the climate coalition in France will organise and encourage member organisations and others to take part in a number of campaigns and actions in the coming year. Below you will find a list of the most important activities which already have been decided.

The ITUC in particular asks its affiliates in countries in all regions to make public pledges supporting climate justice and committing to take action on specific issues to put pressure on governments. Publicity events are encouraged. These pledges will be part of the build up to the trade union climate summit in Paris in September. We will have to come back to how the ITF will involve itself in these and the following activities. Among other things, we should take a role in developing sectoral objectives and activities related to the transport industry.

First week of June: A week of lobbying. Not high-profile action, but lobbying governments on demands related to the negotiations. Events, which give public visibility to unions, are encouraged.

14-15 September in Paris: A trade union climate and jobs summit (the ITUC in collaboration with the 1 million climate jobs campaign group) and some preparation for the trade union action in Paris in December. Planned for about 200 people (of which half of them from France). The ITF could send an international delegation of about 10. Invitations should be ready in the next two weeks.

26-27 September – France and everywhere: The French coalition will organize and encourages others to mobilize to support and showcase citizen-driven initiatives to address climate change and power the energy transition.

28 November – Paris and everywhere: A climate rally in Paris and national rallies around the world in connection with the opening of the climate summit (COP21) in Paris. This was discussed at the World Social Forum in Tunis recently, and it will be coordinated by the French coalition. The ITUC calls on its affiliates to initiate contacts with national civil society partners and show commitment to unions’ involvement. It is critical to show that trade unions are mobilising on this issue and have specific demands and contributions to make to the movement.

COP21 in Paris (30 November – 11 December): Detailed plans are not yet finalised, but the ITUC will organise an event (most probably Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the middle of the two weeks). A programme and invitations should be finalised during May, including a block booking of hotels for union delegations.

12 December in Paris: A mass mobilization in Paris at the close of COP21 – in order to demonstrate the power of our  movement and to send a clear signal for a brighter, cleaner, safer and more just future for everyone. Detailed contents will depend on the conclusions of the negotiations.

But do not forget: Social power at the global level can only be achieved if we build strong social movements and alliances at the local and national level – able to unite their forces across borders!

In solidarity
Asbjørn Wahl
Chair of the ITF Working Group on Climate Change

Posted in Climate Change, Featured, Labor movement, Movement Building

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