Trade union attitudes towards climate change

Developing a conceptual framework

Adrien Thomas, Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research
Nadja Doerflinger, KU Leuven

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change commits the world to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. As the latest special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change demonstrates, keeping this objective requires a rapid and far-reaching transition to a low-carbon economy (IPCC 2018). Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This large-scale transition will inevitably reshape the economy, create and destroy numerous jobs, and affect working conditions and skills.

This contribution discusses how European trade unions address the challenge of climate change mitigation through emissions reductions in the manufacturing and power generation sectors. Climate change mitigation in these sectors often represents a tremendous challenge for trade unions, confronting them with the jobs versus environment dilemma. The attitudes of trade unions toward the ecological transition are characterized by tensions between a principled adherence to the need to mitigate climate change and a concern for job losses in the traditionally unionized manufacturing industry.

To build up a typology of attitudes, we integrate two different kinds of literatures. Specifically, the literature on trade unions’ collective bargaining strategies, in particular on concession bargaining, is combined with the one on interest representation by trade unions. This is important, as the effects of possible jobs-environment concessions are not limited to the relations between management and labour in a workplace as in the traditional literature on concession bargaining (e.g. McKersie and Capelli 1982), but affect society as a whole. This is because of the much-discussed tendency of organized groups to pursue private gains at the expense of common goods (e.g. Baccaro 2001). Therefore, it is essential to explore the conditions for internalizing third-party interests in trade union decision-making processes on climate change mitigation policies.

As a result, the contribution establishes a typology of the ideal-typical attitudes of trade unions in the manufacturing and power generation sector towards emission reduction policies: opposition, hedging and support. Attitudes of opposition to climate change mitigation see trade unions outrightly refuse the adoption of emissions reduction policies in the industries they represent. Hedging strategies are adopted by trade unions who do not deny the need to mitigate climate change but seek to minimize compliance costs, advocate incremental approaches and construct a dichotomy between the competing priorities of employment and environmental protection. Attitudes of support for emissions reduction policies are adopted by trade unions who outrightly support climate change mitigation policies and adopt a proactive approach to the ecological transition.

We provide empirical evidence to illustrate such attitudes. The respective data stems from (1) in-depth interviews with trade union representatives at different levels (i.e. European, national/sectoral) focusing on the jobs versus environment dilemma carried out in 2017 and 2018; (2) various secondary data sources, particularly newspaper articles and trade union reports.

Keywords: trade union attitudes, collective bargaining, pollution control industry, environmental policy, greenhouse gases, Europe