By Daniel Randall, RMT conference delegate
The narrow defeat of a motion on climate change (see below) at this year’s AGM of the rail and transport union RMT shows there is still much to do to win arguments around the issue in the labour movement.
The RMT has something of a contradictory record on climate change. RMT stepped in to organise the Vestas wind turbine workers in 2009 (pictured above), when support and agitation from the Workers’ Climate Action network encouraged them to launch a sit-down strike to resist the closure of their factory. But RMT also historically clung onto a belief in “clean coal”, partially out of a relationship with the NUM – see this 2008 edition of the union’s magazine, featuring an article from Arthur Scargill which argues that “Britain needs an integrated energy policy that will produce 250m tonnes of indigenous deep-mine clean coal per year – from which could be extracted all the electricity, oil, gas and petrochemicals that our people need.”
At the AGM, the climate change motion was opposed by general secretary Mick Cash entirely on the basis of a single line, which stated that the “ending fracking, fossil fuel extraction, and airport expansion” was necessary to combat climate change.
The ending of fossil fuel extraction was the particular concern; RMT organises offshore energy workers, and Cash argued that to pass a motion calling for an end to fossil fuel extraction would be tantamount to supporting our own members in the offshore industry being put out of work.
This is typical of arguments often made across the labour movement around this issue. GMB’s leadership argues that ending fracking would threaten the jobs of its members, or potential members, in that industry. Unite and GMB support airport expansion on the basis that the aviation industry is a key site of current and potential future jobs.
But the RMT AGM motion was clear about the need for the union to “ensure that RMT members working in the energy industry, e.g. offshore, are centrally engaged in discussions about worker-led transitions to a zero-carbon economy”. No good-faith reading of it could possibly conclude it was advocating offshore energy workers simply have their livelihoods stripped from them.
The speech from the top table is the penultimate speech in all motions debates at the RMT AGM. The general secretary, or one of the assistant general secretaries, gives a position (which is very explicitly a “general secretary’s position”, not one collectively voted on the by the NEC), which they are allowed to expound at unlimited length, before the mover of the motion has a 10-minute right-of-reply to the entire debate, including the GS’s position.
Another quirk of RMT AGM democracy is a convention that allows the GS to use their speech to effectively amend motions: the GS might say, “I interpret this motion to mean x, y, z, and if the mover can confirm in their right of reply that they agree with me, I encourage all delegates to vote for it.” If the mover does indeed confirm the GS’s interpretation, the verbatim minutes showing this will be taken into account by the NEC when it discusses how each motion passed is to be implemented.
Both of these conventions are deeply flawed, but nevertheless, their existence means Cash didn’t even have to oppose the motion outright, even if he were genuinely concerned about the clause on fossil fuels. He could have said, “if the mover will confirm that the motion doesn’t advocate putting our members out of jobs, I urge delegates to vote for it.” Instead, he straightforwardly opposed the motion (and, like it or not, the top table recommendation on voting carries significant weight), insisting that it could only mean what he claimed it meant.
Cash’s position was made all the more disappointing given that, as I emphasised when moving the motion, the RMT Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC) branch, the branch of the union which organises our offshore energy worker members, supports a transition policy. Its branch bulletin, which was distributed to all delegates at the AGM, stated: “We should be developing standardised safety and competence/training standards which allow our workers to move seamlessly from oil and gas to decommissioning and into renewables.” I cited this position in my right-of-reply, reiterating that the motion was not calling for anyone to lose their jobs, but for a worker-led transition.
That is not to say there isn’t uncertainty and uneasiness about radical climate politics amongst energy workers, but at the very least, the OILC branch position shows that there is a willingness within RMT, and amongst the very group of workers in question, to move beyond a simplistic and short-term position.
It is an inescapable fact that ending fossil fuel extraction is an absolute necessity if humanity is to prevent devastating ecological catastrophe. The more rationally-minded of the world’s ruling classes already know this; if the task of transition is left to them, undoubtedly it will take place on a basis that treats energy industry workers as disposable. Therefore, the workers’ movement must fight for control of the transition, ensuring that it is workers’ knowledge and skills which shapes the process of decommissioning, repurposing, and retraining, guaranteeing no loss of pay or conditions for any worker affected. Historical models such as the Lucas Plan, and contemporary struggles such as Harland and Wolff shipyard workers’ sit-in strike, offer suggestions for how this could be done.
The ITUC, the world’s major global union federation, recently tweeted a video of two members of the Maritime Union of Australia, supporting the 20 September climate strikes and arguing for a worker-led transition away from fossil fuels. RMT has close links with the MUA, both bilaterally and via common membership of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), the global umbrella body for transport unions. We should listen to our MUA comrades.
Within my region of the union, London Transport, several branches have passed radical policy on climate change and have invited speakers from groups such as the UK Student Climate Network and Extinction Rebellion to address meetings. Discussions are taking place about what RMT members can do to support school climate strikes on 20 September, which our Regional Council formally voted to support and mobilise for at our monthly meeting on 29 August. Those discussions will hopefully continue, and spread throughout the union. It is to be hoped, therefore, that the 2020 AGM will revisit the issue, with a different outcome.
For a Socialist “Green New Deal”
Emergency motion to RMT AGM 2019, submitted by the Bakerloo Line branch and the Morden & Oval branch (narrowly defeated)
This union notes the school climate strikes on 15 March, 12 April and 24 May, in response to the accelerating climate crisis. Scientists estimate that we have twelve years to radically reduce fossil fuel emissions or face irreversible ecological damage. We are inspired by the radicalism and militancy of youth climate strikers and others taking direct action to highlight this crisis and demand radical action from governments.
We believe climate change is a class issue, and that workers’ agency is crucial to affecting the transformation of our economy and society necessary to prevent climate catastrophe.
This branch notes the discussions now developing in the labour movement around a “Green New Deal” (e.g., the launch of “Labour for a Green New Deal” on 22 March, and the Fire Brigades Union passing policy in support of a Socialist Green New Deal at their AGM on 18 May), and endorses policies now emerging as part of this, including:
- a national climate service/strategy, manufacturing, installing and training in renewable technologies and eliminating waste
- nationalising energy supply/generation including Big Six energy companies creating an integrated democratic national energy system (not public companies competing with private ones in the marketplace)
- nationalising public transport – bus, rail and tram part of an expanded, free or radically cheaper and democratic system
- a public program of insulation and building and retrofitting zero-carbon council housing / public buildings
- a million well-paid, public, unionised climate jobs
- ending fracking, fossil fuel extraction and airport expansion
- investment in alternative, socially useful jobs and guarantee living standards and communities, not line up with employers to defend the indefensible
- 100% of the country’s electricity and heat from renewable sources by 2030.
This branch further notes attempts by Extinction Rebellion to disrupt TfL services as part of its campaigning during April. While maintaining the safety of our passengers will always be paramount for transport workers, and while we maintain some criticisms of ExR’s perspectives and strategies, we welcome the radicalism of their movement, express our solidarity with their activists, and hope to engage them in a dialogue between climate activists and trade unions.
This union therefore resolves to:
- emphasise in propaganda around our own disputes that, in fighting for a well-funded, properly-staffed, and expanded public transport system (ie. a lower-emissions form of transport), we are also fighting against ecological damage.
- encourage branches and Regional Councils to invite climate strikers and ExR representatives to their meetings to discuss their movement
- make a donation to the Youth Strike 4 Climate fund appeal www.crowdfunder.co.uk/ukscn
- issue a statement of solidarity, from the RMT at national level, with the youth climate strikers
- ensure that RMT members working in the energy industry, eg. offshore, are centrally engaged in discussions about worker-led transitions to a zero-carbon economy.
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Daniel’s speech for the motion:
“According to the world’s leading climate scientists, humanity has little more than 10 years to prevent ecological catastrophe.
“Failure to prevent it would be devastating, but the effects of that devastation won’t be felt equally. Climate change is a class issue, and as we’re already seeing in many places around the world, those on the sharp end of ecological destruction will be poor communities, and especially people of colour in the global south.
“All of this is happening because we live in a world where the economy is organised for profit. Capitalism sees the environment and natural resources as commodities to be exploited, the same way it see human labour. Just 100 major companies are responsible for over 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Climate change is, in short, caused by the drive for profit. It is caused by capitalism.
“This motion calls for our union to throw its weight behind a bold and ambitious set of socialist politics that can reorganise the economy away from high-emissions production-for-profit, and towards ecologically sustainable production-for-need.
“The labour movement is lagging behind here. Many major unions still support policies that will make the climate crisis worse, not better – such as airport expansion. Even within our own union, our historic policies on issues like fracking have been less clear and less radical than necessary. Where we’ve seen radical direct action taken over climate change, it’s been by school students, not by organised workers. This motion would position the RMT firmly on the side of those school strikers, declaring solidarity with their actions and donating to their network. But we also need to respond to their call for workers’ action.
“The trade union movement needs to catch up. Workers make society move; that means we have a unique potential to subvert, change, and ultimately overthrow the system. When Extinction Rebellion activists took direct action in central London, the estimated cost to the London economy, as reported in the Evening Standard, was £12 million. The same source reported that a single day’s strike on the Tube “cost” the economy £300 million. That’s an indication of the kind of potential economic power workers wield. We need to start wielding it in the furtherance of radical environmental politics, and against devastating climate change.
“Youth climate strikers have called for a global general strike against climate change in September. Two trade unions in Britain, the UCU and the BFAWU, have already supported that call. Given a low ebb of struggle and the legal restrictions placed on striking over political issues, it’s unrealistic to imagine we can organise a general strike in this country by September.
“But we should still use that call as an impetus to discuss what workers’ climate action would look like for our union.
“We organise public transport workers, in an industry that will need radical expansion in an economy transitioning away from reliance on fossil fuels. And we organise offshore energy workers, who are uniquely placed to develop transition plans for their own industry, to ensure their skills are put to use in a sustainable way. This motion calls specifically for our offshore members to be at the centre of a discussion about what a worker-led transition to a zero-carbon economy looks like. As usual, our RMT OILC branch is in the vanguard of our union here, with an article in its branch bulletin on precisely this issue. It argues: “We should be developing standardised safety and training standards which allow our workers to move seamlessly from oil and gas to decommissioning and renewables.”
“This is a discussion that has to take place not just within RMT, but within the entire labour movement. And trade unions can’t win these policies on our own; we need a government prepared to implement them. If we pass this motion, I want to see RMT lobbying our Parliamentary Group MPs to advocate for these policies inside Labour, and ensuring that when Labour goes into government, these are the policies it will be implementing.
“There is a rich history of working-class direct action in defence of the environment, both in this country and internationally, that we should look to for inspiration. From Australian construction workers in the 1970s, who refused to work on ecologically and socially damaging building sites; to manufacturing workers at Lucas Aerospace who developed an alternative workers’ plan for their factories, showing how they could be used to produce hospital equipment and renewable energy generators rather than weapons of war… workers’ action around climate change gives us a glimpse of how our day-to-day struggles at work can connect to the struggle to change the world, the struggle for a different kind of society.
“The great Polish socialist Rosa Luxemburg, murdered by far- right paramilitaries one hundred years ago this year, popularised the phrase “socialism or barbarism”, meaning that we face a choice between fighting to reorganise our society on the basis of democratic common ownership and freedom – i.e., socialism – or a descent into profound oppression. In a very real way, that is the choice facing us now. Either our class rises to the historic challenge of making a society where the needs of people and the environment come first, or the barbarity of the profit motive will lead us into a world where natural resources are destroyed, food and fuel poverty increases massively, and people are forced from their homes because of flooding and other extreme weather events.
“Comrades, please vote for this motion, and let’s organise workers’ action to fight for a sustainable, socialist future.”
Great shame. Unions organising within fossil fuel related industries need to realise that the world will have to move on from fossil fuels or die, and it’s better for them to be at the forefront of identifying where their members’ skills are valuable and transferable, and preparing to be in a strong position to organise workers in the new industries. Gas turbines run on hydrogen generated from surplus peak renewable electricity, for example. Or (if it ever becomes feasible) carbon capture and storage using the offshore rigs. Lateral thinking is required, the old order won’t persist.