Trade unions call for ‘new social contract’ to drive energy transition

The Spanish government, trade unions and private-operated coal mines reached a deal that will bring €250 million in investments to mining regions in the form of early retirement funds for miners over age 48, and comprehensive retraining schemes and economic support for younger miners. [EPA/ROLAND WEIHRAUCH]

The transition to a climate neutral economy will have a massive impact on all sectors and their workforce. But trade unions believe a “new social contract” can help engage workers in the transformation, and push the transition forward instead of holding it back.

“The new social contract is about engaging people, including them in the planning process when it comes to implementing the transition needed to fight the climate crisis,” says Alison Tate, from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

It also implies “making sure that the process is not imposed” on workers and people, said Tate, who is director of economic and social policy at ITUC, an international federation which brings together some 300 trade unions located in 160 different countries.

“This is where climate justice and social justice go hand in hand,” she told EURACTIV on the sidelines of the United Nations climate action summit in New York.

According to Tate, such a new social contract means involving workers in the transformation of their own working environment.

“It’s a basic community principle,” Tate said. “When you let employees participate in the planning process, they will not fear the transition, they will push it forward”.

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According to ITUC, the world currently faces historic levels of inequality, fuelled by a failed model of globalisation, increased conflict and military spending, displacement of people at unprecedented levels, as well as a climate crisis and massive disruption from technology.

It says the only way to achieve a successful transition to environmental sustainability is to build social consensus by ensuring workers are part of the plan.

The notion of “just transition” is enshrined in the Paris Agreement. However, it is only mentioned in its preamble, meaning it does not have the same binding nature as the agreement itself. The preamble stipulates that the parties to the agreement will take into account “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities”.

The notion of “just transition” was picked up by Poland, which hosted the UN climate conference (COP24) in December last year. Poland is heavily dependent on coal, and underlined the imperative of taking the negative socio-economic impacts of the transition into account by adopting a text, the Silesia Declaration on Solidarity and Just Transition.

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Spanish example

Alison Tate cited Spain as a “very good example” of a successful just transition.

In Spain, unions struck a deal with the government that will bring €250 million of  fresh investments for mining regions in the form of an early retirement fund for miners aged over 48. The deal also includes a comprehensive retraining scheme and support for younger miners.

The aim is to provide a a safety net for miners who will lose their jobs following the closure of 10 coal plants next year. “That’s where the negotiations are, between employees and employers, the government acting as a facilitator,” Tate explained.

Madrid believes the strategy could pave the way for coal regions to become leaders in Spain’s renewable energy sector, which is growing again after the abolition of a controversial tax on solar in October last year. The administration will be releasing its long-delayed comprehensive environmental plan in November.

Teresa Ribera, Spanish minister for the ecological transition, described the government’s strategy as “a commitment of solidarity” that is necessary in order to “build alternatives” to the coal plants that will close in 2020.

“Our aim is to leave no one behind,” Ribera told delegates at the UN climate action “pre-summit” in New York last Sunday (22 September).

The Spanish minister also insisted on the contribution that coal miners have made to the economy over the last decades. “It does not make sense to say to them you were useful to us but not anymore,” she said, adding: “We also want to go further, we want to innovate.”

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[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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