Students and Workers Unite Against Climate Change

15 March 2019 00:00


By Ambet Yuson, General Secretary, Building and Wood Workers’ international

The evidence is overwhelming. The planet's average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit (0.9 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.1 Most of the warming occurred in the past 35 years, with the five warmest years on record taking place since 2010.

Unfortunately, despite government policy pronouncements, incentives to businesses, and subsidies, market forces are not responding quick enough to the existential crisis that climate change represents. The most recent OECD report entitled, “Global Material Resources Outlook to 2060” concludes:

“The ambitions of the Paris Agreement, including the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) and the “well below two degrees” objective, would not be met in the central baseline scenario.

In short despite all actions to date, we are still on a course for climate change temperatures to rise above two degrees. Such an increase will add climate refugees to the flood of political refugees and migrants now inundating the world. As is, always the case women, minorities, children, indigenous populations, workers, and the poor will bear a disproportionate burden of the costs of climate change.

Future generations will pay the costs of poorly thought out policies enacted today just as our generation is paying for the failure of prior generations to address the drivers not only of climate change but also economic inequality.

Since the next generation will bear the costs of our inability to create a socially just transition it makes sense for workers to reach out and work with the next generation. Their impatience and passion for change today may be just what is needed to take our movement for a socially just transition to the next level.

This will require building bridges and creating coalitions with groups that do not place worker’s interests first. We must engage these groups in an ongoing dialogue to help them understand the structural roots of the problems they seek to solve. They must come to understand that an injury to one is an injury to all.

BWI in whatever form it has taken has consistently sought to strengthen the voice of our members. We have done this through building relationships with like-minded groups, creating solidarity, and taking direct action. It is time for us to once again build relationships with the next generation. In this case with like-minded students who, using the fundamental tool known to all of our members: the strike, seek to engage, educate, motivate, and energize others to create global solidarity for a socially just transition to a low carbon economy. One where workers have a much greater voice in not only how natural resources are used to meet human needs but also in what is to be produced.

For too many of our members the choice they are offered by neo-liberalism or populism is “jobs or the environment”. They are asked to choose between feeding their families today or protecting the future for their children. No worker should have to make this choice.

No worker should have to make this choice because there are other options. The one’s promoted by BWI for more than three decades are based on jobs and the environment. BWI members were among the first to call for sustainable forest management and sustainable development. Our members have marched, struck, and fought for a voice in decisions about: energy efficient buildings, climate smart land use, and development patterns for the global south that promote prosperity for all within a sustainable framework, not profit based exploitation of both human and natural resources for the benefit of the few. We raised our voices at the Paris climate accord meetings demanding a socially just transition to a low carbon economy.

A socially just transition is required since the climate crisis exists because markets cannot accurately place a cost on future pollution, future pollution caused diseases, and the replacement costs of natural resources. Market based economies do not value the work of marginalized populations including in various places around the world: women, minorities, indigenous peoples, migrants, and workers in informal employment. Without extensive regulation the market, however defined, will continue to allocate profits to the 1 percent from underpaying workers (in various forms including unsafe work).

The solution isn’t to expand the market into every aspect of our lives in a futile effort to put a price on clean air, drinkable water, carbon pollution or social injustice. But rather to understand and develop public policy that puts the needs of workers, our families, and future generations first, not last. Putting prices on natural resources is what contributed to this problem in the first place. Market failures are just that, failures of the market inherent in the very structure of the framework of neo-liberalism.

Most around the globe, excluding the richest 1 percent, understand this. Yet those whose hands are on the levers of power fear this future where their own status will be diminished. Thus, they fight a rear-guard action to delay the transition to a socially just sustainable future. Every day they succeed in delaying the transition, they increase the costs for us today and our children tomorrow.

Unfortunately, too many in the “green” community fail to understand that the problem is the market and using market devices to solve a market created problem will simply make the situation worse. These well-meaning activists believe that they must solve the environmental problem first unaware that the environmental problem’s root cause is the market system and the structures that created massive economic and social inequality.

This is why when students around the world decide to strike for climate justice, we must support them.

Many of these students understand that inequality and environmental abuse are incubators for populism and fascism.

The core industries of BWI have been on the front lines of this fight for decades. In fact, workers have been fighting this fight since the advent of capitalism, and the industrial revolution it has driven. From exploitation of forests and forestry workers to the enclosure of the commons forcing workers into cities, to land use patterns and building technologies that are energy inefficient, construction and forestry workers have paid the price of market based private and public policies.

Our reliance on fossil fuels today, our land use patterns of ever-growing metropolitan areas are the result of decisions made based on market driven resource allocations. The technology that guides our life today was chosen because it was the most marketable; not because it was the best technological choice for workers but because it produced the greatest profit for others.

The decisions made to privatize forests and deny use to workers of even dead wood are little different then many decisions made resulting in deforestation today. The questions asked are not what is best for the community, for the workers or even for the planet but rather what will generate the highest return on investment.

In democracies there are two voting groups that if they combine can make a difference. The Post World War II groups labeled “Baby Boomers” and the next generation labeled “Millennials”. If these age cohorts of retirees and new job seekers could find common ground real change could occur. There are moments in our recent past when young and old came together in various countries. In every instance positive change occurred.

Aware of this history we are starting the process of building a cross generational coalition for social and climate justice. We encourage all of our affiliates to reach out as well in your own countries. Remember the choice isn’t today and never was jobs or the environment but rather jobs that enable sustainable development and a better life for all. Without social justice there can be no environmental justice.

The report says that all workers should have the right to organise and bargain regardless of how their work is structured. That, in itself, would mean little if they did not accompany that statement with some practical ideas as to how we might get there.

The situation we face is that, although in many countries, all workers have the statutory right to organise, they do not, in fact, have the effective right to organise. In our industries and in many others, employers have become very creative in re-designing the organisation of work so that workers to not really have that right.

That means, among other things, that union density is under-estimated. If you take the number or workers who are organised as a percentage of the total workforce, you come up with a very different figure than if you calculate it as a percentage of the “organisable” workforce. The organisable workforce has shrunk and that development, over which we have no control, determines density, but more importantly, dictates on the ground organising feasibility and results.

We have a lot of “self-employed” workers working on construction sites and in some regions particularly in Asia, this is the normal form of employment. They are not employees, but micro-enterprises. In theory, they may be able to form associations, but the people they work for could dictates all conditions of work and they can refuse to bargain with them and, if they did negotiate, it would be about prices, not wages, which might mean that they would be considered to be “price-fixing” in violation of anti-trust laws”.

Workers provided by temporary work agencies might have, in some countries, the right to organise and bargain but, with only a few exceptions, it would be with the agency that dispatched them and not with the user employer; the employer that is fixing their hours, determining their health and safety conditions, their wages, and doing nearly everything else that a normal employer would do.

There are many other workers, including contract workers, subcontractors, and informal workers who often fall through the cracks of labour law coverage.

One of the ways that the Global Commission proposes to provide the effective rights to organise and bargain is to guarantee that all workers have employment relationships. That would give them real trade union rights, but would also provide social insurance and some other rights that they otherwise would not enjoy.

This proposal might seem far-fetched and way too ambitious, but earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court, with a conservative majority, unanimously decided a question of access to the courts by a “self-employed” worker by siding with the worker. In their judgement, a justice appointed by President Trump, Neil Gorsuch, wrote that there were differences between the worker, who said that he worked for the company and the company who said that he was

self-employed. However, both sides agreed that he was a worker and the relevant legislation from 1925 did not speak of employees and self-employed, but only of workers.

The BWI has been deploying the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises to argue that companies have to assume the responsibility for human rights violations of workers even if those workers are not directly employed by them. Much of our work in mega-sporting events as well as engagement with multinational companies is based on those principles.

The reform proposed for consideration by the Global Commission would provide a change of status that would protect the rights of those with disguised employment relationships and others, so it would be the same principle as that incorporated in the Guiding Principles, but with a legal status. As the Guiding Principles are based on the idea that the State must protect rights and business must respect them, the Global Commission’s recommendation, if implemented, would strengthen that relationship between protect and respect.

A worker is a worker and a worker is a human being. The steady erosion of employment relationships by business has made many workers feel disposable or as if they are commodities being bought and sold on the open, and increasingly international market. That is not just a perception. It is a reality. Shifts in status often mean that workers are “protected” by commercial law, that treats all parties as equals instead of by labour law that is based on the recognition that employers are innately more powerful than workers.

Reorganising the future of work along the lines suggested by the Global Commission would not only be progress for social justice and decent work, but also a major breakthrough for human dignity.