Thursday, 15 March 2007

Green Reps in the Workplace?

In a very interesting article, historian & Respect member, David Renton, puts forward the case for Green reps in the workplace and suggests that the trade union movement take up this demand.

Now that the Stern report has costed the threat posted by environmental degradation, it will be hard for anyone to disagree with the need to reduce carbon emissions. Each of the main parties has green spokesmen. The government has a green minister. The problem of course is that while "everyone" accepts a need to change the way in which live, the forces actually compelling that change are still working almightily slow.

Air travel, for example, is evidently going to play an increasing part in UK carbon emissions. If the amount of flights taken by UK citizens each year increases at the rate of current growth then by 2030 air travel alone will account for more carbon emissions than the UK manages from all sources at present. There is an urgent, obvious need to reduce the amount of flights people take. There is even an obvious mechanism to force reduction: the state should tax aviation fuel. But the government won’t act, and neither would any of the other main parties if they were in power. The risk of upsetting business stops everything.

If anyone thinks that taxing holidays would hurt workers: did you know that since 1994 the number of flights taken in the UK by people earning less than £28,000 a year has fallen?

The consequences of global warming, like all environmental destruction, hurt the poor and workers hardest. If global temperatures rise by 5 degrees, then inevitably large parts of the world will suffer. Large parts of Bangladeshi lie barely above sea levels, so too do large parts of Belgravia. Which of the two do you think will be allowed to drown?

It’s the old problem of the third way: you can’t be nice to everyone all the time. Either you make peace, or war. Either you help the rich, or the workers. You can’t do both.

My only criticism of the recent lively and well-attended Climate Change March (, is that the organisers tend - like many campaigners at the moment - to see the solutions in terms of reduced private consumption. Good people don’t but goods wrapped in packaging. Evil people leave their phones charging overnight.

But if you look at other indicators of environmental degradation, personal consumption is rarely the chief problem. The largest figures I saw, for example, for total waste produced in the UK (by absolute volume): were that 50% was produced by farming, 40% by industry and business, and around 10% by domestic households. I’ve not seen the equivalent figures for carbon emissions, but I’d not be at all surprised if the ratio was similar.

Given that most people still spend 40 hours at work each week, it would be hardly surprising if more of our emissions were also found in the workplace. And in work, of course, people have a greater collective power to change the decisions of companies, than we do as isolated consumers fretting about the supermarkets’ reliance on plastics or anything else.

Judging by the documents posted up on the
TUC website, it seems that this year’s TUC Congress saw more discussion of green issues than ever before: panels were held, documents produced, the minister spoke, and a new website has been launched: the sustainable workplace.

But it’s the TUC, so the discussions were more tentative and more defensive than need be. The solutions promoted were also more bureaucratic.

The TUC has an elected general council and elected women’s, black, LGBT and disabled workers’ committees. Why doesn’t it have an elected green council?

The trade union movement has won from the government legal rights for trade union reps, health and safety reps and workplace learning reps. Every indication is that the government is also considering recognising in law the rights of equality reps – to take paid time off in order to campaign for equal pay between men and women, more diverse workplaces and the like.

Why then, can’t the government allow – and if necessary, fund – a network of workplace green reps? Why isn’t the trade union movement already raising this demand?

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