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Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 1485
September 21, 2017

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UK Unions Call for Energy to be Returned to Public Ownership

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy

The annual congress of the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC) has passed a historic composite resolution on climate change that supports the energy sector being returned to public ownership and democratic control.

People and communities should have the right to control their energy future.

The resolution – carried unanimously – calls upon the 5.7-million-member national federation to work with the Labour Party to achieve this goal, as well as to: implement a mass program for energy conservation and efficiency; lobby for the establishment of a “just transition” strategy for affected workers; and, investigate the long-term risks to pension funds from investments in fossil fuels.

The Labour Party’s 2017 election manifesto, For the Many, Not the Few, pointed to the failures of electricity privatization, energy poverty, the need to honor the UK’s climate commitments, and to put the UK on course for 60% of its energy to be met by zero carbon or renewable sources by 2030.

The Manifesto also committed to “take energy back into public ownership to deliver renewable energy, affordability for consumers, and democratic control.” It calls for the creation of “publicly owned, locally accountable energy companies and co-operatives to rival existing private energy suppliers.”

Dangerous Climate Change

Moved by Sarah Woolley, Organising Regional Secretary for the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), the resolution refers to the “irrefutable evidence that dangerous climate change is driving unprecedented changes to our environment,” as well as the risks to meeting the climate challenge posed by Trump’s announced withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, and by the chaotic approach to both Brexit and broader policy by the current Conservative government.

The resolution affirmed that combating climate change and moving toward a low-carbon economy cannot be left to markets, but requires a strong role for the public sector in driving the transition. In supporting the resolution, several speakers referred to the devastation unleashed across the Caribbean over the previous several days by Hurricane Irma – the most powerful Atlantic Ocean storm in recorded history – and across southern Texas only days before that by Hurricane Harvey.

Cliff Holloway of the train drivers’ union ASLEF referred to the major role of transport in the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Rail union RMT representative Glenroy Watson emphasized the need for worker representation in developing solutions, and for greater support for the global South, which has not been adequately supported in its adaptation efforts. Speaking for UNISON, Nicky Ramanadi highlighted the issue of fuel poverty, while Ele Wade, speaking for the power sector union Prospect, noted that emissions reductions were trailing behind established targets. Iain Dalton of the retail union USDAW referred to the failures of the private sector, emphasizing that “public ownership of energy under democratic control is the crucial part of this composite resolution.”

Assistant General Secretary Chris Baugh of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) also spoke in favor of the resolution. A video segment of his comments is available on Youtube.

Also supporting the resolution was the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), whose Andy Noble urged UK unions to support Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, and to join with unions around the world in the global fight for democratic control of energy.

Notably, the text of the resolution also formally recognized the important work of TUED partner, The Transnational Institute (TNI), based in Amsterdam, whose recent report, “Reclaiming Public Service: how cities and citizens are turning back privatization,” highlighted the global trend toward re-municipalization of public services, including energy.

Following the vote, Martin Mayer, UNITE’s representative to the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee, told TUED: “Today British trade unions for the first time agreed a visionary strategy to combat climate change. That must mean taking back control of our privatised energy and a serious call for a just transition to protect jobs.” Jenny Patient of Sheffield Climate Alliance – part of the Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union group – added, “We know there are good and valuable jobs in the transition to zero carbon and this resolution shows the way forward by making this integral to a cross-sector industrial strategy that can rebalance and rebuild industries and protect workers.” •

Composite Resolution 4, on climate change and public ownership of energy, adopted unanimously by TUC, September 12th, 2017, Brighton, UK.

C04 Climate Change – Motion 10 and amendments

Congress notes the irrefutable evidence that dangerous climate change is driving unprecedented changes to our environment such as the devastating flooding witnessed in the UK in 2004.

Congress further notes the risk to meeting the challenge of climate change with the announcement of Donald Trump to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. Similarly, Brexit negotiations and incoherent UK government policy risk undermining measures to achieve the UK carbon reduction targets.

Congress welcomes the report by the Transnational Institute Reclaiming Public Service: how cities and citizens are turning back privatization, which details the global trend to remunicipalise public services, including energy, and supports efforts by unions internationally to raise issues such as public ownership and democratic control as part of solutions to climate change.

Congress notes that transport is responsible for a quarter of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions and believes that a reduction in carbon dioxide levels must be the basis of the UK's future transport policy in addition to building public transport capacity and moving more freight from road to rail.

Congress believes that to effectively combat climate change and move towards a low carbon economy we cannot leave this to the markets and therefore need a strong role for the public sector in driving the measures needed to undertake this transition. Congress notes that pension schemes invest billions of pounds into fossil fuel corporations.

To this end, Congress calls on the TUC to:

  1. work with the Labour Party and others that advocate for an end to the UK's rigged energy system to bring it back into public ownership and democratic control
  2. advocate for a mass programme of retrofit and insulation of Britain's homes and public buildings
  3. lobby to demand rights for workplace environmental reps iv. lobby for the establishment of a Just Transition strategy for those workers affected by the industrial changes necessary to develop a more environmentally sustainable future for all, and develop practical steps needed to achieve this as integral to industrial strategy
  4. consult with all affiliates to seek input into the development of a cross sector industrial strategy that works towards delivering internationally agreed carbon emission reduction targets
  5. investigate the long-term risks for pension funds investing in fossil fuels, promote divestment, and alternative reinvestment in the sustainable economy.

Mover: Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union
Seconder: Communication Workers Union
Supporters: Fire Brigades Union; ASLEF; TSSA

Related Reading



Comments

#2 Jakki Oldfield 2017-09-23 09:26 EST
Competition 4 The Big 6
Labour's proposal to 'only' create regional supply companies offering fair rates will almost certainly wipe out the Big 6, who cannot survive without profits for their shareholders and thereby bring energy back into the hands of the public. I will be one of the first to switch I can assure you. Essential services such as energy, water, travel (rail), health (NHS), social housing etc should be state owned and non-profit for the good of all.



#1 C MacMackin 2017-09-21 09:15 EST
Not going far enough
All well and good, but what is actually being proposed. The Labour manifesto only proposed to create regional supply companies, which purchase electricity and gas on the wholesale market and then sell them on to customers. These would just compete against the exist "Big 6". There was a pledge to take the grid into public ownership, but this was at some unspecified later date. Nothing was said about ownership of generation infrastructure or any part of the gas infrastructure. There is a commitment to supporting renewable energy co-ops, but in the UK context these are little more than a Thatcherite share-owning democracy. Local investors help finance the construction of solar panels or wind turbines, and then sell the electricity on the market. Were all of this done, there would still be less public ownership than existed in Ontario prior to the privatisation of Hydro One. The Ontario left calls for an end to the electricity market and the recreation of a vertically integrated utility in Ontario, so surely the same call should be made in the UK? The much vaunted examples of cities taking back their energy grids just means that there is now a choice to use a public electricity supplier (as an alternative to private competitors) and the basic infrastructures is in public ownership. It's a good step, but at the end of the day it leaves you with something equivalent to Toronto Hydro.

Meanwhile, there was no policy to back up the Labour pledge for 60% clean energy by 2030. This would be a massive task as it would require replacing massive ammounts of gas and petrol used for heating and transport, respectively. To achieve this goal would require economic planning on a scale not seen since WWII. More likely what was meant is 60% clean electricity by 2030. However, the UK's electricity is already about 45% clean (in fact, most days it has a lower carbon intensity than Germany's), so that's not an impressive goal. Furthermore, electricity only makes up 20% of current energy use and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. While 60% clean energy by 2030 is the sort of goal we should be setting, it is useless if it is not backed up with policies capable of acheiving it.



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