Trade Unions and Just Transition - The Search for a Transformative Politics

Sean Sweeney and John Treat
construction of solar panels

[Global ‘Just Transition’ Discussion Growing

The linked document, Trade Unions and Just Transition: The Search for a Transformative Politics, deals with a crucial part of the urgent global need to transition to a post-carbon energy system. Though it doesn’t come right out and say it, the text also proves that this must also be a post-capitalist social-economic system.

The document was produced by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (, which is headquartered in New York City and has  62 “participating” trade union bodies from 21 countries. Included are the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), Unifor (representing most of Canada’s energy sector workers), the BC Government and Service Employees Union (BCGEU), the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) and the Federation des Travailleurs et Travailleuses du Quebec (FTQ).

The disclaimer on page 2 allows that not all unions participating in TUED will necessarily agree with all of the points in the document.

Just transition is discussed in both of its meanings: 1) a safety net for workers who are displaced from their jobs by climate disasters and/or by policies designed to minimize such disasters and 2) a broader economic, political, and societal shift to a socially just, sustainable, low-carbon world.

In its four parts the document traces the history of the union-originated concept of “just transition,” its growing importance for unions in many countries, unions’ efforts to get it into international climate agreements, the mostly too-little-too-late methods unions have used attempting to implement it, and a persuasive argument for radical changes in those methods before it's too late.

TUED's global bi-monthly web meeting on Wednesday, May 9th, 1000-1130hrs, Eastern US time will discuss the document and related international developments. To participate in the discussion, RSVP to ireneTUED@gmail.comConnection information and a full agenda will be sent to those who register.


The global discussion sets the stage for an upcoming TUED meeting in New York City on May 29th, 2018. Titled Towards a Just Transition: International Labor Perspectives on Energy, Climate and Economy, the 60-person discussion will bring together unions from 10 countries to discuss how finding solutions to ecological challenges can play a central role in strengthening worker and trade union internationalism. The meeting is being hosted by 1199 SEIU. - Gene McGuckin]


The idea of “Just Transition” has gained a firm foothold in the global policy discourse. But what do we mean by Just Transition and how can it be achieved? How can worker-focused concerns become integrated into a broad program for social change that can address the need for a socio-ecological transformation?  

Sean Sweeney and John Treat

In late 2015, after more than a decade of tenacious lobbying of government negotiators, union representatives led by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) succeeded in getting the phrase “Just Transition” into the preamble to the Paris Climate Agreement negotiated at COP21. The text affirmed “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.”

More than two years have passed since COP21, and calls for a Just Transition have emerged from all corners of the global progressive community. Once more or less exclusively a trade union priority, calls for a Just Transition increasingly appear, in varying forms, in the campaigns of major environmental organizations, climate justice and green NGOs, and indigenous and farmers’ movements. However unevenly, Just Transition has begun to feature in discussions around national politics and policy, and unions increasingly refer to the current period as Just Transition’s “implementation phase.”

The Need for an Integrated and Transformative Politics

Unions for the most part understand that they must strive to develop a Just Transition politics that somehow addresses the immediate concerns of workers while keeping the need for a transition of the entire economy in view. A transition that is “just” from the perspective of workers or “the workforce,” but which fails to help achieve the needed socioeconomic transformation, will ultimately accomplish little to address pressing climate-related and broader ecological concerns. Alternatively, policies aimed at driving a socioeconomic transformation that are robust enough to achieve climate and environmental targets, but which ignore the impact on workers in specific locations or industries, risk being unable to secure the support from workers that such a transformation requires in order to be successful.

“Social Dialogue” or “Social Power”?

In this eleventh TUED Working Paper, we argue that, in order to effectively achieve this full range of aims, the international trade union movement must collectively formulate and pursue a comprehensive, integrated approach. Doing so requires a sober examination of the origins and current state of debates over Just Transition.

Unions at all levels recognize that a broad transformation of our economy and society is urgently necessary. But the insistence on keeping “Social Dialogue” at the center of such discussions holds trade union debates captive to the narrative of the liberal business establishment, and to a very narrow and de-mobilizing interpretation of Just Transition. Anchored in the particular realities of post-war Europe, Social Dialogue has in recent years been asserted as an official ideology for the international trade union movement—one that is increasingly out of step with both the challenges facing workers and their organizations, and the pressing demands for action posed by the climate and ecological crisis more broadly.

This paper makes the case for a different and more expansive trade union conversation—one that can address worker-focused concerns while advancing deeper socioeconomic transformation. We call this the “Social Power” approach. This approach is guided by the belief that a Just Transition cannot be accomplished without a deep restructuring of the global political economy, and current power relations must be challenged and changed. If this does not occur, then the vast majority of the world’s working people will never see anything vaguely resembling a Just Transition.

The paper offers examples from around the world that illustrate how this new approach is cohering within day-to-day trade union struggles, as well as at the level of ideas across the political left.

Download the full paper here.