Meeting needs and drilling for oil: two cheers for Unite
Unite the union is launching three grassroots campaigns on energy, steel and green jobs. General Secretary Sharon Graham wants them to influence Labour policy by mobilising voters in key ‘red wall’ constituencies.
The union calls for renationalisation of the National Grid as part of a transformed energy system that functions ‘to meet our needs, not prioritise profiteering’. It has a costed plan and makes the case for publicly owned, democratically managed energy to provide affordability and secure working conditions. Graham also points out that the UK economy is too damaged to rely solely on growth. She calls for collective control of the national infrastructure and raises concerns that Labour’s green prosperity plan is undeveloped and lacks critical detail.
Applying the Social Guarantee framework would put Unite’s ambition of meeting constituents’ needs centre stage. Its principles include that everyone has the right to life’s essentials regardless of ability to pay; services are sustainable; local authorities and residents are empowered; and needs are met through a mixed economy of service providers bound by public interest obligations. Proposals for a Social Guarantee for energy overlap with Unite’s demands, including the creation of green jobs across the country. Another core conviction of the Social Guarantee is that workers’ pay and conditions are fair, with the support of a minimum income guarantee to ensure no one is left behind. A wider policy programme aiming for universal access to other
essential services – from transport and housing to childcare and adult social care – would supplement efforts to transform the energy sector and improve the quality of life for not only workers but the young, old and unemployed.
The Social Guarantee is built on a vision of sufficiency for all, within environmental limits. It points to a flaw in Unite’s vision for a just transition. Alongside other unions, including GMB, Unite supports continued oil and gas drilling in the North Sea to maintain jobs. That makes no sense at all. No job is secure if we can’t stop climate breakdown – and there’s a powerful scientific consensus that we can only do that if we keep fossil fuels in the ground from now on. So the aim must be to decarbonise the energy sector rapidly and shift to renewables. The best way to maintain job security is to invest in re-skilling and re-employing workers in affected industries. The UK should follow the lead of countries such as Germany, France and Ireland and withdraw from the Energy Charter Treaty to ensure that we can legislate against further fossil fuel extraction without impediment. By paying attention to efforts in the US and EU – although not perfect – we can form our own green industrial strategy that supports workers in carbon-intensive industries.
A united movement for this is kind of transformation involving the unions, workers, civil society and policymakers is urgently required, particularly as Rishi Sunak discards decades of cross-party consensus on climate change. A fully developed Green New Deal with strong social foundations is what the Social Guarantee is aiming for and should be central to Labour’s strategy. This would involve new green infrastructure, renewable energy generation and a green industrial strategy, providing secure employment across the country.
Harry Ewart-Biggs is a researcher at the Social guarantee