Analysis: Report From the Global Trade Union Assembly

The Global Trade Union Assembly (GTUA), “Pandemic and Beyond: Workers Organising for a Public Future”, which took place over seven events from July to September, was convened by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy and over fifty unions and union federations from around the world. Over 1000 unionists participated. Trade Unions for Energy Democracy is an alliance of unions, global union federations, national bodies, and other worker organisations from around the world advocating democratisation and public ownership of energy generation, and a shift to renewable energy and a sustainable economy.

The themes of the Assembly were:

Defending and Restoring Vital Public Services: Health, Education, Post and Transport;
Beyond Insecurity: A New Approach to Work, Wages and Wealth Distribution;
Extending Public Ownership and Democratic Control of Energy;
Making Austerity History: Reclaiming Finance to Pay for the Future We Want.

Despite the severity of the world crisis now confronting us, it is fair to say that the response of the global trade union movement to date has not been adequate. In this context, the fact that the GTUA took place is significant. But, as the organisers would no doubt concede, the Assembly represents only a beginning to the process of building a political-industrial movement capable of responding to the immediate health and economic crisis caused by Covid-19, and to the continuing crisis posed by climate change.

“Most governing elites find it impossible to envisage a world without market-driven capitalism even if its persistence means the end of human civilisation as we know it.”

One of the key lessons from the Assembly, and something that TUED has been saying for many years, is that what is holding us back from meeting the decarbonisation challenge is not technological difficulties – it is the reliance on market mechanisms. Assembly speakers made a similar point about the response to the coronavirus: many governments have put the interests of business before the health of people, especially insecurely or poorly paid workers.

Almost everywhere the key driver of the level of renewable generation investment is how profitable it is for private capital. It is not happening at the speed or scale necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change because governments are deferring to market-driven private capital.

Similarly, as the Assembly heard, decades of neoliberalism, and the even longer-term impact of colonialism on the countries of the global south, have left health and welfare systems and the rights of workers in a perilous position to cope with the calamity of Covid-19.

The pandemic has exposed many of the lies that have formed the core ideological program of the neoliberal elite (the benefits of privatisation, the necessity of “flexible” labour standards, the evils of public debt and government involvement in the economy), but has yet to vanquish their advocates. That is a matter of power, and there has been little reduction of the elite’s exercise of it during the pandemic – perhaps, indeed, there has been a consolidation.

The Assembly’s most important message was its claim that the pandemic, just as much as the challenge of decarbonisation, challenges everything about how our societies and our world work. Both crises challenge the unequal distribution of resources and wealth within countries and between them. They also challenge the false comforts of the labour movement – the idea that we must defend to the last job those workers from the great industries of the 20th century, those who constitute our core memberships, the aristocracy of labour, while ignoring the vast mass of workers in the new industries, in the informal sector, the precariously employed, the women, the marginalised, those, in other words, who make up the great majority of the working class and the frontline of the pandemic response, and who are often not unionised.

Dealing with Covid and climate change requires, first and foremost, a political movement at the scale that is commensurate with the challenge. We heard throughout the Assembly of the terrible suffering being experienced by the global working class. The risk to the world from an increasingly unhinged nativism bordering on fascism (or outright fascism), amplified by the poisonous technologies of the silicon value plutocrats, is higher than any time since the 1930s and 40s. We must respond with a political movement of scale, vision and force sufficient to meet that risk.

It is to be hoped that the GTUA will be the first step to the creation of such a movement. We must remember that organised workers have a unique capacity to transform the economy, because we provide the labour that makes economic activity possible. Sara Nelson, from the US Flight Attendants Union, reminded us of this in her call for a global general strike during the first session of the GTUA. This is the sort of action we will need to take to achieve the energy transformation.

While there are technological challenges posed by decarbonisation of electricity, the slow pace of action to reduce CO2 emissions is not fundamentally a technological issue. It is a political and ideological one – a matter of power. The fact that fossil fuel companies are receiving four times as much of the government stimulus being spent on Covid-hit economies as renewable energy reinforces this. The capture of the capitalist state by fractions of capital associated with fossil fuel energy is the main reason we are currently losing the battle for a safe climate. Even where this is less of a problem, the neoliberal transformation of the state almost everywhere delays climate action so as not to disturb market processes, just as surrender to the market made most countries ill prepared for the pandemic.

Most governing elites find it impossible to envisage a world without market-driven capitalism even if its persistence means the end of human civilisation as we know it. The task of the global labour movement must be to build an alternative vision, a political program that is fit for the challenges that we face, and it must be prepared to back that action with the power that organised labour is uniquely in control of – the power over labour and production.