Trade unions and the climate change fight

Julie Douglas & Peter McGhee

We [unions] have to stop running away from the climate crisis, stop leaving it to the environmentalist, and look at it. Let ourselves absorb the fact that the industrial revolution that led to our society’s prosperity is now destabilizing the natural systems on which all of life dependsNaomi Klein


Climate change is perhaps the greatest existential threat humanity has ever faced. Indeed, this year is predicted to be the hottest on record since pre-industrial levels. The signing of the Paris COP21 agreement in March in 2016 behoves all countries to take urgent action to reduce carbon emissions. New Zealand is a signatory to the agreement, which clearly accepts that climate action is not the responsibility of governments alone and that all affected parties have a role in developing a response to climate change. Aside from environmental impacts from climate change there will be significant social, economic and political impacts as well. Work and workplaces, at the centre of the economy and social life, are important sites for responding to climate change. Employment is core to providing a livelihood and prospects on an individual level, and contributing to society as a whole.


There needs to be a tripartite approach to climate action in the workplace. Of the key direct stakeholders (state, employers and unions), unions represent around 18.6 percent of all workers (359,782 members) in New Zealand and therefore also constitutes our largest democratic body. A body of this size which has the structure in place to educate and organise through both the peak union body, the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU), and individual unions, must logically become an important partner in strategic discussions at both a government, industry and firm level.


The union movement in New Zealand has a long history of leading debate and resistance around issues of social justice, from taking a stand against Spain’s fascist Franco to refusing to assist in the loading of ships carrying New Zealand police officers to Samoa in 1929 who went on to kill many Samoans in the Mau movement. With this pedigree of social conscience and history of taking action it should follow that the union movement and its members would again rise and offer leadership to the latest challenge to social order and justice, and indeed potential catastrophic change to the planet.


Not only will jobs, occupations and industries disappear or change but the health and safety of workers will be threatened and more broadly, food and water security compromised. The initial challenge to unions then, is to see these threats as core to union work and why action is imperative to ensure their unions are ready to respond, educate members, and also to work with firms to develop strategies which allow for a just transition to a more sustainable workplace and world.  Unfortunately, such transformation does not appear to be forthcoming.


A recent study we conducted interviewed leaders from eleven of the affiliated unions to the NZCTU (representing 75 percent of all members in affiliated unions). These interviews sought information on what actions, if any, the unions had put in place to respond to climate change, and also the role they saw unions having in climate action and just transition. All of the interviewees articulated a strong personal position of concern about impending climate change and need for action. They all saw the union movement and the NZCTU as important stakeholders and leaders in the action required. However, when looking at the unions themselves the results were sobering. None were in a well-prepared position to face the future regarding climate change. Two had begun to develop some basic policies and plans but did not consider themselves in anyway ready; seven respondents indicated that they personally saw the issue as important but that their unions had done nothing in this area yet and that there were no conversations within the formal structure of their organisation about this issue; and the remaining two union respondents clearly articulated that climate change was not on their union’s radar and there was no indication this was likely to change. Across these unions only two respondents indicated that there had been interest raised by their membership.


This is a fairly bleak outlook for society especially if it places its hope of action on the largest democratic body in the country. Why are unions so unprepared? There are some identifiable reasons, but not excuses, for this. Firstly, we must look at the current socio-political environment unions operate under in New Zealand. As a result of the neo liberal paradigm shift in the 1980s and consequent legislation changes (such as the Employment Contracts Act 1991), union membership dramatically fell, and since 2008 unions have sustained a consistent undermining of rights such as workplace access. The role that unions play in the lives of workers – including their members – has narrowed as a result.


Secondly, unions’ core work is the preservation and enhancement of workers’ wages and conditions. It is for this reason that workers join unions and many of the union leaders we interviewed indicated they were concerned that a shift towards long-term social issues such as climate change could affect membership numbers. The irony being that the continued focus on the short gains of wages and conditions will be pointless if in the middle to long term members’ jobs ceased to exist. That said though, research from the US indicated that union members were more likely to be concerned with environment issues and therefore may well embrace their union engaging with climate change strategies[1]. Despite this finding, it is perhaps unsurprising that none of the unions interviewed had actively surveyed or begun widespread conversations about climate change within their unions and therefore were unaware of their members’ position or wishes on the issue. While it was true that some unions had improved sustainability measures in specific firms and, in one instance, got an organisation to divest in fossil fuel investment, this still stopped well short of a unified approach.


System justification theory postulates that human’s tend to view the wider systems on which they depend in a favourable light. As Johnson notes, upholding the status quo encourages feelings of security, purpose and relatedness through a shared reality. Unions, and their members are no different. They advocate for improved employment outcomes within a capitalist system that rewards self-interest and promotes economic growth as central to human well-being (usually at the expense of the environment). Unfortunately, climate change is a consequence of that same system. Perhaps this explains unions’ reluctance to engage in any meaningful way. To embrace climate change shifts the focus from short-term economic benefits for workers to that of uniting ‘all labouring men and women for a truly different order of things’.[2] Such a move could help unions become truly social democratic movements contributing to the flourishing of all.



[1] Vachon, T., & Brecher, J. (2016). Are union members more or less likely to be environmentalists? Labor Studies Journal. Doi:10.1177/0160449×16643323

[2] Leeson, R. (1971). United We Stand: British Trade Union Emblems (p. 32). London: Adams and Dart.


Julie Douglas & Peter McGhee
About the author

Julie Douglas & Peter McGhee

Senior Lecturers - Auckland University of Technology
Dr Julie Douglas is a Senior Lecturer in the Management Department at the Auckland University of Technology. Dr Douglas teaches employment relations and has a keen interest in how ethics impacts the employment relationship, gendered notions of work, and the issue of social justice through work and collectivism. Recent research has been in the areas of the gendered construction of skill and occupations, living wage, aged care workers, and unions and climate change. Dr. Peter McGhee is a Senior Lecturer in Sustainability & Ethics in the Business, Economics & Law Faculty at AUT. He has lectured and written in the area of sustainability and ethics for the last 10 years. His current research interests include spirituality at work, new forms of leadership, and virtue ethics and organisational identity. He currently teaches introductory papers in Sustainable Leadership and Business & Society.