Education International
Education International

Unions confronting climate change

published 13 March 2008 updated 13 March 2008

Is climate change a trade union issue? Activists at the University and College Union in the UK believe the answer to that question is an emphatic, “Yes!”

Take a quick look around the world and it’s easy to see why. Polar ice caps melt. Equatorial rain forest burns. Australia suffers devastating droughts, while England faces the worst floods in memory. Extreme weather events are causing upheaval, hunger, disease and death worldwide. The UCU’s Brian Everett says we have to think about the crisis of climate change in a new and bigger way, especially since so far there is little policy on it within the labour movement, including education unions. EI made an important start last July with a resolution passed at World Congress in Berlin, which commits us to “both informing and acting on the urgent issue of environmental awareness and global warming,” from the grassroots to the global stage. The UCU then rang the alarm bell at the 6th International Higher Education and Research conference in Málaga last November. UCU officials Brian Everett and Rob Copeland said that academics should act in both their professional role and their trade union role to promote sustainable development. “The world's universities are huge producers of carbon emissions. Unless they take action quickly, their continuing contribution to global warming will be substantial,” Everett said. He acknowledged that reducing carbon emissions will inevitably impact on jobs, and terms and conditions of work, but the scope of the problem demands action. “This is much bigger than we expected,” Everett said. “Ironically, it is in those very universities that research is carried out to find means of reducing carbon emissions. But this in itself is not enough. Trade unionists within universities must negotiate with their employers to help them reduce their environmental impact. We'd like to see carbon emissions and other environmental concerns become negotiable issues.” The UCU is urging unions to recruit environment reps who would promote environmentally positive policies and practices in the workplace. A variety of issues aimed at reducing carbon emissions could be brought to the bargaining table. These include: design and use of buildings to reduce energy consumption, commuting and home working, changing work patterns, and reducing staff and student travel. Everett and Copeland noted the inherent contradictions of flying to a distant conference to discuss saving energy. They also raised other dilemmas: for example, how is the enormous educational value of international student exchange to be weighed against the environmental impact of their journeys? They encouraged educators to bring awareness of climate change into their course content, thus contributing to the “greening” of the curriculum. The UCU cautioned that there could be risks for academic staff who raise controversial issues or “blow the whistle” on the unacceptable practices of employers. Researchers who feel ethically obliged to report information in the public interest will need strong advocates within their unions to protect their academic freedom and employment rights. Everett and Copeland also urged trade unions to examine their own energy consumption, and try to reduce their own carbon footprints. They could consider using more tele-conferencing and fewer face-to-face meetings, while retaining their democratic procedures. By Nancy Knickerbocker

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 25, February/March 2008.

“Addressing the threat of climate change will entail a transition to new patterns of production, consumption and employment.” - Juan Somavia, ILO General Secretary