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Beyond just transition—ecology at work

work team at whiteboard
Workers at all levels of a company can pool their unique tacit knowledge in developing alternative plans aligned with the green transition (Drazen Zigic / shutterstock.com)

The economic transformation required by ecological crises implies new capabilities for workers to develop alternative plans.

The recent rallies of farmers across Europe have confirmed the fragility of the European commission’s Green Deal. Yet it is possible simultaneously to move political, social and economic actors to tackle the challenges of the climate and biodiversity crises. The mobilisation during the pandemic at all levels is inspiring—from European Union institutions co-ordinating vaccine policy to ‘key’ workers taking initiatives at workplace level to sustain social resilience.

EU environmental policy still narrowly focuses on pushing member states to decarbonise their domestic activities and preserve biodiversity, relying on bureaucratic agencies and technocratic tools such as carbon pricing. Meantime, basically unchanged commercial and competitive policies push agriculture and manufacturing producers to implement practices detrimental to the environment.

In this framework, what is usually called a ‘just transition’ aims primarily to secure social acceptance of this dissonant strategy by workers and communities. Yet the farmers’ movement has been partly driven by EU environmental regulations clashing with trade treaties seen as putting European farmers at competitive disadvantage—leading national governments and EU institutions to downplay their ambitions and weaken the regulations.

The EU needs not only to take into account these intersecting effects of European policies on working conditions and labour prospects. It must also recognise innovative actions at workplace level to break with deleterious production processes. Indeed, experiments in the ecological conversion of industries, carried out by workers themselves, are burgeoning across Europe. The EU needs to get behind this movement.

Manufacturing initiatives

Numerous initiatives over recent decades bear witness to the environmental awareness of employees in their professional activities. They are not confined to well-known, and essential, agroecological initiatives. Manufacturing experiences show that workers embracing environmental issues and opportunities is not new—even if it was for long risky.

As far back as the 1970s, the unionised staff of Lucas Aerospace, the British champion of military aeronautics, embarked on a ‘plan’ driven by its staff and shop stewards to capitalise on the skills and qualifications of the company’s workforce in power generation and turbine design. Wind-turbine projects were pioneered. But the experiment fizzled out after the election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister and the dismissal of the most skilled employees, such as the engineer Mike Cooley, in 1981.

In France, the plant in Vénissieux of the German multinational Bosch switched from automotive subcontracting to solar panels in 2012, following an ‘information-consultation’ procedure which involved workers and initiated a restructuring process. It led to the plant being sold in 2014. Eventually, facing harsh international competition, the project failed and the plant was liquidated by court order in 2017. Nowadays, the brownfield land left by the factory has become a development site for cutting-edge industry.

In Italy during the last decade, the transition from conventional blast furnaces to electric ones proved a strategic issue for the employees of the steel production plant in Taranto and their union representatives, in the context of an investment piloted by the Italian government. The future of this key plant for Italian manufacturing is uncertain but the mobilisation of the workers remains a vivid memory.

More recently, the Chapelle-Darblais paper mill near Rouen in northern France has shed light on the quest for a circular economy. The plant manufactures paper for the press, using almost 40 per cent of the paper recycled in France. In 2021, to avoid the owner shifting the plant out of the business of paper, trade unionists and an executive played an active role in putting together a pool of buyers, the multinational Veolia and Fibre Excellence, to keep the plant producing it.

Sustainable services

By contrast with such territorially delimited initiatives in manufacturing, in services systemic changes are being sought at national, European and even global levels. These come from workers who, as citizens, consider that changing their individual behaviour as a consumer is not enough: they have also to change the production process.

This is the case in the world of culture and live performance, scene of a growing environmental awareness on the part of professionals. This is reflected in a concern to reduce the pace at which shows or art expositions are created and rotated, limiting transport and the carbon costs associated with the installation and removal of structures and masterpieces and the movement of artists and technicians. This goes hand in hand in theatre with companies’ artistic residencies.

Academics are also pushing to restrict travel by air, through limiting the evaluation of ideas based on the participation of their author in a conference across the globe and instead promoting initiatives to reduce the environmental burden of research. In both cases, environmental concern supports more sustainable working conditions.

‘Great transformation’

The current EU strategy does not aim to deliver the necessary ‘great transformation’, as Karl Polanyi put it. The alarming scale of climate change and the widespread destruction and degradation of ecosystems call for the integration of environmental concerns into all work situations. The aim must be to assess the magnitude of greenhouse-gas emissions (and other ecological ‘negative externalities’) in economic activities and then to implement organisational and technological changes to improve production processes, ultimately changing the nature of the products and services themselves.

To do so the EU needs to anchor its environmental policy in the knowledge flows generated by initiatives emanating from the shopfloor. These deserve a clearer visibility—a first step would be their systematic collection by European bodies, including with a benchmarking perspective.

As we have seen, some workers’ initiatives are marked by fragility, requiring strong, sustained public support in the face of offensives against public intervention and workers’ rights. They require a renewal of European policies geared to a highly ecological economy.

Such a renewal will require institutional tools beyond the 2002 directive on informing and consulting employees. These should mitigate deleterious competition among European economies, as with the recent directive on adequate minimum wages.

Existing national regulations often appear ineffective. For example, under the French labour code social and economic committees express ‘the collective voice of workers so that their interests can be taken into account on an ongoing basis in decisions relating to the management and economic and financial development of the company, the organisation of work, vocational training and production techniques, particularly with regard to the environmental consequences of these decisions’. In addition, every three years, firms with at least 300 employees have to bargain with union delegates on the firm’s strategy for jobs and career paths, in particular taking into consideration the ‘challenges of the ecological transition’.

In practice, these formal processes rarely involve the workers in delivering significant improvements. Yet it is through the tacit knowledge of the workers themselves, shared in the co-ordination production requires, that an environmental concern emerges at the workplace. It is based on what is done there, the qualifications of the workers and the specificities of the productive processes: blue-collar workers, clerks, engineers and managers are all involved.

Action plan for companies

The adoption of the minimum-wages directive was a turning point: it proves that the EU can help promote and facilitate collective bargaining, here on wage-setting. In this vein, a second milestone could be an EU directive that would stimulate the commitment of workers and organise their unions to deliberate on work processes, anticipating the potential public support associated with their transformation. It would include a regular three-stage action plan for companies.

Information is crucial. So a first step would be to oblige employers to collect and disseminate among workers detailed information on environmental issues relevant for their company. The challenge would be to focus on the core production processes in which workers are involved and not peripheral issues such as the lunch menu.

A second step would be to organise discussions on environmental issues at workplace level involving not only trade union members but all workers—the primary experts on their work. In large organisations, discussions could be limited to a random assembly of workers; for multinationals, this assembly could even unite workers from different European countries. We can expect that such a process would yield shared transformative proposals. Well-informed citizens’ assemblies on climate change, from Ireland to France—admittedly in another framework—have proved able to reach consensus on breakthrough measures.

Therefore, in a third step, trade unions as representative organisations would present the workers’ ideas to the employer. Alternatively, this could be handled by unionised or non-unionised workers’ representatives specifically trained in or dedicated to environmental issues. Equipped by a three-pillar legitimacy—electoral, deliberative and technical—the employer could hardly ignore them and, ultimately, the transformative process sought by the citizen-workers.

Social dialogue

At a time of increasing peril—due as much to the acceleration of climate change as to the current threat to democracy and even the construction of Europe itself—there is an urgent need to consider labour as something other than a factor of production, subject to the sole criterion of competitiveness. By immersing workers in a collective activity that occupies a major part of their existence, work provides a source of knowledge and recognition, from which capacities for exploration should be stimulated and valued.

A recent recommendation from the Council of the EU calls upon member states to take appropriate actions to support social dialogue, including through setting up enabling frameworks and capacity-building between the social partners. It is a reminder of the importance of social dialogue, as demonstrated by trade-union action in the face of recent crises, particularly on climate change and the environment. Today, even more than in the past, nothing will be achieved without workers in seeking the improvement of production processes. It is also by involving workers that European institutions will become more democratic.

This article is part of our series on a progressive ‘manifesto’ for the European elections. It draws on a chapter by the authors in the recent ETUI volume Transformative ideas—ensuring a just share of progress for all.

Philippe Askenazy and Claude Didry
Philippe Askenazy and Claude Didry
  Philippe Askenazy is a labour economist at the Centre Maurice Halbwachs (Paris). His research focuses on changes in work and economic and social performance, with an interest in productivity, industrial relations, occupational health and safety and public policies. Claude Didry is a sociologist at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique . His research focuses on the interrelations among labour, industrial relations and law from a socio-historical perspective. In 2023, he published Face au covid, l’enjeu du salariat (facing up to Covid, the wage-labour stake). is a sociologist at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique . His research focuses on the interrelations among labour, industrial relations and law from a socio-historical perspective. In 2023, he published Face au covid, l’enjeu du salariat (facing up to Covid, the wage-labour stake).
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