Training focus - Collective action

26th November 2014


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Rebecca Strickland

the environmentalist finds out how trade unions are helping to deliver green skills

In 2011, unionlearn – the learning and skills arm of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) – was asked by the business department to promote awareness of the learning, skills and employment opportunities associated with the “green economy”. Although a welcome development, this was not a new focus for the TUC. The UK trade union movement has long been leading the debate on the industrial and skill changes needed to move to a low-carbon economy, according to Tom Wilson, director of unionlearn.

UK unions are at the forefront of a number of initiatives to build a green economy, both at a national policy and grassroots level. Set up in 1998, the Trade Union Sustainable Development Advisory Committee (TUSDAC) is the main forum for consultation between the government and unions on sustainable development and environment issues. It has since gained a strong reputation for sound and expert advice on “green” industrial development.

The TUC and Prospect, the union for professional workers, are represented on the Green Economy Council, which was established in 2011 to advise the government on green and green growth policies, such as infrastructure, innovation and investment. Unions also contributed to the Skills for a green economy report, published by the government in 2011.

In 2012, unionlearn published Stewarding the green skills agenda, a report looking at the role of unions in helping to deliver such skills. It outlines the role of unions as one of “stewarding” a just transition to a green economy that delivers an economic model based on equality and equity. Developing a strong green skills strategy to support the transformation to a low-carbon economy is central to its vision.

The skills agenda

The skills needed to shape the future low-carbon economy and the influence of social partners, such as unions, in achieving this transformation are explored at an EU level in a report commissioned by a number of Brussels-based organisations, including the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and BusinessEurope. The report, Skills needs in greening economies, which was published in January 2014, argues that the skills required for a green economy are not limited to a few readily identifiable sectors; instead, the requirements pervade all parts of the economy.

“The gradual greening of the economy will lead to a progressive redefinition of skill requirements in many jobs, across all sectors,” it found, with the changing needs to be found largely in traditional occupations that have survived the industrial upheavals of recent decades.

A blueprint that maps the skills needed for a low-carbon economy is still evolving. While new skills will no doubt be needed, it is evident that some skills exist already, but will need to be realigned to support a green economy.

For example, a joint report by the TUC and the Carbon Capture and Storage Association says that an ambitious rollout of carbon capture storage (CCS) could create up to 30,000 jobs and a market worth up to £35 billion by 2030. Yet many of the skills required for CCS are already “in abundance” in the UK, including those relating to engineering – primarily resulting from longstanding experience in the oil and gas, energy supply and process industries – as well as the support skills needed, such as planning, undertaking environmental impact assessments, financing and legal services.

The Brussels report indicates that the recognition of “green skills” across Europe could be developed further and, to date, there are limited examples of actions taken by the social partners and other stakeholders in member states to fully integrate and mainstream training provision to adapt to a greener economy. Education, initial vocational training and lifelong learning have a critical role to play in delivering and updating the right skills, and the strong involvement of social partners is key to success, says the report.

The UK’s unionlearn says that the skills needed for a low-carbon economy are both generic and specialist in nature, with a strong recognition of the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to the green economy. It refers to the skills needed for both “light green” and “dark green” jobs – the latter relating solely to environment, climate change and low-carbon activities, while the former connect only in part to these activities.

However, unionlearn’s emphasis goes beyond specific skill requirements to encompass the need for a much wider environmental literacy. “Regardless of the shade of green”, it says, the skills are about “consistently equipping people in any job to make carbon-efficient and environmentally-friendly choices in the workplace.” Environmental literacy involves every worker in every workplace being supported to develop a vision of working in a sustainable way, which chimes with IEMA’s all jobs greener agenda (see p. ix).

Green workplaces programme

The TUC says its green workplaces initiative shows how unions are leading the way to a lower-carbon economy. Set up in 2006, the programme has worked with more than 1,300 green union reps in schools, hospitals and other organisations to develop more sustainable working practices. Around 1,000 people have so far taken part in joint union-management training courses to deliver green projects in workplaces as diverse as Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, Leicester City Council, United Utilities and the National Library of Scotland. A report – The union effect: greening the workplace – highlighting the programme in six organisations was published by the TUC in July (see panel, left).

Launching the report, Kay Carberry, assistant general secretary at the TUC, said: “Building greener workplaces is absolutely central to some of the big challenges facing all of us – how we tackle the increasingly dangerous threat of climate change;
how we make the most use of our limited energy resources; and how we rebalance our economy towards a cleaner, greener future. For me, all of this reaffirms the case for collective action.”

The greening the workplace projects deal with a wide spectrum of environment issues, ranging from energy saving and recycling initiatives to green travel plans and, in the strongest cases, setting up new joint environmental committees between union reps and management.

The TUC has worked with the ETUC to establish a European green workplaces network. In 2012, it secured a year’s funding from the European commission to set up the network, undertake some activities at workplace level and produce a new green reps handbook. It includes examples on energy use, using fewer resources, recycling and green travel, plus a “walkround” checklist.

The TUC’s network of environmental or green reps underpins the green workplaces initiative, and it is campaigning for a change in the law to allow reasonable time off for these representatives to help implement the environmental agenda at work.

Delivering success

The UK union movement already has a strong foothold in the development of a low-carbon economy. However, says Wilson, there are “huge strides” still to be made to ensure that workers have the skills to help deliver industrial challenges in sectors as strategically important as power generation and supply, private and public transport, the built environment, manufacturing, public services and the services sector.

The unionlearn report likens the scale of the transition to a low-carbon economy to the industrial revolution, when workers had to learn new skills demanded by increasingly automated services. To ensure unions help to provide leadership on the
green skills agenda, they will need to consistently use their knowledge and understanding in partnership with other bodies, sector skills councils and progressive businesses to help shape the economic model and any industrial strategy that will underpin it, says unionlearn.

Green skills partnership for London

The Skills needs in greening economies report, published in January 2014 by a consortium of Brussels-based organisations, including the European Trade Union Confederation, BusinessEurope and the Centre for Employers and Enterprises providing Public Services, showcases unionlearn’s Green skills partnership for London project as a good practice example of developing skills for greening economies. Set up in 2011, the project works in partnership with the building union Ucatt, further education (FE) colleges, skills bodies, Jobcentre Plus, employers, voluntary sector organisations and a number of London boroughs to train and reintegrate unemployed or low-skilled people into jobs in a green economy.

The partnership is particularly active in the horticulture, construction and waste management sectors. In construction, employers, including Lend Lease, and individual tradespeople have collaborated with Jobcentre Plus to identify the skills needed and progression pathways to help socially excluded groups, such as ex-offenders, to re-enter the labour market to retrofit social housing.

The training provided through the partnership is fully accredited through its links to FE networks and other training providers, and lifelong learning activities are mapped on to the national framework of qualifications. This means that learners have access to a pathway to further develop their competences and gain qualifications of increasing importance in greening economies.

The union effect – case studies

The union effect: greening the workplace report from the TUC focuses on how unions are helping to develop “greener” working environments in six organisations:

  • Financial services company Allianz Insurance is committed to reducing its carbon footprint. The Munich-based company has around 4,500 employees in the UK, spread across 20 offices. Trade union Unite works with the firm’s UK management on environment issues. It has helped to engage staff on initiatives aimed at driving down carbon emissions, mainly through the joint corporate social responsibility group.
  • Unions play a central role in workplace environmental audits at the Defra office in York. They developed the audit checklist and it was a representative of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) who, together with a manager from Defra estates, planned and undertook the first audit in 2013.
  • Union involvement in environmental issues at EDF Energy is extensive at global, European and UK level, the TUC report found. At a European level, the works council, whose members are mainly drawn from unions, plays a key role in determining the company’s environmental policy. In the UK, corporate social responsibility reps from each of the four main unions – GMB, Unison, Prospect and Unite – meet four times a year to discuss sustainability issues, while a position on the firm’s sustainability panel rotates between union reps.
  • The Furzedown Low Carbon Zone is a union, college and community partnership in south London. It was established in 2010 to integrate environmental awareness and sustainability issues across the curriculum of South Thames College and among students, the workplace and community.
  • The green workplaces project at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) was one of six pilots funded by the TUC between 2006 and 2010. The GOSH project continues and it has established a joint management-union environment committee, chaired by the Unison branch secretary. Its union members are granted reasonable time off for environment and energy audits.
  • At the Port of Felixstowe, which is the UK’s largest container port, unions have been involved in environment initiatives for many years. The port was involved in the TUC’s green workplaces scheme in 2011, with Unite creating the post of green workplace rep, a senior steward whose role is to assist in communicating with the workforce on environmental issues. The rep also sits on the port’s travel steering group, which covers travel to and from work.

Source: TUC.

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