South Africa: Metal workers call for class struggle approach to climate change

Karl Cloete addresses NUMSA's February 2012 International Conference on Building a Socially Owned Renewable Energy Sector in Joh

The article below was presented by Karl Cloete, deputy general-secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) on October 10 at a conference at Cornell University in New York. NUMSA is South Africa's second-largest union, with almost 290,000 members in the smelting, manufacturing, auto and electricity generation industries. It is abridged from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal

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Our starting point as NUMSA is that to effect an energy transition, we as the global union movement do need a perspective to guide us as well as strategies to be utilised by the movement.

While such a perspective and accompanying strategies will definitely not come fully formed, we HAVE to keep working on them through discussions, struggles, experiments and learning from experiences of those in the forefront of energy struggles (within and outside of the labour movement).

In our head office in Johannesburg, we have a huge banner with the words: “No Revolutionary Theory, No Revolutionary Movement!” The slogan on the banner captures how much we, as a union attach to having a perspective that acts as a compass to our daily work.

Our message is simple: Without a solid perspective on how to effect an energy transition, there will be no transition.

Let me now share our union’s perspectives:

First: we are of the view that the United Nations climate negotiations are unable to deliver a deal that will save our planet. It is a result of this failure that we are calling for a class struggle approach to climate change; an approach that emphasises resistance both at national and global levels in a manner that influences and changes government positions on climate change.

Second: we think there will be no managed energy transition if we do not take control of the hydrocarbon (coal, oil and gas) sector and put the sector under public ownership and democratic control. In our own country, we are calling for nationalisation and socialisation of the coal industry as a stepping stone to a clean energy future.

Third: we believe that to lower global warming to acceptable levels requires fundamental restructuring of the capitalist system as we have come to know it. At the centre of such restructuring is the question of who owns the means of energy production, transmission, distribution and consumption. As a union, we are advancing a perspective of social ownership of energy systems.

When we talk about social ownership of energy systems, we are referring to the fact that ownership of energy resources must be taken out of private hands and be put in the hands of the public.

This can occur through a mix of different forms of collective ownership, such as public utilities, cooperatives, municipal-owned entities and other forms of community energy enterprises where full rights for workers are respected and trade union presence is permitted. Energy entities that were privatised must be taken back and put under public ownership and control.

When we talk about social ownership of energy systems, we are referring to energy being a public or common good that is publicly financed and comprehensively planned. We want to roll back the anarchy of liberalised energy markets.

When we talk about social ownership of energy systems we are expressing our determination to resist commodification of electrical power and our desire that energy systems should not be for profit but have as their mandate service provision and meeting of universal needs.

When we talk about social ownership of energy systems, we are speaking of a system where workers, communities and consumers have control and a real voice in how energy is produced and used.

We are calling for constituency-based governing councils in place of boards of directors in all energy entities. Existing state or publicly owned energy entities that act as private companies and on the basis of a profit motive need to be “socialised”.

When we talk about social ownership of energy systems, we are referring to energy systems that respect our environmental rights, our rights for survival and those of future generations. Socially owned energy systems must prioritise renewable energy.

We want to raise the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility”.

The contribution of the developing world and Africa in particular to the climate catastrophe that faces us is very miniscule. The developing world therefore cannot be required to share equally the burden of mitigating and adapting to climate change.

The global North and developed world must shoulder the bulk of the burden and pay for their climate debt. Technology transfers to developing countries must not be fettered by intellectual property rights.

The trade unions in the North and in developed countries must appreciate and endorse the principle of “common but differentiated responsibility” if real unity is to be built. This is vital if one considers that one of the dreadful outcomes of Durban’s climate summit last year was doing away with the distinction between the culprits and victims, between developed and developing countries.

How much scope do developing countries have in the available and remaining carbon space, given the fact that developed countries have over the years and historically taken the large chunk of the space through their emissions? What leeway do developing countries — that anyway have the least resilience to adapt — have?

We are raising this fully aware of how polluters and denialists in the global South hide behind the slogan of the “right for the developing world to industrialise”. But as the global labour movement, we need to talk about the energy transition fully cognisant of the history of the problem and the power imbalances that exist between developed and developing countries.

We are worried about cases where workers in different countries are lining on different sides of the barricades, with national unions lining up with their governments and corporate entities. In this regard, we see decisions by the United Steelworkers Union in the US joining dozens of US solar-panel installers in support of a trade complaint filed with World Trade Organisation (WTO) by US solar-panel manufacturers against Chinese rivals.

Another issue we must answer: what should be the attitude of global union movement to the UN climate change negotiations? It is one thing to talk about the failure of the COPs [climate talks]. What should we do in relation to them? What alternatives are there?

There is also the relationship between climate change and international trade. The dispute that Japan and the EU have filed with the World Trade Organisation against the Ontario Green Energy Act raises fundamental questions about whether the goals of trade liberalisation can be reconciled with ecological imperatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

As NUMSA we feel that we have to fight for the energy transition in both tracks: the climate change track and the international trade one.

We want to pick up on the relation of our work on climate change and an anti-war posture that the global trade union movement should adopt. The military is the largest institutional user of petroleum products and energy, with the Pentagon being the single-largest oil consumer in the world. Yet the Pentagon has a blanket exemption in all international climate agreements.

NUMSA's view is that stopping wars — as they have such a high carbon footprint — is a necessary component of attempts to cut global warming. We also call for the scrapping of the exemption afforded to the Pentagon and its bases from emission calculations.

The last thing we want to raise is how do we implant a new discourse and perspective on the required energy transition among our members and communities. A demand that NUMSA is making to employers and energy agencies for union and shop steward involvement in the development of workplace energy efficiency plans.

At its recent national congress, the Congress of South African Unions (COSATU) called for union involvement in the development of mitigation plans at company and sectoral levels; carbon budgets; jobs resilience plans in sectors; and lower-carbon development strategies.

The federation also called for the formalisation of the status the National Committee on Climate Change (NCCC), which has labour and community representatives and which advises the minister of environmental affairs on matters of climate change, into an advisory council with statutory powers and responsibilities.

We are hoping that through these efforts we can make climate change and related energy questions a union and bargaining issue with a large enough cadre layer championing the issues.