Published on March 19, 2018

‘We can’t have a low-cost Just Transition’

Interview with Montserrat Mir, elected confederate secretary of ETUC

Interview with Montserrat Mir, elected confederate secretary of ETUC, the European Trade Union Confederation.

ETUC is the major organisation standing for unions at the European level and represents almost 50 million workers from the EU.

Photo: courtesy of ETUC

JT: Is Just Transition a main objective for ETUC?

Montserrat Mir: Yes, absolutely. One of our main priorities is to implement the Just Transition, to accompany workers and citizens in the process of decarbonisation of the European economy.

Our work in Brussels is focused on three directions. One is to influence the European Parliament – here, we have succeeded to include the Just Transition Fund in the framework of the ETS reform, our proposal for a JT Fund was included in the Parliament’s final report on this topic. Now we know that the Commission and member states are not in total agreement, so they might transform it into another tool, like a modernisation fund or others. But the idea is that we work with the European Parliament, across the political parties.

We also work together with the Commission, which invites us to speak out as social partners – sometimes they invite us a little late in the game, but nevertheless we have the possibility to participate in consultations.

At the same time, we try to lobby member states, by using different opportunities, including visiting the permanent representations in Brussels, using events organised by the Commission or international meetings like COP. We also try to accompany our members in their national initiatives.

JT: While researching for different articles for our Portal, we discovered that trade unions in Western Europe and Eastern Europe – and even within the regions – can have quite different views on Just Transition, from more favorable to resisting the need for decarbonisation. How do you reconcile these differences?

MM: We are as diverse as our unions are. But a main objective for us is to speak with one voice, even if this is not always easy when we have different interests. We have a democratic structure, coordinated by our steering and coordinating committees, where all these organisations from all parts of the EU have a voice and can vote. Europe is asymmetric, but when it comes to climate and energy policies, we strive for common positions.

Between 2015 and 2016, we implemented a project which involved visiting the regions most affected by Paris, which included mining regions in Central and Eastern Europe. We went to the work places, spoke to employers, academics, public authorities. One of the first lessons we learnt was that workers are not against the transition and decarbonisaion, but that they want a political compromise, they want funds and alternatives, specifically job alternatives.

We also saw that not all our members were totally updated. What we want is that our members, not just the unions, but the workers themselves too, play the role they must play as workers and citizens when they will be called upon to implement the Paris Agreement. We need our workers to be ready to play this role. But if they are not prepared, how can they do it?

In our current project, about involving trade unions in tackling climate change, we have a thematic, not regional focus, and we concentrate on several main topics most affected by decarbonisation: employment, education, governance, social protection and capacity for mobilisation of our members. As you know, unions used to mobilise for working conditions and salaries, but it is very different to mobilise for climate, so the last theme is one of the main challenges we are confronted with. What we tried to do is teach workers and unions to play the role they must play, not only in decarbonisation, but also when we talk about air pollution and other aspects of environmental protection and climate issues.

JT: It must be more effective when unions themselves or confederations like yours communicate this kind of message to unions and workers than when external actors do – this sometimes ends up in failure.

MM: We play a big role in this and we are able to communicate this message. But the unions at national nevel also have to play their part. Our role is to inform about what Paris and related legislation imply. But the national level is responsible for playing a role in developing the national legislation and a Just Transition framework on that level.

The transformation has many aspects and they all need training, participation and social dialogue. Just Transition is like an octopus with many arms and we need to use each of them. This is not just about employment even if that is a key aspect.

We need to include those topics in the negotiations with other social actors, and this has not happened in all countries. We have members that are very well prepared and are ready to teach and provide capacity, while others are delayed in this process.

When we visited the mining regions, the majority of workers said they understood what the transition is about, they were not against it, but that alternatives were needed. They were naturally worried about what happens with their jobs, which in some countries are still well paid and with some recognition.

But the reality is that, during the transition, you not only need to change the personal situation of a group of workers, but you need to change a tradition and ecosystem that was totally focused on carbon before.

What I tried to communicate to the workers is that we cannot use the past to put obstacles to the future. We always tell people that we work on the principle that ‘we leave no one behind’ but at the same time we cannot use the past as an excuse. We will probably lose some jobs in this sector or that city, but that’s no excuse not to take action and not to ask the Commission to give us the tools to implement this transformation.

JT: The green economy is creating jobs…

MM: It’s very important to make it clear we don’t want to have ‘Just Transitin Low Cost’. The labour market will inevitably change, but the new jobs that are created should not be low-cost, precarious jobs. Very often we see that ‘greening the economy’ does not necessarily come with the kind of jobs we want, so it is our role through collective agreements and social dialogue to promote quality jobs, to stress that we want quality employment to come with the transformation.

We’re also very interested in the adaptation of jobs, as some will disappears but others transform. We don’t want to see new jobs only in transport and construction, we want to see a more holistic approach, we think there will be many sectors with good opportunities.

We also tell the industry – which we think has a responsibility in this – that it is not fair to say they support Paris and Just Transition, but at the same time buy solar elements and other instruments for renewables from countries that don’t have the same labour standards. We cannot play these two games.

JT: Do you feel we’ve come to a point when Just Transition has momentum, that it’s…fashionable?

MM: We welcomed the launch of the European Platform for Coal Region by the Commission last fall. We considered that it came late, it should have been launched in parallel to the ‘Energy 4 All’ Package, otherwise these initiatives seem too fragmented. But anyway it’s good they finally listened – we have been calling for long for a special treatment of the coal regions. We want to be actively involved in this process.

All initiatives are welcome, especially all budgetary initiatives part of the new MFF are welcome.

There is a window for Just Transition this year, especially with the COP taking place in Europe.

For the trade union movement, this constitutes a challenge and our main objective is that this COP is not a compensation COP, but a COP of Just Transition. We’ll be proposing to the Polish organisers to have a big event brining together employment ministers and climate and energy ministers, who very often work separately.

We’ll also be trying to influence the MFF. The truth is, you only see the level of political importance and priority given to a topic when you see the budget. The Commission must increase the budget to support JT. MFF must be supportive of the Paris Agreement in this way. Commissioners may make big declarations in line with Paris but if these are not accompanied by the necessary financial tools to implement the transition, it will be difficult to achieve.

The revisted ETS system – with all the criticism it got – opened the doors for using it at the national level as a financing tool for the social development of regions connnected to Paris.

Taxation at the European level is very important too, as well as work on energy poverty – at the social level, it is very important to guarantee access to energy. The Just Transition must be social and we need to guarantee access to energy to all workers and citizens, we can’t have two parts of society, one where we do our work and another that has no access to energy.