Working for the Environment

Why work and workers matter in the environmental debate                                                                                                                  

It is not hard to imagine that the world of work is a place of deep ecological impact that will be fundamentally changed by endeavours to green the economy. The implications of climate change for all workers and employers are enormous: the International Labour Organisation (ILO) suggests that 80 per cent of Europe’s CO2 emissions come from industrial production. Thus, the world of work is a critical site of ecological harm and therefore needs to be a site of deep environmentally focused transformation. The interconnection between work and climate change has lead Professor Lipsig-Mumme to conclude, ‘[g]lobal warming is likely to be the most important force transforming work and restructuring jobs in the first half of the twenty-first century’. ((Lipsig-Mumme, Carla (2013) In Climate @ Work, Halifax: Fernwood Publishing)) The reality is all work and industries must fundamentally change, and will be changed by the climate we are creating as we enter a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene ((Crutzen, Paul J. (2002) “Geology of mankind.” Nature no. 415 (6867):23-23)) Climate change is challenging the future of work in highly polluting industries, such as coal, and climate change related events are already impacting workers. For example, a 2015 heat wave in India resulted in taxi unions in Kolkata urging drivers to avoid working between 11am and 4pm to reduce the risk of heat exhaustion.

The question of how work-related environmental impacts could be reduced is urgent. It is clear that all jobs and all workplaces will need to be significantly greener to preserve a liveable planet. I am not suggesting that jobs in highly polluting fossil fuel industries can be greened, greening work will require industry restructuring and transformation, but it will demand the closing down of some industries in the medium to longer term. Thus, the transition I am referring to here, the “greening” of our economy, is a societal transformation whereby economic, social and political processes are shifted away from an economic growth imperative to an ecological feasibility focus that demands work, and all that this encompasses, is both environmentally and socially defensible.

It is clear that all jobs and all workplaces will need to be significantly greener to preserve a liveable planet.

Unfortunately, the complexity around transitioning the Australian economy and work to a greener future is currently skirted over in political discussions, and tends to be presented as a straightforward transition via environmental efficiency, greener consumer lifestyles and technologies, or overlaying broad environmental aims onto existing industries and jobs. More particularly, the challenges for workers in this transition are rarely dealt with adequately. In what follows I argue that continuing to leave workers’ concerns aside is an unacceptable option for workers, the environment, the environment movement and government.

Dominant Perceptions of the Work Environment Challenge

Instead of dealing with the complexities of transitioning the Australian economy in a greener direction we largely see two counterposing and simplistic positions presented to us. The first position argues that jobs and economic growth should triumph over ecological interests and thus workers should just continue doing what they do. From this perspective nature is reduced to an asocial input into the economy, ((Guthman, Julie. (2011) “Bodies and Accumulation: Revisiting Labour in the ‘Production of Nature’.” New Political Economy no. 16 (2):233-238. doi: 10.1080/13563467.2011.542801)) what Wright and Nyberg ((Wright, Christopher, and Daniel Nyberg. (2015) Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)) describe as a process of creative self-destruction. Thus, the juggernaut of economic growth ignores the planetary ‘limits to growth’ ((Meadows, H. D, L. D Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William Behrens. (1972) The Limits to Growth. London: Earth Island; Randers, Jorgen. (2012) 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing)) and it is therefore, as Naomi Klein’s recent book states, ‘Capitalism vs. the Climate’. ((Klein, Naomi. (2014) This Changes Everything. London: Allen Lane))  Connecting this dynamic back to the world of work, workers and their representatives, as well as employers, are inclined to preserve the existing ecologically destructive dynamic, as they both tend to benefit, in the short-term at least, in the form of job creation, wages and profit, from expanding, or at a minimum maintaining, economic growth and associated processes. It can be argued that this overarching dynamic is the source of the tension between workers and the environment or the ‘jobs versus environment’ conflict. The ‘jobs vs the environment’ frame is wielded by those with an interest in maintaining the status quo and preventing action to transform to a cleaner economy using division as a tactic. Within the Australian context we have seen this dynamic play out in the hostile responses of some politicians, unions and businesses to policy action on climate change:

‘Goodbye. They [Whyalla and Port Pirie] will be wiped off the map’ [by the carbon tax], Wayne Hanson, Australian Workers Union state secretary in South Australia.

‘Lets Cut Emissions Not Jobs’, Australian Coal Association Advertising Campaign. ((Australian Coal Association. (2009) Australian Coal Association launches campaign against new emissions tax on coal mines, Press Release))

‘There will be a 25 per cent increase in electricity prices, up to a five per cent rise in grocery prices, 126,000 jobs lost in regional Australia and 16 major coalmines closed, with 10,000 jobs lost in the coal industry’, former Prime Minister Abbott talking about the carbon tax.

A ‘unilateral carbon price will be detrimental to our international competitiveness, export jobs and economic expansion opportunities’ Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

GreenJobspicThe second position, or counterpoint to the jobs versus environment tension, is to talk about the millions of new green jobs that will be created by emerging industries and technologies as capitalism unleashes its technological and organisational dynamism to resolve the ecological crises. In essence this position suggests that workers need not feel threatened about the loss of their current jobs, as these will quickly be replaced by shiny new green jobs. There are many examples of this argument. Former Treasurer Swan argued that,

‘introducing an emissions trading scheme is all about creating the jobs of the future, all about investment in renewable energy and the jobs that come with it. It is all about jobs’.

The Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Council of Trade Unions have released a number of reports with conclusions like,

‘[a]s this report Creating Job – Cutting Pollution demonstrates, Australia could create more than 700,000 jobs by 2030 by taking strong action now to reduce pollution’.

More recently, the research organisation ClimateWorks Australia, in partnership with the World Wildlife Foundation Australia, released a report suggesting that Australia could have it all, zero carbon emissions at the same time as maintaining strong economic and job growth.

Certainly transitioning to a greener economy is in reality the only option, if we want to maintain an inhabitable planet for humanity; however, these discussions are often based on wishful thinking that fail to deal adequately with the challenge of transitioning workers and industries into the new greener economy. For example, in a 2010 interview I conducted with a Greens’ Senator the following point was made:

‘My view is the same with coalminers, people are not coalminers they’re drivers of certain machines, they are computer system operators, engineers, maintenance workers. So it’s about actually breaking down what people actually do and finding ways to shift them into the new manufacturing and process and assembly lines of the future.’

While I do not fundamentally disagree with the Senator’s sentiment, it did raise a serious concern in my mind. Transitioning workers into greener areas of employment is a much more complex challenge than shifting workers from one industry to another. Moreover, such a simplistic approach to workers in advocating for a green transition could be interpreted as being indifferent to working people’s lives. Work is more than just a job or skillset, discussing the creation or destruction of tens of thousands of jobs obscures that these numbers are people. Work is central to people’s identity and social relationships. On average, Australians spend approximately 35 hours per week in paid employment. Work and workplaces fundamentally shape our lives and contemporary society. It is therefore not as simple as shutting down industries and creating new ones or telling a coalminer that because you currently do x you can do y in a greener industry.

The concerns and interests of workers in the context of environmental transition need to be taken more seriously.

As noted above, the complexity around transitioning the Australian economy to a greener future is currently skirted over in Australian political discussions and this risks leaving the Greens and other political parties as well as major elements of the environment movement mentioned earlier, who advocate for the millions of new green jobs with a significant ‘credibility gap’. The concerns and interests of workers in the context of environmental transition need to be taken more seriously. It should be taken more seriously because we need to ensure that in the shift to a greener economy people have access to decent well paying jobs. Work should be taken seriously because worker opposition to environmental actions, based on concerns for job security and economic wellbeing, are key roadblocks to achieving a greener economy. Workers interests should be engaged with because filling what I have called the ‘credibility gap’ with workers could help build a powerful coalition for environmental transformation, particularly as workers become less wedded to voting for the Labor Party, as recent elections highlight.

Thus, the critical point that this article seeks to underline is that the Greens, and environmental organisations more generally, need to engage with the concerns and interests of workers beyond the seemingly default policy position which simplistically says “workers you will find a job in the growing ‘green’ industries”. A deepening policy commitment in this area by the green movement could force this policy challenge onto the Australian political landscape and ensure the necessary active role of government in responding to, and implementing policy for, the environment work challenge.

It needs to be acknowledged that elements of the environment movement, particularly the climate justice movement, have taken stronger and more nuanced positions on these issues. See for example, the Leap Manifesto, connected to Naomi Klein’s recent book, mentioned earlier, and her argument that climate change offers an opportunity for deep social change including the re-imagining of work; the 350 movement and its suggestion that de-investment from polluting capital can be reinvested into green job creating industries; and in Australia the Earthworker Co-Operative, which is seeking to create green work opportunities in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley.

Major Challenges Confronting Work, Workers and the Environment

What are some of the major challenges and missing concepts within the current political debate about greening work and transitioning the economy?

The new ‘green’ jobs may be in a different location to the ‘old’ industries that need to be shutdown. What happens to these later communities and their social networks? What happens to the infrastructure within these ‘old’ industries and communities? Moreover, climate change impacts may leave particular communities, regions and industries unviable.

WA Wheatbelt Photographer : Willem van Aken on April 01 1981
Salinity in the WA Wheatbelt Photographer : Willem van Aken on April 01 1981

For example, agricultural communities in the western districts of Western Australia’s Wheatbelt region have experienced significant declines in rainfall, making this agricultural land and the communities that depend on it more marginal. Similarly, a warming climate in Canada has resulted in the geographical spread of mountain pine beetle infestations in the province of British Columbia, the spread of the beetle creates more tree deaths and impacts the location of the forestry industry which impacts the communities that rely upon it. Should these communities just be abandoned?

The new work in the greener economy could be poorly paid or low skilled. There is evidence that many of the new jobs created within green industries are low wage and low skill, while the promised high-tech production and manufacturing jobs are primarily being created outside the advanced industrial economies of the United States, Europe and Australia, in places like China. ((Masterman-Smith, Helen. (2010) “Green Collaring a Capital Crisis.” Labour and Industry no. 20 (3):317-330; Ross, Andrew. (2010) “The Greening of America Revisited: Can the U.S. Create High Skill Green Jobs?” New Labor Forum no. 19 (3):41-47; Christopherson, Susan. (2011) “Green Dreams in a Cold Light.” In Handbook of Local and Regional Development, edited by Andy Pike, Andres Rodriguez-Pose and John Tomaney, 371-380. London: Taylor & Francis; Rogers, Heather. (2010) Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy is Undermining the Environmental Revolution. London: Verson)) It is hard enough to sell the idea of transitioning from existing polluting jobs to new or different jobs to workers, but it is near impossible to promote the transition to greener work if the green switch will also result in a reduction in pay, conditions and decent work opportunities.

If the wages and conditions of the new jobs do not parallel those that are to be lost in ‘old industries’, the possibility of gaining widespread support from workers and unions for the need for an environmental transformation of the economy becomes even more difficult and hard to sell than it currently is. And rightly so, green jobs and the other job growth areas (in the Australian context this is the services sector, health and education) need to be decent well-paid jobs, not just any job. There is scope, in addressing the challenge of climate change, to improve the wages and conditions of the jobs that we need and want, but also to re-think work; for example, working few hours as advocated by the ‘de-growth’ movement. ((Rees, William E. (2014) Avoiding Collapse: An Agenda for Sustainable Degrowth and Relocalizing the Economy. Vancouver: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives))

Moreover, there is also a need to re-frame how society and workers view some green jobs. For instance, land rehabilitation work will create many jobs into the future but is widely seen as not a ‘real’ job, perhaps reinforced by the fact that such work has often been associated with government programmes like ‘work for the Dole’. Thus, these types of green jobs need a form of social upgrading, which would be best achieved by government mandating decent wages and conditions.

The new jobs that emerge in a greened economy may see a shift from manual work to service based work or may be differently skilled, the workforce will therefore require significant retraining. These changes may involve significant transformations to our education systems to retrain workers and to better equip new graduates with knowledge about environmental issues. How will this be achieved, who will pay?

There is some emerging evidence that employers have used the environment to discipline workers. Carey and Tufts ((Carey, Jeffrey, and Steven Tufts. (2014) “‘Greening work’ in lean times: The Amalgamated Transit Union and Public Transit.” Alternate Routes no. 25:207-233)) highlight how the transport authority in Toronto Canada used environmental concern to constrain labour actions by casting the strike actions of public transit workers in Toronto as harmful to the environment and community as it limited access to low emission public transit.

Moreover, when the green economy and green job creation is discussed there are significant gender issues. When job opportunities in new green industries are discussed the focus is almost always on industries such as electricity generation, manufacturing or transportation, industries dominated by men. Industries dominated by women are largely ignored, despite the fact that industries like healthcare need to significantly improve their environmental impacts and that these are, and will continue to be, industries with significant employment opportunities.

disruptive green technology is not necessarily produced in some magical eco lab where workers and the environment are both respected and cared for

Beyond the more immediate workplace relations issues that need to be resolved in Australia, where and how green technology is produced is significant. Technological shifts and disruptions are fundamental to the move to green jobs and industries. Currently, approximately 1.5 million Australian homes have rooftop solar and it is predicted that by around 2020 1 million Australian homes will also have some form of battery storage technology installed. This is great news for job creation in the solar and battery installation industry. However, disruptive green technology is not necessarily produced in some magical eco lab where workers and the environment are both respected and cared for. As stated above, many of the jobs associated with these industries are created in low wage locations. The production of green technologies contains many interesting contradictions between environmental benefits at the user end versus human and environmental costs at the production end.

Boading, a city to the Southwest of Beijing in China, has been labelled the greenest city in the world or the world’s only carbon positive city. This is because Boading produces enormous quantities of wind turbines and solar cells for the United States and Europe and has approximately 170 alternative energy companies based there. The air in the city of Boading was declared to be the most polluted in China in 2014 where air pollution is considered to contribute to 1.2 million deaths a year. We should be excited about the shift to greener cars and affordable home electricity storage units, but in the process of starting to solve the technological challenges of climate change we must ensure that we are not creating environmental problems, particularly for the largely unseen workers and communities further up the production stream.

These technological developments and much of the enthusiasm that surrounds them, also lend themselves to the idea that solving environmental problems, particularly climate change, is primarily a technological adjustment and life as we know it can continue at pace. However, these technological advances and the jobs of the future need to be considered within a wider environmental and social context, thus the environmental puzzle is perhaps more complex then many of the current green visions presented to us suggest.

If as I have stated all industries and jobs must be greened and some, such as those in highly polluting industry must be closed down, how does this take place while also been mindful of the challenges highlighted above?

A Possible Solution, Creating A Just Transition

The answer that some unions, researchers and environmental organisations, particularly the climate justice movement, have promoted in response to the above challenges is the idea of a Just Transition. The concept of Just Transition is driven by an understanding that an economy wide greening process is necessary, but that this development needs to provide decent worker and community outcomes. The Just Transition framework therefore calls for a long-term, burden sharing, green planning that involves: strategic state policies; insurance programmes for effected workers; worker and community participation in the planning and operationalising of the green transition; education and training; and negotiated green adjustment plans between workers, employers and government. At its core Just Transition seeks to establish that greening the world of work needs to be a managed process between the community, unions, government and industry, and one that places workers and their local communities at the centre. Commitments to what a Just Transition response constitutes are highly variable and must be seen as operating across a spectrum from passively supporting environmental responses that prioritise enhancing economic objectives and short-term worker interests to pursuing radically transformative strategies built on worker participation that seek to place environmental and social needs at the centre of political economic processes. The challenge here is that this environmentally focused Just Transition has been talked about a lot, but not implemented and is unlikely to be realised in the current political economy where capital is so dominate.

So what does a Just Transition require from key players?

The state must be more active. The Just Transition to a green economy requires governments at all levels to engage in long term planning and active policy interventions to ensure two key things: that affected communities and workers are not cut loose to fend for themselves, and that Australia invests in building up the industries that provide well paid, ecologically and social sustainable work. This includes the ‘flagship’ green industries like renewable energy, but it should also include other industries such as healthcare, education and retail.

Employers and business must be engaged in more than just creative, but meaningless green actions. Currently, business almost exclusively look at environmental issues through the lens that waste is bad for the bottom line, being green makes economic sense, the next economic growth wave is the sustainability revolution. While this holds some truth, rationalising green actions in these terms is also highly problematic, as ecological actions quickly become framed within a cost benefit analysis. As Wright and Nyberg’s recent book Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations highlights,

‘[c]orporate environmentalism is chiefly geared towards being a little less unsustainable amid growing destruction: it is this fantasy that enables the corporate environmental movement to overlook or, better still, obstruct more radical sustainability practices.’ ((Wright, Christopher, and Daniel Nyberg. (2015) Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.30))

Photo by Mike Annee
Photo by Mike Annee

Workers and communities must be more actively involved in green practices and decision-making. There are some emerging examples of this active participation in the form of green workplace bargaining. At its core green bargaining should be about greening the labour process, workplaces and ultimately contemporary society, with the aim of engaging workers and management in this goal. Green bargaining can therefore be described as union, worker and management negotiated initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions produced in the workplace, and changes to the labour process in order to ensure environmental sustainability. Green bargaining may be achieved within formal industrial relations frameworks in the form of green clauses within enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs) or via wider union, management or worker employment relations. In workplaces where the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions will unavoidably result in job losses or significant workplace reorganisation, green bargaining may also seek to ensure a Just Transition within management worker negotiated agreements.

Within workplaces, green bargaining may aim to establish independent greenhouse gas emission (GHG) audits, clear and routinely updated emissions reduction targets, the regular communication of environmental results, a management worker environment committee and green training and skills development for both employees and employers. Joint worker management environmental committees may set emission targets, specific strategies for reducing environmental harms and ensure that agreed environmental strategies are adhered to. These types of workplace actions will require the Australian industrial relations system to bring environmental issues into its purview. However, the trend in Australia is in the opposite direction. For example, the recent Productivity Commission report recommends further restrictions on the content of enterprise bargaining agreements and areas where workers can exercise a voice.

What if we fail to realise a Just Transition in the shift to a greener economy? It may be best to think about this question by looking at the fate of other workers and communities that have gone through such a significant shift. The auto region around the Great Lakes of North America provides a stark example of a recent and very painful shift that has not been well managed. The impact on workers and the community in the years following the crises in the North American auto industry have been profound. Victor Chen in his book Cut Loose, tracks some of these outcomes comparing the experiences of workers in Canada and the United States. ((Chen, Victor. (2015) Cut Loose : Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy. Oakland: University of California Press)) While the stories of this transition are varied, some critical lessons can be drawn from here when thinking about the transitioning of industries and workers in response to the environmental crisis.

Those that have found work are primarily working in low wage, precarious jobs in the service industry.

What Chen finds when he visits these communities and ex-auto workers is devastating. Many of the workers have not been able to find work. Those that have found work are primarily working in low wage, precarious jobs in the service industry. The education programmes that many of the workers enrolled in are poorly run or the ex-auto workers’ educational backgrounds are so low that they struggle to keep up. Piled on top of these work and education challenges are family breakdown, home evictions, bankruptcy and health problems. While both the United States and Canadian governments provided short-term support, the workers have largely been Cut Loose by a government, society and economy that does not need them anymore. This is not a uniquely Canadian or American experience. Research tracking the outcomes of workers who lost their jobs in the mid 2000s at the Mitsubishi plant in South Australia also found workers struggling to find work, and those that did find work were primarily employed in precarious forms of employment. ((Anaf, Julia, Lareen Newman, Frances Baum, Anna Ziersch, and Gwyneth Jolley. (2013) “Policy environments and job loss: Lived experience of retrenched Australian automotive workers.” Critical Social Policy no. 33:325-47)) If the transition to a greener economy is going to be successful and garner the support of workers we need to do much better than cutting workers adrift with few prospects for decent jobs.


The point I wanted to get across in this short essay is that the world of work is critical to the successful shift to a green economy. More particularly, that work and need to be taken more seriously by the environment movement, the Greens, other political parties and by government, which otherwise have a credibility gap when it comes to the work-environment challenge. In turn, many sections of the union movement need to take this transformation seriously instead of holding on to the past industries that are no longer environmentally and socially defensible. This shift could equal devastating outcomes for many workers and communities or it could be managed via direct government policy interventions with the support of the majority of workers, unions, environmental groups and business with the aim of trying to smooth out the transition to a green economy and achieve the best possible outcome. We have a choice, but critical questions need to be asked and answered, some of these are:

  1. Which parts of the economy will lose employment? Which will gain?
  2. How will traditional industries and services adapt technology, work design and work practices?
  3. Is Australia prepared to train the labour force for:New work designs and skills in traditional industries?Green industries, professions and occupations?Continued employment?
  4. What kinds of employment transitions will be needed? How will these be provided?
  5. What communities will have to be abandoned? How will this process be managed.
  6. What changes will have to be made to regulations for construction of workplaces buildings; roads; bridges; public transport, hospitals
  7. Retrofitting will become a major industry: will governments invest adequately?
  8. What additional roles will government be asked to play?
  9. Education?

These are the questions that researchers in Canada’s Adapting Canadian workplaces lead by Prof. Carla Lipsig-Mumme are seeking to consider and understand. They are important policy questions for the Australian environmental movement to grapple with and respond to. They are also challenges that must be dealt with and implemented by government if a socially just green agenda is to be realised.


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