Global labour unions and just transition to a green economy


Questions of justice in the transition to a green economy have been raised by various social forces. Very few proposals, however, have been as focused and developed as the “just transition” strategy proposed by global labour unions. Yet, labour unions are remarkably absent from discussions of the transition towards a green economy. This is surprising as labour unions are arguably the largest organizations in the world fighting for basic rights and more just social relations. This paper tries to advance the potential contribution of labour unions in this arena by asking: what is the full scope of “just transition” today and how have labour unions developed and refined it over the years to render the move towards a green economy both environmentally and socially sustainable? The concept of just transition is hotly debated within labour unions and has different interpretations, and hence different strategies. The last section assesses these interpretations by means of a normative framework, which seeks to fuse political economy and political ecology. Empirically, we add to the growing literature on labour environmentalism, as well as transitions more generally. Analytically, our goal is to place the various approaches to a “just transition” within a heuristic framework of environmental justice that is explicit about power relations when demanding justice, two themes central to this special issue.

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  1. 1.

    Global Union Federations (GUFs, currently 8) are confederations of national unions in particular sectors such as the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) or the International Chemical, Mine, Energy and General Workers’ Union (ICEM)—now part of IndustriALL. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is a global confederation of national umbrella organizations, such as the AFL-CIO in the USA and the TUC in the UK. The Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) is also a confederation of national umbrella organizations, albeit of the industrial countries that are OECD members, while the ETUC is the same for the European Union. In our paper, we are dealing largely with global union organizations such as the ITUC and the GUFs (on which see Stevis and Boswell 2008).

  2. 2.

    Furthermore, as Hrynyshyn and Ross (2011) suggest, it is possible that a union claiming to be a social unionist is not acting consistently with that ideology.

  3. 3.

    OCAW, USA and ECWU, Canada. OCAW joined the PACE which then joined the USW. PACE was hostile to environmentalism largely due to bitter conflicts with environmentalists over logging in Northwestern USA (Foster 1993). Two key people here are Les Leopold (who had worked with OCAW) and Brian Kohler of the ECWU, then the ICEM, and now IndustriALL (see Bennett 2007; personal interview March 2011).

  4. 4.

    The differences between “affirmative” and “transformative” visions of society and justice have been central to the discussion of the social welfare state and social democracy (Esping-Andersen 1990). They should not be confused with the distinction between “reformist” and “revolutionary” strategies, which both have a transformative purpose, but with different means (none of the labour unions we investigate have a revolutionary perspective, hence it does not make its way into our typology). Rather these differences correspond to those between mere “social reform” (which would be “affirmative”) and “reformism” (which is “transformative”) (Miliband 2004[1977] p. 161).

  5. 5.

    We use the term ‘ecocentrist’ for convenience fully cognizant that there are important differences between biocentric and ecocentric ethics (Callicott 2004).

  6. 6.

    Here, we want to underscore that these are the views of the labour organizations and not necessarily of the policy entrepreneurs seeking to move them in the direction of environmentalism.

  7. 7.

    The two organizations are now united in a new federation: IndustriALL.

  8. 8.

    Sustainable jobs would allow for long-term social cohesion and solidarity while green jobs may, in fact, undermine them if they are capital-intensive and do not enhance a community’s social resilience.

  9. 9.

    The rebound effect suggests that efficiency in energy production and consumption (or any other activity) without ecological limits and regulations is likely to increase the use of these more efficient products and, thus, the aggregate impacts on nature (Polimeni et al. 2008; Foster 2009, chap. 6).



American Federation of Labor—Congress of Industrial Organizations


Canadian Labour Congress


Conference of the Parties


Commission on Sustainable Development (United Nations)


Energy and Chemical Workers Union (Canada)


European Trade Union Confederation


Global Union Federation


International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (now part of IndustriALL)


International Confederation of Free Trade Unions


International Labour Organization


International Metalworkers’s Federation (now part of IndustriALL)


International Transport Workers’ Federation


International Trade Union Confederation


Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers’ Union (USA)


Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development


Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (USA)


Trade Union Congress (UK)


Trade Union Advisory Committee of the OECD


United Nations


United Nations Environment Programme


United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change


United Steelworkers (USA)


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The authors would like to thank the referees as well as the guest editors of the special issue for their helpful comments. Part of the research for this article by Romain Felli was done with the help of a research grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation (PBLAP1-134448), which is gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Dimitris Stevis or Romain Felli.

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Stevis, D., Felli, R. Global labour unions and just transition to a green economy. Int Environ Agreements 15, 29–43 (2015).

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  • Labour unions
  • Labour environmentalism
  • Environmental justice
  • Global environmental politics