'Energy democracy' has emerged as a central concept in left debates over climate change and energy transition. This essay is an exploration of its provenance and potential, centred on the challenge posed by energy democracy to older varieties of 'jobs-first' trade-unionism.
For more than a decade, climate justice activists have attempted to reframe climate change and ecological crisis not just as an 'environmental' concern but as a serious political issue. In order to rethink energy transitions the movement has put forward the concept of 'energy democracy', which has become an important demand for a variety of actors across the world. At its core, energy democracy expresses the need for more ecologically sustainable, democratically accountable, and socially just energy futures. As a growing global movement, energy democracy actively politicises energy and energy transitions, and has the potential to unite various actors and stakeholders. Past projects and initiatives have, for example, brought together environmentalists and green advocates; labour organisations and trade unions; climate and environmental justice activists; local and regional government actors; citizens' and neighbourhood groups, and religious organisations and churches. The idea of energy democracy appeals to broad-based coalitions because it does not have a single, strictly-defined vision of the future. Based around the core demand for sustainable, democratic and just energy futures, different groups have used various narratives to achieve their vision(s), such as advocating for the public ownership of the energy system through the remunicipalisation of utilities, increased regional governance of energy, decentralised and cooperative ownership, or a centralised, publicly-controlled energy system. Energy democracy has also found its way into labour movement discourses, and is increasingly popular in debates concerning public ownership.
This article explores recent discussions about energy democracy and public ownership in the trade union movement. After providing a brief overview of past labour environmentalist initiatives and ideas, the article introduces the global labour network Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), which was established to advance a concept of energy democracy with a specific emphasis on the experiences of workers. Drawing on recent tensions within the US labour movement over mega-pipeline projects, the article explores some of the motivations of unions in the health care and transport sectors to support a broader alliance of indigenous groups, environmentalists, ranchers and farmers on the frontlines of the anti-Keystone XL struggle.
A brief history of trade-union environmentalism
The narrative of 'jobs versus the environment' is often used to suggest that the labour movement is naturally hostile to environmentalism. In fact, there have been labour environmentalist ideas and initiatives for some time. Since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, unions and labour organisations have been recognised as official stakeholders in United Nations-level governance of climate change and sustainable development. For the most part, however, labour remained a rather passive actor in the UN process. At least until the early 2000s, its input was mainly limited to workplace health and safety debates as well as workplace action. The labour movement's involvement changed in the mid-2000s, when narratives of green growth, green jobs and clean infrastructure became widely adopted at the United Nations, as well as in many national governmental discourses in the global North. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), founded in 2006, was heavily influenced by the emergent 'green' discourse in the trade union movement. The ITUC was involved in a large-scale partnership called the 'Green Jobs Initiative' alongside United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the International Labour Organization (ILO), and the International Organisation of Employers (IOE). The initiative emphasised green employment opportunities as well as education and training for trade unionists on issues such as energy transition and climate change, while supporting the green growth discourses of the UN.
The financial crisis of 2008 dampened green growth enthusiasm. Financial investments and government commitments to green jobs and infrastructure slowed. Earlier narrative of an inevitable transition to a green economy increasingly appeared to be unrealistic. Shifting priorities to 'saving' the economy and bailing out banks meant that previously-agreed...