Calvin Lawson - an RMT rep in Newcastle, part of the RMT Environmental Action Group, and co-lead on trade union strategy for Labour for a Green New Deal - spoke to Solidarity.
Our trade union group within Labour for a Green New Deal is working with local groups to establish union link officers who can connect with trades councils, union branches and so on to support workers’ struggles but also take up environmental questions. We’ve organised some roadshows to encourage discussion and engagement, for instance in the North East where I’m based and working with Unison in the Manchester area. That involves discussing national demands but also how people can develop demands for their workplaces and industries and what a just transition means for different groups of workers.
At the start of LGND, we were focused on getting policy through Labour conference, working with unions such as the FBU, but since then it’s been more of a local focus.
What does a Green New Deal mean to you? What struggles and demands are most important?
This is obviously shaped by the industry I’m in, but for me, public transport is absolutely key. Public ownership has to be central. We’re in this bizarre situation where the government and public bodies pretty much fund bus and rail companies entirely, we take the costs and the risks but the benefit goes to private firms. Currently, rail franchises are suspended, and we need to insist they are not handed back. We need the compulsory purchase of rolling stock, which would quickly save a lot of money that could be put into upgrading the network in various ways.
We need an integrated system and the reopening of stations and lines in towns and villages where they have closed. You’ll see a huge benefit for those areas, people getting to work more easily, more cheaply and with fewer emissions, as well as providing a lot of employment. We can expand the system and refit it to make it more environmentally friendly and sustainable, while improving conditions for workers in the industry, freezing fares immediately and then cutting fares.
Housing is also key, and so is creating the jobs and training we need to implement our climate agenda, particularly in renewable power. We need a big program both to meet the 2030 target and to create lasting unionised and well-paid jobs.
What’s your experience of bringing these kind of ideas into the workplace?
I think the starting point should be that lots of companies and organisations have environmental or climate policies - but they are often very thin, basically there just to look good. It’s a bit like how corporations have adopted BLM. There are lots of demands we can raise, from small things like fountains so people can fill up water bottles to bigger redesigns of industry. Even small demands can add up to make a difference and underpin progress on emissions targets. That seems like a good starting point for getting workers involved and developing support and interest.
How does your trade union group deal with the problem of unions that have adopted conservative positions on various issues, like airport expansion, often using their members in these sectors as an excuse rather than trying to have a discussion with them?
Unions are set up to represent their members and get the best deal they can for them, so this problem is to be expected. Particularly when workers are under constant attack, after years of austerity and now in the pandemic, it doesn’t always feel like climate change is a priority. As LGND we don’t influence unions directly but we work with and support members who are pursuing these debates and trying to develop policy. Unions are complex organisations so it takes time.
We’ve had good engagement and discussions with GMB members, including in the oil industry, and there is a GMB for a Green New Deal group now.
How much progress do you think we made in Labour under Corbyn, and what’s happening under Starmer?
It was a good step getting the Green New Deal policy through the conference when Corbyn was the leader. We’re still trying to engage, for instance with Ed Miliband’s team. Things have been sort of suspended over the last year and it’s been hard to test things or get things to happen. This year's conference will be very important for pushing forward again.
We need clear policies for a Labour government but we also need the party to be campaigning now. It’s missing opportunities to challenge the government’s disastrous policies. There’s also a lot more that Labour local authorities can do. It’s all very piecemeal at the moment; that side of things really needs developing.
One policy that Labour conference passed in 2019 was repeal of the anti-union laws so that workers can take action over climate issues. Why hasn’t this been taken up more widely?
The anti-union laws are horrendous; as a worker who has been on strike repeatedly I have personal experience of them. The government wants to stop workers from improving their pay and conditions, from having a safer working environment, and from exercising political pressure too. We absolutely need to repeal these laws, and when Labour gets into power it needs to be one of the very first things it does.
I guess the reason for reticence is fear of Tory attacks about going back to the 1970s, and concerns we can’t sell this to the public. The idea of workers taking action over climate change could actually be popular, but there’s no way around it, we have to make the case and argue it out. There’s a real problem in political culture today, many people are scared of having arguments and trying to convince others. If we’re going to challenge the existing consensus we need a serious culture of debate and discussion that goes beyond rhetoric and people’s personal feelings.
In its Green New Deal motion to conference the FBU called for public ownership of the banks. What do you think about this?
I don’t think that's a discussion we have a lot, at LGND or at least it's not something I have been involved in. For sure there needs to be a lot more transparency and accountability in the financial system. You’ve got all the rhetoric about anyone being able to invest their money and do well, but as soon as working-class or lower-income people actually try to get somewhere rich people just change the rules. Look at GameStop. It’s not a free market, even, it’s a market for the rich, manipulated by them to make more profit at everyone else’s expense. I’m personally enthusiastic about credit unions and building societies, which are becoming even more important as more and more banks shut down branches all over. Perhaps these kinds of local bodies can exist alongside a wider public system. For sure we need a financial system that invests in tackling climate change rather than in fossil fuels and exploiting cheap labour.