We need a ban and a plan - and a mass movement for a worker-led transition

A CACCTU response to Unite’s “No Ban Without a Plan” campaign.

Launched on 17th of May, Unite’s No Ban Without a Plan campaign aims “to ensure that a future Labour government drops its planned ban on new licences for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, until a genuine programme for the just transition of work is operational”. 

As an organisation campaigning for climate justice, our response to this is unequivocal. 

We stand in full solidarity with militant action to ensure that the transition away from oil and gas is one that is fair to workers and their communities: protecting incomes, providing good new jobs on at least equivalent terms and conditions, and guaranteeing furlough where there are unavoidable gaps in employment or where a worker needs to retrain. 

Equally, we stand in solidarity with the millions of workers, worldwide and in the UK, whose livelihoods, homes and lives are threatened or have already been destroyed by the climate impacts of fossil fuel burning. A ban on new licences, as part of a phase-out of fossil fuel extraction, is therefore non-negotiable; it is not a bargaining chip, a 'concession' to be granted or withdrawn, but an existential necessity for all of us.

On the positive side, the campaign hints at movement in Unite’s position on oil and gas - a recognition that a transition away from fossil fuels is both necessary and inevitable, and can, with the right policies and investment, be achieved without mass job losses. A move towards identifying and bargaining around the terms of such a transition certainly looks like a step forward.

However, we have serious concerns about the rhetoric framing the campaign. We also feel that it misrepresents the situation in the North Sea in some significant ways:

1. A ban on new licences, as promised in Labour’s election manifesto, will not in itself make a significant difference to continuing extraction. It usually takes more than ten years from licence issue for a field to start production, and they have said they do not intend to revoke the large number of licences already issued. These include the vast Rosebank field, whose reserves, if burned, would generate more than the combined annual emissions of the 28 poorest countries. This is not a particularly strong climate policy, nor is it in any way an immediate threat to jobs. 

2. North Sea oil and gas are already in sharp decline. The Scottish Herald reported last November that 200,000 jobs supported by the North Sea oil and gas sector had been lost over the last decade. The real threat to jobs is not having a transition plan for the energy sector and its workforce.

3. As regards ‘energy security’, even the UK government acknowledges that 80% of oil from new fields such as Rosebank would be traded on international markets, making very little difference to prices or to the proportion of oil products used in the UK that come from UK waters. The amount of oil from new licences sent to UK refineries would account for less than 1% of the fuels used in the UK in 2030.

As for the language used, we believe it plays too readily into the populist demonisation of climate action as an authoritarian assault on workers’ freedoms and standards of living, which ignores both the threat climate breakdown presents to workers and their own agency in shaping a transition.

Sharon Graham’s comment that workers must not be 'sacrificed on the altar of Net Zero' recalls - and risks fuelling - right wing and climate denialist narratives that dismiss the basic logic and imperative of climate science, and deride it as a ‘religion’ or a ‘cult’.

We are well aware that in the UK and around the world, workers are too often treated as expendable. But it would be good to bear in mind that the greatest ‘sacrifice’ in the current situation is the sacrifice of millions of people, predominantly from the poorest countries, to the dangerous impacts of climate breakdown, in order to facilitate the continued profits of the fossil fuel industry

Rhetoric about not letting oil and gas workers be 'the miners of net zero' is similarly misleading. The closure of the pits was more than an 'unjust transition'  - this was an assault strategically aimed at breaking working class power (and nothing to do with climate change!). Invoking the hardship linked to those events may resonate with worried workers, but it obscures the proactive stance now needed from our unions, to secure a properly planned workers’ transition. 

Making a bogey of the “ban” policy confines our understanding of “transition” to the bosses’ version -  transition as something done to us - and defines militancy as mere resistance to change, rather than as mobilising the power of the workforce to lead the change needed for our collective survival. 

We can’t leave it to Labour - hand in glove with the private-sector companies despite its woefully unambitious and underfunded 'Great British Energy' plan - to deliver plans which work for the climate, for workers and for bill-payers. But we already know a lot about the type and scale of the climate jobs that are needed and the barriers impeding the transition to a clean energy system. It is a workers’ plan that is needed, and that we can fight for.

A rapid transition of workers to a fully renewables-based energy system offers by far the best chance of avoiding large-scale job losses. And for unions to lead on this transition offers a far better chance of preserving pay and conditions (including much-needed unionisation of the renewables workforce) than fighting a rearguard action as the transition is done to workers by those for whom workers’ wellbeing is their least concern.

Getting as much of our energy system as possible out of market control seems critical, and in this we fully agree with Unite’s findings on renationalising energy and support for public ownership. This is also essential to achieve the planning and integration needed to get that skilled workforce where it’s needed,  break the bottlenecks in supply chains and tackle the shortage of skilled labour in critical sectors like grid engineering. 

Unite’s demand is for “investment in [...] wind power manufacturing and operations, hydrogen, carbon capture and decommissioning”, calculating that an investment of £1.1bn per year could create 35,000 such 'energy transition jobs'

We concur with the potential for job creation but urge caution around carbon capture, a technology which has proved disastrously inefficient in practice, and has recently been found to present a risk of CO2 leaking from under-sea storage sites. Like fossil-fuel based hydrogen, its chief benefit from an industry perspective is to prolong the use of oil and gas. 

Proactive, participatory and transparent union planning could generate alternative demands for a genuinely clean energy system, free of industry greenwash; a radical plan for jobs that is also a plan for the climate and for the common interest of the working class. 

Winning the fight for that kind of transition will need a vast coalition involving all sectors and backed by diverse communities and social justice movements. In this, we might indeed take inspiration from the miners’ strike.

Photo credit: Erik Cristensen, via Wikimedia Commons