Adolfo Aguirre: To Create the Negotiating Table from Below


In the arenas of climate change activism and trade union organizing, it has become almost natural to speak of just transition.

After years of internal debate and international lobbying, the concept was even included in the preamble to the Paris Agreement. The most interesting part, however — moving from theory to practice — is still missing. Doing so implies considering the two main components of the concept: Transition and Justice.


This is the easiest part to explain: we must transition from a dirty and unequal energy model to a clean and equitable energy model. In other words, from a model based on the intensive use of polluting energies, which have high environmental impacts and are obtained through predatory and destructive processes devastating for soils and ecosystems that are also important for the life of local communities. In short, we must transition from a model that puts profit above people's lives to one to the opposite, looking beyond the short term.

But is that all? And how do we do it? When the trade union movement started taking an interest in international climate change negotiations, the assumption was that we would soon reach the peak of oil’s usefulness as energy, that industrial society as we knew it would disappear, and that the transition was inevitable and that the role of trade unions was at the negotiating table of that transition. A few years later, fracking showed that there would be oil and gas for a while to come, and coal is still a common source of energy, not only in the developing but also in the developed countries of the North.What seemed inevitable has become avoidable. It is true that “clean” energy production has increased, but not to the level required for a transition to a production model based on the common good, with real mitigation of greenhouse gases and consequent adaptation.

To move toward another energy model, political will and determination are required. Public and democratic control of energy sources is urgently needed. The privatization of energy and the perception of energy as a commodity distributed by the market must be reversed. Decisions determining in which energy sources we invest cannot be guided by the interests of the investors. Unless we achieve this, the “transition” will be guided by the economic and financial interests of those who own and invest in these energy sources, rather than by social and environmental concerns, guided by the common interest.

This not only means that energy sources—including the production, capital and infrastructure necessary to obtain those minerals needed to generate clean energy—are in public hands, but that they are democratically controlled in accordance with a logic of a common good. This is why we work together with other unions in the Trade Unions for Energy Democracy network to shape this transition.

Regaining control of privatized public goods and institutions, municipalizing energy sources, democratizing access to energy—all are basic elements for the transition to another production and consumption model, a model based on a different relationship with nature and among human beings. If we want to continue living on this planet, we have to think about another world of work.


That other world of work has to be based on social, economic, cultural, racial, fiscal, gender, environmental, intergenerational, local, regional and cross-border justice.

The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the separation of classes: a class of capital owners who can lock themselves up and protect themselves; a class of workers who can be confined or who have to go out to work but who are reassured by a salary at the end of the month because they are protected by collective agreements; and a class of precarious and informal economy workers who cannot be confined because they need to go out to earn their living every day, because they have to go out to deliver orders by bicycle, to take care of the sick or attend to the supermarkets, among other services essential to maintain “social distance”.

In this sense the Covid-19 pandemic has acted as a catalyst for existing trends, rather than a radical disruption in the global order. But it is also an opportunity we must try to turn to our advantage: if this crisis shows us anything, it is that radical measures, like the nationalization of privatized health sectors, are possible. One radical measure would be to legalize all workers, or to nationalize delivery services. Or, for example, it would also be appropriate to create decent, carbon-free jobs for a society guided by the common good: more nurses, more park rangers, more workers who can build and maintain energy-efficient social housing, more musicians, more teachers, more postal workers, more caregivers for people in need—the list is endless. It takes many workers to create another world, one that is inclusive and just.

This multifaceted justice has to be local, conceived in a development model with public and democratically managed energy sources, ensuring sovereignty and guaranteeing access to essential rights such as water, sanitation, food, shelter, education and health.

But at the same time, justice has to be borderless, because inequality and the production and consumption system that generates it is. The injustice of the current model can readily be maintained and intensified with “clean” energy sources. The richest 10% of the world can become totally “green”. But for this to happen, under a market-driven transition process like the one we are in today, the supply chains will continue to relegate countries like Argentina to the lowest segment of the chain, providing raw materials, especially natural resources, to a minority in a very asymmetric exchange scheme. A clear example is electric cars. Under the prevailing neoliberal model, transporting some of Europe “eco-friendly” electric cars requires massive lithium extraction. This process directly affects the surrounding communities, located in a triangle whose points are located in the north of our country, in Chile and in Bolivia.

A Global Green New Deal implies rethinking supply chains: where is value added, who benefits, what are the environmental impacts along the chain, where and how does it contribute to the creation of decent jobs, and how does it contribute to the common good.

We cannot think of another world if we sweep the fact that supply chains and globalization have to be challenged under the carpet—or, one might say, under the Paris Agreement, under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, or hide it behind a multilateral system captured by corporations. Obviously, the extreme right questions globalization. That is not what we are aiming at, because the globalization we have today is not the only one possible. We call for a fraternal debate, with companions from the global south and north, so that we can enter into a possible green deal on an equal footing. We can reclaim a globalization based on cooperation and collaboration, worked out with a commitment to solidarity and the common good. The tendencies towards precariousness, reduced rights and labour informality are not the globalization’s only dimension. On the opposite side we find experiences of self-management, social and solidarity economies that, although only just emerging, offer an alternative to the current economic regime.

So for us in the global south, the implementation of just transition is not limited to negotiating compensation for potentially lost jobs. We will do that because it is our trade union duty. But at present, we have less chance of losing jobs because of an energy transition than because of a massive economic recession. The question, rather, is how we should embrace our social role as trade unions, and present a comprehensive social justice development proposal to overcome the recession by responding to environmental challenges, with more democracy, more rights and more decent jobs.

Just as the Covid-19 crisis showed us that certain jobs are essential to the functioning of society in the midst of the pandemic, we must think about what jobs are essential to a society based on solidarity, environmental resilience, empathy and the common good. We want to generate this debate. The society of the future does not have to be one where there are fewer jobs and worse conditions.

The just transition negotiation table is not going to be created by the green bond market, by multinationals with social and environmental responsibility programs, or by debates in Davos. We must create the negotiating table from below, with formal and informal workers, farmers and small-scale producers, local authorities, neighborhood associations, social organizations, and with all those willing to enter into the struggle to ensure that the future of humanity does not remain in the hands of a micro-percentage of owners.

Photo: Terrence Faircloth

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