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Time for trade unions to grow up on Heathrow expansion

Updated: Apr 12, 2019

Despite strong trade union opposition, the London Labour conference on 4th March successfully passed a motion against further airport expansion including, but not exclusive to, Heathrow.


As PCS Assistant General Secretary, Chris Baugh said after the Parliamentary vote on Heathrow in 2018 – opposing Heathrow expansion is not opposing jobs. Far from it, if we care about the future of work and the future of workers, we should be proposing alternatives that meet the enormous challenges we face in addressing climate change and wider environmental degradation. Hopefully this vote in London will be the first step to changing Labour Party policy nationally.


Decisions we make now in national infrastructure and industrial choices are critical as they

will lock us into prolonging decades of the fossil fuel economy. The UN Intergovernmental

Panel on Climate Change, reporting in October 2018, could not have set out more clearly the

dangers of continuing on our current carbon pathways. In particular they noted:


Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C and increase further with 2°C.


Their reports do not include aviation and shipping.


This pivotal moment was noted by the Heathrow Skills Taskforce report published last year.

Headed up by David Blunkett, former Labour Party Secretary of State for Employment and

Education, arguably the task force provides a model of how we should be developing our future employment strategies. But a model if they were advocating for an alternative employment scenario, and not one to support expansion at Heathrow.


Members on the taskforce represented local authorities, trade unions (Unite), schools, colleges, universities, and the voluntary and private sectors. Broadly speaking, headline proposals for apprenticeships and developing skills pathways throughout the education system are good ones, as are calls to make London Living Wage committed contractors more than aspirational demands.


The section on future proofing work however includes phrases such as “flexible workforce” and “adaptable” which should send militant tremors through trade unionists. And the failure to cite climate change as a global challenge is not just shocking but irresponsible given the irrefutable evidence of the impact our economic behaviour is having on the climate.

Headlines about skills shortages have abounded for some time. Clearly there is a need in construction where a large number of the workers filling the promised jobs at Heathrow will

be engaged. This includes in the four hubs for offsite construction to respond to apparent local concerns of having more than 10,000 workers being on site every day.


The construction sector itself is a major contributor to climate change, highly fragmented, and characterised by low wage, low skilled jobs. With the challenges ahead and new skills required for a zero carbon sector, it should offer a secure and valued career for workers. But this will be far from achievable as long as training and education for the jobs in this sector are based around flagship infrastructure projects for profit rather than for ecological and social motives.


If the Labour Party is to fulfil its promise of a “green jobs revolution” it has to start by ending support for projects such as Heathrow expansion. We need an industrial strategy for climate change that confronts the hard questions of aviation and its role in decarbonising the economy. We need an industrial strategy for current workers – in organised and unorganised labour – and future workers. We will fight for every job under threat from employers or detrimental government policy.


Part of that fight however has to be offensive to ensure proactive planning and a Just

Transition for workers to ensure they don’t pay for the climate and environmental crisis. This is more than social protections or reskilling/training alone. Whilst these elements are important, it has to include an overall transformation of our economy. New unionised ‘green’ jobs in low wage, low skilled sectors are no more welcome than the current precarious, zero hours economy of today’s work. The future of work offers a huge opportunity for any government and society willing to be bold enough to grasp it.


It is an opportunity trade unions should be engaging with too and stop seeing calls for a Just Transition or the halt to expansion at Heathrow as a threat to jobs. The biggest threat to livelihoods and workers health is ‘business as usual’, just as it is to the future workforce.

On Friday 15th March, young people across the world once again took to the streets to demand action on climate change. In her speech to the EU Commission, the inspiration of the school strikes Greta Thunberg notably said:


The political system that you have created is all about competition. You cheat when you can, because all that matters is to win, to get power. That must come to an end, we must stop competing with each other, we need to cooperate and work together and to share the

resources of the planet in a fair way.


Trade unions need to do this too and practice our principle of solidarity in a way which ensures supporting jobs in one sector isn’t at the cost of jobs in another, whether in the UK or globally. If we want to support the students and safeguard their future work opportunities, then we must to stop backing jobs which will exacerbate the problem and demand ‘climate’ jobs. It’s time for trade unions to grow up on Heathrow expansion.


Sam Mason

GMB Trade union activist & Red/Green Labour Member

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