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Transport unions shift direction on climate change

Hundreds of unions representing workers in the global transport industry -- which accounts for 14 percent of global emissions -- have pledged to lower emissions significantly, develop sustainable transport alternatives and support regulation to reduce unnecessary transport needs in the coming years, according to a resolution adopted at a conference of the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) in Mexico City last month.

The Aug. 4 decision followed a yearlong collaboration between the ITF's Climate Change Working Group and ILR-New York City's Global Labor Institute (GLI). Based on a discussion document created through the partnership, the resolution was sponsored by 55 transport unions and unanimously adopted at the ITF World Congress.

"This is truly a historic event for the labor movement," said Lara Skinner, extension associate at GLI. Before the conference, she said, "some of the affiliates were saying, 'We want to work on climate change, but we're not really sure what we should be doing; what positions we should be taking.' This provides a policy framework for the affiliates to work from."

The conference preceded the quadrennial World Congress of the ITF, which represents more than 4.6 million transport workers in 760 unions from 154 countries. Affiliated unions represent workers in passenger and cargo transport via road, rail, shipping and aviation.

In the resolution, representatives noted that transport emissions are increasing around the world faster than any other energy-using sector of the economy.

The resolution calls for the rapid expansion of public transportation, international emissions reduction targets and major changes to the current system of globalized production and distribution in favor or more local practices.

In a break with the market-based solutions favored by policy-makers such as cap and trade, it asserts that "addressing the climate crisis will require a far-reaching political and economic transformation driven by alternative social and environmental priorities" -- including regulation, social protection and trade union involvement.

The resolution also emphasizes the importance of job creation, decent working conditions and fair wages; and it calls for a "radical redistribution of wealth and social security schemes which safeguard people's livelihood and social and human rights."

The call for government intervention could open a new dialogue on climate protection that reaches beyond the transport industry, said GLI Director Sean Sweeney.

"This says that the market is not going to respond either quickly enough or effectively enough to really meet the emissions reduction targets in the timeframe we have, so that we need a much bolder, more aggressive approach," Sweeney said. "It's not just about transport -- it's actually got the beginnings of a different policy approach toward climate protection."

The document also provides a basis for connecting the global labor movement with environmental, social justice, human rights and sustainable development movements, he said, and for unions to establish initiatives that educate and involve workers in green issues.

"We're hoping that transport unions will turn the proposals and the analysis into some kind of action plan," Sweeney said. "We don't have any unrealistic expectations that everybody will do it ... but if some do it, then it's got potential. We hope other global union federations will pick up the analysis and work with it."

As part of the Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future's climate delegation, GLI will host a meeting on sustainable, low-carbon transportation for international union federations and other civil society organizations at the United Nations Climate Change meetings in Cancun, Mexico in December.

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Joe Schwartz