How steel workers see climate change affecting the future of their industry

Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

Professor Vera Trappmann is Professor of Comparative Employment Relations and leads a programme of work on the green transition, climate change and the worker voice, at the Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change at the University of Leeds. Dr Jo Cutter is a Lecturer in Work and Employment Relations and an expert in the employment relations of skills and training. Her ongoing research focuses on jobs and skills in the green transition and union policy and practice on climate change. She currently sits on the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission’s Future Economy Panel.

Building contractors working on a steel frame

How workers, especially those in sectors with very high levels of CO2 emissions, see the climate crisis and their engagement in policy and plans for decarbonising their industry will be key to a successful green transition.

As part of our research that considers how climate crisis and mitigation, decarbonisation, and net zero will impact the world of work, we have prepared a report for Community on its members’ perceptions of the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Community is a trade union with industrial and community roots in the UK representing workers in the steel industry and has expanded its membership to include workers in education and early years, logistics, textiles, finance, the privatised justice and custodial sector, health and social care, the third sector and the self-employed, and with a membership of 52,000.

We created a survey which was sent out to Community members in the steel sector in July 2021 and, where relevant, compared them to the findings of a similar survey which was undertaken with a nationally representative sample of 2,000 workers across the UK, also in 2021. 

Concerns about climate change

From the survey results, we know that Community members are very worried about climate change and are, on average, slightly more worried than the UK workers surveyed.

More Community members (60.4% compared with the UK worker average of 54.4%) think the UK is already experiencing major effects of climate change. Whilst over a third of Community respondents feel bold action on the climate should be taken now, there is a broader constituency within the union who do not support the idea of the need for urgency when it comes to tackling climate change. 31% of Community respondents, compared to 4.5% amongst those asked in the UK-wide survey, don’t think that climate change should be tackled with high or extreme urgency.

We know from a growing body of research that our emotions about the climate crisis influence how we process information about climate change, the likelihood we will take individual or collective action on climate, and the type of policies we support. Thus, perceptions and emotions relating to climate change are important factors in understanding workers’ perspectives on the green transition. We asked how strongly respondents feel about climate change and their emotional response to the issue asking about hope, fear, anger, guilt, and outrage.

We found some interesting results. Levels of hope and outrage are much more dominant among Community members than among the average UK worker. However, levels of anxiety and fear among Community members are much lower. This suggests scope for action within Community members on climate change as outrage and hope are emotions that tend to form the basis of action whereas fear, guilt and anxiety can inhibit this.

The survey also checked the extent to which respondents felt knowledgeable about the topic of climate change. The level of concern about the climate crisis might be linked to relatively high levels of understanding of the climate challenge. A large majority of Community respondents feel well-informed about climate change. 62.5% state that they have a good knowledge about the causes and effects of climate change, compared to 49.1% in the UK national worker average.

Interestingly, when looking at the makeup of Community respondents, active members are much more likely than union reps or not-so-active members to say that they feel knowledgeable about climate change.

Helping steel plants reach net zero

Not surprisingly as our survey was issued to members in the steel sector, 75.6% of Community respondents state that they work at a site with a high level of emissions, compared to only 16.8% of UK workers.

Almost two-thirds of Community respondents state that plans to reduce carbon emissions are underway, however, in those sites where net zero plans are underway Community members are less likely (42.3%) than the UK worker average (54.8%) to have been consulted on those plans. Many Community members said they have ideas about ways in which decarbonisation could be achieved. In this respect, it is concerning that workers in the steel sector are not regularly engaged in dialogue by management on net zero.

Community members are more sceptical about the potential success of their steel plants to decarbonise than UK workers as a whole. In open questions, when asked what kind of changes or investments are needed at their sites to help reach net zero, many underline the need for more investment and government support. Specific responses are summarised as being focused on climate policy, better management, more investment, greener production processes and better education.

Responsibility for action on climate change

Community members are already active in climate change in several ways, most notably within their households. There is also some involvement in climate change activity at work, in local communities or via their trade union.

When it comes to who has the greatest responsibility to address climate change, Community members think it is the government, then businesses and individuals equally, and then community groups and organisations. Interestingly though, Community members think that the union has a huge role to play in addressing climate change.

When presented with the hypothetical case of a worker who is concerned about high emissions at their workplace and about large amounts of waste, Community members are much more likely to state that they should try to push for change through their workplace union (27.7%) while instead, only 21.2% think they should raise it with management.

27.7% think it is the local council/government that should make sure that companies meet high environmental standards through regulation and legislation, another manifestation of the strong belief climate change needs to be (foremost) addressed by the government.

Policy support for net zero and a just transition

In addition to understanding perceptions of climate change and engagement in action to address it, the survey also explores members’ views on government proposals and policies to tackle climate change by presenting a number of policy options currently debated by trade unions and the government.

The policies that got the most support are those that support investment in carbon capture technologies and also public investment in renewable energy. It is notable that more “socialist” ideas like bringing energy into public ownership, and publicly owned and integrated transport systems also get high levels of support.

More generally, debates over the nature of economic policy and sustainability consider whether economic growth is compatible with a sustainable green economy. This is a complex issue and Community members are undecided if economic growth harms the environment - 29.2% think it does, 29.2% disagree and 37.5% are undecided. These proportions are very similar to the UK worker average.

In a contrasting question, respondents were asked if they believe that the UK needs economic growth to help protect the environment. 58.3% of Community members agree, 8.33% disagree, and 33.3% are undecided (also similar to the UK worker average), suggesting that Community members are more likely to see the need for economic growth.

Climate adaptation and mitigation, and the turn towards a greener economy, might have deep implications on jobs and employment. Policies that support workers where jobs are at risk because of efforts to reduce climate change are called policies for a Just Transition (JT); they try to ensure green transitions are fair and effective. We asked respondents to rate the importance of JT policies, drawing on the most prominent ones suggested by the ILO guidance on Just Transition or more recent demands from worker organisations in the UK (such as those made by Community, Prospect, Unison, Unite and GMB).  

The results show that the balance of priorities was broadly the same for Community and UK workers, with access to training and local, good-quality jobs being seen as key elements of the just transition.

Community members also favour a strong emphasis on union-management plans, and worker and community engagement. Community members place a high premium on policy being sensitive to the needs of particular regions already negatively affected by industrial change, more so than the UK average worker. This is understandable given that steel communities have been badly affected by rounds of restructuring in the past.

Regarding the union’s position on climate action, the survey asked a set of questions about the prioritisation of jobs in the face of climate change mitigation. Of course, union action in this area is not simply an issue of ‘jobs versus environment’ and when asked if ‘unions should prioritise the fight against climate change at the expense of certain jobs as long as there is adequate investment for new, decent quality jobs’ (ie Just Transition policies) 54.8% of members supported this idea. Fewer members, however, support the idea that jobs are more important than climate mitigation

The future in a green economy

A range of estimates on the job opportunities that the transition to a greener economy might bring tend, in the main, to be positive overall. But it is also important to understand how people see these opportunities for themselves and their communities.

Community members are broadly positive, but in some aspects, also ambivalent about the changes that moving towards a greener economy might bring. 54.5% think it will bring new jobs to their community, but the same proportion (54.6%) assume changes towards a greener economy will also lead to job losses locally. 

This indicates a considerable expectation of ‘churn’ in the local labour market. This contrasts with the UK worker average where, although the proportion anticipating new jobs is a little lower, UK workers on average are much less concerned about the potential for job losses in their local area as a result of the green transition.

Community union members are also concerned about the quality of new green jobs. Only 34.1% think that the green transition will bring better jobs to their local area, and only around half of Community members anticipate potentially positive outcomes, the so-called ‘co-benefits’ of climate policy.

The survey explores how respondents see the potential impact on their own employment prospects. A rather large proportion (48.9%) of Community members think that the green transition will mean that they will need to change jobs; 33.3% think they will have to move location to find work. This is a substantial deviation from the national average (12%).

A significant number of Community workers (62.2%) anticipate that they will need to learn new skills in their existing job to ensure that they are prepared for work in the low-carbon economy. From the workers’ perspective, this shouldn’t pose a problem as Community members have regularly updated their knowledge and skills. 95.5% are willing to learn new skills, and 86.8% feel confident about learning new skills. However, only 4.6% have received training related to climate change or decarbonising business.

This is in stark contrast to 25.3.% who state that they have taken part in any education or training courses that have developed their knowledge of the environment and climate change or helped to develop 'green' skills. This suggests that while the initiative is being taken by members to develop their learning on climate and net zero, this is not currently being offered by management at anything like the level anticipated by workers as being needed.

To put this into perspective, steelworkers are among the most aware or pessimistic that they will have to change jobs. Given these expectations, the lack of special training initiatives will most likely make workers feel abandoned, with many being cynical about the direction of green policy.

Read the full report.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University Business School or the University of Leeds.