Address by Zwelinzima Vavi, SAFTU General Secretary, to the WWF in South Africa

Firstly comrades let me congratulate the WWF for the role you played in shaping the agenda of the WCS and producing its historic outcomes.

From now on we belong to the same broad working-class movement, which agreed to coordinate our battles and end the fragmentation and fighting in silos. We have made huge strides forward to lay the foundations for building a new, independent, democratic and militant mass working-class movement to turn the tide against the attacks on our environment, jobs and living standards which are pushing more and more South Africans into poverty and despair.

From now, we are working together as activists mobilising against climate change, the organised working class, the unemployed, the rural poor, those in the informal sector and in more secure work, the students and the landless, the homeless and those fighting against the water crisis and the scourge of violence against women and children, into mass campaigns to struggle for a truly free, just, democratic and equal society, the downtrodden and marginalised, brought together by our common concern that 25 years of democracy has largely left the poor behind, particularly in economic terms.

We have agreed on the principles that will bind us together. The Working Class Summit told us that “the meaning of a ‘just transition’ to clean environment will be a product of struggle, and it is important for the working class to actively pursue our interests and shape the transition”. We agreed that the underlying cause of excessive greenhouse emissions that causes climate change is capitalist accumulation, which is based on the notions of survival of the fittest and dog-eat-dog. Regrettably we now know our earth and the most vulnerable inhabitants, the working class the poor, have become the prime victims of the race to the bottom under the mantra of me first to hell with everyone else.

Growth at any cost?  The simple answer to the question of ‘Growth at any cost?’ has to be NO. Workers more than anybody know that economic growth is needed to create jobs and raise living standards. But in the capitalist economy in which we live, growth alone does nothing to resolve the underlying problems for the workers whose labour creates economic growth.

It leads to greater exploitation of labour, and most of the new wealth they create ends up in the pockets of their employers, thus widening inequality between the working class majority and the ruling class, elite whose only interest is to increase their profits.

Capitalism is a system that constantly seeks to expand production and maximize profit by the cheapest means possible, with no concern for their workers they employ, the communities in which they operate let alone the world’s environment.

This is a challenge on which workers and the poor have a particular concern, given that they will suffer most if the looming environmental crisis is not averted. We have very little time left to slow the worldwide emission of gases, which threaten the future of humanity at large, but the future of the working class in particular.

That is why workers demand urgent measures to resolve the problem, but at the same time support the concept of a ‘just transition’ to a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy, which will not force the workers and the poor to have to pay the price for the transition in job losses and falling living standards

We reject the idea that the private profit motive must dominate in the transition to renewable energy generation. Capitalism, and not the working class, is the cause of global warming, climate change and the destruction of our ecosystem, and the workers must not suffer for their bosses’ irresponsibility.

The biggest challenge for the labour movement is that this environmental crisis comes at a time when the world, and South Africa in particular, is also facing a deepening crisis of poverty, inequality and unemployment.

The issue hit the headlines when our affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) and an organisation called Transform SA asked for, but were refused, a court interdict against the further privatization of energy generation, from renewable sources to independent power producers (IPPs).

SAFTU fully support the call for a cleaner and healthier environment but insists that moving from coal to renewable energy must be done in a way that is in the interest of workers in the energy sector and communities most affected by climate change, most of whom are black, female and working class.

The South African government’s energy policy is self-contradictory. It has made all the right noises about reducing carbon emissions and promoting electricity generation from renewable sources but is planning to do this by privatizing this process to big multinational companies who want to exploit these new sources of power to make profits.

The ‘just transition’ will therefore become a contested space and a scene of class struggle.

The path to a low-carbon economy and clean environment must be based on democratic, worker- and community-controlled, social ownership, and long-term collective planning of energy generation and the way that energy is to be used in the best interest of the people.

This is in line with the International Labour Organisation’s “Guidelines for a Just Transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies for all”.

It states that “Sustainable development is only possible with the active engagement of the world of work. Governments, employers, and workers are not passive bystanders, but rather agents of change, who are able to develop new ways of working that safeguard the environment, for present and future generations, eradicate poverty and promote social justice by fostering sustainable enterprises, and creating decent work for all.”

The South African government have however disregarded the spirit and letter of the ILO guidelines. They have failed to involve the mining communities, the workers and the consumers, the millions of whom suffer energy poverty; either they are not connected to the electricity grid, or they cannot afford enough electricity for a decent standard of living. Any ‘just transition’ must involve extending access to clean energy to all.

We would be failing in our duty as trade unions if we did not object vociferously to this process. Up to 40 000 existing jobs will be lost and we reject the false story that IPPs will create 61 000 jobs. Most existing renewable energy companies do not employ many workers, when compared to Eskom, and they certainly do not offer the same salaries, benefits or improvements in working conditions.

Thousands of families will suffer poverty and unemployment, in a nation already with 37% unemployment, jobs disappearing daily and more than half the population living in abject poverty.

What SAFTU believes is “unsustainable” is South Africa’s current crisis of unemployment, poverty and inequality and the stagnation of economic growth. While growth at any cost is not the answer, no growth at all is far worse.

The current rate of environmental destruction that is leading to climate change is equally unsustainable and if not addressed will also lead to eventual destruction of even more jobs. We would be taking two punches simultaneously from both neoliberal economics and the disastrous effects of climate change.

In the long run more jobs will be lost from doing nothing to avert the destruction of the environment than could possibly result from a serious democratic move towards a sustainable environment.

Our challenge is not only to save jobs but also to use the environmental crisis as a way to create well-paid and permanent jobs for workers to assist with climate solutions.

We need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the working class around the world in meeting the climate change challenge. Climate change issues particularly lend themselves to this, because emissions in any one part of the world end up in one shared atmosphere, and the threat to the climate is a global one – for example, melting ice at the poles creating rising sea levels everywhere else.

I fully agree with Professor Jackyn Cock, an authority on both labour and environmental issues, “The labour movement must own the process, undertake research on alternative job creation and formulate clear demands on the state. It must challenge dominant conceptions of a Just Transition that re-packages capitalism through notions like the “green economy”, or “green capitalism.”

So in conclusion my answer is NO to growth at any cost but YES to growth based on democratic public ownership of the whole energy-generating process and a clean and healthy environment.

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