The energy sector at a ‘pivotal moment’

                                                                                                       Image: Steve Forrest

Delegates at UNISON’s energy conference met in Brighton on Monday to discuss the issues and challenges affecting a sector experiencing enormous change.

Opening the conference, Lindsay McNaught, chair of the energy service group executive (pictured above), said: “Over the last 12 months, our members have grappled with a myriad of issues that have significantly impacted their work and livelihoods – from the ongoing transition to renewable energy sources to the ever-present threat of job insecurity, the landscape of the energy sector continues to rapidly evolve.

“One of the key issues that has dominated discussions is the progress to net zero and its implications for our members. While we wholeheartedly support the shift towards renewable energy, it’s essential that this transition is managed in a way that prioritises the well-being of workers.”

At the same time, Ms McNaught noted a sense of ‘Groundhog Day’ with regards the energy crisis.

“Customers are still struggling to pay their gas and electricity bills, without any financial support from government and employers,” she said.

“The affordability of energy bills and discussions around social tariffs continues. Overall bills have reduced, but they are still significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels. And these same cost pressures are felt by energy workers in our call centres, who must deal with the negative pushback from customers.”

Just transition

In a wide-ranging speech, general secretary Christina McAnea told delegates: “This is a really important time for our union, but also a really important time for our planet. We all have a shared commitment to consider how we transition to a greener future, one that delivers energy security for UK citizens and tackles climate change.

“Our hardworking members are on the frontline, dealing with all aspects of the energy crisis. They are at the forefront of the research, development and delivery of renewable energy, while ensuring we have enough capacity to maintain supplies of gas and electricity.

“I’m proud that UNISON does so much on green issues, but this must not come at the expense of our workers,” she continued. “The changing energy landscape needs a strong union voice, to ensure the industry has the skilled workforce it needs for future generations. It also needs a strong union voice to ensure the transition is fair and equitable.”

Ms McAnea said that a just transition must include “comprehensive training initiatives to equip the workforce with the skills needed for the jobs of tomorrow,” as well as “robust policies that balance technological progress with the preservation of jobs.”

Safety at work, mental health support for call centre employees, and of course pay were also key considerations moving forward.

“The energy sector is at a pivotal moment,” she concluded, underlining the power of collective bargaining in delivering a just transition.

“Many of us in this room may remember the way in which the Tories decimated the miners as they moved away from coal. There was nothing ‘just’ in how that transition was handled. It was a blueprint for the destruction not only of an industry, but of families and communities up and down the country.

“That is something we will resist at all costs for our members working in this sector.”

Organising to win

Tracey Wainwright speaking at energy conference
                                                                                                          Image: Steve Forrest

Many of the motions in Brighton touched on issues that apply across sectors: support of disabled workers dealing with mental distress; the need for continued participation of Black members in the service group; addressing the problems faced by neurodiverse women in the workplace; and embedding LGBT+ equality in the energy sector.

The service group executive proposed a motion that recognised the importance of UNISON’s organising to win national strategy, with a plan to build a bigger and more representative activist base.

Workers in the energy sector often face challenges such as precarious employment in smaller, off-shoot businesses not covered by the same pay and conditions as the parent company, inadequate safety measures and limited bargaining power.

Proposing the motion, Tracey Wainwright, the SGE’s representative on the national executive council (pictured above), cited achievements such as the working time directive, increases in holiday pay and annual leave for contract workers, as “wins for workers that happened because working people made them real by organising, campaigning and negotiating.”

And referring to British Gas’s attempt to fire and rehire staff in 2021, she noted: “Due to the very strong pushback from UNISON members, we now have negotiated settlements. It is organising that makes rights real for working people. It is trade union campaigning that sent a clear signal to employers that toxic tactics like fire and rehire would never stand.”

Top table at energy conference, with president Libby Nolan far right

The conference called on the SGE  to deliver an organising to win recruitment and retention strategy, including the recruitment of new activists, health and safety reps, environmental reps and UNISON learning reps.

UNISON president Libby Nolan (above) closed the conference with a stirring message for its delegates. “You’re small but you are mighty,” she said, adding that between energy and WET members, “you have got the climate emergency skills and expertise to be able to make this a liveable planet.”

A social energy tariff

A packed energy fringe, also on Monday, dealt with fuel poverty and the case for a social energy tariff.

Addressing the delegates, Matthew Copeland, the head of policy and public affairs at the fuel poverty charity National Energy Action, said that there were projections that the crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago “was not just a spike, it was a shock that is going to last for quite a long time.”

He said that, while energy prices had fallen recently, bills for a typical household could jump again to around £1,700 in the autumn – remaining at that level for the rest of the decade. Already, 5.6m households across the UK are in fuel poverty – with people’s problems paying their bills moving forward compounded by the debts they’ve already amassed from two winters ago.

His charity’s blueprint for a social energy tariff would be:

  • additional to current protections in the market, such as the price cap
  • mandatory
  • well targeted, reaching the households that really need it.

It already has the support of industry regulator, Ofgem, as well as dozens of charities and NGOs. Mr Copeland estimated it would cost £2bn a year, with options for funding including taxation, and contributions from both energy networks and suppliers.

“But these things need consultation,” he said. “We need the next government to really think about this, in a meaningful way, to talk to people, to work out what would be best for consumers, what would be doable for government and suppliers, and actually think about who should be in receipt of this and how deep it should be.”

The article The energy sector at a ‘pivotal moment’ first appeared on the UNISON National site.