Photo credits aydinmutlu from Getty Images Signature

Published as far back as 1972, the Club of Rome’s ‘Limits to Growth’ report already pointed to the fact that infinite economic growth is not possible on a planet with finite resources. This has not prevented ‘growthism’ from remaining the status quo and a mantra for politicians. The past few years, however, have seen increasing momentum behind demands for alternative economic models that do not focus on economic growth (in terms of GDP growth) as their central objective, with books such as ‘Doughnut Economics’ by Kate Raworth becoming international bestsellers. These demands are based on scientific analyses, with research on this topic gaining traction. For some time, trade unions have also been exploring the question of moving ‘beyond GDP’, particularly to alternative indicators of societal well-being.

In December 2022, the ETUI held a conference entitled ‘A just transition beyond growth?’, focusing on the role of trade unions in this conversation. This event was organised in anticipation of a larger conference, ‘Beyond Growth 2023: Pathways towards sustainable prosperity’, which took place in the European Parliament in May 2023, organised by a group of MEPs and a coalition of partner organisations, including the ETUI. ‘Beyond growth’ is used here as an umbrella term to include several different visions of alternative economic models, such as the ‘well-being economy’, ‘post-growth’, or ‘degrowth’ models. The conference attracted thousands of participants and is seen by some as a pivotal moment for this movement.

In short, many of these alternative models envisage the downscaling of environmentally harmful production and consumption in countries (generally in the Global North) that exceed their ecological resources. The discussions at the conference made it clear that, alongside environmental sustainability, democratic decision-making, social justice and equality – including for workers – are central objectives. Unlike green growth strategies such as the European Green Deal, these models demand system change towards equitable and sustainable societies. While some socially beneficial sectors, such as care, would still grow, the overall result sought is a reduction of resource consumption and environmental impact that would limit a range of economic activities.

Trade union leaders were also among the speakers at the conference. In a powerful speech at the closing plenary, Esther Lynch (General Secretary of the ETUC) pointed out that ‘trade unions have been raising concerns about the use of GDP as a measure of well-being of nations’ and said that ‘tweaking around the edges of existing models will not be sufficient to address the societal, economic and environmental transformations that are needednew alternatives are now required’.

In this respect, she delivered a clear message: ‘social dialogue and the involvement of workers and their trade unions is essential to a successful transition to a beyond-growth economy’, which must address the unfair imbalance between workers’ wages and profits for companies and the rich. There was also a strong message of solidarity: ‘There are economists who have been advancing ecologically sustainable and socially progressive alternatives, and we stand with them in urgent need for a renewed shared sense of shared prosperity and a commitment to fairness and flourishing in a finite world. … Trade unions are here with you on this journey.’

This signals a readiness to work together, but this journey will not be easy for trade unions, used to operating within a framework that prioritises increases in productivity and growth. Lynch actually started her address by saying that ‘this is a difficult discussion for [trade unions]’. The union movement and proponents of a post-growth agenda could probably find convergence on topics such as progressive taxation, an end to austerity and reform of EU fiscal policy and debt rules, or even workplace issues such as working time reduction. However, deeper systemic changes that require transformation and degrowth across almost all sectors, particularly those that involve significant resource consumption and are harmful to the environment, pose real challenges.

What happens to the workers in these sectors and to their unions? Will sectors that are expanded in a beyond-growth economy – such as public services – offer decent alternatives, and what will be done to help workers transition into new, quality jobs? What happens if there are no new jobs to which workers can switch, particularly if the objective is to downscale activities so that the environmental impact is radically reduced? How do trade unions secure improvements in pay and working conditions for their members in a ‘no-growth’ or ‘degrowth’ scenario? These are only some of the key questions. Another concern raised by commentators is that the rather academic language of degrowth literature often fails to speak directly to workers’ concerns, and that working class voices are not sufficiently prominent within some of these debates.

What is still lacking in ‘beyond growth’ discussions are positive proposals on how to resolve some of these dilemmas, particularly at sectoral level. As Lynch put it, ‘we need a real plan’, and that plan needs investment. On another panel, Ludovic Voet (Confederal Secretary at ETUC) stressed that we are looking at ‘concrete transformations of our industries and jobs’ and that a commitment to a just transition ‘needs to be followed by concrete proposals and policies’. He added that ‘in building a future that workers can believe in, we must anticipate the changes that lie ahead, we must protect workers with unemployment and social protection schemes, and we need to equip workers with the necessary skills’. This process ‘must also be inclusive’, offering opportunities to underrepresented and marginalised groups.

Furthermore, ‘a just transition cannot come without democratisation at work’, and ‘workers need to be able to influence decisions on what is produced’. Judith Kirton-Darling (Deputy General Secretary of IndustriALL) also stressed during her speech that these positive solutions must encompass strengthening worker participation and democracy at work. ‘Giving people a stake in this transformation [means] that they need to be part of this transformation from the beginning,’ she said. An EU Just Transition legal framework that provides for worker participation at company level is currently a key trade union demand (see ETUC and IndustriALL). The objective of industrial democracy is very much in line with the demand for active democracy made by participants in the ‘Beyond Growth’ conference.

What comes next after these initial conversations between trade unions and movements advocating for post-growth models? Even in the more polluting and so far less affected Global North, a summer plagued by heat waves, wildfires and related workplace accidents and deaths has shown more clearly than ever that climate change is a reality which society has to face – one that affects workers and workplaces and should therefore be a trade union concern too. There is much that the trade union movement shares with those calling for a ‘beyond growth’ economy – importantly, a commitment to social justice – but differences also need to be identified and addressed. Working on bridging the gaps, through dialogue and deliberation, is crucial to ensuring that the movements can stand together strongly.