Review of “Work in a Warming World”, edited by Carla Lipsig-Mummé and Stephen McBride

This is a short review Graham Sharp wrote for Construction Labour Research newsletter (No. 4, 2015) which is the voice of the European Institute for Construction Labour Research.

This book of eleven chapters by different authors is an outcome of a five-year collaborative research project based at York University, Toronto, Canada. The authors’ aim is to bridge the research and policy gap between containing and reducing global warming and employment security, particularly since the global economic recession starting in 2008. This is a dilemma that’s been around for some time. In the UK for instance many environmentally aware trade unionists are questioning, in retrospect, the wisdom of the historic struggles in the 1980’s to keep coal mining afloat and prolonging a carbon based economy.

Divided into two themes the first five chapters analyse the difficulties and often setbacks in trying to implement climate change mitigation or adaptation policies.  The second half focuses in on particular industrial sectors or themes. There are three chapters that are likely to be of interest to CLR readers. Two chapters on the construction industry by John Calvert and the third on sustainable infrastructure and engineers (which in reality involves many issues of construction).

Calvert’s first chapter looks at the potential role of construction unions influencing sustainable practice in the UK and Germany. In the case of the UK construction unions are relatively weak in terms of membership density despite occasional strong pockets of activity on particular large projects. UK construction is characterized by high degrees of fragmentation as a result of most work subcontracted to numerous smaller employers. This in turn impacts on levels of training where the numbers of formal apprenticeships are low. The unions have little policy influence on training and even less on issues of sustainability. The converse is true in Germany where the unions are stronger and have representation and influence not only directly with employers but also through membership of works councils. This enables them to have a double influence – with government policy – and with individual construction companies.

Calvert’s second chapter focuses on training to meet the demands of climate change in Canada. He argues that the craft apprenticeship system based on traditional skills is unsuitable for low carbon construction methods. He gives a number of generalized examples such as electricians attending short course modules in photovoltaic panel installation on roofs to enhance their skill range. The importance of skills in retrofitting older buildings is also discussed. However its here that I see a gap in the analysis. Calvert argues, “…trades must have a comprehensive knowledge of many different building systems and technologies so that they are able to apply the most effective approach to each specific project” (p. 158) The problem lies in the fact that individual tradespersons usually don’t have any say or involvement in the (re)design of particular technologies or in the specifications of materials and components, this is left to the designer and managers to decide.

This difficulty crops up in most of the chapters of this book. While the role of trade unions is approvingly acknowledged there is little discussion of where real power (political, economic) lies. Nor is there mention of workers’ real labour processes in neo liberal economies. Despite these reservations this is a welcome contribution to the debate.

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Note: Graham worked in the London building industry as a carpenter and joiner in the 1960’s and early 1970’s where he was an active trade unionist and member of the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers, which became UCATT in 1971.

Publication reviewed:                                                                                                                           Carla Lipsig-Mummé and Stephen McBride (eds)                                                                              Work in a Warming World                                                                                                                                                           McGill-Queen’s University Press, ISBN 1553394321, paperback