Argentina at an energy crossroads: the role of trade unions in building a just transition

Lithium mining in Salinas Grandes, on national route 52 in the province of Jujuy. (Sub Cooperativa)

Argentina is at a crossroads. The repercussions of the pandemic look set to worsen the socio-economic crisis already looming over the country and are having a huge impact on its currency: once again, the country is looking to the ‘blue dollar’, the unofficial US dollar rate, which is already twice the official rate. The situation is fuelling the pressing need to increase foreign currency revenues, traditionally derived from mining and the exploitation of resources such as soya, gas and oil.

Whilst it is true that placing the green transition on the policy agenda is more difficult in the context of the economic and monetary crisis, it is also true that Argentina is experiencing a surge in the socio-environmental awareness that is permeating parts of the trade union movement, as well as Peronism, a political doctrine that emerged in the 1940s around the figure of Juan Domingo Perón. This renewed awareness comes at a time when the need to tackle climate change is urgent, as is the need for a socio-ecological transition with clean energy as one of its basic pillars, along with the decarbonisation of the economy to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

In Argentina, as in many other countries, trade unions have highlighted the need for a just transition, emphasizing that the pathway to sustainability cannot be built on the back of job losses or increased job insecurity. And it was thanks to pressure from trade unions that the reference to “the creation of decent work and quality jobs” was included in the preamble of the 2015 Paris Agreement. The Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) goes further still, arguing that a just transition must ensure “social justice, gender equality and equity, food and energy sovereignty, and the preservation of the commons”.

Under its legislation on renewable energies, Argentina is faced with the task of meeting 20 per cent of the country’s energy needs with renewable energy sources by 2025, which is not without its challenges in a country where 87 per cent of the primary energy matrix is fossil and the sector is a source of quality jobs. In 2019, the gross salary in the sector was 103,000 pesos a month, well above the average salary of around 35,000 pesos in the private sector. It also has quality trade unions and good collective agreements, whilst the emerging sectors associated with renewable sources are generating much more precarious employment.

There is concern not only about the quality but also the quantity of jobs. It is widely thought that renewable energies generate fewer jobs than fossil fuels and, although experts argue it is a mistaken belief, there is in fact cause for concern among trade unionists and workers. “It is estimated that 1,000 megawatts (MW) of wind power represents 10,000 jobs, but creating those jobs here in this country would require public policies that develop national industry through investment and training,” says Joaquín Turco, climate change advisor at the Central de los Trabajadores de la Argentina-Autónoma (CTA-A).

There is also the concern that redeployment – jobs lost in certain sectors being replaced in others – will not happen without adequate state intervention, as suggested by engineer Pablo Bertinat of the Interdisciplinary Group for Critical Research on the Energy Problem (GECIPE):

“Thinking about transition implies identifying which sectors should disappear and which should be diminished or promoted, and how to intervene to couple the transition with social justice. To achieve this, it is essential that the state and trade unions break with the conventional view that identifies work with employment and undervalues care work.”

Under the government of Maurizio Macri (2015-2019), wind energy was given huge impetus through the call for tenders promoted under the PlanRenovAr programme, aimed at supplying electricity through renewable sources. “Within four years, renewables had increased fivefold, although we started from a very low base, 0.6 per cent of the matrix,” explains Enrique Maurtua, a climate change specialist from the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (FARN). But this commitment to clean energy was not accompanied by a policy to promote technological development.

By offering major incentives to big corporations in the bidding process, the Macri government also failed to promote the participation of small local initiatives and to take advantage of opportunities that renewable sources offer when decentralising the energy system.

The strongest reaction to its macro-economic management in the energy sector was nonetheless triggered by the huge tariff hike: domestic electricity bills increased by 3,500 per cent between 2015 and 2019, and just short of that in the case of gas. Energy poverty, which applies to households that spend more than 10 per cent of their income on energy, increased from 1 per cent to 20 per cent within four years, going against UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7: to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

Fernández, between productivism and environmental awareness
In December 2019, Peronism returned to the Casa Rosada with the election of Alberto Fernández. He took office just a few days before the austral summer holidays. The pandemic struck the region when the school year was just about to begin and, amidst a strict lockdown, the economy came grinding to a halt, including projects to advance renewable energy.

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During those initial months, the only significant measure in the energy sector was the launch of the ‘Creole barrel’, which puts a local price on the barrel of crude oil. At the end of August, a new energy secretary, Darío Martínez, was appointed and the government set out its priorities: the development of local production and a favourable energy trade balance. So far, however, these general principles have not given rise to policies that go hand in hand with the energy transition.

The extent to which countries will be expected to comply with the content of the Paris Agreement remains to be seen, in light of the economic scars left by the pandemic. On 19 November 2020, several trade unions and civil society organisations met with Argentina’s Secretary for Climate Change. It was a lengthy meeting, during which the steps to be taken were outlined and discussions were held on issues such as the national priorities for the implementation of Argentina’s nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. The NDCs adapt the international community’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) to the national context. As this report went to press, the details of Argentina’s NDCs had not yet been worked out but its structure had been outlined.

If, as Marta Pujadas of the UOCRA construction workers’ union points out, a genuinely just transition implies “involving the social partners in NDC discussions”, the reality is that their inclusion is still a source of contention. It was only after the CTA-A expressed its dissatisfaction to the Secretariat for Climate Change over the failure to include the trade union centre in the talks that it was invited to the meeting on 19 November. “I think the idea was not to open up the game to other players until the end, to avoid delaying the process, but this has limited the influence civil society will ultimately have over the content of the NDCs,” says CTA-A’s Turco. The trade unionist nonetheless agrees with the overall direction of the NDCs being put together. The guiding principles of the just transition include human rights, intergenerational equity, public participation and federalisation. “We let them know the importance, in our view, of replacing ‘food and energy security’ with ‘food sovereignty’ and ‘energy sovereignty’,” adds Turco.

For Marta Pujadas of the UOCRA, the involvement of civil society actors is fundamental to “ensuring a genuinely just transition”. Is that likely to happen? Turco has his doubts: “This is only the beginning, and good intentions need to be backed up with actions”.

The truth is that, historically, Peronism has a tradition of being sensitive to the plight of workers but has steered away from environmental activism. “Peronism finds it difficult to get away from a developmentalist vision that fails to understand the importance of the environment,” says Felipe Gutiérrez Ríos, a journalist and researcher at the Observatorio Petrolero Sur. And the same seems to be true for much of the trade union movement, which has longstanding links with Peronism.

Whilst the TUCA has a clearer view of the energy transition and its urgency in the context of accelerated climate change, when it comes down to the trade union organisations that fight for workers’ rights on their own terrain, it is much harder to place socio-environmental problems high on the agenda. For many trade unions, the protection of the environment and employment are still conflicting goals, and if a choice has to be made, they opt for employment. For Turco of CTA-A, this is a false dilemma: “’There are no jobs on a dead planet’; that is one of the ideas we are trying to put across. And the transition is a matter of speed: it is a matter of ensuring that no one is left behind.”

But for the unemployed and informal workers, who have no work or who work in very precarious conditions, saying “there will be no employment on a dead planet” is no answer.

CTA-Trabajores (CTA-T) has been unequivocal in this respect, insisting on the need to include the most vulnerable, such as “migrants, rural workers, street vendors and the disabled” in the fair energy transition project. The CTA-A, for its part, published an official communiqué underlining the need for “our own collective concept of a just transition, starting first of all with the weakest and most marginalised in this society, who are the hardest hit by climate change and are paying the highest price for its consequences, without being responsible for the carbon emissions”.

Despite the obstacles to placing this issue on the agenda, something is changing: the expansion of grassroots movements championing food sovereignty and the mass mobilisations against extractive business activities – such as the plans to set up mega industrial pig farms to export pigs to China – are inserting ecological issues within the grassroots struggle and making their inclusion in the Peronist government’s agenda inevitable.

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“New spaces for dialogue are opening up. I believe there is room for discussion, and that what happens will be decided, on a case by case basis, within the context of the issue at hand,” concludes Gutiérrez.

The change is visible in three projects, involving trade unions, that are broadly connected to the socio-ecological transition. One is the National Manifesto for Work, Sovereignty and Production, better known as the May Day Manifesto, signed by the CTA-A, the CGT and a number of organisations on the political left. Another is the Human Development Plan, drawn up by a number of organisations including the UOCRA and the UTEP union representing workers in the people’s economy.

In both cases, the documents are fairly generic, setting out framework principles, such as food and energy sovereignty, rather than concrete proposals for their deployment. They are nonetheless valuable examples of the emergence of joint initiatives, involving trade unions and social movements, organised around ideas linked to a just transition, such as food and energy sovereignty.

The third is the Fishing, Maritime-River and Port Sovereignty project launched by CTA-A, one of the trade union centres most in tune with environmental concerns. “It is an interesting transition proposal, from the South, bringing together the port of La Plata, a shipyard factory and trade unions in the name of fishing sovereignty,” says Cecilia Anigstein, a doctor in social sciences and a member of GECIPE.

Dead Cow, or the possibility of a transition without slaughter
The Vaca Muerta (or Dead Cow) oil and gas field is a key player in this tug of war between developmentalism and environmental preservation. The exploitation of the unconventional reserves it holds, through the controversial technique of fracking, is one of the few projects both Macri and Fernández agree on, despite the fact that, even in purely monetary terms, it is not the panacea announced, due to the huge state subsidies it requires. “The Peronist government places more emphasis on job creation and the local development dimension, but both see Vaca Muerta as a lifeline in the form of foreign currency revenues,” summarises Turco.

Whilst Vaca Muerta represents the ‘fossilist’ model that the energy transition must leave behind, the lithium deposits in northern Argentina point to a key mineral in the transition: “Mass electrification presents the challenge of energy accumulation, and for now, that relies on lithium batteries,” explains Maurtua. For Pujadas, “lithium reserves can be a great opportunity if we promote the development of local technology and we understand the impacts on ecosystems and indigenous peoples as a matter of priority.”

Indigenous communities in the north of the country have, however, reported that they have not been informed about the development of the activity, which affects water resources. Employment and foreign currency generation cannot be at the expense of sacrificing certain areas,” concludes Turco.

“There are no magic solutions, because no technology is 100 per cent harmless,” says Maurtua, for whom the solution does not lie in electrifying the car fleet, but in rethinking the transport system, which is responsible for 51 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Latin America. Similarly, the energy transition implies building more energy efficient housing and rethinking the agri-food system, which causes 70 per cent of global deforestation, according to the FAO. The underlying problem, then, is cultural: “It is a matter of knowing what resources are available to us and adapting the development model to those limits. That implies a cultural shift: we have to develop a logic of life that goes beyond consumer society, and we have to build it from below, from the grassroots,” says Bertinat of GECIPE.

One key to a just transition lies in the ability to decentralise a highly concentrated, centralised and opaque energy system and open it up to participatory decision-making processes, anchored in the realities on the ground and based on dialogue.

With this in mind, trade union centres such as the CTA-A and CTA-T have been working to build alliances with the academic sector, socio-environmental movements and NGOs. Examples of the outcomes of these endeavours include an energy sovereignty forum and a production and energy transition working group in the province of Rio Negro.

But there is still a very long way to go. Social movements and trade unions that support the idea of an energy transition are calling for the state to play an active role in building consensus. Because, as Turco argues, these are not decisions that can be left in the hands of technocrats: “The energy transition implies deciding for what and for whom we produce energy, and our society as a whole needs to think about this, through consultation frameworks that are built from the bottom up. Energy is a common good, not a commodity, and should therefore be under social control. For this to happen, society must take ownership of the issue: people don’t get involved because they believe that energy is a matter for experts, and no one can defend something they don’t know about.”

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