The traditional British image of a trade unionist is a militant figure, someone more interested in threats than in dialogue. Peter couldn't be further away from the stereotype. In fact, his union activities brought him to the attention of management in a positive way: his skills at negotiation saw him elected as co-chair to Astrium's European Works Council. He subsequently became co-chair of Astrium's European Committee for Space and gave up technical work in order to concentrate on his committee and union work.
Peter believes that the union has played a role in keeping Astrium at the cutting edge of technology. When the union fights for better pay and conditions, it's helping the company to recruit and retain the best people in the industry. EADS management clearly agrees: he is paid by the company for the time he spends on union work, as are the two other shop stewards at Astrium.
Peter also sees the satellites themselves as tools for negotiation and communication. On a basic level, a satellite is a switchboard in the sky, designed to send information back and forth. At a human level, satellites provide information that could help to solve international arguments. The example Peter gives is of competition for water supplies, a situation likely to get worse as the Earth's climate becomes drier. If people in one area of the world try to steal the water supply from another area by diverting a river, it will be obvious from space what's going on. Peter believes that satellites can help with arbitration of water disputes, because they provide neutral evidence of what's going on. It's just one example of how the technology created at Astrium can help us to deal with the effects of climate change.
But on a national level Peter's union, Unite, struggles to communicate a coherent policy on environmental issues. As a relatively new union, it still doesn't have an official policy on climate change, let alone a strategy for how members can work together to fight it.
Bernie Hamilton, Unite's national officer for the aerospace and shipbuilding sectors, expects the union to finalize its policies on the environment and other issues at its policy conference early next year. Since Amicus and T&G, the two unions which merged to form Unite in 2007, were both very aware of climate change issues, Bernie believes that the new union will come up with a robust policy on tackling climate change.
However, there are signs that the picture may be more complicated than that. Many of the workers represented by Unite are in high-carbon sectors such as vehicle manufacturing, passenger air travel, offshore drilling (for oil and gas) and shipbuilding.
Perhaps the most problematic sector is aviation. Per capita, British people emit more emissions from flying than any other nation in the world. If aviation expansion in the UK is allowed to continue as predicted, the British government will find it almost impossible to achieve its own targets for cutting emissions. Aviation will gobble up half, perhaps more, of the total emissions allotted to the whole country.
That's why most of the UK's big workers' unions opposed recent plans to build a third runway at London's Heathrow Airport. The unions joined with environmental groups last year to take out an advertisement in The Times that called on the government to scrap Heathrow expansion.
Unite was the only British workers' union to come out in support of the Heathrow plans. How does this square with a commitment to protect the environment?
"The fact that the union supported the third runway is not incompatible with fighting climate change," says Bernie. "There is undoubtedly going to be more air travel and there are going to be airports throughout Europe which are aiming to be hub airports, and a hub airport is a big airport. We have to acknowledge the inevitability of increased air travel, or Britain could be left out.
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