Skip to main content

Heathrow: No union jobs on a dead planet


Len McCluskey, leader of Unite the Union, backed the third runway at Heathrow Airport and urged Labour MPs to vote with the Tories and DUP. Gareth Dale, social and political scientist says the move marks a setback for trade unionists the world over…

The trade unions will be crucial to climate-change mitigation and adaptation. But you wouldn’t know it from recent comments by their leaders in Britain.

Take McCluskey’s intervention into the parliamentary debate on the third runway. Had all Labour MPs followed leader—Jeremy Corbyn—into the ‘No’ lobby, the vote would have been close. Yet the Unite leader encouraged them to vote with the Tories and DUP, and most did, securing a mighty majority. A third runway, McCluskey promised, would “create hundreds of thousands of new jobs.”

If new jobs were one day required for the construction of elaborate machineries of human sacrifice, would McCluskey urge ‘Yes’ then too? I fear he would.


Heathrow III is precisely that. Enabling up to 260,000 extra take-offs and landings a year, it will siphon oceans of hydrocarbons from the lithosphere into the atmosphere. This will intensify the feedbacks propelling the planet toward a rise of six degrees Celsius or more — an extreme greenhouse state likely pushing remnants of humanity to polar latitudes.

McCluskey appeals to the interests of Heathrow workers and their children and grandchildren. But what lives await them if global warming accelerates unchecked?

Those predicted to suffer first and hardest will be in South and East Asia, the Middle East and Africa. But Middlesex and Surrey will not escape.

In South East England, May 2018 was the hottest since records began and June was the driest. June 2012 and 2016 were the wettest recorded, and in 2015, a new UK July temperature record was set — appropriately at Heathrow.

Will the expansion provide the jobs McCluskey promises? Already, Unite’s regional secretary has revised the figure down to “tens of thousands of new jobs”. Expect that to shrink further. In 2008, thousands of new jobs were promised with the construction of Terminal 5, but the airport now employs several thousand fewer than it did then.

The same logic of capital accumulation pushes businesses to shed jobs and ramp up production without regard to the environmental effects. This raises pressure on employees with periodic stress relief offered by trips abroad. Three-quarters of flights out of Heathrow are for leisure.

With higher demand, and increased supply at Heathrow, other locations will follow suit. If Heathrow is allowed to expand, Caroline Lucas has warned, it’ll resemble an arms race among Europe’s airports, each fighting for more passengers.

This is the ‘arms race’ some trade union leaders embrace. Theresa May, said the Heathrow decision was taken not for profit but for ‘jobs and growth’. Some Union leaders have bought this line too.

Environmental change necessitates social change. The latter will come at an accelerating pace. What is up for grabs is its ecological and social content. The goal must be a relaxed, less harried society, lacking the compulsive drives to travel far, a society that resolves to restore this orb of ours to a habitable state.

In the short run, many domestic and European flights - around half the flights from Heathrow - could be replaced by train and coach travel. of this scope require state-led investment, and large-scale reallocation of resources and labour.

In Britain, the conflict between let-the-planet-burn unionism and green unionism is delicately poised. Some union leaderships follow Unite in promoting Heathrow expansion.

Others, such as the Public and Commercial Services Union and NUT, support climate jobs programmes. The Trades Union Congress backs Heathrow expansion, but also a just transition for workers— and is the first major national union to endorse divestment from fossil fuels.

The divide, which runs through unions too, cleaves the Labour left. McCluskey is a key Corbyn backer. But Corbyn’s closest ally, John McDonnell, is a dedicated environmental supporter and ardent opponent of Heathrow expansion. Much hangs on how these conflicts will play out.

This was originally published in full by The Ecologist. Images: CC by Flickr/GarryKnight; WikimediaCommons/cmglee/OpenStreetMap