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Rio+20: There Are No Jobs on a Dead Planet

The world has come to Rio de Janeiro to take stock of our planet’s environment and identify the road forward to a sustainable future. The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development is referred to as Rio+20 because 20 years ago the original conference in Rio focused global attention on the environment. It spawned the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and the three pillars of U.N. activity on climate change, biological diversity and forestry principles.

The trade union movement is here in force. The Rio de Janeiro International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) delegation is the third largest delegation. More than 700 ITUC members participated in a Trade Union Congress and the civil society People’s Summit that preceded the formal conference.

The unions came to deliver a message to the governments of the world—there is a sustainable future if we make it so. The efforts here build off of ITUC work on climate change, where we promoted a just transition with goals for good jobs, investment in modernizing industry and new technology, training and assistance for those most in need.   

Today, speaking at a high-level meeting, Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the ITUC, told government officials that the Rio+20 “needs to create a fourth pillar for the environment—one that recognizes the human and social dimensions. There are no jobs on a dead planet.”

The unions went to Rio with an agenda that included demands for a just transition with jobs, green jobs and decent work. We proposed language for a social protection floor for all the worlds’ people and funding to kickstart or strengthen social protection in the poorest countries. And, we want the greed of the financial sector to help pay for sustainability through a financial transaction tax (FTT).

On Tuesday, the FTT was the focus of a of a lively demonstration calling for a financial transaction tax outside a major bank in downtown Rio de Janeiro led by the ITUC, Brazilian trade unions, civil society organizations and the National Nurses United. The following day, tens of thousands of trade unionists and civil society members marched through the streets of the city demanding action from the governments attending the conference. 

The AFL-CIO, like our international counterparts, worked with our negotiators to gain their support for the union agenda.  The trade union movement can take pride in the outcome. The final document expected to be adopted on Friday is a step forward. It incorporates a human/economic dimension with language on just transition, decent work, a social protection platform and green jobs.

However, much work remains to be done. The final document, The Future We Want, does not address implementation or financing. Assurances were given that implementation is the next order of business which means vigilance is required. The follow up UN report on sustainable development goals is due next year. It will be an important marker for implementation and a focus of union activity. The other will be getting the 1 percent to pay their fair share. The AFL-CIO and ITUC have targeted the FTT for some time and a growing number of governments are coming to that point of view. It’s time to make it so.

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