A placard outside a town hall reads "No Airport Expansion"

How unions can lead action on the climate crisis

The “biggest climate decision facing our region” will finally be decided this November. 

The expansion of Bristol Airport will be given the thumbs up or thumbs down at a High Court appeal brought by campaigners Bristol Airport Action Network. BAAN have resisted expansion through North Somerset Council, a planning inquiry and are confident they can win now in court.

But even if BAAN are successful, the airport will continue to operate with ten million passengers a year and a carbon footprint bigger than that of many countries. 

As important as the expansion battle is, it leaves unanswered the question of what happens next. What does a future without aviation look like, and how do we get there?

Banner reads "no airport expansion'
A banner from a February rally organised by BAAN against the airport expansion. Image: James Ward.

Limits to action

There have been high profile protests against airports in the past, some have even been successful, such as the ZAD at Notre-Dame-Des-Landes outside Nantes. 

But protest has no guarantee of success. Instead, maybe we should turn to an often overlooked force in the struggle for climate justice: trade unions. 

At first glance, this may appear an odd suggestion. It was after all Unite, the biggest union in terms of membership at Bristol Airport, that supported the expansion during last year’s planning inquiry, arguing to planning inspectors that the expansion should be approved because it will create jobs in the region. 

BAAN’s Steve Clarke said claims of job creation by the expansion are ‘much exaggerated’ and described Unite’s support of the expansion as ‘disappointing.’

Against such criticism, Gareth Lowe, South West Regional Officer and lead officer for the environment at Unite, defends the union, saying the issue of airport expansion is extremely nuanced. 

Unions exist to protect the pay and conditions of their members. Gareth said that those members deserve a union which will represent them, not one ‘that’s actually campaigning against the growth of their organisation potentially to their own detriment.’

Whilst he admits that he and others within Unite believe the aviation industry needs a ‘serious overhaul,’ he said that within the context of Bristol Airport they must ‘make sure that we’re only targeting what is within [the Airport’s] realms of responsibility and not with what is outside of it.’ 

Five people sit on a panel in front of a large screen that reads "Bristol Climate Summit"
Gareth (right) spoke at the Bristol Climate Summit in May alongside Jeremy Corbyn. Image: James Ward.

According to longtime activist and Mendip TUC member Theo Simon, where unions can make a big difference is in the more mundane arena of health and safety. 

‘Which at first sounds a bit ridiculous,’ admits Theo, adding: ‘but it’s not because it’s the ultimate health and safety issue.’ 

‘If I’m compelled to do something which is destroying life on earth then that’s a health and safety issue.’

So what could unions do?

Theo Simon, who is also a member of Somerset Green Jobs Campaign, has plenty of historical examples of what a worker-led transition away from climate-busting industries could look like. 

One example, currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity, is the Lucas Plan. 

In 1976, workers at Lucas Aerospace faced redundancy and mass lay-offs when government cuts meant the company lost work. Rather than give in to their fate, the workers created an Alternative Corporate Plan in which they proposed to repurpose their factories and their skills to produce goods that meet social needs. 

Amongst 150 prototypes explored in the Plan were heat pumps, cars modified to drive on railways, and dialysis machines. All of which would have been sold to the government, replacing Lucas’ existing contracts for military components.

A video documentary of the Lucas plan. Video: The Open University.

A second example Theo offers is the occupation of the Vestas wind turbine manufacturing plant in protest against the loss of 600 jobs. The occupation began as purely a protest against lost jobs, but was quickly joined by environmentalists who recognised the value of the plant in creating green energy. 

‘For the first time in at least 30 years, we got trade unionists and environmentalists working together in a common cause,’ said Theo. 

‘It gave [the occupiers] added pride and a sense of purpose in what they were doing, and they recognised that environmentalists were relevant to their dispute and that they were allies.’

Could it happen here?

The example of Vestas notwithstanding, environmental movements have historically largely failed to connect with working class struggles. Theo goes so far as to say that ‘in some cases there’s been a complete ignorance around the existence of the working class.’ 

There are positive signs today that this may be beginning to change. Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion joined RMT strikers across the country in June, including here in Bristol. The Bristol XR group also joined St Monica Trust staff on the picket line during their dispute in July.

This Saturday XR Bristol protest to stop Bristol Airport expansion and instead invest in better and fairer public transport. 

Encouraging work is also being done by activists in Bristol to pressure Bristol Airport’s owners, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan (OTPP), to withdraw support for the expansion. 

Writing in The Bristol Cable, Tanguy Tomes of Bristol Airport is Big Enough (BABE) said: ‘When an investor pulled out of Heathrow, its expansion plans were thrown into uncertainty. I thought: what if OTPP publicly withdrew its support of airport expansions?’

BABE is working with the National Education Union to build links with teachers in Ontario in the hope of connecting the struggle here in Bristol with global resistance to fossil fuel infrastructure like airports. 


It is clear that widespread air travel as we know it today is incompatible with a green future. With 70 percent of flights taken by just 15 percent of the population, flying is a social justice issue, too. 

How we bring about this flight-free future is an urgent discussion for activists, union organisers, and perhaps most importantly union members. Faced with the prospect of an expanded Bristol Airport, we in the south west have the potential to push that conversation forwards.

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