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Workers as Agents of a Green and Just Transition. A real-life experiment in Sweden and Spain

Research project Creating environmentally sound and socially just transitions is threatened by the dilemma between protecting workers and protecting nature. Trade unions are included in transition negotiations, shopfloor workers are not. Based on previous research (FORTE and VR) we argue that one way of overcoming the dilemma is to include workers as change agents into transition processes.

Using insights from our research into the labour-nature relationship, on globalisation, ecofeminism and industry 4.0, we will create innovative real-life experiments in which workers become agents of green and just transitions. Not only will this enhance the viability of transitions technically it will also strengthen workers’ motivation to become part of the transition.

Head of project

Nora Räthzel

Project overview

Project period:

2021-10-01 2024-10-31

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Sociology

Research area


External funding


Project description

Within the framework of participative action research, we will develop three methods which will support workers to create an alternative plan for their work process which will be environmentally sound and socially just.

  1. Envisioning a green and just future and how to achieve it through backcasting and imagine.

  2. Research-based learning where workers investigate their position within the global value chain and the environmental impacts of their own and the workplaces along the chain.

  3. Participatory planning and design where workers from Sweden and Spain, supported by technicians, engineers, and researchers from a range of disciplines will create a real-life plan for the green and just transitioning of their work process.

The project will develop a toolbox for research-based learning and participatory planning which, together with the findings of the project and a roadmap for their adaptation in different contexts will be made available in a massive open online course (MOOC) which can be attended for free by anybody world-wide. Publications in academic and popular media, uploaded videos on you-tube and vimeo will form part of dissemination to enable a broad usage of the project's findings.

Workers as actors of the ecological and social transformation

Our overarching question is: How can workers be included as agents into transitions that benefit them by creating social equality, meaningful work and a liveable natural environment? The real-life experiments we will design to answer this question will allow us to analyse what dynamics develop when workers create a plan to transform their work processes to make them greener and more just by re-thinking forms of cooperation, skills development, work divisions, and work – life balance. How can these dynamics be theorised for them to become applicable under different conditions? How can they be translated into policies and practices on different levels?

The experiments will be developed step by step asking the following questions:

  • How does the present work process transform nature, including extraction and transportation of resources along the value chain? How does it organise working conditions?
  • What needs to be changed to make the process greener and more just in terms of working conditions?
  • Which skills can be used for the transformation, which additional skills will be necessary afterwards?
  • What conditions need to be met for different categories of workers (including designers, technicians, engineers, in the following referred to only as workers) to collaborate in the creation of a transitional plan? What kind of conflicts occur and how can they be solved?
  • Can the tasks within the new work process be changed in a way that manual and mental work becomes more integrated and unequal gender and ethnic work divisions are overcome?
  • How can a greener work process be organised to improve the work – life balance and guarantee paid work for all who want and need it (i.e., reduction of paid work supported by a minimum income)? Is it imaginable to have ‘prosperity without growth’ (Jackson, 2016) and how would work processes have to change?

Theoretical frame

The labour-nature relationship and a just transition
A rich literature across many disciplines aims to understand the relationship between society/labour and nature. Nature is perceived as ‘inescapably social’, signified in expressions like socionature. Haraway (2016, 58) speaks of humans and non-humans creating a common world (sympoiesis), which in difference to socionature concedes an active role to nature. Moore (2015) emphasises the need to overcome the division between ‘Nature’ and ‘Society’ suggesting the term oikeios to indicate that human and non-human natures co-create societies. Capitalism transforms and exploits human and non-human natures but is also transformed by it.

These reflections seem distant from workers’ environmental policies demanding a just transition to environmentally and socially sustainable societies. However, results from our research funded by FORTE and VR taught us how trade unionists perceive the society/labour-nature relationship influences the character of their environmental policies. When nature was seen as ‘labour’s other’, outside the work process, protecting nature was perceived as a sacrifice threatening workers’ rights. In contrast women workers, small farmers and fisherfolk, owning their means of production and whose work was involved with the rhythms of nature had a comprehensive understanding of the labour – nature alliance. In the EU 71,9% of the workforce is employed in the service sector, 23,4% in manufacturing. Most of this work does not provide them with an experience of how transforming natures is implicated in their work. We want to explore how workers in such sectors can develop an understanding of the labour – nature alliance.

Gender and the labour-nature alliance
Feminist and ecofeminist literature has studied the relationship between women, patriarchy and nature, investigating the unequal, gendered forms of the appropriation of nature. They identified the links between the domination of women and the degradation of the environment in the structures of patriarchy, colonialism and capitalism. Ecofeminists argue that due to the work division between men and women, leading to women’s engagement with nature-based activities they understand and resist the destructive appropriation of nature better. With an interdisciplinary approach, a new generation of scholars is transcending the sometimes essentialist notions of women in earlier analyses. They are inspired by women defending the commons against commodification of land and water. Drawing on care and subsistence work conversations have evolved between feminism, human ecology, degrowth, and political ecology. Ecofeminist insights will guide the experiments employing concepts like ‘sufficiency’ and ‘re-productivity’ as criteria for the planning of conversions.

The globalisation of work
Not only the climate crisis, work is global as well. The global dimension of work is mainly investigated by international organisations like the ILO, who examine working conditions but not whether and how workers connect to each other globally. International unions represent workers within and across sectors, but they rarely create cooperation between workers within a value chain. Even workers employed by the same transnational corporation, we found, do not tend to cooperate, although, when they do, they can support each other to improve their working conditions. As globalisation sets workers in competition to each other this is exacerbated by the climate crisis, an example being border adjustment mechanisms. Workers in the Global South experience environmental measures in the Global North as strategies impeding their development. Therefore, our experiments consist also in workers researching the value chain within which they are situated (see methods).

The fourth industrial revolution
Not only environmental crises also the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ digitalisation, AI, the internet of things, biological and quantum innovations are changing the content, character, amount of work, the skills required and the possibility of work satisfaction. An unconditional basic income is suggested to compensate for lost employments. This does not reflect that meaningful work is essential for the growth of people’s capabilities, sense of purpose, and identities. Others suggest the reduction of paid employment, so it can be distributed among all workers. Together with a basic income this would free up time for everybody to engage in activities like caring for others and nature, engaging in culture, social relations, community work, contributing to gender equality. This would imply changes to the welfare state, presently based predominantly on employment. Whether new technologies will make humans more subordinate or enhance human flourishing depends not least on the possibilities of workers and citizens to influence their usages. The experiments will include analyses of new technologies and how they can be introduced to improve workers’ skills and work content.


Participatory Action Research
PAR approaches research as democratic participation and collective knowledge production for the solution of problems identified by all members involved in research. After presenting the goals of the project all members will collectively define the problem and search for possible solutions. PAR scholars share three fundamental principles: action, participation in society (engagement with experience and history), and in terms of research, soundness in thought and the development of knowledge. PAR aims to challenge the common researcher - researched relation where researchers produce theory and those researched have experiences. Instead, PAR aims for participants to be active contributors in all phases of the research process.

Imagining future scenarios
We want to use two methods for planning environmentally sustainable and socially just workplace transitions.  Backcasting, a strategic approach to planning through envisioning sustainable futures and developing agendas and strategies to get there. It has been used by business management, in urban planning and using a stakeholder approach. Imagine achieves developments of future scenarios using ‘rich pictures’. In thought experiments a shared understanding of a problem is created to develop insights into three realities: where we are, where we want to  be, and how we want to get there. Results of these methods will set the stage for the two subsequent steps by defining the criteria for the planning of green and just transitions.

Research-based learning – ‘dig where you stand’
Researching the current work process within global value chains in terms of  its  impact on the environment and the working conditions it  organises  is a more active way of learning than listening to knowledge created elsewhere. It will use existing and create new knowledge from which innovation can emerge. We borrow this method from Sven Lindqvist who wrote: ‘Every worker (…) has the power and potential to create a new image for labour that puts workers and their work in the foreground’.   In the 80s his work led to an international movement of lay research groups – ca. 10,000 in Sweden with ca. 100,000 members. Lindqvist’s suggestions will be used to investigate the current global situatedness of work processes and their environmental and social impacts. Workers will be consulting archives, libraries, internet, and, with the support of unions, conduct interviews with workers along the value chain using virtual tools. Results here will lead to the concretisation of the previously developed criteria for the participatory planning process.

Participatory Planning – real-life experiments
Participatory planning is anchored in the research history of ‘participatory design’ and its engagement with bottom-up change in workplaces and other contexts which, as Per Ehn has shown, does not only enable people to be innovative but also strengthens their democratic abilities for society at large. Unionists and members of ISTAS will support this work.  A team of Swedish engineering/design students and their senior supervisors will support the development of transition plans as part of their studies.

The experiment we will set up is not a lab situation, but a real-life field experiment where we do not test hypotheses but co-create new knowledge that can be used to solve real-life problems. As Stirling suggests it ‘poses alternative questions, focuses on neglected issues, includes marginalized perspectives, triangulates contending knowledges, (…) considers ignored uncertainties, examines different possibilities, and highlights new options.’ In difference from other real-life experiments where researchers make interventions into people’s everyday practices without their knowledge, participants in our project are fully included into the development of design and goals throughout the process. The real-life character of the experiments stems from the fact that their issues derive from and can be applied in real-life processes.


External funding