Changing union narratives of "the good life" - from overwork and overconsumption to sufficiency and more time?

Fist in the air
Fig.1. Fist in the air

In a recently published paper in the Journal of Industrial Relations, WWU team member Halliki Kreinin and co-author Katharina Keil find that German trade union narratives of "the good life" increasingly include broader sustainability concerns. The paper provides interesting inputs for reaching 1.5° lifestyles through mobilising different actors (in this case, unions) for the needed social-ecological transformation.

If you are interested in reading the full article, it is available open-access here.

In the article, the two authors analysed documents for the three biggest German unions (IG Metall, ver.di, IG BCE) from 2015-2020, also interviewing trade union lay members active within their respective unions. The findings suggest that while there were differences between the unions based on the union orientation towards business interests (IG BCE), or grassroots organising (ver.di, IG Metall), trade unions are increasingly supporting narratives of "the good life" that go beyond fulltime work and material overconsumption, to considering sustainability and welfare concerns.

This is important since productivist narratives praising work and (over) consumption are key barriers to transformation towards sustainable welfare and 1.5° lifestyles.

The authors found that the main elements discussed by trade unions in relation to work and the good life were: working time, transforming work, education, provision of basic services (housing, mobility, healthcare), social justice and environmental protection. Since broad social movements are needed for transformative change towards the 1.5° goal, the outcomes of the research suggest that there is potential for collaboration between trade unions and environmental actors (especially in the unions already oriented towards societal concerns and grassroots mobilising).

However, one of the key takeaways from the paper is that currently trade unions are lacking concrete narratives of "the good life" with the 1.5° lifestyles goal. While unsustainable and historically popular narratives of "the good life" (overconsumption, 40-hour workweek, car, etc) have a strong storyline, unions and possibly society at large lack narratives of what a sustainable or "1.5° good life" could look like.

This outcome importantly links to a what many other researchers have found. In a recent post featured in the 1.5°Lifestyles blog, Dan O'Neill explains that for sustainability, it is important to be able to "actually show people what the alternative [to overconsumption and unsustainability] would look like, and show that it's a desirable alternative.”

While this research was completed prior to the 1.5°Lifestyles project, the outcomes will provide input for the project.

Hallliki Kreinin, WWU Münster

Image source: Clay Banks.