A green shift requires societies across the world to transition from high-emitting, fossil-based energy regimes to low-carbon technologies. Emissions from petroleum and the petroleum industry represent the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the global economy, and countries like Norway, Nigeria, USA, and Canada have based much of their economic growth on oil and gas. As a result, many people in these economies rely on the petroleum industry for employment and would therefore be directly affected by efforts to reduce emissions and shift energy sources. The WAGE project seeks to examine how oil workers assess their own role in a green transformation.
Oil workers, long seen as champions of economic development, are framed as part of the problem in the climate debate, rather than as part of the solution. In public discourse, there is a tendency to portray the green shift as a trade-off between jobs and sustainable emission levels. Such portrayals spur resistance and resentment from organized petroleum workers and lead to intensified polarisation in oil-dependent societies.
WAGE has a different point of entry. The project attempts to spark conversations around how the skills and competencies of workers in the industry and in the labour movement can be harnessed to accelerate a green shift. This entails oil workers who view themselves as relevant actors in a transition, as professionals, as union members and as representatives of these workers. In addition, the project investigates how different pathways affect solidarity within the union movement and between trade unions and environmental actors.
The project has explored oil workers' identity formation in the climate debate through qualitative methods, including focus groups, interviews, and document and media analysis. In particular, we have focused on how oil worker unions train their members and develop their skills, develop their strategies, and engage with counterparts and alliance partners in industrial relations and in politics more generally. We also scrutinise media representations of oil workers and the "jobs vs. environment dilemma".
The WAGE researcher team has conducted focus groups with industrial unions in Norway and Nigeria, covering different sectoral unions representing different forms of employment status and positions in the industry (incl. community workers and artisanal refiners in the Niger Delta). The conversations have covered notions of transition, roles and role perceptions, the responsibilities and opportunities of unionized workers, as well as the relations between workers, media and climate activists. Our research tools and strategies are developed in dialogue with trade unions in the industry. In November 2021, we conducted a second round of focus groups in Norway, as well as interviews with union representatives in California.
Media analysis is an important part of WAGE’s research portfolio, and we have traced portrayals of oil workers in Norwegian public discourse, as well as how media editors covered the stimulus package from the Norwegian state to the petroleum industry in May 2020. In the last phase of the project, we have analysed competence development policies in the Norwegian union movement through document analysis and interviews with union officials. Finally, we are in the process of disseminating our research through webinars, academic conferences and events hosted by petroleum unions.
WAGE is an inter-disciplinary project, and its empirical research on oil workers informs, and is informed by, theoretical concepts and debates, including hegemony in media studies, labour agency in human geography, the concept of alienation, as well as a broad debate within social sciences on the relevance of "greening work", "climate jobs" and "green skills" in a just transition.
In 2020, the WAGE project was awarded a second grant from the SAMKUL programme of the Research Council of Norway for the project WAGESTORIES. In the period 2020-2022, the research team in WAGE has collaborated with the Media Section at Oslo Metropolitan University to develop several short films, as well as a documentary project provisionally titled "The Climate Struggle of Oil Workers". This documentary has accompanied three workers as they make sense of climate change and climate policies from their viewpoint based in the petroleum industry of the Niger Delta (Nigeria), California (US) and Rogaland (Norway). We aim to finalise the documentary in 2023 and have throughout this period let the production of WAGESTORIES
The proposed project will generate valuable insights and new knowledge on how workers in the oil and gas sector understand their role in transforming the carbon-emitting societies in which they work. Human labour has fundamentally transformed natural systems, and will be essential to transitions and transformations to a green economy. The SAMKUL programme highlights nature-society relations as a prioritised area of research. We ask how oil workers in three oil-dependent economies (Norway, Nigeria and Canada) perceive, experience, and learn about their impact on, and reliance on, natural resources through green trade unionism.
The proposed project will adopt a sector-specific qualitative analysis of organisational learning, media representations and trade union strategies in the oil industry in three national contexts: Norway, Nigeria and Canada. Four main research questions (RQs) guide the project:
1. How do oil workers' unions play a role in developing de-carbonisation policies, and how do self-defined interests converge or diverge with these policies?
2. How is the dilemma of jobs vs climate taken up by media (union-, mainstream-, social- and corporate media), and how does this affect union action?
3. How do oil workers' unions function as learning organisations for climate literacy?
4. How can climate solidarity be developed between oil workers and other critical constituencies, including: other trade unions, community-based organisations, environmental activists, professional training programs, and oil worker unions in other countries?
The Project is organised into Three Work Packages:
WP1: Organisational learning in oil unions: Climate education, climate bargaining, and green plans
WP2: Campaigns, alliances and power struggles: Oil trade unions and climate solidarity
WP3: The hegemony of oil in media debates