Election of Union Leader Who Called for COP26 to be Ditched ‘Not Ideal’, Say Campaigners

Green campaigners have expressed concern about the GMB union’s newly elected leader, who has called for Glasgow to ditch the upcoming COP26 climate summit and enthusiastically backed fracking.

Gary Smith was previously Secretary of GMB’s Scotland branch but on Thursday was elected as the union’s new UK-wide General Secretary and Treasurer. GMB is the third largest union in the UK, with some 620,000 members covering work across a range of industry sectors, including oil and gas, aviation and manufacturing, as well as the public sector.

Smith, who won just over half of the 61,000 votes cast, has a history of outspoken comments about climate change and last year slammed the international UN climate conference now due to be held in Glasgow in November, saying “our priorities are all wrong”.

“The world’s political elite will fly in and out of Glasgow later in the year but the city’s many challenges will remain the day after the circus leaves town,” he said at the time. “The best thing government could do for Glasgow is to ditch hosting the COP and instead invest the money in dealing with the state of the city.”

Smith has been a long-time backer of fracking and fiercely criticised Labour for its support for a nationwide fracking ban, saying “Britain needs gas”. He has also been outspoken on the offshoring of manufacturing and fabrication work for the UK’s renewables industry. 

In the lead up to the election, climate activist Leo Murray said Smith’s election “would not bode well for prospects of GMB finally arriving in the 21st century with respect to the climate crisis”, calling Smith a “fracking cheerleader extraordinaire”.

Responding to news of the election, Alex Brent, GMB activist and co-founder of GMB for a Green New Deal, said Smith’s scepticism towards decarbonisation and often confrontational attitude towards climate activism is “obviously not ideal”.

However, he added, “ultimately it’s not him that needs convincing – it’s workers”, noting that GMB Union was “hardly leading the way in climate action before Gary Smith became general secretary”.

“GMB members, trade unionists and climate activists will continue to organise for climate action at the only level that matters – among their branches, in their workplaces, and in their local communities,” he said. “If Gary gets in the way of that organising, then that may prove to be a problem. Until then, the work continues.”

Speaking at the GMB Congress earlier today, Labour leader Keir Starmer congratulated Smith on his election. The result is seen as a boost to Starmer as the union is one of the three largest affiliates to the Labour Party and holds a significant voting bloc. 

Responding to a request for comment, Smith said that GMB has “consistently campaigned for an energy and environmental policy that goes together”. 

“We support a balanced energy mix for our four nations’ journey to net zero, involving nuclear, renewables, oil and gas, where industries are properly regulated and unionised to hold employers to account and maintain the highest safety standards,” he said. 

“But regrettably, our political leaders have spent years preaching about the need for a green jobs’ revolution in the battle against climate change and to meet our net zero targets, while exporting the jobs we need to support a just transition to a low carbon economy.”

He also reiterated his concerns over COP26, claiming its hosting by Glasgow “will illustrate what political failure looks like”. “[T]he world will see a city hammered by austerity, where its politicians promote environmental responsibility to its citizens but won’t invest in the services needed to clean-up a waste crisis,” he said.

A special report on energy and the environment released yesterday by GMB backed the principles of a “just transition” on energy, but called for “honest dialogue between the labour and environmental movements to defend jobs”.

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