UNISON members have campaigned for ethical inevstment for many years. Photo by Clint Iguana.

UNISON, one of the two largest trade unions in the UK, with over 1.3 million members, has adopted formal policy to support divestment from fossil fuels at its annual conference.

The Union, which represents local government members, many of whose pensions are heavily invested in fossil fuels, voted unanimously to:

“seek divestment of Local Government Pension Schemes from fossil fuels over five years giving due regard to fiduciary duty”

The new policy follows two years of impressive mobilisation by UNISON grassroots members. UNISON Scotland was fundamental in leading the change after forming the   Reinvest Scotland campaign with Friends of the Earth and Common Weal in 2016.

The divest motion clearly had widespread support – but it was a knife-edge whether it would make it onto a packed agenda of over 100 motions. Branches from across the country lobbied to give it priority – making it the last item debated on the day’s agenda.

Stephen Smellie Deputy Convenor of UNISON Scotland proposed the motion. He said:

“Our priority always needs to be to ensure our member’s pensions are protected. We are increasingly aware that investments in fossil fuels are not only harmful to the environment but put the sustainable future of our pensions at risk. Unison will now extend our campaigns to develop alternative investment strategies to enable pension funds to divest from fossil fuels over a number of years.”

Local government pension funds are collectively worth £200 billion. Our investigation in 2015 showed £14 billion invested in fossil fuels across UK local government pensions, with Greater Manchester’s pensions the most exposed with £1.3 billion invested (9.8% of its holdings).

As the primary representatives for local government workers UNISON members sit on boards of local government pension funds.

Stephen Kelly of UNISON with Fossil Free campigners at the Strathclyde Pension Fund’s 2016 Annual Meeting. The fund invests over £700,000 in fossil fuels. Photo by Ric Lander.

Kev Allsop is UNISON representative to the Greater Manchester Pension Fund, the UK’s largest local government fund. He brought a motion to last year’s 2016 conference, when it wasn’t debated. He said:

“UNISON’s National Delegate Conference, the trade union’s sovereign body, has today accepted that we should be making our pension funds carbon neutral. We have  a very real opportunity to move £ billions out of Fossil Fuel extraction. UNISON now has the foresight to support investment into Sustainable Energy and Council Housing, creating jobs and much needed homes benefitting generations to come whilst reducing the cost of pensions to the taxpayer.”

UNISON’s decision to divest shows that Exxon and Shell have no place in our future. Stranded fossil fuel assets threaten our pensions. And investing instead into clean energy, public transport, and social housing can kickstart our economy.

Local government pension funds have already started moving towards divestment from oil, coal, and gas. In 2016 Waltham Forest passed divestment policy, quickly followed by Southwark. Full and partial divest commitments already total £10 billion worth of local government pensions. Global divestment commitments total over $5 trillion.