Climate change and the unions: thinking through the slogans

Submitted by Matthew on 19 November, 2009 - 2:13

The Stop Climate Chaos (SCC) coalition aims to mobilise 40,000 people for the largest ever climate demos in the UK on 5 December. In London, the demo is assembling at 12 noon in Grosvenor Square. It plans to climax at 3pm by encircling Parliament with a sea of people wearing blue. The details for Glasgow are not yet finalised.

The platform of “The Wave” is for the UK government to:

• Quit Dirty Coal

• Protect the Poorest and

• Act Fair & Fast.

The demand to “Quit Dirty Coal” means that the government should withhold permission for new coal power stations that cannot capture their carbon emissions. The campaign also wants a legally-binding carbon emissions limit of 350 gCO2/kWh, which all new power stations should meet.

“Protect the Poorest” means the UK providing funds for adaptation, mitigation and low carbon development in poor countries. The UK is currently providing less than 5 billion euros.

“Act Fair & Fast” means keeping global warming under 2°C, meaning a “fair and equitable” deal in Copenhagen, with emissions peaking in 2015 and declining thereafter.

The demonstration is supported by the TUC, Unison, NUT and UCU. However, some unions, including Prospect and NUM, are not supporting it because of fears that it is opposed outright to coal. That doesn’t in fact seem to be the case – a better criticism is that the demo makes few demands on the UK government to do anything for workers in the UK or elsewhere e.g. on jobs, just transition, etc.

The organisers seem to have forgotten the political significance of waving blue at parliament, which might easily seem like a “get the Tories in” parade. And as they have not organised a rally at the end, there is no direction to demonstrators as to what to do next, especially if Copenhagen is a big let-down as expected.

One million green jobs

With nearly three million people out of work who could argue with the demand for jobs, especially jobs that will contribute to the future of the planet rather than detract from it?

The “One Million Climate Jobs” demand has been backed by a pamphlet, edited by SWPer Jonathan Neale for the Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union group. It is well written and researched, with concrete suggestions about the type of jobs needed, how many and how to pay for them – principally by taxing the rich. It is clear that the jobs should be new ones, additional to those that exist already, not relabelled jobs. The pamphlet says that, as far as possible, they should be directly employed government jobs, employed by a National Climate Service. It also recognises that jobs may be lost in older polluting industries, and that the solution is government-guaranteed work for displaced workers in the new sectors. As such, the demand seems a reasonable and necessary response to the climate and economic crises.

The main problem with the demand is that it is presented as a plea for action by the government, rather than as a slogan around which to mobilise workers and transform the labour movement.

It is not clearly linked to existing struggles for jobs – e.g. in the car industry – and therefore does not grow out of the logic of actual struggles. It is not presented as a transitional demand, linked to other issues such as public ownership of energy and transport industries, or to workers’ control, or opening the books, or to the creation of climate committees in workplaces.

Most notably, it does not make the case for reduced working time on full pay, which is both an answer to the problem of unemployment and a way to tackle emissions by reducing production in some areas. The demand does not connect with the need for workers to take power, or even with working class political representation.

In short, the call for “One Million Climate Jobs” is a good idea, but one that is in danger of remaining largely in the realm of placards and propaganda, rather than becoming a demand taken up by the labour movement as a vital part of its existing struggles.

Klimaforum09

Klimaforum09 opens on 7 December and ends on 18 December. It takes place at DGI-byen, close to the Central Station. Klimaforum09 is organised by a broad coalition of Danish and international environmental movements and civil society organisations.

The Political Platform is very confused. It states that, “The basis for Klimaforum09 is the realisation that there is no technological ‘fix’ to the mounting climate crisis.” It then lists nuclear power, biofuels, genetically modified organisms, carbon capture and storage (CCS) as examples of technologies which won’t work – with renewables advocated instead. It alludes to the need for changes in social relations, but the platform verges on technophobia.

Its alternative is vague. It states, “In contrast, sustainable societies require a diversity of locally based solutions”. This would appear to rule out large scale solar projects in the Sahara for example – and perhaps large-scale wind farms onshore or offshore – if they were to serve more than local needs. The perspective is insular, possibly nationalist and apparently back-to-nature.

The platform talks of “reducing consumption and production”, without reference to the impact of this on working class living standards. It talks of a “new means of organising society” without saying anything substantial about the form this might take and who will bring it about.

Comments

Submitted by edwardm on Mon, 23/11/2009 - 23:21

Theo - the problem isn't that the demand for 1 million green climate jobs isn't 'revolutionary' enough, or isn't 'pure' enough. It's not even an especially bad idea. The writer of the article points out that it's quite well-researched and detailed.

The conclusion of the article isn't even to necessarily abandon the whole notion of the 'million green jobs' demand. The point is that more thought is needed before we can run with it. The point is - "how, exactly, do we run with it?" Where do we start? It's clear that a capitalist government won't implement this without enormous pressure - but which part of society can we get to create that pressure? Which group of workers can be immediately convinced to fight for this demand? How? Which group of workers could take what sort of action to make this a reality, or which part of the labour movement could take a lead on fighting for this? Realistically, how do we get started? The document gives us no clues - it just calls, in the abstract, for a good thing to take place.

At the moment, a million green jobs is such a massive slogan, that isn't directly connected to an existing struggle (such as the disputes currently bubbling up over pay in the energy sector, job losses in the car industry and in other front-line industries, or the industrial dispute in British Airways) in the sense that this demand can be taken into an ongoing struggle with a view to changing its direction. Unless it's formulated in a way that it can be applied to something currently going on in the working class, it is in danger of just remaining at the level of a petition, with no concrete activity going on around it. We need to think through the slogan and find a way of applying it correctly.

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on Wed, 25/11/2009 - 12:15

...the pamphlet is shit. If it's sectarian to criticise a shit pamphlet, then fine; we're sectarians. Personally I thought the review was very accommodating indeed.

No amount of "well-researched information" (although frankly I'm far from convinced that any of the information in the pamphlet is particularly revelatory or new) can disguise the fact that this pamphlet is paper-thin politically and falls well, well short of what's objectively needed.

The central problem with the pamphlet is that is doesn't place any meaningful emphasis on workers' agency and the centrality of workers' struggle. It doesn't see transition as something to be fought for by workers and to be carried out under their control. It unquestioningly accepts the idea/necessity of some job losses in frontline polluting industries without raising the question of, for example, the conversion of coal-fired power stations. It doesn't even raise full employment as an aspiration (it just wants to take a chunk out of the current unemployment figure) and, rather than looking to struggles like Lucas or the NSWBLF for inspiration, it takes as its model the US and UK government's armaments policies during WWII!

The point about Jonathan Neale's membership of the SWP is that a member of an apparently revolutionary, Trotskyist organisation has presided over the production of a pamphlet that barely reaches the level of sub-reformism. (Not to mention the typical popular-frontist mush about the integral role of e.g. church groups in the "concerted uncompromising campaign" Theo mentions, which is now beyond parody.)

Does any of this mean people shouldn't read the pamphlet, or that it shouldn't be discussed in the labour movement? Clearly not. But Theo's idea that, because this is pretty much all we've got in terms of widely-available documents on the issue, it shouldn't be criticised is pretty ridiculous. If we have an idea of the slogans/ideas/politics necessary to develop working-class solutions to climate change, then to refuse to raise them because they might be deemed "sectarian" would be disingenuous and negligent in the extreme.

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on Fri, 27/11/2009 - 16:16

Yes, Theo, we have done work of our own which attempts to develop a programme and a series of demands that we believe could cohere a working-class resistance to climate change. Take a look.

Why haven't we published it as a glossy pamphlet, like CaCC? Because, unlike them, we don't have access to substantial financial backing from trade unions and because, unlike the SWP (the main organised force in CaCC), we're not prepared to water our politics down in order to make them palatable for the trade union bureaucracies.

Of course we should be nuanced and sensitive and "patient" when making criticisms. I agree with you. And if this pamphlet gets masses of previously apolitical workers thinking about climate change, then fine. Good. But the point is that if left critics of the CaCC like ourselves hush up or gloss over our criticisms in the interests of non-sectarianism, then how will those workers ever arrive at a better set of politics than the popular-frontist mush offered by CaCC?

We will be publishing a much more comprehensive critique of the pamphlet that explains (yes, "patiently") our criticisms in depth.

I won't be writing it; patient criticism isn't really my style. I also think that, given the scale and immediacy of this issue, there's a case for a little impatience in responding to what are at best the limited and at worst actually counter-productive "solutions" offered by the CaCC.

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