Towards an independent working-class climate movement

Submitted by AWL on 27 August, 2011 - 9:52

This article was written for the Summer 2011 issue of the American socialist journal New Politics.

By Daniel Randall and Paul Hampton

Our politics – working-class self-emancipation – are given a new urgency by the danger of catastrophic climate change. The need to transition society to, at the least, a low-carbon economy, based on production for need rather than profit, is extremely urgent.

But one of the many tragic legacies of Stalinism has been the virtual disappearance from Marxism of the nuanced ecological politics and analyses that were once integral to it. Stalin's hyper-industrialisation drives, for example, left little room for the subtle understanding of humanity's relationship to nature developed by Marx and others. As a result, many ecologists believe that the working class and the organised labour movement, the privileged agents in the Marxist world-view, are irrelevant to tackling environmental degradation - if not part of the problem.

But beneath the excrement generated by Stalinism runs a rich seam of independent working-class ecology, which we believe has a great deal to offer the fight to tackle climate change. We argue that class is central to the fight for a coherent ecological politics in the twenty-first century. A Marxist approach provides both the vital analysis of structures and causes, and the focus on working-class agency that is necessary to successfully revolutionise society to tackle climate change.

Exploiting workers, subsuming the planet

Marxism has a sophisticated view of the relationship between human society and nature, starting with the concept of metabolism (stoffwechsel). Burkett and Foster have explained how labour mediates the relationship between society and nature; how the metabolic rift conceptualises the breakdown in humanity’s broken relationship with nature under class society; and how socialism will reconstruct this metabolism in a more rational way.[1]

Similarly, Smith’s “production of nature” approach draws into sharp relief the impact of capitalism in reshaping, remaking and reworking nature all the way down. Smith argued that, “No part of the earth’s surface, the atmosphere, the oceans, the geological substratum or the biological superstratum are immune from transformation by capital” and that “the alteration of climate by human activity” was an expression of this relatively new phenomenon of the social production of nature.[2] The chief virtue of this Marxist approach is the emphasis on changing social relations to tackle ecological problems. The idea of the production of nature implies an historical future that is still to be determined by political events and forces.[3]

Marxist political economy of class societies provides a wealth of insights into the drives that cause ecological damage. In particular Marx understood that the unlimited drive to amass profits for capital accumulation overrode other imperatives such as human need or environmental sustainability. Central is the Marxist conception of classes, defined under capitalism by the exploitation of waged labour by capital. The forms of exploitation - the creation of absolute surplus value, (or the formal subsumption of labour to capital) and relative surplus value (or the real subsumption of labour to capital) – explain the dynamism of the system but also simultaneously the enormous power of workers within it.

Some Marxists have extended these insights about exploitation to ecological degradation, and introduced the concepts of the formal and real subsumption of nature into capital. Under the formal subsumption of nature, “firms confront nature as an exogenous set of material properties and bio-/geophysical processes, but are unable to directly augment natural processes and use them as strategies for increasing productivity”. In contrast, “under the real subsumption of nature, limited to biologically based industries, firms are able to take hold of and transform natural production, and use this as a source of productivity increase”. In adapting these concepts, they “highlight some of the different ways in which biophysical systems are industrialised and, in some cases, can actually be made to operate as productive forces in and of themselves”. Under real subsumption “capital circulates through nature (albeit unevenly) as opposed to around it. Biological systems are made to act as actual forces of production”.[4]

The parallels between the real subsumption of labour and the real subsumption of nature should be clear. It is precisely the same mechanisms that give rise to worker exploitation (longer working day, the reorganisation and mechanisation of the labour process, etc.) that also give rise to ecological damage. These analogous, simultaneous processes have a common root in the drives of capital.

Workers as strategic ecological actors

A further conclusion from this political economy is to elevate the working class to a unique position as the essential progressive agent of social change under capitalism. Workers have the power and the interest to found a democratic collectivist alternative to capitalist (and Stalinist) class society that is socially just and ecologically sustainable. Therefore workers, who have the historical incentive to mitigate and ultimately abolish their own exploitation, also have a significant and privileged stake in abolishing the processes that give rise to the degradation of the natural environment. The working class is the agency capable of embracing the general, universal interest of ecology as its own special interest.

The specific impacts of ecological degradation on working-class communities also provide an immediate motivation for workers to resist climate change. Obach argued that, “it has been established that lower-income groups suffer disproportionately from the effects of environmental degradation in terms of its negative health consequences and other quality of life issues”. He added that, “research has demonstrated that, sometimes as a matter of policy, hazardous, environmentally undesirable facilities are sited in or near low-income communities. The health implications for communities surrounding such facilities are well established”. Similarly, “policies designed to protect the natural environment also tend to impose a greater economic burden on the working class”.[5]

Throughout the history of capitalism organised working-class movements across the globe have at times displayed a tremendous and inspiring willingness to tackle ecological questions. In the United States, that tradition includes the OCAW strike and boycott against Shell Oil in 1973 and the alliance of Teamsters and “Turtles” which disrupted the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999. There are tremendous examples from “water-wars” in South Africa in Bolivia, as well as oil struggles in Nigeria, landless worker and peasant movements in Brazil and in countless other places, South and North, where workers have led progressive ecological struggles in their own interests.

Green bans and workers' plans: strategies in working-class ecological struggle

The movement led by Australian building workers in the 1970s is perhaps the most inspiring example of workers organising to take action in defence of the planet. In the first half of the 70s, the New South Wales Builders' Labourers Federation (NSW BLF) imposed around 50 green bans in and around Sydney. The term “green ban” - refusing to work on environmentally injurious constructions - was coined by NSW BLF secretary Jack Mundey as a more appropriate description of a refusal to work, previously known as “blacking”.[6]

The first green ban was introduced at Kelly's Bush in June 1971. After a corporate developer attempted to re-zone the parkland, The 'Battlers for Kelly's Bush' community group was formed to oppose it. The Battlers contacted the BLF, who agreed to impose a ban on redevelopment. The struggle to save the Rocks, Sydney's first area of European settlement, from proposed redevelopment was considered the most important green ban. The Rocks Residents Group developed a 'People's Plan' for the area after the BLF introduced a ban.

Woolloomooloo, probably the most successful green ban, saw local residents establish an action group after the local state issued plans to demolish housing to build high-rise office blocks. The BLF imposed a green ban and, with pressure from the local residents, a satisfactory community solution was reached. Other green bans included Victoria Street, the Sydney Opera House car park, the Newcastle hotel, the fight to prevent the North West freeway cutting through the inner-city suburbs, and the struggle to save the Theatre Royal from demolition. Some green bans were permanent, some achieved their aims, while others were lifted at the request of local resident action groups or the National Trust.

The struggle to transform the NSW BLF itself was crucial to its development of radical ecological politics. Most of the NSW BLF leadership at the time were dissident communists, receptive to new left ideas. The period before the “green bans” movement had seen a rank-and-file caucus oust corrupt, conservative bureaucrats and push the union to fight on the immediate day-to-day concerns of its members. It was through the process of resisting the ways in which capitalism exploits workers that BLF activists were able to develop an understanding of the ways in which capitalism exploits the planet, and of how that environmental exploitation is in turn underpinned by and premised on the exploitation of workers.

The BLF showed that a militant, political labour movement was well placed to achieve radical environmental ends. As Mundey put it: “Trade unions must become involved with environmental issues, and environmentalists must become more concerned with the importance of promoting trade union struggles for socially useful production and consumption. Too few people question the products we make.” Mundey also emphasised that ecology is a vital matter of working-class self-interest: “The myth that the environment movement is the preserve of the do-gooding middle class must be exploded. It is, in fact, the workers who are most affected by the deterioration of the environment and it is therefore up to the trade union movement to give it a higher priority to fighting to improve it.”[7]

During the same period in Britain, a large number of union branches and rank and file organisations – faced with employer-led restructuring and job losses – produced “workers' plans” for the reorganisation of production in their workplace. These plans invariably questioned the logic of capitalist production for profit and asserted the need for “socially-useful production”, often making explicit proposals for “green” production.

Probably the most famous was the Lucas Aerospace Corporate Plan, published by a cross-union combine committee in 1976. The document detailed plans for heat pumps, solar cells and fuel cells, windmills and flexible power packs, as well as a road-rail public transportation vehicle, a new hybrid power pack for motor vehicles and airships. It stated: “New, renewable, sources and more efficient methods of conversion must be developed. Solutions to the problem based on nuclear power give rise to new problems of health, safety and even survival. Instead R&D should focus on new sources of energy and new types of energy conversion transmission and storage.”[8]

Organised workers in major military contracting firms such as Vickers and Rolls-Royce produced similar initiatives. Chrysler car workers also developed this approach, demanding diversification into public transport and agricultural vehicles. A statement from Chrysler stewards stated: “The widespread ecological and environmental criticism of the private petrol-driven car as a socially irresponsible form of transport suggests to us that we must explore the feasibility of new kinds of products of a socially useful kind to harness the skills of the existing plant and machinery, and direct it away from a commodity whose profitability and usefulness is rapidly declining.”[9]

Other workers’ plans also emphasised renewable and environmentally friendly technologies. Workers at GEC Trafford advocated wave, wind and nuclear power. Its report noted: “In the Severn Estuary, with its 40ft tidal range, Britain has one of the world’s best sites for tidal power… Once built, this barrage would supply this energy almost free of charge. With no fuel costs to meet, the only major cost would be the maintenance and overseeing of the equipment.”

Although these plans were snuffed out by the employers’ offensive and the wave of austerity imposed by Thatcher, they indicate the potential power of a militant working-class movement to relate constructively to pressing ecological issues.

Ecology without class: the limits of the “Green New Deal” and “ecosocialism”

A class-struggle response to environmental destruction is still a minority idea within the environmental and labour movements. Even on the left, a response that puts workers' agency, self-organisation and struggle at its centre competes with models that look elsewhere for agents of change – states, NGOs or nebulous alliances of “social movements”.

The Green New Deal is one such approach. Writing in New Politics, Ashley Dawson argued for such a model - yet workers hardly get a look-in. While he calls for the creation of a “Green Corps, a millions-strong army of workers trained in environmental stewardship and the creation and deployment of green technology”, workers in currently-existing jobs (rather than jobs we might wish to see created in the future) are absent from the picture and presumably have no specific agency other than as one component part of a “broad variety of social movements” which can lobby governments to implement the emissions-restriction measures.[10]

In Britain, the Green New Deal report, authored by prominent Green politicians, NGO officials, media personalities and business people, demanded the price of fossil fuels be driven up until they're “high enough to tackle climate change effectively by creating the economic incentive to drive efficiency and bring alternative fuels to market.”[11] The authors appeared to have forgotten about fuel poverty, or that a dramatic rise in fuel prices will hit working-class people hardest. Higher prices are, of course, the classic market 'solution' to almost any problem.

The listed agents for change identified in the British Green New Deal report speaks volumes about its project. It seeks to bring “diverse social and industrial forces together, leading to a new progressive movement,” and looks to the “exciting possibility of a new political alliance: an alliance between the labour movement and the green movement, between those engaged in manufacturing and the public sector, between civil society and academia, industry, agriculture and those working productively in the service industries.”[12] This is the politics of the green popular front; while the climate crisis might pose a threat to the bulk of humanity, the crisis's roots in class exploitation mean that the resistance to it must have working-class leadership.

Undoubtedly, amongst this growing mass of supporters there will be more and less radical conceptions of what the Green New Deal means. But they share a common starting-point in that they all identify top-down measures implemented by existing states as the key weapon for combating climate change. The explicit affinity with Roosevelt is telling. His New Deal was a top-down, state-capitalist solution to an economic crisis that contemporary Marxist critics rightly identified as “aiming at the restoration of capitalist profits”. “New Deal” models are, fundamentally, about saving capitalism from itself.

A less explicit but similarly mistaken retreat from class is beaten by the Belem Declaration and the “ecosocialist” milieu around it. Although its authors and supporters are ostensibly revolutionary socialists, there is a lack of clarity about the role of the working class as an ecological actor. At least one of them, Joel Kovel, is quite explicit that there is “no privileged agent of eco-socialist transformation” or any “privileged role to be played by the international proletariat”.[13]

The Declaration contains a great deal of legitimate and useful criticism of “market solutions”, and is right to emphasise that a revolutionary anti-capitalism is the only ultimate alternative to climate crisis. But the Declaration's anti-capitalism and “ecosocialism” lack a sharp focus on class. While it alludes to “the struggles of labour”, the closest it gets to identifying a specific agency for anti-capitalist change is naming “the poor and indigenous peoples”.[14] Without question, peasant and indigenous movements in places most immediately threatened by the consequences of climate change have a vital role to play. But in a world in which capitalist labour relations predominate almost everywhere (even in those countries where the wage-working class is still a minority), it is only as part of an alliance led by organised workers that those movements can hope to have a significant impact.

To emphasise the necessity of working-class leadership is not to downplay, dismiss or de-legitimise the struggles of other oppressed or exploited groups; it is simply to acknowledge that we live in a capitalist world, where working-class struggles do have a privileged role and position, and certainly not only within the advanced-capitalist “global north”. For Chinese and Korean auto-workers, Bangladeshi garment workers, Nigerian, Iranian and Iraqi oil workers and many others, the need to develop a working-class programme for tackling climate change may very soon become a matter of life-and-death urgency.

The quote from Evo Morales which acts as the Belem Declaration's epigram betrays an incoherence on the question of agency. Morales may be a radical reformer, but he remains the head of a bourgeois government administering a capitalist state. In a book to promote the Declaration and its “ecosocialist” approach, edited by another of its authors, the contrast is clear. The book contains four contributions from members of the Cuban ruling bureaucracy (a state in which independent trade unions and political parties are illegal), one from Morales and another from a supporter of Hugo Chavez's government. Few entries point towards the ecological potential of workers’ struggles. The emphasis is on top-down action by the leaders of states; the fact that the states in question spuriously pretend to some species of anti-capitalism is only evidence that the malign influence of Stalinism in the left and the labour movement still needs combating.[15]

None of this is to suggest that it is wrong to demand action from existing states or that state measures cannot produce progressive results. It is not to make a fetish of the “bottom-up” as against the “top-down”. The question is one of agency: is the state itself to be looked to as the agent for change, or is that agent to be the working-class – which may well place demands and force concessions from capitalist states, but from within a framework of self-organisation and class independence.

Working-class climate action in the UK: the significance of Vestas

A modest contribution towards developing a working class-based ecology perspective has been made in Britain. The Workers' Climate Action (WCA) network was founded in 2007 by a group of class-struggle activists (including Trotskyists, anarchists and others) working in the climate and labour movements. It fights for working-class environmentalism and revolutionary ecology within both movements, and as a direct-action solidarity network to engage with and catalyse workers' struggle, with a particular focus on workers in high-emissions industries such as aviation and energy. When the 2008 Camp for Climate Action took place near the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station, WCA supporters participating in the Camp marched with a banner reading “Yes to Kingsnorth workers, No to E.on bosses”. When British Airways workers struck against pay cuts and job freezes in 2010, WCA activists organised solidarity to connect the workers' immediate struggles to questions of transition and conversion. The environmental profligacy of BA bosses was clear: they flew empty jets in order to diminish figures for the number of planes grounded by the workers, in an attempt to play down the strike's impact. By involving itself in the strike on the basis of working-class solidarity, WCA was able to begin to develop ecological politics around a dispute that had no ostensible ‘environmental’ angle (and indeed could be seen as pro-emissions). WCA has also sought a close relationship with transport workers' unions, particularly the RMT (which represents workers on the London Underground and is arguably Britain's most industrially-militant union), in order to raise demands for the expansion of public transport.

Perhaps the most significant struggle in which WCA has played a leading role was at Vestas, on the Isle of Wight (a small island of less than 150,000 people off the southern coast of England). Vestas is the world's largest producer of wind turbines and was the single-biggest private sector employer on the island. Despite turning record profits, the firm announced the closure of its manufacturing plants in 2009. Although objective social conditions cried out for the factory to remain open to continue producing vitally-needed renewable energy equipment, its bosses closed it due to a lack of sufficiently-responsive markets. This came as the then-Labour government began making lofty promises about a “green energy revolution” and the creation of hundreds of thousands of green jobs.

The plant was not unionised, but following factory-gates agitation by WCA supporters and large public meetings, a group of workers developed sufficient confidence to occupy the main factory site, which lasted for nearly a month. Although workers were not strong enough to restart production under their own control or, ultimately, to save the plant from closure, they cohered an alliance of trade unionists, community campaigners and radical environmentalists. They exposed the disgusting hypocrisy of the Labour government and the callously anti-worker (and, necessarily, anti-planet) practises of even a so-called “green” employer like Vestas. They provided a living, breathing model of working-class ecology and turned a sleepy island into a flashpoint of class struggle.

Vestas was a tragic but chemically-pure demonstration of the specific ways in which wage-labour and the profit motive necessarily lead to environmental degradation, and of the way in which the environmental damage capitalism causes is inextricably bound up with its exploitation of workers. The Vestas struggle came in the same year as a number of other workplace occupations, including a particularly long-running one at the Visteon car plant in north London. There too, issues of sustainability and just transition were discussed. Across the UK, union reps in schools and colleges, central and local government, in the health service and in private industry, workers are taking action on ecological issues.

In the struggles ahead, activist networks like Workers' Climate Action will become even more important for developing a working-class response to the ecological and economic crises. Struggles like the green bans, Lucas and Vestas developed battles over day-to-day conditions into struggles for workers' control. They posed, as Trotsky put it in Transitional Program, “the question of who is the boss in the factory: the capitalist or the workers?” They asked which interests should predominate – the interests of profit, or the interests of human need and environmental sustainability. And they asked why it was, if it was the workers who possessed the skills to develop plans run their workplaces sustainably, justly and democratically without bosses, why they could not in fact run them? And, if they could run their workplaces along such lines, why couldn't they similarly run a whole industry? A whole city? The whole world? It is time for the organised labour and its supporters in the ecology movement to ask, and answer, those questions again.

[1] Paul Burkett Marx and Nature (London: Macmillan, 1999); John Bellamy Foster Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review, 2000).
[2] Neil Smith Uneven Development (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984), p.56
[3] Noel Castree “Marxism, Capitalism and the Production of Nature” in Social Nature: Theory, Practice and Politics, ed. Noel Castree and Bruce Braun (London: Blackwell, 2001) p.203
[4] William Boyd, Scott Prudham and Rachel Schurmann “Industrial Dynamics and the Problem of Nature”, Society and Natural Resources, 14, 7 (2001) pp.555-570 (p.557, p565)
[5] Brian Obach Labor and the Environmental Movement: the Quest for Common Ground (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004) p.29
[6] Meredith Burgmann and Verity Burgmann Green Bans: Red Union: Environmentalism and the New South Wales Builders Labourers' Federation (Sydney: New South Wales Press, 1998) p.8
[7] Verity Burgmann “The social responsibility of labour versus the environmental impact of property capital: the Australian Green Bans movement”, Environmental Politics, 9, 2 (2000), pp.78-101. (p.98)
[8] Hilary Wainwright and Dave Elliott, The Lucas plan: a new trade unionism in the making? (London: Allison & Busby, 1982) pp.101-102
[9] Wainright and Elliott (1982) p.142
[10] Ashley Dawson “Why We Need a Global Green New Deal”, New Politics, Winter 2010, Vol XI-4, Whole #48. Online here
[11] Caroline Lucas, Larry Elliott, Tony Juniper et al A Green New Deal (2008) Online here
[12] Lucas, Elliott, Juniper et al (2008)
[13] Joel Kovel The Enemy of Nature (London: Zed Books, 2007) p.241, p.257
[14] The Belem Ecosocialist Declaration (2008) Online here
[15] Ian Angus (ed.) The Global Fight for Climate Justice (London: Resistance Books, 2009)

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.