Workers can counter climate change

Submitted by Matthew on 13 February, 2013 - 9:09

The widening gap between the risks of ecological degradation and the politics needed to prevent massive damaging social and environmental impacts is well illustrated by recent climate announcements.

Last month the draft US National Climate Assessment reported increased storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts that are already affecting farming, transport, water and health. It concludes that “global warming is due primarily as a result of human activities, including the copious burning of fossil fuels”. Yet International Energy Agency figures confirm that global greenhouse gas emissions are at a record high and the latest UN charade in Qatar showed the paucity of internationally-coordinated efforts to stem the flow.

Can the labour movement provide a way out of this impasse? RĂ€thzel and Uzzell’s book makes a good case that it can. This impressive collection of essays from across the globe, reflects a potential for authentic international labour movement solidarity. Contributors from Sweden, South Korea, Spain and South Africa are alongside those from Australia, the United States and Brazil. As well as the focus on energy, there are wider contributions taking in transport and agriculture, making a strong case for the synthesis of organised labour and nature, what they call “environmental labour studies”.

Cock and Lambert argue that “the logic of capital accumulation is a singular process, which destroys jobs and nature, requiring a movement in defence of both, founded on political rejection of uncontrolled, financially driven, private equity accumulation”. US Steelworker president Leo Gerard is quoted saying that “much of the pollution from production is born out of the same greed and need for ever-increasing profits that leads to the exploitation of workers”. Workers have a clear interest as often the first victims of environmental impacts and usually the hardest hit, with the fewest resources to adapt. This is true whether workers live in the Ganges delta or in New Orleans.

The power of workers’ ecology is also gargantuan. The international waged working class appears to have at least doubled in size in the last three decades. Since 1978, China’s waged working class has tripled, growing from 120 million to 350 million. As Rossman points out in the book, there are 1.3 billion people employed in agriculture (half the global labour force), including some 450 million waged workers. He shows that big business agriculture is one of the most dangerous greenhouse gas emitters and this immediately affects the health and well-being of workers and small farmers in agriculture. He concludes that the struggle for workers’ rights is an indispensable part of the struggle to mitigate climate change.

The essays by Burgmann and by Snell and Fairbrother argue that the perspective of green jobs can overcome the jobs versus environment dilemma, by offering unions and workers a way to embrace climate change measures without fearing unemployment.

Uzzell and RĂ€thzel argue that there are a number of ambiguities in the demand for green jobs. First, green jobs are not necessarily, well paid, safe, and secure jobs. There is a need to question “the relationship between green jobs and just jobs, to examine the taken-for-granted growth perspective, to take the relationship between different production sectors within a country and globally into account, and to rethink the system of production that has led to climate change”. the editors make the profound point that when unions defend jobs at the expense of nature, “they are at the same time defending the relations of production (the private appropriation of nature) under which they are themselves subordinated”. The key question is, “whether a demand for green jobs leads to ‘shallow reforms’ or whether it transcends the present forms of production”.

Just transition has become the new mantra for trade unions in environmental politics. Originating in the US with the UAW auto workers’ union and the OCAW energy union (led by Tony Mazzocchi), just transition has now become the overarching synthetic articulation for trade union stances on climate change. Snell and Fairbrother argue that just transition emphasises “a position of procedural fairness whereby justice must not only be achieved as an outcome but it must also be reflected in the means used to realise these outcomes”.

Rosemberg fears the risk of appropriation and/or depolitisation of the just transition idea, based on her experience representing unions at successive climate talks. Whilst the term has been accepted in UN forums, it has scarcely been put into practice and may simply become filleted, like “sustainable development”, into a nebulous clichĂ©. Rossman argues that just transition has two shortcomings. First “it can underestimate the extent to which current technologies are embedded in power relations that require more than rational arguments to transform. Technology is never socially neutral”. Second, the just transition approach “tends to overlook that rights are never granted, but always fought for”.

Probably the most powerful chapter in the book is Sweeney’s account of US trade unions and extreme energy, focused on the TransCanada Keystone XL oil pipeline.

Extreme energy technologies such as tar sands and fracking threaten a “second coming” for fossil-based power and the Keystone XL case “draws attention to the very real danger of an energy system emerging that is not only far from clean, but even dirtier and more damaging than the system based on conventional fossil fuels”. When plans to extend the pipeline were announced in 2008, four unions including the Teamsters signed agreements with TransCanada, while most Canadian unions opposed it.

Sweeney argues that “union support for the approval of Keystone XL is hugely damaging to the US labour movement and to efforts of unions everywhere — including at the global level — to promote climate protection and sustainable development and to build alliances with other social movements”. Trade unions’ support for Keystone XL “reflects an explicit industry-labour partnership designed to promote an extreme energy agenda with a public message built around the issue of jobs and energy independence”.

Sweeney argues that “organised labour cannot present itself as a progressive social movement while at the same time siding with extreme energy corporations against those in the communities whose lives and livelihoods are jeopardised by these dirty energy developments”. Unions “cannot afford to alienate its allies in the environmental and climate justice movements who share labour’s broad social objectives and have been actively engaged in the battles to protect workers’ rights and collective bargaining”. The Transport Workers Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union eventually became the first US unions to publicly oppose Keystone XL. Last year, when the federal government denied the permit to TransCanada, the steelworkers, CWA and SEIU issued a statement saying the president had “acted wisely” in rejecting the pipeline.

The book also includes a sharp but rather intemperate critique of the labour movement by green academic John Barry, who recognises the progressive potential of unions but dismisses much of the record. He states: “we have to also recognise that much like the broad ‘labour movement’, and the traditional political left (socialism and social democracy), trades unionism has also been a force supporting and promoting unsustainability”. This is evident in “its uncritical embracing of orthodox economic growth (and capital accumulation) and consequently an overly narrow focus on issues around formal employment, pay and conditions”. He cites union support for “coal production, nuclear power and airport expansion”. He believes the trades union movement has become “effectively depoliticised and divorced from a vision of its purpose as the fundamental transformation of social, economic and political structures within society”.

While this critique teases out some of the worst aspects of contemporary trade unionism, it conflates varied strands of the labour movement and offers no strategic way forward. Most unions have never had a vision of socialism, never mind one that is ecologically grounded. However Marxists certainly have had that kind of vision, stretching back to the founders and including William Morris, Bebel and the German SPD, and the Bolsheviks. The vision of socialism is not about economic growth for its own sake, but nor is it the dire poverty implied by steady state green economics. Rather production for collective social need, with democratic control over publicly owned resources and the massive expansion of free time, would ensure the most efficient metabolism (ecologically and economically) of society within nature.

Hendriksson rightly argues that the climate question is “not about technology. It is about politics, in other words, the class struggle”.

Uzzell and RĂ€thzel believe that this could be a critical moment in trade union history – “a moment of danger” where unions recognise that addressing climate change “could be decisive for their future, not only in terms of the effects it will have on jobs, but also for the impact it could have on international solidarity”. Climate change could trigger new forms of solidarity, what might be called “climate solidarity” between workers across all kinds of boundaries and borders. However they echo the concern by some Southern unions that Northern climate change policies are simply protectionist smokescreens to safeguard jobs and Northern industries.

Some of the authors in the book “critically advocate the need for so-called reformist strategies by unions to develop viable perspectives out of the climate change threat”. Others have more doubts and “see reformism as a potential threat to effective policies that can halt climate change”. There are debates between “weak” and “strong” versions of ecological modernisation, but Uzzell and RĂ€thzel advocate a more radical concept of “revolutionary reformism”. By this they mean that “labour movements have to present alternatives within the day to day political agendas with the aim of improving the situation for workers and the society now”. They attribute the idea to Rosa Luxemburg, although it also bears resemblance to the concept of transitional demands developed by the early Comintern. But the basic approach, fighting for reforms without losing sight of the wider social transformation, is the right one.

Demands around climate justice and united fronts built around climate solidarity do provide the framework for engagement between the labour movement and environmental activists.

A revamped and renovated labour movement is capable of both renewing itself and transforming the climate movement. The book is a valuable addition to this epoch-making project.

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