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Book Review: Green Syndicalism - an Alternative Red/Green Vision, by Jeff Shantz

By x344543 - July 24, 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

I have known of Jeff Shantz now for several years, having been an IWW member since 1995, having also been a subscriber to (and for half a decade the web administrator for) Anarcho-Syndicalist Review (to which he was a frequent contributor), and having run in radical environmentalist circles during the last years of Judi Bari's life (1995-97).

Neither he nor I have crossed paths until just recently, and that is largely due to the emergence of the IWW's Environmental Unionist Caucus (EUC). In forging the IWW EUC, we looked primarily to four sources for our inspiration:

(1) The IWW and its rich history, which--according to our late Fellow Worker Franklin Rosemont--has a good deal of nascent "green syndicalist" tendencies which are not well studied (and Rosemont did a fair share of his own);

(2) The pioneering efforts of Earth First! - IWW Local #1, organized and led by the late Judi Bari, which put what Jeff Shantz calls "green syndicalism" into the most advanced practice known about in the redwood forests of northwestern California from 1988-98;

(3) The Australian Green Bans of the early 1970s; and

(4) Contemporary movements in opposition to fracking, tar sands, and mountain top removal coal mining, with particular attention paid to the indigenous peoples' leadership of these campaigns.

I have also suggested we look to the efforts of three additional inspirations, these being Chico Mendes, Helen Keller, and Karen Silkwood, because there are many insights we can gain from their experiences, and far too little has been written about them.

In his book, Green Syndicalism - an Alternative Red/Green Vision, Shantz focuses primarily on Local 1 and Judi Bari, describing her work as representing one of the only examples of fully developed "green syndicalism" put into practice, even if on a limited scale.

To Shantz, "green syndicalism" succeeds where all other environmental movements and class struggle tendencies fail, because it alone addresses the shortcomings of the others.

According to the author, traditional anti-capitalist movements rightfully challenge the exploitative nature of capitalism towards the working classes, but fail in two regards: (1) they don't challenge the existence of the factory system; and (2) they don't question "productivism" the untenable theory that the Earth's resources and ecosystems are limitless.

Eco-socialists--even those that have a more libertarian orientation--Shantz argues, incorporate ecological analysis into their critique of capitalism, but still place such considerations secondary to productivist aims, a contradiction, he believes, cannot be ignored.

Meanwhile, Shantz argues, environmentalists rightfully decry ecologically destructive results of current industrial society, but generally fail to identify its root cause (capitalism), instead blaming lack of regulation, consumerism, or even humanity itself.

"Mainstream" reformist environmentalism, or "light" greens, usually represented by professionally managed nonprofit NGOs will often make fatal compromises with capitalism for the sake of political pragmatism (primarily fearing the potential loss of wealthy, often capitalist) donors. They also tend to have classist outlooks towards the resource extraction workers caught in the middle of environmental disputes.

Judi Bari frequently pointed out that often the CEOs of the environment destroying corporations and the executive directors of the environmental NGOs often have more in common with each other than they have differences. "One compromise made by a white-collar Sierra Club professional can destroy more trees than a logger can cut in a lifetime," she once pointed out.

Radical, "dark" (or deep) greens, on the other hand, refuse political pragmatism and compromise, but also eschew class analysis and class struggle, instead arguing that the source of the problem is "industrialism", "technology", or overpopulation. In doing so, they let the capitalists off the hook, blaming the crimes of the 1% on the entirety of humanity, as if the 99% has any effective power to stop their masters. To some extent, the inability of classical Marxism to delink productivism from its critique of capitalism has understandingly led radical environmentalism to a dark green  analysis, but the vacuum created by the lack of class analysis is often filled by reactionary tendencies, such as Malthusianism and misanthropy. While (some) of the dark green critique of industrial civilization might be right on target, it's not possible to correct the problem without going to the source, and doing so necessitates class struggle.

Social Ecology, championed by the late anarchist Murray Bookchin thoroughly critiques the reactionary elements of the dark green mileu, but presents its own set of problems, because it too eschews class struggle. While it would be far too time consuming here to recite all of the complexities (and inconsistencies) in Bookchin's theory of social ecology, in a nutshell, he argues that traditional leftism--including both Marxism and Anarcho-syndicalism--make the fatal mistake of assigning "privileged status" to the working class as the key agent of revolutionary change, and the industrial factory as the primary arena of social conflict. While doing so may have made sense in Marx's and Bakunin's time, in contemporary times, "traditional" industrial factory workers comprise a mere fraction of the 99% and struggles against the 1% happen in many arenas outside of the factory.

Shantz finds some merit to Bookchin's arguments, but he also identifies the key flaw in them, namely that traditional class struggle and factory worker organizing have no place in contemporary struggles. While Social Ecology identifies municipalities rather than industrial unions as the true units of revolutionary change, it fails to address the fact that most of the 99% still has to sell their labor and slave in these workplaces that are "no longer revolutionary arenas". Worse still, Bookchin's dismissal of syndicalism is based on a caricature of it, since few--if any--actual syndicalists (squarely within which both Shantz and Bookchin somewhat erroneously place the Wobblies) identified the factory as the sole or even principal arena of conflict and traditional "workers" as the privileged agents of change, unlike many variations of Marxists.

If traditional syndicalism had one flaw, according to Shantz, it was in assuming that ecological concerns could be adequately addressed by the abolition of wage slavery by traditional syndicalist means, an assumption the author finds dubious.

However, a synthesis of social ecology and syndicalism, called "green syndicalism", that acknowledges and overcomes the limitations of both, offers a way out of the current terminal ecological and economic crises created by capitalism, and what's more, we have the benefit of Judi Bari's living example of proof of the idea in practice to build upon.

And yet, laments Shantz, the history of Earth First! - IWW Local 1 and its significance have never been thoroughly studied. Most would agree with this assessment. Other than Bari's own book, Timber Wars, which is a compilation of articles, editorials, and interviews of and by Bari and is frequently cited by Shantz, there isn't much else currently published in book form (I won't even dignify Kate Coleman's ridiculous hatchet job by mentioning its title).

Had Shantz and I connected five years ago, things might have been different, because I have recently completed my own (not yet published) book about Judi Bari, and the "green syndicalism" of Local 1 which largely explains the car bombing assassination attempt on Bari's life in 1990 for which she is most known.

I had two advantages Shantz lacked in having written my own book. First of all, I knew Judi Bari personally, having met her in 1995, and it was this meeting which inspired my joining the IWW in the first place. Secondly, I have knowledge of and access to the source materials unavailable to Shantz and most others seeking to write about Local 1, and those include almost two dozen different locally based newspapers published in the various communities of Humboldt and Mendocino Counties on California's "North Coast" where these struggles took place. Those plus the archives of the Earth First! Journal and Industrial Worker paint a fairly complete picture (and almost all of Timber Wars features articles from those publications anyway).

Shantz cannot be faulted for such an oversight, because most of these publications--if they're archived at all--are poorly archived, in incomplete private collections. Gaining access to them could only have been done by someone like me with just the right combination of lucky happenstance and obsessive drive.

Based on my knowledge, I can confidently say that I agree with Shantz's assessment of Bari and Local 1, to a point. For one thing, Bari never thought of herself as "a syndicalist"; if anything she still considered herself "a communist with a small 'c'" (according to her good friend and close comrade, Darryl Cherney), albeit one with a much more advanced ecological analysis. She referred to her analysis as Revolutionary Ecology, though if one reads into it thoroughly as Shantz has done, it squares nicely with "green syndicalism."

In practice, Local 1 did engage in green syndicalism, though this was largely by default rather than any specific, exact choice. That's not to suggest that Bari and her comrades blindly stumbled onto it. Quite the contrary, their choices were based on a thoroughly intelligent and well thought out assessment of the limitations of the alternatives, not unlike those made by Shantz himself. So while the organizers of Local 1 may never have called it "green syndicalism", it's not at all inaccurate to use that label, at least to a degree.

That stated, Local 1 practiced a somewhat wider array of strategies and tactics than mere green syndicalism alone. If I had to label it, I would suggest a more appropriate term would be "deep green libertarian socialist populism and syndicalism", because Local 1 was not adverse to using public hearings and the electoral process in addition to and in conjunction with ecological direct action and solidarity unionism. If anything, their toolbox resembled the proverbial Swiss Army Knife.

The other shortcomings I found in Shantz's book are slightly more significant. First of all, there is a lengthy account of rank and file class struggle activity, mostly in the form of "flying squad pickets" given in the book, which could generally be described as "syndicalism", and are a positive development to be sure, but there isn't any particular aspect of them that makes them "green" other than, perhaps, the fact that they were cobbled together on a mostly ad hoc basis. While it's not certain that this the case, one is left with the impression that Shantz might be equating the lack of formal structure as both "green" and "positive". If so, I find that troubling. In my opinion, the New Left critique of formal organization has pushed the pendulum much too far into the realm of structurelessness and that goes a fair distance in accounting for many of the problems that plague radical opposition to the dominant paradigm these days.

Another matter of related concern is Shantz's apparently uncritical agreement with those who argue for the abolition and dismantling of large industrial manufacturing facilities. While it is certainly true that, in general, these fit the description of the classic "satanic mill" quite closely wreaking great havoc to workers and the environment, this is largely a result of capitalist economic factors, rather than the factories themselves. And though I certainly agree that factories themselves are often a manifestation of capitalism, and in better world, organized around green syndicalism--as opposed to capitalism--many of those factories would be eliminated, either by phasing out or shutting down unnecessary operations while transitioning the necessary ones to smaller scale outfits, there may be some necessary and desirable large scale manufacturing facilities that simply cannot be broken up into smaller scale operations.

In fairness, this doesn't seem based on any predisposition by Shantz to the "Small is Beautiful" philosophy of E.G. Schumacher as much as it may be due to a dearth of readily available alternative models. Fortunately I am aware of one which fits the tenets of green syndicalism quite nicely, and that is the theory of urban design and architecture outlined by UC Berkeley architecture professor, Christopher Alexander, Et. Al. in a book called A Pattern Language, published in 1977 (which is the second entry in a multi-volume series). That book offers a number of urban planning suggestions including variable scaling of manufacturing places that could easily be adopted by those wishing to present a positive alternative to the currently existing capitalist dystopia. (On a somewhat tangential note, when I was just cutting my teeth as a newly minted radical--having disabused myself of the fundamental limitations of liberalism--I compiled a bibliography of books that others of like mind might find interesting. I listed A Pattern Language as well as the other books in the series under the category of "green syndicalism" without really knowing what it meant!)

There may be other examples of green syndicalism, or at least the beginnings of it. One intriguing place to look would be the campaign against mountain-top-removal coal mining (MTR) in Appalachia. Another might be among railroad workers involved in the transport of oil (given the tendency of capitalist railroad owners to cut staffing levels and sacrifice workers' safety for the sake of profits). Still another might be the efforts by refinery workers in the San Francisco Bay Area to improve plant safety in conjunction with locally based (largely led by people of color) environmental groups to combat toxic emissions and effluents in their communities. Groups like the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), and the West County Toxics Coalition have worked alongside the Steelworkers Union on various issues challenging Chevron, Shell, Unocal, and Valero in the communities of Richmond, Martinez, Rodeo, and Benicia, respectively.

The implications are clear. There's a wealth of untapped knowledge just waiting to be explored and documented, and many lessons to be learned that can help serve as models for green syndicalism. The problem is that they're not well known outside of their immediate areas of influence. Jeff Shantz can't really be faulted for not covering them (I have the unique advantage of having been in the right places at the right times in many of the aforementioned examples).

On the other hand, Shantz could have devoted the section on flying picket squads--whose connection to green syndicalism is somewhat tenuous--to exploring potential ideas and opportunities for green syndicalist formations, such as fighting against the lack of environmental and workplace safety regulation of chemical plants, such as the one in West, Texas which exploded a few months back. Another example involves the deplorable conditions below deck on commercial marine vessels, extensively documented by IWW member Arthur Miller in Yardbird Blues.

Shantz might also have considered delving deeper into the work done by Judi Bari herself, such as her helping Georgia Pacific millworkers challenge both the company as well as their collaborationist business union in their complicity over a toxic PCB spill in the Fort Bragg, California mill in 1989, or her struggle to win restitution for the family of millworker Fortunado Reyes, who was killed in an accident in the Louisiana Pacific mill in Ukiah due to capitalist greed. These examples are mentioned in fairly extensive detail by Bari herself in an interview conducted by Douglas Bevington in 1993 featured in the book The Struggle for Ecological Democracy which also includes an essay by John Bellamy Foster called, The Limits of Environmentalism Without Class, written that same year (with assistance from Bari).

Perhaps the biggest oversight was Shant'z neglecting of the rich history of the IWW's struggles in the Pacific Northwest against the timber bosses, documented quite extensively by Ralph Chaplin, James Kennedy, and James Rowan, in which the One Big Union forced the bosses to surrender the right-hour day by striking on the job in 1918, an extremely effective tactic that has rarely been used since, and could very easily incorporate all of the "green" principles Shantz rightfully encourages.

As a result, Green Syndicalism only scratches the surface, but for what it is, it is still a very positive beginning contribution to the discussion and advancing of the theory that bears its title. As for the hitherto poor documentation of green syndicalist and potentially green syndicalist struggles in general (due to lack of awareness of their existence) the IWW's EUC includes among its goals the raising of awareness about them. Through our efforts, when Jeff Shantz (or anyone else) attempts "Green Syndicalism 2.0" (and I hope they will, because it is sorely needed), they'll have access to a much more readily available stores of information. For details visit us on the web at

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