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Capital Blight: The Yellow Unions' "Green Coalition" Blues

By x344543 - September 21, 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.

In a recent In These Times article, Rebecca Burns laments that the recent announcement by AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka to "open up the labor movement in order to regain political (sic) clout" by partnering with progressive NGOs, such as the Sierra Club, NAACP, and Council de la Raza, has not been well received by more conservative elements within the federation, namely the building trades.

“Giving people a seat where they have governance, and they don't represent workers--that was a bridge too far for lots of folks," Building Construction Trades Department (BCTD) union President Sean McGarvey told the (Wall Street) Journal. McGarvey, whose union has been a strong backer of the Keystone XL Pipeline because of the jobs it will create, also said that the Sierra Club’s attempts to dissuade the AFL-CIO from issuing a resolution supporting the pipeline last year “just highlighted the audacity of people in the radical environmental movement trying to influence the policy of the labor movement.”

There are so many problems with that statement (from McGarvey and Burns alike) it's difficult to know where to begin.

McGarvey's claim that Keystone XL Pipeline is being opposed by people in the "radical environmental movement" (and his identification of the Sierra Club of all organizations as being the leader of it) is absurd. The very idea that the Sierra Club is the leader of the "radical" environmental movement, or even radical at all is nonsense. The big NGOs opposing the project include Corporate Ethics International, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, 350.org, National Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and Rainforest Action Network, and as we have pointed out, these groups are anything but radical. Furthermore, Over 1,000,000 individuals have gone on record as opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, and it's highly unlikely that they're all "radical" in any sense, and don't get me wrong, it would be nice if they were, but I'm a realist! Does McGarvey understand that many of these people are union workers? Would McGarvey also include the growing number of unions who've gone on record opposing Keystone XL?

One might want to ask McGarvey to what extent the building trades themselves represent workers, because the evidence suggest that for the most part, they represent the capitalist class more than anything else. He also doth protest too much, because those so-called "radical" environmentalists, for the most part are fixated primarily on Keystone XL and ignoring the other pipelines--such as the Bluegrass Pipeline, Enbridge's Line 9, Transcanada East, and others--a strategy which Barack Obama might use to expedite the latter. Fortunately, the real radical environmentalists (who're not beyond criticism, certainly) are focused on those and doing quite well at fighting them.

In any case, McGarvey has little to worry about, because what Trumka is proposing is hardly anything close to a meaningful Blue-Green alliance and is, more likely than not, going to be more old wine in new bottles, namely building coalitions to keep the labor movement (and the progressive NGOs) firmly tied to capitalism and the Democratic Party. If the AFL-CIO's combined efforts with the Sierra Club et. al. amount to anything more than intensified lobbying and get-out-the-vote (for Democrats--and even occasionally Republicans) it will be a huge surprise.

McGarvey's howls of protest are to be expected in any case. The Building Trades are what they are, essentially a racket designed to keep rank and file electricians, builders, and craftspeople firmly within the sphere of capitalism. The protestations, by McGarvey and others, that alliances with environmentalists will cost jobs is utter nonsense. To begin with, the claims that the Keystone XL Pipeline will create any meaningful jobs has been thoroughly debunked (and Burns should know better than to let this go). 100,000s of permanent jobs would be created by the rapid deployment of renewable energy technology such as wind and solar, but full employment would be utterly opposed by the capitalist class, because full employment makes capitalism much harder to maintain, as the power of the working class is greatly enhanced in a workers' market. And the notion that environmental and economic goals are at cross purposes is belied by the fact that over 100,000 building trades' jobs are there for the making if all of the currently existing energy inefficient buildings were retrofitted. Of course, the capitalist developers and utility companies don't want that; they're banking on the profits to be made from speculation, construction of new buildings, and continued inefficient use of power and heat. The fact that the official voice of capitalism, The Wall Street Journal, agrees with McGarvey should be the biggest clue that his stances are likewise a mouthpiece for capital.

To her credit, Burns does mildly critique the inherent top-down "blue - green" coalition being proposed by Trumka from the left (as opposed to the right as McGarvey does), mentioning the efforts of Communities for a Better Environment's coalition with the United Steelworkers of America, et. al., for example, but her efforts fall far short of the mark. The biggest obstacle in doing so may be a reluctance to identify the source of the problem, namely capitalism. The engine that drives the destruction of the earth and the suffering of the working class is capitalist economics which are inherently anti-ecological and inherently harmful to workers. Any meaningful class struggle environmental movement would necessarily be anti-capitalist.

There have been quite a few examples of class struggle environmentalism led by both workers and environmentalists. Whether Burn's exclusion of them is simply a matter of poor research, the perceived unavailability of historical information, or an ideological aversion to those that have built real, meaningful labor and environmental alliances is unknown to me at this time. Her article is parched for information about these struggles, other than the Shell Strike of 1973, but that's it. She ignores many other similar examples, including:

I can speak directly about this last part of the history, because I was one of the people that made it happen. Back in 1998, as the campaign to save Headwaters Forest (in northwestern California) from the corporate liquidation logging of the Maxxam controlled Pacific Lumber was entering its eleventh year (18 months after the death of Judi Bari), Kaiser Aluminum--also controlled by Maxxam--was demanding concessions during contract negotiations with the United Steelworkers in three facilities in the state of Washington, as well as plants in Gramercy, Louisiana and Newark, Ohio. Reaching an impasse, on October 1, 1988 over 3,100 steelworkers struck all five plants. Maxxam was intransigent and hired scabs.

Myself, and two Earth First!ers, including Mikal Jakubal--the very first Earth First!er to conduct a treesit--hatched a plan to unite Earth First! (and the IWW) with the Steelworkers, because we shared a common adversary, namely Maxxam Corporation, led by corporate raider, Charles Hurwitz. According to the plan, Jakubal would attempt to get hired as a "scab" in Trentwood, Washington, but in actual fact he would really serve as a spy for the union. The plan worked beautifully, and the alliance between the USW and Earth First! came together as planned. At one point, an IWW organized community picket (complete with an Earth First! crane occupation) of the Sea Diamond (which was laden with scab aluminum in the Port of Tacoma was honored by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

The strike lasted deep into the next year and could probably have succeeded, but the bureaucrats ultimately caved into Hurwitz agreeing to partial concessions (though they called it a victory). Also, the emerging "blue-green alliance"--which showed much promise and even helped feed into the successful shutdown of the WTO meetings on November 30, 1999 in Seattle--got coopted by mainstream environmental NGOs and the leadership of the USW. The result was the reformist Blue Green Alliance and Apollo Alliance which--though they promise much--cannot deliver, because they do not fundamentally challenge the rule of capital.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that genuine radicals face is the process by which our real history gets taken down the memory hole, and the still largely unknown examples I cite above, are but the latest in a long history. The notion of environmentalism and class struggle being one unified whole is not new. Perhaps the most famous Wobbly of all (though most people don't know she was an IWW member), none other than Helen Keller first understood the connection between class struggle and environmentalism. In fact, the very notion that drove her to socialism and, ultimately the radical industrial unionism of the IWW, was the disproportionate instances of deafness and blindness suffered by members of the working class:

I was appointed on a commission to investigate the conditions of the blind. For the first time I, who had thought blindness a misfortune beyond human control, found that too much of it was traceable to wrong industrial conditions, often caused by the selfishness and greed of employers. And the social evil contributed its share. I found that poverty drove women to a life of shame that ended in blindness. (emphasis added)

Clearly, the way forward doesn't involve reforming capitalism or top-down "coalitions" between the class collaborationist business unionism of the AFL-CIO or the corporate environmentalism of the Big (gang) Green NGOs. We need a different model entirely. The IWW offers such a model, sometimes described as "green-syndicalism" (though that label would more accurately be named "green revolutionary industrial unionism"). It seems as though the world is finally waking up to this view, though the working class has many times figured it out before and will no doubt continue to do so (as we have documented on ecology.iww.org). We encourage those of you who support a genuine class struggle (not "blue") - environmental alliance to join us!