You are here

Review – “Trade Unions in the Green Economy”

By x384117 - Environmental Unionism Caucus, April 25, 2017

Trade Unions in the Green Economy: Working for the Environment (2013) is a compilation of essays on the intersection of labor organizing and environmentalism, with contributions from workers, union staffers, activists, and researchers from around the world.  The usefulness of each chapter varies; some focus on the policies of various technocratic bodies, while others look at the actual social and political dynamics within pro-ecology unions, and a few advance anti-capitalist analysis.  Overall, it is a very useful introductory survey on the modern state of eco-unionism, and contains useful information for revolutionary unionists and environmental syndicalists.

The first three chapters look at the way international bodies of unions and labor organizations, such as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the International Labour Organization (ILO), have incorporated environmental concerns into their programs and advocacy efforts.  This is of limited interest to revolutionary unionists, since we primarily concern ourselves with the dynamics of the rank-and-file and on-the-ground organizing, rather than what far-off committees and technocrats are pushing around on paper.  But these chapters are still of some use, insofar as they push back against the idea that unions are generally in opposition to environmental protections and ecological concerns. International and transnational bodies of labor groups have been including environmental provisions since the 1970s, and this itself has connected more recently with the inclusion of environmental concerns in local workplace bargaining strategies since the mid-2000s in the US, UK, Canada, and Spain (among other countries).  It is also useful to know what resources these international bodies could offer to more radical local efforts; for example, the ILO has a research wing dedicated to the labor market in clean energy sectors, which could potentially be leveraged by revolutionary unionists in efforts to build up workers cooperatives. 

Subsequent chapters were much more interesting, as they looked more at campaigns and ideas more rooted in local realities, and thus more dependent on grassroots initiative and militancy.  A chapter on eco-unionism in Spain discussed efforts to redefine the subject of the worker beyond being merely an appendage of the workplace, and as somebody who is also part of the larger environment that is degraded by the externalities of capitalism; this redefinition lays the groundwork for pushing unions to advocate for revolutionizing society away from carbon-based energy systems and privatized modes of transportation, and toward an economy of green energy, public transportation, and closed-loop production cycles.  Similar types of analysis are discussed in chapters on trade unions in Australia, many of whom have adopted the Just Transition framework as a way to reconcile the contradictions of extractive industries such as mining.

Some of the most compelling chapters were on struggles where worker self-interest and ecological protection wasn’t just a matter of theoretical convergence, but of obvious and immediate importance.  One chapter discussed the Rural Workers Trade Union (STTR), an organization of workers in rural northern Brazil, in the Amazon Rainforest.  The region’s economy is a site of deep contradiction, where dependence on the land for food and water clashes with the need to extract resources to sell to regional and global markets for additional income.  The STTR helped coordinate communities in the area on options for developing sustainable industries (as opposed to the common and destructive industry of logging), and also served as the organ of local, democratic, and sustainable governance of the natural resources.  Another chapter discussed how occupational health standards became increasingly important to unions in the US who worked with dangerous and toxic materials, in industries involving energy and chemical production.  Decreasing pollution and exposure to toxins was of immediate concern to workers, as critical issues of workplace safety and working conditions.  Addressing issues of occupational health and workplace safety was pushed hard by unions like the Oil, Atomic, and Chemical Workers (OACW) of the ‘70s and ‘80s, who eventually merged into the United Steelworkers (USW). 

Demands for a safe and healthy workplace can sound relatively moderate, but in some industries they could have an explosive and revolutionary impact.  This is the argument made in an excellent chapter on the status of food workers across the world, a segment of the working class which is often marginalized in both union and environmental discourse.  The global industrial agriculture system is a massive source of greenhouse gas emissions, and this is deeply connected with the low status and power of farmworkers, who are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals and brutally long working hours.  If farmworkers—who number roughly 1 billion worldwide—organized and demanded proper wages, reasonable hours, and safe and healthy working conditions, this would lead to revolutionizing agriculture, and an inevitable move away from petrochemical-intensive techniques toward sustainable alternatives like agro-ecology.  This point about organizing is important; in a brief critique of the Just Transition framework, the author argues that the use of the framework relies too much on the assumption that socio-economic restructuring and technological change comes about from rational discourse and good-faith debate, instead of recognizing that rights are fought for, not granted.  Thus a Just Transition requires workers to organize and actively fight and implement the framework, instead of simply asking the wealthy and powerful to do so for them. 

Worker power is the topic of another compelling chapter, written by a Swedish autoworker, on the subject of transforming the auto industry for the green economy of the future.  The author argues that workers need to seize the initiative and not only advocate for a complete reconfiguration of the industry toward products like public transit and green energy systems, but to also build up systems of worker self-management and actively participate in the planning and development of new production systems that can leverage their own skills and knowledge.  The example of the Lucas Plan, an attempt by aerospace workers in the UK to reconfigure a weapons plant in the 1970s, is given as a key model for how workers today can think about a worker-driven initiative toward seizing and restructuring their own workplaces, and the wider economy.

Indeed, if there is one takeaway from Trade Unions in the Green Economy, it is that worker self-organization and power are the central pillar of effective environmental unionism.  Transforming production via environmental reforms on capitalist lines will always result in a combination of 1) the displacement and destruction of working-class communities (and a concurrent shift toward reactionary politics in the absence of left-wing alternatives, as we are currently seeing in the Western world), and 2) the offshoring of dirty production to the Global South, which means that at the global level, we’re not necessarily reducing the net rates of pollution.  Furthermore, we must also recognize the limits of traditional liberal strategies for social change, which revolve around lobbying elites through the alleged power of ideas and rational discourse, and a focus on an abstract space of “public opinion”.  What we need instead is a strategy that brings politics into everyday life, where our neighborhoods and workplaces are sites of struggle for livable wages and healthy environments.    

The only way forward is to tie together unionism and environmentalism in a substantive manner, and build a strategy where we are the primary actors in transforming the economy—not politicians, technocrats, or capitalists. 

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