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Green Unionism in Theory and Practice

By Dan Jakopovich - Synthesis/Regeneration 43 (Spring 2007)

A new current in the global anti-capitalist movement has begun to develop in the last few decades. Rather than unfolding into a cohesive, self-assured and well received movement, it has largely existed on theoretical and practical margins, thwarted by dogmatic party-political, “affinity group” and NGO dominance, yet periodically reappearing as the “star of the day” wherever favorable socio-economic conditions or visionary initiatives gave it the broad attention and determination it needed to flourish.

The biggest hope for the greening of the labor movement lies in the revival of this decentralized, grassroots unionism. The parochialism, corruptibility and ingrained authoritarianism of the union officialdom have been shown time and time again, and only a bottom-up, rank-and-file approach to union work can seriously aid environmental protection and wider social change.

A basic tenet of green unionism is that labor struggles and ecological struggles are not necessarily separate, but have a potential to be mutually reinforcing. The basis for a working relationship between differing strands is the unity-in-diversity approach to organizing a mutually respectful and supportive alliance.

Especially since the late 60s and early 70s, partly as a response to working-class deradicalization and often an integration of traditional “workers’ organizations” — statist, bureaucratic political parties and business unions — there has been a massive practical and theoretical retreat from questions of class and especially class struggle, particularly in the “new social movements” which have gained in popularity after the second world war.

With the onset of neoliberal globalization, there has been a reversal to previously held positions, decomposition of people’s political “representation” (especially in social-democratic parties), a deterioration of workers’ rights and living conditions. A six-hour working day even seemed more plausible at the beginning of the 20th century (and indeed, some called for its implementation) than it does today.

Parallel to the de facto progressive deterioration of working conditions, depoliticization of the workplace has also continued, along with a general activist culture largely still hostile to labor issues (although this has partly been changing recently, especially due to the “new organizing model” exemplified by the Justice for Janitors campaign).

A dynamic understanding of people as workers and workers as activists is missing. For several decades now, there has occurred a shift of the concept of oppression from production relations (as the material basis for exploitation) to consumption, especially among many mainstream Greens who would have us confined to our roles as consumers, where we are inherently relatively powerless and almost always disorganized. This approach, as commonly understood and implemented, produces an individualistic and moralistic substitute for sustained political activity.

It is important to recognize the central importance of class and the revolutionary implications of class struggle at the point of production. People are in their materially most powerful role as producers of goods and services, capable of withholding labor, and also democratically taking over the means of production and distribution.

It is the material conditions of life which restrict and deform peoples’ humanity; therefore the struggle against those conditions also has to be concrete:

The constitution of new identities as expressive human beings in transcendence of alienated class identities implies a successful struggle over the very structures of domination, regimentation, hierarchy and discipline which exist concretely within the workplace. One cannot assume that the job site will simply wither away with the flowering of a new identity. [1]

Murray Bookchin discards the syndicalist strategy as narrow economism [2], and while it is true that the syndicalist movement has in fact often been guilty of “cultural workerism,” productivism and the idealization of the working class and its role in society, especially in the past, this has been widely challenged in and by the movement itself, and is only a secondary tendency now.

Not believing in the future of the workplace as an arena of political and social change, Bookchin calls instead for a sole focus on the “community” (as though communities exist without workplaces or classes). When talking about his libertarian municipalism, Bookchin conveniently forgets it is precisely the syndicalists who have the strongest and most successful tradition of community organizing among all explicitly libertarian currents and wider. [3]

However, democratic unionism from below is not inconsistent with the conversion to a bioregional structure consisting of self-governing, socialized units of producers and consumers, and in a system of production for need, not profit, rank-and-file unions might be able to provide the necessary councilist infrastructure necessary for decentralized decision-making and distribution, at least in the transitional period.

Green syndicalists insist that overcoming ecological devastation depends on shared responsibilities towards developing convivial ways of living in which relations of affinity, both within our own species and with other species, are nurtured (See Bari, 2001). They envision, for example, an association of workers committed to the dismantling of the factory system, its work discipline, hierarchies and regimentation — all of the things which Bookchin identifies (Kaufmann and Ditz, 1992; Purchase, 1994; 1997b). This involves both an actual destruction of some factories and their conversion towards “soft” forms of small, local production. [4]

Building the new society in the shell of the old entails changing who controls production, what is produced and how it is produced. This can be achieved only through democratizing the workplaces and empowering the communities. “The questions of ownership and control of the earth are nothing if not questions of class.” [5]

Green bans

The context in which the best-known Australian green ban struggles occurred (where workers refused to work on projects that are held to be anti-environmental) strongly resembles the current context of widespread gentrification (“regeneration”) of working-class areas.

The interests of home buyers and architectural heritage lost out against often purely speculative construction. At one stage, there was ten million square feet of vacant office space in Sydney’s business district, while people looking for their first homes or flats could find nothing. [6]

The first green ban was implemented by the Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) to protect Kelly’s Bush, the last remaining bushland in the Sydney suburb of Hunter’s Hill.

Green bans, among many other achievements, protected historic eighteenth century buildings being demolished to make way for office space, and prevented the Royal Botanic Gardens from being turned into a carpark for the Sydney Opera House.

The union went on imposing green bans wherever community support for the ban was expressed in the form of an enthusiastic public meeting by the people concerned (there were 42 green bans from 1971–74 until the federal branch leadership of the BLF with wholehearted support of the politicians, the media and the “property developers” dismissed the union branch leadership “on the grounds that the New South Wales branch had overstepped the bounds of traditional union business.” [7]

It is estimated that BLF’s green bans held up approximately 18 billion Australian dollars (in 2005 money) worth of development. [8] Although the local BLF’s initiative was suppressed, the movement spread to other unions. Their experiences are particularly relevant concerning the growing calls by companies and the British government for new nuclear plants in Britain. For instance:

In 1976, the Australian Council of Trade Unions banned the mining, handling and export of uranium. A national strike in 1977 got a Queensland train guard fired for stopping a uranium shipment his job back. In 1981, Darwin unions blocked loading of uranium ore for export for several weeks, though the ACTU finally intervened under government pressure to allow the loading of the ore. In October of this year, the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal abandoned efforts to dock in Melbourne for a 10-day “goodwill mission” when seamen refused to send out thugs, supporting disarmament groups who charged that the warship carried nuclear weapons… [9]

The example of our Australian fellow workers demonstrates that, where the necessary educational and organizational work has been done, workers are willing to take action in defense of the environment (just as US and Irish workers have taken direct industrial action in solidarity with their South African fellow workers) even where that action involves short-term financial hardship.

And direct industrial action of this sort is far more effective in defending the environment than are the lobbying and symbolic actions favored by the self-proclaimed defenders of “Mother Earth.” Rather than focusing our scarce energies and resources on lobbying campaigns or one-shot symbolic actions aimed at bringing pressure to bear upon our exploiters (though such actions may have a place in bringing issues to a wider public or in maintaining morale), we need to focus our efforts on organizing in our workplace and in our communities to build a better environment ourselves.

This can entail campaigns as seemingly mundane as organizing against toxic chemicals in the workplace — a campaign which implicitly and, properly conducted, explicitly goes far beyond the right to a safe environment to pose questions of the link between the workplace and the environment, who has the right to control work processes, and the need for different modes of union organization and activity. [10]

Some other notable campaigns include:

Builders, seafarers, dockers, transport, and railworkers boycotted all work connected with the nuclear industry, and the Franklin River project — which would have flooded the Tasmanian National Park (including Aboriginal land) for a large hydro-electric project — a victory. Similarly, workers opposed the attempts of the Amax corporation to drill and mine for oil and diamonds on aboriginal land at Noonkanbah. These workers also actively supported the militant occupation of the site by aboriginal people. In Britain, in the 1980s, rank and file seafarers boycotted the dumping of nuclear waste at sea, forcing the government to abandon the policy. In Brazil, rubber tappers forged an alliance with native peoples and environmentalists to oppose the massive deforestation of the Amazon rainforest by big landowners and business interests. Their success led to the murder of union activist Chico Mendes by hired assassins in December 1988, but the struggle continues. [11]

Jack Mundey, one of the leaders of the local branch of the Builders Labourers’ Federation, argued recently that...

the political significance of the green-ban movement, while it lasted, was that it forged a winning alliance between environmentalists and trade unionists. As 90% of the population resides in urban areas, success in preserving the built environment is vital, and trade unionists are especially well placed to influence the construction of the built environment: The task of achieving a sustainable society, with a human face, an ecological heart and an egalitarian body, requires a massive joint effort by environmentalists and the organized working class. [12]

“Timber wars” in the Pacific Northwest

David Pepper posited that an ingress of libertarian unionism might revitalize the Green movement in North America just as syndicalism revived the labor movement in early 20th century. [13]

The late Wobbly and Earth First! organizer, Judi Bari, came closer to that objective than anyone else. Starting in 1989, she initiated an alliance between the exploited timber workers and radical environmentalists committed to the protection of redwood forests in Northern California. To this goal she organized an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Local 1 with workers and eco-activists (and environmentally aware workers) as members.

Originating from a working-class background herself, she was fully aware that the alliance she envisaged was only possible if environmentalists educated themselves about workers’ concerns, and realized that they could only work together on the principle of mutual aid and respect. It meant “rejecting ecological moralizing and developing some sensitivity to workers’ anxieties and concerns.” [14] She aimed to help transform Earth First! from a narrow-minded conservationist movement into an allied social force aiming to change social relations themselves, and the new and inventive way she went about it was undoubtedly the reason why she and her fellow organizer Darryl Cherney were subjected to an attempted bomb assassination in 1990, and were immediately charged with intentionally blowing themselves up by the FBI.

She was determined to fight the polarization of work-dependent people within communities, while addressing the class tensions and inequalities which are usually tucked under the carpet. They creatively engaged themselves with the neighboring population. [15] Workplace issues such as health and safety were used as a potent weapon against the logging companies.

“In her work, Bari forged real connections between the suffering of timber workers with ecological destruction today. The history of workers’ struggles becomes part of the history of ecology.” [16] She pushed for Earth First! to embrace non-violent direct action and renounce tree-spiking and any other tactics that could injure timber and mill workers, fighting against the “eco-terrorist” image that played into the hands of the companies.

Advocating tactics beyond mere theatrical demonstrations and unthinking sabotage alike, she opposed violent insurrectionist notions which often occur when real sources of people’s power are neglected. In a Wobblyesque tone, Bari noted:

“This system cannot be stopped by force. It is violent and ruthless beyond the capacity of any people’s resistance movement. The only way I can even imagine stopping it is through massive non-cooperation.” [17]

Consistently against blaming workers, and criticizing the lack of almost any class consciousness on the part of many Earth Firsters, she stressed they should be concentrating on the causes, not just effects; the root cause of ecological destruction and the destruction and exploitation of logging communities is corporate greed. It was necessary to make links between unsustainable overcutting and worker layoffs (“when the trees are gone, the jobs will be gone too”). This was connected to opposing speed-ups and pointing out environmental hazards that the workers and their communities were forced to endure. She nicely summed up the green unionist idea of inclusivity, wider networks of solidarity and strategic positioning against the power structures:

A revolutionary ecology movement should also organize among poor and working people. For it is the working people who have their hands on the machinery. And only by stopping the machinery of destruction can we ever hope to stop this madness. [18]

Dan Jakopovich is the main editor of the major new magazine of the participatory democratic Left on the ex-Yugoslav territory (mainly Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Slovenia) called Novi Plamen.


1. Jeff Shantz, Radical ecology and class struggle: A re-consideration.

2. See for instance Bookchin, Purchase, Morris, Itchtey, Hart & Wilbert, Deep ecology and anarchism, Freedom Press, London, 1997, pp. 47–58.

3. See for instance Iain McKay, Anarchism and community politics,

4. Jeff Shantz, op. cit.

5. Ibid.

6. A perspective on Sydney’s green ban campaign, 1970 – 74, Teaching heritage in V. Burgmann, Power and protest, 1993.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. John Judis, Australian unions foil corporate developers, In These Times, January 5, 1977, p. 10. Ironically, the same page contains an article about how Swedish voters who relied on the ballot to block nuclear power were thwarted.

10. Jon Bekken, Anarcho-syndicalism and the environmental movement, Libertarian labor Review, Issue 6, Winter 1989, pp.15–16.

11. Group of authors, Ecology and class — where there’s brass, there’s muck, Anarchist federation, London, p. 34.

12. V. Burgmann, Ibid.

13. David Pepper, Eco-socialism, from deep ecology to social justice, London, Routledge, 1993.

14. Jeff Shantz, Syndicalism, ecology and feminism: Judi Bari’s vision,

15. “This past summer, a three month long series of actions were held. The actions included nonviolent blockades of ports and of logging, demonstrations, picketing, humor and song, and reaching out to everyone in the communities. It was called Redwood Summer. 5000 people participated. The goal was, and is, to turn the timber industry to sustained-yield harvesting under community and worker control and ownership.” (Jeff Ditz, We Must Live in Harmony With the Planet, Libertarian Labor Review, Issue 10, Winter 1991, p. 25.

16. Jeff Shantz, Radical ecology and class struggle: A re-consideration.

17. Paul Buhle & Nicole Schulman (ed.), The Wobblies — A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World, Verso, New York, 2005

18. Ibid.

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