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The Prospects for Revolutionary Green Union Led Transformation

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, August 8, 2020

The evidence becomes more and more clear with each passing day: in order to avoid climate catastrophe and the irreparable destruction of our planet's biosphere, we need nothing less than a revolutionary green transformation of our civilization from stem to stern. These are sobering truths. The reassuring news is that the number of people that realize this, and are prepared to act, is growing day-by- day, throughout our world, in spite of the threats of resurgent fascism, capitalism's perpetual melt downs, and pandemics caused by the likes COVID-19.

The evidence can be seen by the following:

  • A growing number of people willing to take direct action to protect the earth from ecological destruction, climate catastrophe, and capitalist extractivist projects;
  • Increased awareness of the inseparability of ecocidal capitalism, colonialism, racism, and misogyny; this has corresponded with the growth of intersectionality.
  • The decline of climate change denialism;
  • The cancellation of numerous pipeline and other fossil fuel mega projects;
  • Persistently high levels of support for transformative frameworks, like the Green New Deal, limited and reformist though it may ultimately prove to be;
  • And, notable among these trends are growing levels of class consciousness among the climate justice and ecological movements, as shown by the rapid growth and widespread calls for just transition for workers affected by the transitions and transformations the current crises demand.

These developments are welcome, and they point to both the broadening and deepening of an anti-capitalist green transformational movement. However, no transformation can occur without the active support of the working class, and such support is but the beginning of what is needed to motivate the transformation. No revolutionary green transformation can occur without the participation of workers organized at the points of production and/or destruction, because it is precisely there where the capitalist class maintains its economic stranglehold of power over our civilization.

Is achieving such organized power even remotely possible?

The good news is the answer is "yes"; the not so good news is that getting to "yes" will be challenging.

The capitalist media paints a bleak picture of organized labor's stances on ecology and climate in the United States of America. For example, after the Green New Deal became a viral sensation, following the Sunrise Movement's sit-in of Democratic Congressional Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi's office in December 2018, the AFL-CIO's Energy Commission published a statement in opposition to it. However, this commission is composed of unions that represent less than 20% of the AFL-CIO's total membership, and it's entirely likely that many of the rank and file members of the represented unions disagree with their elected leadership. In fact, support for the Green New Deal consistently polls higher than 67% among union members, which is slightly higher than the support among people in general.

Similarly, the capitalist media makes a huge noise about union support for fossil fuel capitalist megaprojects, including pipelines, export terminals, and mining projects, and to some extent, that support exists especially among the more conservative, male dominated Building Trades unions, but this fails to present the entire picture. For example, almost two dozen unions opposed coal exports in Oakland, California, and well over 30,000 union members opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline. It's a logical assumption that support for climate and ecological causes is actually very high among union workers and the working class in general.

Additionally, support among unions for the climate strikes, sparked by the actions of Greta Thunberg, among others, is a lot higher than most people realize or the capitalist media would have many believe.

This is all well and good, but experienced organizers know that there is a stark distinction between professed "support" and "action". It's very easy and low risk to have one's union pass a resolution in support of something, such as a mass march or the Green New Deal, or in opposition to another thing, such as a fossil fuel capitalist project of some sort. Likewise, there's very little risk in contingents of unions marching in support of the climate, the Green New Deal, and the like, and to be certain, there has been a great deal of such actions taken by workers and their unions in recent years, and the number continues to grow. These developments should be welcome and seen as a positive barometer, but they're not enough. What would really make the difference is workers at the point of production collectively taking action in the workplace to use their leverage to bring about the transformation.

Have workers ever taken such actions?

Again, the answer is "yes". However, until recently, they've been very few and far between.

While there has been no shortage of green unionism (support) among the labor movement, actual instances of green syndicalism (action), i.e. workers acting collectively at the point of production for ecological demands and green transformations, has been limited. In fact, prior to the last few years, there have only been two significant examples:

That such examples are rare shouldn't discourage anyone. There have been many more stirrings that, had the conditions been better and the organizing more strategic and thorough, may well developed into additional examples. One example in particular from the IWW's own history comes to mind, and that is the efforts of Judi Bari and what is known as "Earth First! - IWW Local #1" in northwestern California, which involved workers in the timber industry. While these efforts failed to achieve the levels of militancy seen in the Green Bans or Lucas Aerospace Strike, they nevertheless proved that organizing workers in rural extractivist economies (what many in the US might nowadays refer to as "Trump Country"), including the incorporation of ecological demands, is entirely practicable. In fact, Judi Bari even convinced one logger, Ernie Pardini, who also joined the IWW, to conduct a tree sit! Bari's efforts weren't limited to, or even primarily focused on ecological "activism", however. A great deal of the work centered on workers issues, including attempts at building collective power in the workplace.

More recently, there have been instances of workers organizing in their workplace and making demands of their employers, specifically focused on the climate and environment, such as at Amazon.

One might imagine that the economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic would result in workers and unions relegating climate, ecology, and green transformations to secondary concerns, however this has not happened, at least among unions which were already favorable to such things. Indeed, many of the recovery and stimulus plans being advocated by unions in the wake of the pandemic include Green New Deal and similarly minded green transitions.

As is the case with the deep and radical shifts against racism, white supremacy, the police, and the carceral state that seem to be unfolding in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, change often seems to move at a glacially slow pace, until sudden ruptures cause rapid, almost instantaneous shifts. In reality this happens, because--drawing upon the metaphor of a frozen pond melting from below the surface--the view from above looks the same whether the "ice" is solid or razor thin. The actual shifts steadily progress beneath the surface and are usually invisible until the rupture actually happens.

The situation with ecological issues, the climate, and green transformations are likely to be no less dramatic, and there are abundant indicators that a major, planet-wide shift is imminent:

  • In addition to the already aforementioned growing support for ecological issues, and the like, we are also experiencing:
  • Increased awareness of the impossibility of maintaining the status quo, not just in the danger to Earth's climate, but also the destructiveness of capitalist agriculture, the loss of biodiversity, the danger to the planet's marine environments, deforestation, and what is being termed Earth's "Sixth Mass Extinction"; and
  • The collapse of fossil fuel capitalist dominance, which had already substantially weakened it before the COVID-19 pandemic hit due to whole host of factors, but was catalyzed into high gear due to demand destruction brought on by the pandemic itself.
  • A growing realization that capitalism not only cannot be reformed, it cannot even be repaired even if just enough to maintain it's legitimacy, and that only a sustainable green transformation can replace it, if humanity is to survive.

Such conditions do not make revolutionary change inevitable. Nothing is guaranteed, and everything must be organized, but conditions do play a role in making people, including workers, of course, more or less receptive to new, transformative ideas. Given the body of evidence, it is highly likely that a revolutionary green transformation is precisely what the majority of the workers of the world desire. Certainly, the abolition of wage slavery cannot happen without it (nor, for that matter, can a truly revolutionary green transformation be fully realized without the abolition of wage slavery!

Given the low rate of union representation among the working class and the even lower rate of unionization among workers in so-called "green" jobs, how can we hope to achieve these goals? How do we, as workers, build the organization possible to make these things happen? These are problems that the IWW Environmental Union Caucus exists to try and solve, and questions we shall attempt to answer in future texts. We have ideas of our own, but we also welcome your contributions as well. Let's get to work and organize!

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.

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