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Labor and Ecology

By Chris Clarke - Ecology Center Newsletter [Terrain], September 1990

If you were to believe the headlines found in major newspapers these days, you might decide that the majority of the environmental activists don‟t care much about people‟s economic needs, and that most employed people are concerned only with their paycheck, and let the ecosystem be damned. From the anti-wilderness advocates in Northwest California, to the defense contractors in Pasadena (California) who bemoan peace's price in unemployment, to the steelworkers in Lackawanna, New York, who blame environmental restrictions for their closed steel mill (and consequent breathable air), to the self-styled “environmental President” (George Bush Sr.) who waters down the Endangered Species Act with economic mitigation, a chorus of seemingly disparate voices contends that the interests of labor must counterbalance the interests of the environment.

We all want to be able to work for a living, right? And any compassionate person watching the “six o‟clock news” who sees these honest, hardworking people beset by the concerns of “tie-dyed (or Italian suited) long hairs from the big cities (all on welfare or defaulted student loans) who value animals and trees more than the livelihoods and tax-paying ability of middle America” probably feels a great deal of well-placed sympathy for these workers. But are the concerns of labor and environmentalists really at odds? Don‟t both groups have some common ground?

Astute observers will point out that most of this so-called conflict is based on a limited perception of reality, one which ignores the existence of the people who benefit from this conflict. The giant logging companies care not one whit about the welfare of either the logger or the tree unless than welfare has a positive effect on their profit margin. Oil companies will fight new demands by workers with the same ferocity that they fight restrictions on oil leasing on marine sanctuaries. And it‟s worth pointing out that Judi Bari, one of the two victims of an assassination attempt in Oakland in May 1990 [was] both a union organizer and environmental activist—both activities not exactly guaranteed to endear one to the people in power. There‟s a common enemy, in other words, that both labor and the environment share. And where there‟s a common enemy, there is usually common ground.

Bertrand Russell once stated that there are two types of labor: the expenditure of human energy to alter an object‟s form or position relative to other objects; and the telling of someone else to do so. Taking things at their most basic level, labor can be defined as the expenditure of human energy to achieve some intended purpose, whether that be physical or mental energy. Humans take in food, which is a product of the biosphere, we metabolize that food, producing energy, and that energy is harnessed as labor. In years past, labor was often supplied by other animals as well as humans; under ideal circumstances, a nonpolluting, renewable resource. (please note that I don‟t mean to be reductionist, defining people‟s work as a resources—but more on that later.) Labor is a part of the bio-sphere, then, deriving energy from the environment and functioning, except in the case of the labor of astronauts, wholly within the biosphere.

Seen in this light, it becomes a little harder to understand how the interests of human labor can be divorced from the interests of the biosphere at large and for human labor to set itself against environmental protection seems as counterproductive as if the rainforest were to challenge the legal rights of the North Slope. When systems are so interconnected, a disruption of one system must necessarily affect the other. Air-borne pollutants from the Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna caused extreme cancer rates among the workers living nearby. Deforestation in the tropics causes flooding in settlements downstream. Smog-laden air in the Los Angeles Basin produces chronic health problems for the workers who live there. One might make a rather Machiavellian case for environmental protection, then, on the grounds that only in a healthy environment can one obtain full value from human labor otherwise, the laborers suffer diseases and injuries that interfere with their peak efficiency. This argument, however implies a rather bleak social structure in which labor is seen only as a resource for extraction, and not as something with inherent rights worth protecting for their own sake. In other words, it assumes a social structure pretty much like the one we have today.

It is this notion of labor as a resource to be extracted which lies at the root of the estrangement between workers and the environmental movement. While eco-raiders and loggers may feel that they are on opposite sides of an issue, the logging companies suffer no such delusions. The trees are a means for them to extract profit from nature, as is the labor of the logger. Both are resources that are renewable, in theory, if "harvested" sustainably. But both are given only whatever protection laws force the company to provide; health care, timber harvest plan review, worker‟s compensation, Endangered Species Act restrictions, and so forth. Any new measure to protect the rights of these “resources” meets fierce opposition from the industry. While workers may be pressured, either subtly by means of moral persuasion, or openly by threats of layoffs, to oppose any environmental regulation that might cut into the company‟s profits, they usually do so in the absence of available counter-information from more neutral parties. The strong affinity many people have for their employers (a variant of the well-documented “hostage-syndrome”) also plays a part.

While I don‟t mean to dismiss the (I assume) sincerely held beliefs of those workers opposing wilderness designation for the lands their bosses want to log, it‟s reasonable to cast their activities as being directed by the CEO: the company trying to cut its losses by manipulating the resources it controls in the political arena. One might be tempted to speculate that if the trees had tongues, the Board of Directors would try to organize them in opposition to union organizing among loggers.

The case against the logging companies‟ position is well and heavily argued: the facts that unemployment in the timber industry is attributable more to market politics such as raw-log exports and strategic plant closures than to the spotted owl and marbles Murrelet is beginning to get through to the rank and file logger. Many concerned people were excited to hear of the efforts of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in educating loggers to the connection between sustainable forest practices and job security; some of those same people speculated that this success was a prime reason form the attempted murder of IWW and Earth First! organizers, Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney on May 24, 1990.

This awareness of the dependence of workers‟ livelihoods on respect for the environment is happening in other quarters as well. The groundswell of support for sustainable agriculture among US farmers and the organizing of rubber tappers for Brazilian forest protection are but two examples. Organized labor has also been at the forefront of another sort of environmental organizing as workplace exposure to toxins has become a powerful issue. In fact, a large percentage of present union organizing can be seen as environmentally oriented, including such issues as toxins and right-to-know laws, worker safety, Video Display Terminal (VDT) issues, health care, and so forth.

This awareness, while a hopeful development, is myopic in that it does not question the assumptions that make the current crisis possible: the view that natural forces, such as human work or oil or wood or the like, are legitimately available to business for extraction in order to make an economic profit. While human society, in order to exist, necessarily impacts the environment and requires labor to be maintained, the situation as it now stands uses both human and non-human resources in a non-sustainable fashion. The long-term effects of economic policy on the environment and human society are ignored in favor of the short-term enrichment of the few. In order to please shareholders and creditors, oceans are slicked with oil, workers die early from poisoning and stress, deforested soil erodes away causing flooding and destroying riparian habitat, some people are overworked while others are let starve. Clearly both workers‟ rights and environmental protection are threatened by the utilitarian attitude of the exploiters. And however much reforms may be needed at the moment, to give emergency protection to workers or the environment, a truly sustainable society will not come about until the attitude of exploitation for profit is challenged at its root.

Environmental issues have traditionally been analyzed from a different point of view than labor issues, even by those who honestly seek the liberation of either workers or the environment from economic exploitation. While workers have been assumed to have strong individual rights which must be guaranteed, not much thought is given to the role of the workers‟ surroundings of life outside of the workplace. Workers‟ issues have been assumed to terminate outside the plant gate. And though threatened environments have been studied on a whole systems basis, the concept of “rights “ of non-human beings or environments has largely been ignored, as rainforests are saved for possible benefit to humans of undiscovered plants rather than just because rainforests deserve to be saved.

What is needed is a sort of “Unified Field Theory” of labor and the environment, which addresses the common concerns of the human and non-human exploited with a common method of analysis. How would we look at “natural resources” differently if we thought of plants, animals, soil, water and air as participants in human society rather than base materials? How would our viewpoint on labor change if we were to start with an assumption that labor is essentially the same as any other biological resource, which must be used in a sustainable fashion?

You might decide that there are differing definitions of what constitutes “sustainability”. Do we consider a worker to be used in a sustainable fashion if she is able to eat and pay rent on her wages? If she is not injured on the job, does this constitute “healthy use of resources”? Or should there be a broader standard by which we determine this concept?

One way to broaden our scope would be to look at workers as a group rather than on an individual basis. This is, after all, one of the tenets of ecological analysis: go for the big picture as well as the small. When we take this step, a number of facts leap out:

  • Labor as a class is harnessed inequitably, with some overused and some under or unused. Unemployment among parts of the population is extremely high, while others who are employed must constantly fight forced overtime, crushing workloads, production quotas, and line speedups. In a sustainable society, work would be more evenly shared.
  • Workers have control of only a portion of the conditions of their work. While wages and some health benefits are subject to limited input by workers (and this after three centuries of struggle), very few workers have any real say in the political structure of their jobs, in the product of their labor, in how that produce is marketed or used, in the number of hours they work, and so forth. US law explicitly prohibits union input into the nature of production at the workplace: while workers can go on strike for a dollar an hour raise at the missile plant, they cannot go on strike to demand retooling for tractor production. Such innovations as job sharing and flextime are available only to a select few workers in “liberal” workplaces. And workers cannot vote for their boss, nor for which of their co-workers gets promoted. In short, worker input and dissent is limited to the price they get for their labor: the actual conditions of work are decided by the boss. As a result...
  • Most workers are alienated by their jobs. Work is seen as something done outside the context of a person‟s life. Real life happens after you get home. At work, you wear clothes that you‟d never wear voluntarily, you sit all day next to people you may dislike, and if you do like someone there, people will hustle you aside to caution you against “office romance”. While humans have a natural capacity to enjoy activity, even arduous activity, there are very few employed people who can honestly claim to enjoy the conditions of their employment. We spend half or waking lives performing tasks which have little or nothing to do with our interests. Most of us perform these tasks by rote, not getting a clear picture of the nature of the finished product. Like the assembly line worker who tightens frannistan bolts one quarter turn all day long, with no idea whether said frannistans are eventually destined for an airplane or a greenhouse, most workers are divorced from the result of the production process. This holds as true for the legal secretary who never sees nor talks to the clients whose writs she word processes as it does to factory labor.
  • Can a system which lets some workers starve and go homeless while others are worked till they drop be called sustainable? How about a system where living, thinking creative beings are stripped of their freedom and ideas, and forced to serve as obedient automatons? Most people would rebel against any such incarceration outside of the workplace, but the threat of economic boycott (“work or starve”) is an effective inducement to cooperation with the incarcerators.

A sustainable system would have very different characteristics. First off, work would be shared more equally. Why would there be ten percent unemployment in this country, for example, when so many are forced to work more than they want or can stand? Would a farmer who owns a sugar maple let half her trees go uncared for while draining all the sap from the other half? A reduction in the legal work week is a good first step. The forty hour week may seem to us like one of the Commandments but in fact it was, in its time, a revolutionary concept in workers rights for which many died. It‟s a century old idea. Time for redefinition. A twenty-hour week would free up work for those currently unemployed people who want it, while drastically reducing the incidence of job-related stress ailments among the currently employed.

Secondly, workers should be granted direct political control over the workplace. People would then be able to determine for themselves what products their shop would produce. Bosses who intimidate or harass employees would be fired. Indeed the concept of „boss‟ would pretty much cease to exist. Everyone is familiar with the idea of the employee(s) who knows more about everything in the office than the boss, without whom all activity would cease. If workers were allowed to determine workplace procedure, every worker could be like that. Flextime and other humanization of work schedules would become commonplace.

Thirdly, there are some industries that should just flat out go out of existence. There is little possibility, for example that the oil industry could be maintained in an ecologically sound society. This may be distressing to those dependent on that industry for their livelihood, but that alone is insufficient reason for continued despoliation of the planet. Imagine the plaintive cried of the slave brokers as their traditional way of life gave way before the Emancipation Proclamation! Or, for a more recent example, picture trying to justify the continuation of the baby seal-clubbing industry. There are some occupations that humans a species just plain need to grow out of.

Of course, I realize that these prescriptions for a sustainable labor ecology may well involve the collapse of the capitalist economy, and the obsolescence of the centralized nation-state as semi-autonomous workers‟ associations develop their own style, evolving a creative, freedom-seeking, affirmative culture of play and respect for the natural world. But heck, I'm willing to make the sacrifice!

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