You are here

Green Unionists: for Jobs and the Environment

By David Parker - Well Sharp, September 27, 2008

Green issues have often been framed in terms of ‘jobs vs environment’. Protests focussing on the destructive environmental effects of coal mining, hydro schemes, logging operations in native forests, irrigation schemes, dairy farming, and so on, implicitly - and often very openly - suggest that such enterprises should be terminated. The impact of such closures would naturally fall on local communities, with workers and their families left without employment.

Nevertheless, the interests of unionists and environmentalists often do coincide.

Sometimes these interests are seen to coincide in local union action. For example, the concept of the ‘green ban‘ originated with the Building Labourers Federation (BLF) in Sydney in 1971 when, at the request of residents in Hunters Hill, BLF members put the protection of a block of bush ahead of their own economic interests. The famous coming together of ‘turtles and teamsters‘ occurred on the streets of Seattle during the anti-WTO protests of 1999. And another less widely known example occurred here in Aotearoa New Zealand, with West Coast miners at Stockton forming the Ngakawau Riverwatch group in 2004, in response to the desperately polluted state of the local river. There are many more such examples.

Sometimes the interests of unionists and environmentalists are embodied by particular individuals. In the mid 80s, Chico Mendes formed a Brasilian national rubber tappers’ union and worked to educate the rubber tappers about deforestation and to advocate for protected forest reserves to be managed by indigenous communities. He was assassinated by cattle ranchers in 1988.

Judi Bari was a member of both the Industrial Workers of the World and Earth First! who built an alliance between timber workers and radical environmentalists in the US Pacific North-west. Dan Jakopovich describes how:

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. … It was [also] 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.

In 1990 Judi Bari and a fellow organiser, Darryl Cherney, were the targets of a car bombing in Oakland. While the assassination attempt failed, Judi was seriously injured. Compounding that horror, a travesty of a police investigation led to the pair being charged by the FBI with constructing the bomb; in 2002 they were awarded US$4.4 million in damages for false arrest and violation of their rights to free speech. Sadly, Judi did not live to see the public vindication, as she died of breast cancer in 1997.

As well as the leadership of grassroots action and outstanding individuals, there are considered responses at a national union level too. In September 2000, the 150,000-strong Canadian Communications Energy and Paperworkers Union launched a policy for a ‘just transition to a sustainable economy in energy‘. Here, the need for a transition to sustainable industrial practices has been accepted and embraced by an industrial union - and its concern for workers’ wellbeing is expressed in the call for that transition to be just.

The motivation for this policy is that “no worker should have to choose between his/her livelihood or the environment” (p.1). That statement might well be considered a maxim for a green unionism.

So, at every level green unionism is emerging as a feature of the political landscape. In 2004, green unionists around the globe organised themselves into the International Labour Federation for Sustainable Development or ‘SustainLabour‘, holding to the belief that

workers can play a fundamental role in the route to a sustainable world. Trade unions are in a unique position to stimulate the social aspects of sustainable development while at the same time can contribute to the economic and environmental dimensions.

Strengthening our understanding of the links between the environment, labour and poverty is a permanent and crucial challenge for all trade unionists, and is of central importance to the future of the labour movement.

The vision of SustainLabour is thus to:

involve trade unions in environmental debates

integrate labour issues into the environmental agenda

engage workers in defence of the environment

encourage changes that are in favour of the environment and workers

Victor Silverman sees the “innovation” of green unionism as growing quite naturally out of two concerns that actually lie at the heart of unionism. Firstly there is the concern for occupational health and safety. This has broadened into green unionism through an understanding that “intervention in work organisation and process … can change environmental practices” (pp.193-194). Indeed, as green union activists Winston Gereluk and Lucien Royer have commented,

union achievements in the field of occupational health and safety (OHS) illustrate how the fight for sustainable forms of production [has] been central to workers’ historical struggles against unjust and unsustainable conditions of work and community life; indeed, they may be described as the “life and death” aspect of this struggle. (cited in Silverman, p.194)

Secondly, green unionism also emerges, for Silverman, from the social democratic outlook that recognises the dangers in “the unchecked growth of capitalist enterprises and free trade in the current era of neo-liberal globalization” (p.194). From this point of view, green unionists can develop their own conception of sustainable development, one that is meaningful for workers rather than corporations.

As Silverman realises, unions have many other concerns too. These mean that unions perennially face the contradictory situation of “pursuing narrow membership interests and broader social causes”. Thus, green unionists face a considerable challenge in getting their own union organisations to recognise sustainable development as a real balancing of particular and general interests.

On top of that battle, green unionists struggle to get global institutions, governments and environmentalists to take any notice of the workers’ perspective on a sustainable development discourse that has come to be dominated by technocrats and structured around a business agenda.

And finally, even if workers gain entry to the sustainability debate, there is the more general problem that many greens will recognise and that Silverman expresses rather neatly as follows:

the actual meaning and practice of sustainable development, despite charming rhetoric from world leaders, is not clear. Sustainable development is something everyone, no matter their class or institutional interest, can support in principle; however, when it comes to detailing its meaning or actually carrying it out, such unity disappears. (p.196)

The scale of the challenge posed by the ecological crisis to the union movement is huge. As green unionist Lucien Royer remarked to Victor Silverman, “we have to do something about it or we’re all screwed.” Doing something about it means seeing past the simplistic ‘jobs vs environment’ frame.

Moreover, green unionists also recognise that the ‘jobs vs environment’ analysis makes life all too easy for the interests of corporate global capital. It pits against each other two movements which might otherwise focus their energy and their analysis on an economic system which sets so much store by short-term profits through both unsustainable extractive industry and exploitative labour relations.

The fusion of green and unionist views is a very encouraging indication that an alternative (green, people-centred) understanding of sustainability is not only possible, but is being actively pursued. Silverman concludes his paper by saying that the union movement will only truly be able to counter the self-serving corporate version of sustainability if it maintains its coalition with other groups such as environmental NGOs. One can just as easily apply the same logic to greens, who will only be able to bring their vision into reality if they forge strong and lasting alliances with the union movement.


Victor Silverman (2006) “Green unions in a grey world” Labour environmentalism and international institutions. Organization & Environment, 19(2), 191-213.

The Fine Print I:

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this site are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) unless otherwise indicated and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s, nor should it be assumed that any of these authors automatically support the IWW or endorse any of its positions.

Further: the inclusion of a link on our site (other than the link to the main IWW site) does not imply endorsement by or an alliance with the IWW. These sites have been chosen by our members due to their perceived relevance to the IWW EUC and are included here for informational purposes only. If you have any suggestions or comments on any of the links included (or not included) above, please contact us.

The Fine Print II:

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc.

It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.