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Environmental or Ecological Unionism?

By Steve J Payne - The Green Red Show, September 11, 2013

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.

There is ample evidence that the people wrecking our economy are the exact same people destroying the environment. A 2007 study by Harvard Professor Stephen Pacala found that the top 8% richest people on earth (500 million people) are responsible for 50% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Further, the top 15% are responsible for 75% of greenhouse gas emissions. The bottom billion people on earth are responsible for almost no greenhouse gas emissions. The richer you are the more greenhouse gases you emit – a global redistribution of wealth would inherently entail a significant decline in greenhouse gases.

That top 15%, however, includes many people who would not be considered rich in their own country. Stephen Pacala argues for a tax on anyone globally making more than $30,000-$40,000 a year. However, people in that income range are not responsible for creating the economic system they labor and live under. Car owners did not create a transit system that favors individual automobiles. That system was created by a select few for profit.

The top 1% of Americans owns 43% of wealth in America and the top 5% own 72% of the wealth. It is here that we find the people responsible for creating an economic order that enforces mass consumption and lifestyles detrimental to the environment.

Anyone fighting the 1%; fighting for a redistribution of wealth, including labor unions, is on some level fighting an ecological fight, even if they might be loath to admit it.

But what would a unionism that actively embraced ecology look like?

Many unions have embraced “green” economics, and the Blue Green Alliance was created to coordinate environmental and labor fights. One local union, SEIU Local 26, has run campaigns that may be instructive in analyzing that question.

Ecology vs Environmentalism

Andre Gorz, in an interview called “Which Way Is Left” published in Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology in 1991, discussed the difference between environmentalism and ecology – an important distinction for understanding how green labor approaches.

Gorz wrote that the environmentalist approach:

“imposes new constraints and…limitations on the free operation of…capitalism. But these constraints and limitations don’t alter the basic tendency of the system, which is to extend the sphere of economic rationality and increase the value of rising amounts of capital.”

“The ecological approach, in contrast, involves a paradigm shift, which may be summarized in the slogan ‘less but better’. It aims to reduce the sphere in which economic rationality and commodity exchanges apply, and to subordinate it to non-quantifiable societal and cultural ends and to the free development of individuals.”

“Unlike what is called environmentalism…ecology does not confine itself to trying to reduce the impact of the existing system of production on the environment.”

Environmentalism looks at a system piecemeal; ecology looks at the entire system.

SEIU Local 26 is the janitors and security officers union in Minnesota. In 2006 while janitors were in contract negotiations the union leadership conceived a public campaign based on “green jobs” and created the slogan “Good Jobs, Green Future.”

While the campaign idea was largely cooked up by staff, it was not run completely top down. It was discussed and implemented by membership groups large and small throughout the union. Union meetings and bargaining teams discussed the issue and learned about it from partners in environmental organizations. A contract survey by the union found large percentages of members did care about green issues – even if by themselves the members would not have framed them as such.

Three major issues arose around “green cleaning”: chemical usage, day shift cleaning and increased recycling standards.

One janitor reported she bleach had been accidentally splashed in her eyes, and another woman accidentally drank bleach after someone put it into a water bottle. When Local 26 tried to dig down into the issue, the companies refused to release detailed information on which chemicals they used.

Most janitors in downtown Minneapolis and St Paul clean buildings at night. A lit up downtown at night doesn’t indicate lawyers diligently at work; it indicates janitors hard at work cleaning offices. A survey of the union membership found that a majority of janitors would prefer to clean during the day so they could be at home with their kids in the evening. One major building, in partnership with Local 26, switched to day shift cleaning and saved a total of 1619 tons of CO2 from being emitted – that’s the equivalent of taking 289 cars off the road.

Last, there was no legally mandated recycling policy for commercial office buildings in the Twin Cities. Local 26 campaigned to create a “recycling coordinator” position in each building: a janitor whose job it was to ensure that recyclables were actually recycled. This would create new jobs and help the environment by increasing recycling.

The green jobs framework proved key to the public campaign. Lots of people care about environmental issues who don’t care about worker issues. Local 26 was able to gain unlikely allies, like the Sierra Club. Many Sierra Club members worked as tenants in the same buildings that Local 26 janitors cleaned. Tenants also cared about what kind of chemicals were used on their desks, and how much was recycled in their buildings.

Using the contract survey, discussions with janitors during lunch breaks and in meetings at the union hall, the union was able to educate the membership about why this public message made sense, and how green issues were not disconnected from general contract demands.

In the end, Local 26 won on some issues and not others. Janitors won good contract language that would govern how a switch to day shift cleaning would help and not hurt them, but didn’t force any buildings to switch to day shift cleaning. Janitors won very good language on chemical safety – but as a side letter not subject to the grievance provisions of the contract. And there was no progress on recycling.

Ecological or Environmental Unionism?

Judging from the criteria laid out by Andre Gorz Local 26’s approach was not ecological unionism. The approach was piecemeal and focused on negative by-products of janitorial work, instead of a holistic look at the entire system janitors worked under.

The shift towards day shift cleaning was framed as environmentally friendly and a cost savings for building owners – thus providing the money for wage gains. The shift towards green chemicals was framed in a similar manner, noting that market demand from tenants was forcing a shift to green chemicals anyway.

This is not to suggest the campaign wasn’t the right thing to do. Using the framework of green jobs, Local 26 was able to make some important gains on pay, benefits and workload language while making real headway on environmental issues.

But this approach is not what is needed to solve the pressing issue of climate change. An entirely new approach is needed.

And a few years after the Good Jobs Green Future campaign, SEIU Local 26 became involved in a new approach to unionism.

SEIU Local 26 and Minnesotans for a Fair Economy

In 2011, SEIU International began funding a new effort called Fight for a Fair Economy (FFE). This involved disbursing funds to SEIU locals around the country to engage in new fights that would change the dialogue in the country. In Minneapolis, this took the form of Minnesotans for a Fair Economy (MFE).

MFE is a coalition of labor unions and community organizations. The primary labor union is SEIU, although UFCW and the teachers unions have been involved. Some of the community organizations include Take Action Minnesota, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC), Isaiah, Occupy Homes and the Center for Workers United in Struggle (CTUL). These organizations organized people around a variety of issues: voting rights, healthcare and education reform, transit funding. And it organized a variety of communities: unemployed black people, middle class white people, parents, teachers, workers, Latinos, church members.

What brought the coalition together was not a common set of demands, but instead a common set of enemies. All of the campaigns of the various coalition partners had Target Corporation, Wells Fargo or US Bank as the target for their campaign.

MFE was a concrete attempt by SEIU to embrace a holistic view of their members. Instead of only viewing janitors as workers, SEIU recognized that an onslaught of issues impacted their members, from foreclosures to the achievement gap their kids faced at school. SEIU recognized that in order to actually improve members lives, they had to fight the myriad of issues that members faced – not just fight for wage gains at work.

This is the heart of what ecological unionism is: a holistic vision of problems in society and of the different people affected by or creating those problems. For example, janitors, through subcontracted employers, clean property owned by US Bank. US Bank, headquartered in Minneapolis, holds a high degree of political clout at the state legislature, and has helped spearhead the defunding of public schools. After mass defunding of public schools, US Bank has profited enormously by giving loans to those same school.

The same company responsible for the low wages of janitors was responsible for defunding the school system. The same janitor trapped in poverty found their kids trapped in a school system that was robbing them of a good education.

This approach did not involve “green demands” more recycling or less energy usage. But a union can only begin to formulate truly ecological demands once they understand work, and their members, in an ecological manner.

This is shown in an example of an ecological demand now being discussed in many leftist circles: demanding more time, not more money. For example, a full time janitor today works 40 hours a week for $13 an hour. An ecological demand could be full time work of 35 hours a week for $15 an hour instead – and the amount of work should be reduced each year without decreasing – or actually increasing pay.

Alternatively, the union could demand increased vacation time, and a definitive right to use vacation time, instead of higher wages. One of the most common complaints from janitors is an inability to use vacation time. Lots of janitors need extended vacations in order to care for family members or to visit family members in other countries.

Some people would use this time to work a second job. But many others would use that time in ways that are more ecologically friendly. Cooking more and buying less fast food. Spending more time at home gardening, and playing with their children. They would have time to be more involved with their child’s education – or get more involved in the fight to fix the education system.

It’s possible that janitors would reject more time for money as a bargaining demand. That decision has to be made by those workers, obviously, and not in an article. The union must fight for demands that meet members needs – but they need to do so by considering janitors as people. Workplace demands might not be the same demands that people would have at home. An ecological approach considers the whole person. The fetishism of work, even in progressive unionism, can only lead to piecemeal environmental demands.

A union can only fight for ecological priorities when they understand that workers are also parents, church members, taxpayers, consumers, community members – and when they believe those roles are just as important to their members as their identity as workers.

A non-union janitor who worked seven days a week told me once that the only time he had off he spent with his son, playing in the park. He almost cried as he talked about that precious time. When I asked him what he would do with more time off, he replied, without hesitating, “spend more time with my son.”

A New Kind of Unionism

In it’s Green Jobs campaign, Local 26 embraced an environmental vision; one in which the union played a role in mitigating the destruction of the environment capitalism was creating. But this framework is not capable of addressing the environmental crises facing us today.

A new kind of unionism is necessary. One that looks at union members as a whole; as parents, members of community organizations, as people with interests outside of work. A kind of unionism that looks at the impact of its contract demands on the next generation, and also understands that jobs are not isolated from the rest of the world. That kind of unionism would fight for demands that match what workers as people want – not just as workers.

I believe that the next hope for our future, for stopping climate change, is in labor unions. Labor unions are already fighting against the people most responsible for climate change and in their campaigns to redistribute wealth, unions are already accidentally combating climate change. It’s time, however, for those efforts to come to the fore and unions to make explicit a holistic vision of who workers are, and how their fight at work can be the same fight to save humanity.

* For full disclosure, I should state that I worked at Local 26 as an organizer for 5 years, and helped run many of the environmental programs.

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