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Green Union Organizing: Avoiding the "Jobs versus Environment" Trap

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Union Caucus, February 7, 2022

Note to readers: the intended audience for this piece includes environmental justice activists and/or workers sympathetic to them (and it should go without saying that there may be some overlap between the two):

As the climate and ecological crises deepen front line and working class communities are rising up to oppose the continued capitalist extractivism that continues to render their communities, homes, and sacred lands in to sacrifice zones.

Although this is not a new phenomena, it has been happening more and more. Typically, one of the favorite tricks in the capitalist playbook is to mobilize their employees--very often unionized employees, particularly those represented by conservative [2] business unions [1]--to parrot their corporate talking points, (at public hearings or in various forms of media) and usually these frame the issue as one of community and environment versus workers and jobs. Usually such spin is mostly false, but often the conservative business union officials and the rank file members buy into it. To make matters worse, the mainstream press, which inevitably serves capitalist interests, dutifly repeats and spreads the narrative. Such efforts are intended to isolate the community opposition, and either induce agencies, tasked with regulating the corporations in question, to take the corporate side, or--more likely--to provide cover for regulators already tacitly under industry capture to affirm their favorability towards the industry. The bosses know this trick often works, and they have been using it for over a half century. The trick isn't infallible, however, and this text is intended as a beginning guide on neutralizing its effects.

First of all, it's important to emphasize: the offered solutions aren't themselves a guarantee of success, but they have been shown to work in some instances (the author has direct experience in some of them) and they serve as a beginning step in organizing opposition to capitalist extractivism. (Ultimately, the best guaranteer of success and our ultimate goal should be to organize one big union of workers and front line communities to overthrow, transform, shut down, and replace the capitalist extractivist order with a sustainable, ecological, libertarian socialist alternative, but that is beyond the scope of a single article).

The advice offered here is loosely based upon the spirit of one key part of the IWW's Organizner Training, specifically "AEIOU" process:

  1. Agitation - rallying support for a cause, issue, or set of goals;
  2. Education - sharing knowledge about the relevant issues and strategies for organizing to achieve the desired goals;
  3. Inoculation - building a defense against the counter narratives and organizing against our efforts;
  4. Organization - building the forces to achieve our goals and build our collective power;
  5. Unionization - acheiveing and deepening our intended objectives.

In the generalized scenario, discussed above, the front line communities opposing (continued, expanded, or new) capitalist extractivism have likely already completed much of the general overall (1) agitation and (2) education steps.

The focus of this piece is specifically (3) Inoculation.

Step 0: Proactively Build Solidarity with the Potentially Adversely Affected Workers [3]

This may seem like a tall order, but fortunately history has provided a number of working models. That's one of the purposes of the IWW Environmental Union Caucus website: to provide examples of such things. The most extensively documented case we know of is the work done by our late comrade Judi Bari. Judi Bari was well known as an Earth First! environmental activist who was involved in the "timber wars" in northwestern California in the 1990s, however few people know she has previously been a militant rank-and-file union worker, and she brought those experiences into her environmental organizing. She was also a dues paying member of the IWW and helped organize an IWW branch in the aforementioned rural timber communities that included both Earth First! "hippies" and "rednecks" as well as dissident timber workers. It's difficult to distill the lessons from her efforts into a set of quick instructions, (though readers can take a deep dive, if they like) but some general rules of thumb include:

  • Show the workers respect--even if you disagree vehemently on the contested issues;
    Listen to workers' concerns and see where you can find common ground; and
  • If the opportunity arises, show them solidarity when they have disputes with their bosses (which they will inevitably
  • have, though the opportunities may not always be visible). For example, should these workers and their unions engage in strikes, join them on their picket lines.

These tasks aren't by any means simple or easy, but they aren't impossible either, and they go a long way towards building bridges of trust which will be essential to getting past the divide and conquer tactics of the bosses.

Step 1: Identify the Capitalist Employer's Talking Points

In order to counter the bosses' talking points, it's first essential to identify them. Usually this isn't hard to do. Very often the employers involved in the extractivist and polluting efforts will not be shy in producing them. Quite often this will be carried out by conservative business unions on union letterhead, in the form of leaflets, social media posts, or adds in periodicals (or even radio, TV, or billboard advertisements). Usually these talking points will argue that preventing the capitalists from reaching their objectives will result in the loss of jobs for their employed workers as well as a drop in community income (in the form of taxes and other benefits). If community opposition has suggested alternatives, these talking points will try to frame them as "unrealistic" or "worse than the status quo" either in terms of ecological or economic benefits. For example, unionized workers employed in the fossil fuel supply chain will often point out that jobs in renewable energy are low wage and/or non-union (an argument that isn't entirely false, unfortunately). Other employer talking points might include accusations that the opposition is manipulated by or even if an astroturf front for outside agitators, either "unwashed-out-of-town-jobless-hippies-on-drugs" or "elitist-effete-gentrifying-white-latte sipping-Tesla/Prius-driving-sub/urbanites." The subtext here is that the opposition comes from white, middle/employing class environmental elitists, and the employers will often try to ensure that the voices repeating their propaganda is as diverse as possible.

The specific points will vary from case to case, but they'll almost always generally follow this pattern.

And, as you may suspect, there is often one or more grains of truth in them. The whole truth is almost certainly far more complex and nuanced, but these grains cannot be ignored or unaddressed.

For example:

  • Renewable energy jobs are often nonunion and pay less than unionized fossil fuel jobs (however, at one time all fossil fuel jobs were low paying and non-union, until the fossil fuel workers organized unions);
  • Carelessly planned alternatives often are worse than the status quo. Capitalist controlled, market based so-called "green" energy projects are often just as bad as conventional fossil fuel energy projects--in different ways, of course;
  • Historically past transitions have rarely been just transitions (usually this is because labor costs are the first to be cut in order to maintain capitalist profits, and elected officials often sacrifice workers issues in the horse-trading that goes on in the complex legislative sausage making factories that comprise so-called "democratic" state assemblies, congresses, parliaments, and/or senates);
  • No matter how well-intentioned, community activists cannot guarantee a just transition or speak it into existence. Such things have to be fought for and won through organizing, and that organizing must include at least some of the potentially affected union workers, otherwise its just pie-in-the-sky (and we all know that pie-in-the-sky is a lie).

Step 2: Draft a Set of Counter Talking Points

  • Understand that this is a decades-old strategy that employers have used again and again. It is possible to defeat it or at least render it largely impotent, as Judi Bari and her comrades in Earth First! - IWW Local 1 demonstrated between 1988-97.
  • Most of the community opposition is composed of members of the working class themselves. It's very useful to identify oneself as such, and--if a member of a union--say as much.[4]
  • Be sure to thank the workers for the jobs they do: whether you agree with them or not, they are most likely the people who make the best of a bad situation, and while the joibs they do may be as part of a capitalist extractive process that ultimately harms our world and communities, we still derive some benefits from it (granted we are seeking a better alternative, but we have to deal with the here and now. These workers have been fed a bunch of red-meat talking points based on lies and one of the most commonly spread lie is that the community opposition neither respects nor cares about the potentially affected workers;
  • Emphasize that community opposition isn't the job killer the bosses claim it is: In most cases, what the bosses are worried about isn't the loss of jobs, but rather the loss of profits or further constraints on their attempts at capital accumulation. A good example of this is the fact that between late 2014 and early 2016 due to a glut of cheap oil, the price of crude plummeted and employers laid off or furloughed over 215,000 workers and didn't think twice about doing so;
  • Assert that, if done right, "green" alternatives can potentially create far more jobs. This is almost universally the case, however, these jobs have to be good paying, high road, and almost certainly union jobs, and what's more--by rights--the bosses should pay for them, but their goal is profit maximization and capital accumulation, not fairness. It's not enough to make promises about "green jobs" that aren't commensurate.
  • If viable high road "green job" alternatives exist, identify them and express your support for them. Some good examples include the various state-by-state just transition plans compiled by Robert Pollin, et. al. at the Political Economy Research Institute.[5]
  • If you--like the author--have a far more radical vision, such as abolishing wage slavery, shortening the workweek, or doing away with the work/factory system as the autonomist Marxists and green syndicalists propose, understand that this is a long game struggle and is hard to translate into immediate actions in these specific contexts (we will attempt to address these issues in later discussions on this subject). That said, there are ways to introduce the ideas in helpful ways, such as suggesting a 4-day workweek at 5-days pay, especially if the employer threatens layoffs.
  • Most importantly, if you've done your homework and are effectively organizing, you may even find allies, or at least rank and file workers (or even a union official or too) among the potentially affected employees who hasn't bought into the company line. Establishing trust and building a relationship with these workers (or union officials)--no matter how delicate, arduous, and painstaking as that may be--can even lead to them quietly feeding you inside information. If so, keep your sources confidential and be very careful in how you use that information, but recognize instances when that can be used to deflate the bosses' talking points.

Step 3A: Mobilize Union Support

  • Some unions are on your side: Very often, there will be union members, a handful of union officials, or even entire unions who are mostly opposed to the same polluting, extractivist, capitalist activity that is drawing community opposition. Ideally you should seek them out and gain their support before the bosses have a chance to try playing the "jobs versus environment" card;
  • Typically, these are unions that are not involved in the aforementioned businesses or industries, but that's not necessarily a negative. It's still effective to show that not all unions and/or union workers;
  • The more unions you can bring into your campaign, the better, especially if they represent a diverse cross section of the working class community;
  • It's crucial to lift up the voices of those union members who actually live in the affected community;
  • Ideally this should be done proactively. Don't wait until after the bosses play the jobs-versus-environment card;
  • To this end, your campaign should always have a union and/or labor community which proactively plans the labor strategy;
  • Seek official endorsements from as many unions and labor councils as you can get. This won't happen overnight, and there may even be some hesitancy, even from unions that share your position (More about that in Step 3B, below);
  • Ideally this work will be led by rank and file union members (and sympathetic officials) that are already involved in your campaign;
  • Pay attention to messaging, as detailed in Step 2.

There is "proof of concept" for these suggestions. The No Coal in Oakland campaign did all of the above and managed to get as many as 21 Bay Area unions to take a stance against the export of coal and pet coke (it helped that the campaign focused on the climate-change causing commodities as opposed to the proposed export terminal itself).

Furthermore, those efforts had residual effects that went far beyond that particular campaign:

  • The green union forces formed a "climate and labor" caucus at the Alameda County AFL-CIO Central Labor Council;
  • The aforementioned caucus passed a strong just transition, pro-climate resolution which was later adopted by the AFL-CIO itself;
  • The aforementioned resolution served as a template for the statewide Texas AFL-CIO's efforts, which have been described by one of its organizers as "a Green New Deal" program in all but name only; and
  • Other Bay Area Central Labor Councils have begun to form similar caucuses which are seeking to carry the momentum forward (though not always in lockstep or perfect unity, but where such challenges arise, more organizing is needed, as is always the case).

Step 3B: The Divided House of Labor

Clearly, it should be already evident that the labor movement is anything but monolithic. Some unions that are quietly sympathetic to your campaign might be reticent or even unwilling to openly support you, however. This is especially true in the case of Central Labor Councils. Usually the reason given is, "our affiliate unions aren't 100% in agreement, and we can't afford to divide the house of labor."

This explanation is especially popular during election years / seasons.

Unfortunately such statements overlook the fact that the "house of labor" is already divided on the particular issue and by refusing to take a stand, it effectively cedes grounds to the unions that support the bosses, because the latter will almost assuredly have no second thoughts about openly doing so. However making that argument may not be enough to convince the reluctant would-be labor allies.

As I have written previously, coalitions with labor are most effective if built from the bottom up. If your first step is to approach a Central Labor Council, then you've skipped dozens of steps in the process. Almost certainly, that should only be attempted after you've built a solid coalition of individual unions.

Say or think what you will about Jane McAlevey, she is absolutely correct in pointing out that "there are no shortcuts to revolution". However, these steps are precisely what's needed to bring about the societal transformation needed to avoid climate catastrophe and begin the process of healing the damage done to our environment by capitalism, colonialism, and extractivism.

In Conclusion

You may be asking, what is the endgame here? It's a safe bet that all of the above actions won't immediately change the minds of the mass of workers or conservative business union officials who support the employers and/or the projects that the community opposes. That is a much longer term goal that requires substantially more, sustained organizing (and that will be dealt with in future posts).

The short term goals that can be accomplished include:

  • Planting the seeds of doubt in the minds of some of the aforementioned workers about their bosses' claims;
  • Making it much harder for the compliant mainstream, capitalist media to parrot the bosses' jobs versus environment framing;
  • Undermining the "jobs versus environment" framing in the minds of the general public;
  • Signalling to regulators and decision makers that the "jobs versus environment" framing is false (and--if it's assumed that the latter already know this, which isn't always an unlikely possibility--forcing their hand, which makes them less popular in the minds of the general public);
  • Building an alternate poll within the labor movement to the compliant "jobs versus environment" class-collaborationist unionism, with the longer term goal of building a green union alternative.

None of the above may be enough to prevent a short term setback or defeat, but we must remember that we have to play the long game. Opposing one egregious capitalist extractivist project won't, by itself, prevent ecological collapse or environmental degradation any more than we can abolish capitalism in one workplace or build socialism in one country. We have to remain focused on the long game. That said, by following the steps outlined above, we stand a much better chance of winning more of these small battles along the way.

In fact, it's not out of line to finish by saying, "workers and ecologists of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our very existence!"


[1] For readers unfamiliar with IWW jargon, members of the IWW will distinguish "revolutionary unions"--i.e. those that openly organize with the goal of replacing capitalism and with industrial unionism, which is generally a form or feature of democratic-to-libertarian ecosocialism--from "business unions"--i.e. reformist unions that merely seek to have a "partnership" with the employers. That's not to suggest that the latter don't do a power of good, but ultimately in the long term grand scheme of things, especially given capitalism's internal logic which includes the eternal pursuit of profit and capital accumulation, this is an unsustainable arrangement which ultimately favors capital.

[2] Reformist unions are not monolithic. Some are far more militant and progressive than others. Typically, though not always, in the US, and Canada, at least, the Building Trades tend to be the most conservative.

[3] That's right, I said "zero", not "one", because in my experience, this is a step that has to be explained retroactively, because it;s almost never done, and that needs to change, yesterday! Granted we have to proceed from where we are, not were we'd ideally like to be, so this numbering recognizes that fact. In any case, it's never too late to begin the process, even if it winds up being damage control.

[4] That said, if the union member's union has refused to take a stand on the issue or is not in agreement with that rank-and-filer's position, they may be reluctant to tout their union membership, because some union's, particularly the less democratic ones, can actually put pressure on these rank and file members to distance themselves from the campaign in the long run.

[5] That's not to say these plans are perfect or free of flaws, and further, these have thus far only been compiled for a handful of specific US states, but there are other viable alternatives to the PERI reports.

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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