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Green Unionism and the IWW

By Martin Zehr - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, October 14, 2014

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.

“Every union should have a vision of the future,” stated Jock Yablonski as he announced his candidacy for the UMWA presidency. “What good is a union that reduces coal dust in the mines only to have miners and their families breathe pollutants in the air, drink pollutants in the water, and eat contaminated commodities?”  

This presentation by Jock Yablonski presents a concise analysis of the relationship between the working class and the environment. Because the environmental issue has been dominated for so many years by NGOs and advocacy groups, there remains a fundamental schism in substance and politics between the working class and sound environmental and resource planning advocates. The much celebrated blue-green unity of Seattle is a fading memory. In the age of the increasing role of the AFL-CIO in promoting corporate profits for jobs, we have seen how unions like the Mineworkers, Boilermakers, Steelworkers and others have adopted a pro-corporate militarization stance. This significance of this collaboration goes beyond simply environmental issues. In fact, it threatens an independent class role for all unions, whether it's quality of life issues or shop floor issues.  

To date, the IWW’s reputation remains in geographical locales and in small retail or commercial local unions. Our presence within the labor movement remains marginal. The re-emergence of an active IWW presents a new stage for workers in the class stage. More than a revival of the sixties mass struggles and beyond the single issue advocacies of the late 20th century, the IWW can play an leadership role given our willingness to consciously analyze our role, our strategies  and our tactics. For example, the drive to organize in basic industry is a task that remains ahead of the IWW. The service economy will provide certain in-roads needed to establish our validity and are important in establishing real credentials that workers can see. But, the task ahead remains in steel, electrical, maritime, auto and other industries that have become open shops, or even non-union (such as auto). Likewise, organizers and political education of organizers need to be developed to a generation that has minimal experiences in the class struggle.  

The arena of the class war currently has rural workers concerned about quality of life workers opposing urban workers with centralized governmental programs. Given the political duopoly, the map of environment versus the economy promotes turning urban workers against rural workers. This is expressed in contemporary American political debates on Keystone XL, fracking, EPA emission standards for power plants, and other policy debates. For rural workers, who are told, you either live in crap or starve, they are shackled to union leadership who promote the Democrats, while Republicans govern the countryside's governments. But, neither party address the fundamental structural reforms that would increase engagement of workers at the bioregional level. We need to begin raise the models of worker councils and communes to pose new power relations that will mobilize the working class as a class for itself. These changes and focus on regional organization have a historical resilience in the working class struggle. At the same time, they are integral to ecological models as well.

From the environment side, my experience in regional water planning in the Middle Rio Grande demonstrated to me that there is a real foundation that can unify rural and urban workers and farmers in concrete action. See  Planning itself is divisive because of the variety of users and their priorities that they confront regarding the resource. But, it has the advantage of open input and clarity that existing governing entities all too often obfuscate. It enables the debate to get away from empty rhetoric and focus on common concerns.

The Federalist (strong central government) option is presented as the sole option of both environmental and labor advocates,. All too often it fails to result in changes in power relations and decision-making bodies. It presumes that things are as they should be, but we just need to throw some other things in to make it all good. It denies the class domination of government. It denies the changes in partisan political rule that impact on enforcement and funding. And it negates a critique of American government that fails to deliver on either jobs or the environment.  The road forward is not to promote the Federal Government and the Surveillance State that it rests on.

The Water Assembly in the Middle Rio Grande   presented a model of representation of users and stakeholders that defined distinct needs and concerns while bringing them together in a common mission. Representation was based on distinct constituencies in committees. Each committee represented a variety of users and stakeholder. There were urban users, rural users, historical users, specialists, environmental advocates and water managers. This put all recommendations through the rigorous interplay of the wide spectrum  of stakeholders, the science and the environment.   

The experience within the Water Assembly demonstrated the vulnerability of commercial realtors, developers, land attorneys when presented with an alliance of small farmers, urban users, historical users, water managers and specialists. Can the IWW play a leading role in E-Councils at the bioregional level? They could if they establish it as a priority and utilize the GMB models to be structured on a bioregional basis. Does anyone know now what the relation is between current GMBs and bioregions, or watersheds? Do we address it in our work? Here in the Allegheny Valley rural workers have been actively opposing fracking and certain collectives such as the Shadbush Collective have actively engaged with them. This initiates a class foundation for green unions that unify urban and rural. The idea is not to try and transform the IWW into an environmental group. It is to develop our engagement in the struggles of the people and to present alternatives on the ground to the current oligarchy.

First we need to see the potential of a strategy to unify urban and rural workers. Then we need to develop working alliances that express the common interests. Then, we need to project  the  organizational models that represent the future and present a revolutionary option. The IWW has a role if it chooses to be in the front lines and not just follow the agendas of NGOs and advocacy groups. There is plenty of work ahead and nothing that we can presuppose will be done absent our conscious engagement. The first step  is to present a new road forward and put it on the table, not to say this is the last word, but to show it is the FIRST word that addresses the injustice and inequality of the American society. From there we need to listen, learn and integrate new ideas, new forms of struggle, new organization and demonstrate our own sense of accountability. The road is forward.

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