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Class Power can Remake Society: Remembering Australia’s "Green Ban” Movement

By Ben Purtill - Organizing Work, March 24, 2021

Ben Purtill recounts when building laborers in Australia stopped work, first over wages and working conditions, and then to protect the environment, among other “social” causes. Image: Jack Mundey, Building Labourers’ Federation members and local residents at a Green Ban demonstration, 1973.

Jack Mundey, who died aged 90 in May 2020, first made his name as the union leader associated with one of the most inspiring moments of class struggle of the last 50 years: Australia’s green ban movement. As a secretary of the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) from 1968, Mundey — a member, then president, of the Australian Communist Party (CPA) – was widely credited with coining the term “green ban” to describe a form of strike action undertaken in defense of environmental causes. Members of the NSW BLF also downed tools in defense of the gay community, indigenous Australians, and feminists, at a time when these causes were far from the mainstream of Australian society.

Reviled and vilified at the time, Mundey received a State Memorial Service in March 2021. Attended by the great and the good of Sydney, Mundey was hailed as a savior of the city — a renegade who broke with the base concerns of economistic trade unionism to focus on more refined issues than wages or workplace conditions, while prefiguring a social liberalism the nation would only begin to embrace decades later, and a green politics that it has yet to.

While the perceived content of Mundey’s unionism now sits quite comfortably with liberal — even conservative — values and principles, the form of unionism pursued by the NSW BLF at their peak in the early 1970s would undoubtedly be condemned were it revived today. Militant, democratic and regarded as quasi-syndicalist by critics and supporters alike, the story of the Mundey and the NSW BLF is one of both the power of the rank and file and the limits of leadership, no matter how left-wing.

Black Bans, Green Bans and everything in between

Most historical accounts suggest the green ban movement for which Mundey is best remembered began in 1971 at Kelly’s Bush, an area of parkland in Sydney’s affluent Hunter’s Hill suburb. A group of local women contacted the BLF having exhausted all conventional means of halting the development of the area by construction firm AV Jennings. With luxury houses set to be built on what was the last remaining patch of native bush in the suburb, the BLF called a community meeting attended by over 600 local residents and announced a ban, meaning no work would take place on the site. Unions had been using the term “black ban” to designate disputes aimed at an economic end, for example a wage increase, but since this action was being taken to defend the environment, “green ban” was decided to be more appropriate.

Over forty green bans followed until 1974, when the NSW BLF was deregistered as a union, resulting in billions of dollars worth of development being prevented in Sydney; the tactic was also deployed in other towns and cities across Australia, most notably Melbourne. All green bans were declared in a similar manner as a point of principle: the union did not decide to initiate a ban, local residents did so through a public meeting. If it was decided that a site would not be developed, BLF members would not work on it. In following this tactic, large areas of the historic centre of Sydney were saved from development, and the union joined alliances with an unlikely range of characters: early environmentalists, heritage campaigners, and middle-class homeowners.

The NSW BLF also applied the tactic to other causes and concerns, for example the expulsion of a gay student from Macquarie University, the demolition of houses occupied by indigenous Australians in the Redfern suburb of inner-city Sydney, and the right of two women academics to teach a women’s studies course. In each case, the campaigns were won. More broadly still, the BLF campaigned against apartheid South Africa and the war in Vietnam. As union secretary of the NSW branch during this period, Mundey is now typically remembered as the brainchild of this movement, even earning him a speaking slot at the United Nations Conference on the Built Environment, but it reflected much wider changes occurring both within the Australian left and among rank and file union members.

Lithium, Batteries and Climate Change: The transition to green energy does not have to be powered by destructive and poisonous mineral extraction

By Jonathan Neale - Climate and Capitalism, February 11, 2021

I have spent the last year working on a book called Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs. Most of it is about both the politics and the engineering of any possible transition that can avert catastrophic climate breakdown. One thing I had to think about long and hard was lithium and car batteries.

I often hear people say that we can’t cover the world with electric vehicles, because there simply is not enough lithium for batteries. In any case, they add, lithium production is toxic, and the only supplies are in the Global South. Moreover, so the story goes, there are not enough rare earth metals for wind turbines and all the other hardware we will need for renewable energy.

People often smile after they say those things, which is hard for me to understand, because it means eight billion people will go to hell.

So I went and found out about lithium batteries and the uses of rare earth. What I found out is that the transition will be possible, but neither the politics nor the engineering is simple. This article explains why. I start by describing the situation simply, and then add in some of the complexity.

Lithium is a metal used in almost all electric vehicle batteries today. About half of global production of lithium currently goes to electric vehicles. And in future we will need to increase the production of electric vehicles from hundreds or thousands to hundreds of millions. That will require vast amounts of lithium.

There are three ways to mine lithium. It can be extracted from rock. It can be extracted from the brine that is left over when sea water passes through a desalination plant. Or it can be extracted from those brine deposits which are particularly rich in lithium. These brine deposits are the common way of mining lithium currently, because it is by far the cheapest. Most of the known deposits of lithium rich brine are in the arid highlands where Bolivia, Chile and Argentina come together.

Lithium mining is well established in Chile and Argentina. In both countries the local indigenous people have organized against the mining, but so far been unable to stop it. The mining is toxic, because large amounts of acid are used in the processing. But the mining also uses large amounts of water in places that already has little enough moisture. The result is that ancestral homelands become unlivable.

Bolivia may have even richer deposits of lithium than Argentina and Chile, but mining has not begun there. The Bolivian government had been led by the indigenous socialist Evo Morales from 2006 to 2019. Morales had been propelled to power by a mass movement committed to taking back control of Bolivia’s water, gas and oil resources from multinational corporations. Morales was unable to nationalize the corporations, but he did insist on the government getting a much larger share of the oil and gas revenue.[1]

His government planned to go even further with lithium. Morales wanted to mine the lithium in Bolivia, but he wanted to build factories alongside the mines to make batteries. In a world increasingly hungry for batteries, that could have turned Bolivia into an industrial nation, not just a place to exploit resources.

The Morales government, however, was unable to raise the necessary investment funds. Global capital, Tesla, the big banks and the World Bank had no intention of supporting such a project. And if they had, they would not have done so in conjunction with a socialist like Morales. Then, in 2019, a coup led by Bolivian capitalists, and supported by the United States, removed Morales. Widespread popular unrest forced a new election in October. Morales’ party, the Movement for Socialism won, though Morales himself was out of the running. It is unclear what will happen to the lithium.

That’s one level of complexity. The local indigenous people did not want the lithium mined. The socialist government did not want extractavism, but they did want industrial development.

Those are not the only choices.

For one thing, there are other, more expensive ways of mining lithium. It can be mined from hard rock in China or the United States. More important, batteries do not have to be made out of lithium. Cars had used batteries for almost a century before Sony developed a commercial lithium-ion battery in 1991. Engineers in many universities are experimenting with a range of other materials for building batteries. But even without looking to the future, it would be possible to build batteries in the ways they used to be built. Indeed, in January 2020, the US Geological Service listed the metals that could be substituted for lithium in battery anodes as calcium, magnesium, mercury and zinc.[2]

The reason all manufacturers currently use lithium is that it provides a lighter battery that lasts longer. That gives the car greater range without recharging, and it make possible a much lighter car. In other words, lithium batteries are cheaper.

Murray Bookchin’s Legacy: A Syndicalist Critique

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas And Action, January 14, 2021

January 14th is the 100th anniversary of Murray Bookchin’s birth. Perhaps it is worth looking at his contribution to radical politics.

Bookchin had been involved in the communist youth movement in the 1930s. He eventually abandoned official Marxist organizations for a turn to libertarian socialism. A central feature of Bookchin’s politics from the Sixties to the end of his life was his opposition to the worker struggle orientation that was central to syndicalism and many anarchists — as well as Marxists — in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

After World War 2, the general strikes and pitched street battles of workers in the Thirties were a fading memory. The post-war years saw a consolidation of a conservative bureaucracy in the unions. The American working class by the 1960s no longer had the large “militant minority” of radical workers that had been a feature of American workplaces from the early 1900s through World War 2. This led certain radicals to seek out a new “agent” of revolutionary change. Bookchin was an example of this way of thinking:

“Contrary to Marx’s expectations, the industrial working class is now dwindling in numbers and is steadily losing its traditional identity as a class….Present-day culture [and]…modes of production…have remade the proletarian into a largely petty bourgeois stratum….The proletarian …will be completely replaced by automated and even miniaturized means of production….Class categories are now intermingled with hierarchical categories based on race, gender, sexual preference, and certainly national or regional differences.”

This quote is from Bookchin’s last book, The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy. This shows a certain lack of understanding of how syndicalists — and other socialists — view the working class. The basis for the revolutionary potential of the working class lies in its position as both the majority of the population and its objectively oppressed and exploited situation. Workers do not have their own means to obtain a livelihood. Thus we are forced to seek jobs from employers, to obtain the wages we need to live. And this arrangement forces workers to submit to autocratic managerial regimes where workers are denied control over the decisions that directly affect them day to day in the labor process and the running of the workplaces. Employers own the products of our labor and use this to suck down profits — an inherently exploitative situation.

Building our Energy Future

No shortcuts to an ecosocialist future

By Fred Fuentes - Green Left, October 16, 2020

Faced with a global triple crisis ‒ health, economic and climate ‒ it is no wonder most people believe the world is heading in the wrong direction. But who people blame for this situation and their responses have varied.

Socialists believe the capitalist system is at the heart of these crises and that the solution lies in replacing it with a democratic socialist society.

The challenge we face

Under capitalism, corporations will always seek to defend their narrow interests. They do so by, among other things, funding political parties, opposition movements, media outlets and institutions that serve their agenda.

But, while the capitalist class is united in its defence of capitalism ‒ even at the cost of the Earth ‒ different sections of the capitalist class have varying interests and views on how to best protect them.

United States Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump would appear to be the candidate par excellence for corporations. Yet more billionaires are backing his opponent, Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

Unsurprisingly, CEOs in the energy/natural resource sector are overwhelmingly behind Trump’s climate denialism.

But when it comes to finance (Wall Street), technology (Silicon Valley) and the media, Biden is the preferred candidate. Many of these same sectors have also been involved in promoting climate institutes, campaign groups and even protests, such as last year's Climate Strike.

This does not make these capitalists allies in the fight against climate change, racism and sexism. They just sense that taking such a stance is the best way to protect, and in some cases even raise, their profit margins.

Why does this matter then? Because to achieve our aims, we need to know exactly who we are up against.

Ecosocialism and/or Degrowth?

By Michael Löwy - Climate and Capitalism, October 8, 2020

Ecosocialism and the de-growth movement are among the most important currents of the ecological left. Ecosocialists agree that a significant measure of de-growth in production and consumption is necessary in order to avoid ecological collapse. But they have a critical assessment of the de-growth theories because:

  • a) the concept of « de-growth » is unsufficient to define an alternative programm;
  • b) it does not make clear if de-growth can be achieved in the framework of capitalism or not;
  • c) it does not distinguish between activities that need to be reducd and those that need to be developed.

It is important to take into account that the de-growth current, which is particularly influent in France, is not homogeneous: inspired by critics of the consumer society - Henri Lefebvre, Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard - and of the « technical system » - Jacques Ellul – it contains different political sensibilities. There are at least two pôles which are quite distant, if not opposed: on one side, critics of Western culture tempted by cultural relativism (Serge Latouche), on the other universalist left ecologists (Vincent Cheynet, Paul Ariés).

Serge Latouche, who is well known worldwide, is one of the most controversial French de-growth theoreticians. For sure, some of his arguments are legitimate: demystification of the « sustainable development », critique of the religion of growth and « progress », call for a cultural revolution. But his wholesale rejection of Western humanism, of the Enlightenment and of representative democracy, as well as his cultural relativism (no universal values) and his immoderate celebration of the Stone Age are very much open to criticism. But there is worse. His critique of the ecosocialist development proposals for countries of the Global South - more clean water, schools and hospitals – as « ethnocentric », « Westernizing » and « destructive of local ways of life », is quite unbearable. Last but not least, his argument that there is no need to talk about capitalism, since this critique « has already been done, and well done, by Marx » is not serious: it is as if one would say that there is no need to denounce the productivist destruction of the planet because this has already been done, « and well done », by André Gorz (or Rachel Carson). Fortunately, in his more recent writings, Latouche clearly refers to capitalism as the responsible for the ecological crisis, and describes himself as an ecosocialist…

Does fighting climate change require postponing the fight for system change?

By John Molyneaux, Climate and Capitalism, August 25, 2020

Time is always an important factor in politics and history but never has it mattered as much as on the issue of climate change.

The IPCC Report’s warning in October 2018 that the world has twelve years to avoid climate disaster was undoubtedly a major factor in galvanizing a global wave of climate change activism, especially in the form of Greta Thunberg and mass school strikes and the Extinction Rebellion movement. At the same it is clear that this warning could be, and was, “heard” or interpreted in different ways by different people. In this article I want consider some of those interpretations and their implications, particularly in relation to the question of whether there is time to bring about system change or whether, because time is so short, it is necessary to focus on and settle for changes that can be implemented within the framework of capitalism.

Before coming to that, however, I want to suggest that many an opportunist politician will have heard the twelve year warning quite differently from Greta and her followers. To them twelve years would be a very long time indeed: three US Presidential terms, two full length parliamentary terms in Britain and many other countries; in other words more than enough time to fulfill your ambitions, secure your place in the history books or, at least, secure your pension and several directorships, before anything serious would have to be done at all. The only practical implication of the twelve year warning would be the need to set up various commissions, draw up some action plans, attend a few conferences and generally engage in a certain amount of greenwashing. Should you be the CEO of a major oil, gas or car company exactly the same would apply.

At the opposite end of the spectrum there were large numbers of people, especially young people, who “heard” the warning as meaning that there is literally, only twelve years to prevent global extinction.

These are not equivalent misreadings: the first is utterly cynical and immensely damaging to humans and nature alike; the second is naive but well-intentioned. But they are both misreadings of what the report said and of what climate change is. Climate change is not an event that may or may not happen in 2030 and which might be averted by emergency action at the last minute, but a process which is already underway. Every week, month or year of delay in reducing carbon emissions exacerbates the problem and makes it harder to tackle. By the same token, there is no absolute deadline after which it will be too late to do anything and we might as well give up the ghost.

Toward A Green New Future

By Thea Riofrancos and Daniel Aldana Cohen - Socialism 2020, July 26, 2020

Join Thea Riofrancos and Daniel Aldana Cohen for a discussion of the Green New Deal and the future we can build out of our crisis-ridden present. This event is part of the Socialism 2020 Virtual conference. See more at socialismconference.org.

Towards a Global Climate Strike

By John Molyneux - Global Ecosocialist Network - July 13, 2020

The IWW has not yet decided whether to endorse this call. This is posted here for information purposes only.

The Global Ecosocialist Network (GEN) is asking its members and affiliated organisations to popularise the idea of a global climate strike coinciding with the COP 26 Conference in Glasgow in November 2021.

To avoid misunderstanding it should be said at the outset that GEN is not itself presuming to call such a strike but we hope to spread the idea and be part of assembling a broad coalition that can issue such a call. Also the idea of a strike in November next year is not counter posed to any actions or struggles that may develop in the meantime but would complement them.

What follows are some comments on why I think this is a good idea and on some of the political thinking behind it.

First, the obvious. The issue of climate change has been overshadowed by the Covid pandemic but in fact the scientific evidence shows catastrophic climate change, particularly in the form of bouts of extreme heat, is developing even faster than the experts had predicted and making existing responses even more inadequate than they already were. It is vital that we put this question back at the centre of political debate.

Second, the mere fact that COP 26 was postponed for over a year shows that this issue is not really an urgent priority for the world’s rulers and therefore it is essential to build the mass popular movement to put them under pressure.

So why a global strike? The broad environmental movement will invest a great deal of energy into COP 26 both in terms of trying to exert influence within the Conference and in terms of mobilizing people to be on the streets of Glasgow and at various counter summits etc. But the fact is that the mass of ordinary people in Latin America, Africa, Asia, Oceania and even in Europe, will not be going to Glasgow and the idea of a climate strike offers a framework within which people can become engaged everywhere.

The idea of a climate strike next November provides a strategic goal which we can work towards in a multitude of ways over the next year. There will be innumerable conferences and organising meetings held by bodies ranging from NGOs and Charities (War on Want etc) to Extinction Rebellion and ecosocialist groups to radical political parties in the coming period. The goal of a global climate strike day can be canvassed at all of them in order to build momentum. It is something which, hopefully, everyone except the most conservative wing of the movement can support and combined with numerous other forms of action relevant to particular countries and situations.

Is it possible? It is, of course, by no means guaranteed but it IS possible. In the not too distant past the idea of a global strike on anything, let alone climate, would have seemed outlandish and akin to those tiny left sects that repeatedly called general strikes to zero effect. But times have changed. Most obviously we have seen the inspirational school strike movement launched by Greta Thunberg On 15 March 2019, the schools strikes exploded internationally. Here are some of the high points: Australia – 150,000; Germany – 300,000; France – 195,000; Italy – 200,000; Canada – 150,000; UK – 50,000; Austria – 30,000; Luxemburg – 15,000; Ireland – 16,000. There were also smaller strikes and protests in places as far flung as Reykjavik, Slovenia, Cape Town, Hong Kong and Bangkok. Overall, about 2,200 events took place in about 125 different countries, with more than a million participating worldwide. In 2019 there were strikes in the USA by McDonald’s workers against sexual harassment and prison strikes against unpaid labour. In India in 2016 an estimated 160 to 180 million public sector workers went on a 24 hour general strike against privatisation and government economic policies. It was hailed as the largest strike in history. In Spain on International Women’s Day, 2019, approximately 5 million held a strike against gender inequality and sex discrimination and this strike was initiated by feminists outside the official trade union movement. In the course of the fight for abortion rights there were important right-to-choose strikes in both Poland and Ireland. And there are Black Lives Matter strikes planned for the US on 20 July.

The proletarianisation of white collar work, the globalisation and multicultural diversification of the working class has facilitated the adoption of the quintessentially working class form of struggle – the strike – by people a long way from the traditional stereotype of the industrial worker.

How an Old-School Electricians Union Got Behind a Socialist Running on the Green New Deal

By Mindy Isser - In These Times, June 25, 2020

Nikil Saval is an unlike­ly Philadel­phia politi­cian. The social­ist, writer, orga­niz­er and for­mer edi­tor of left-wing mag­a­zine n+1beat long-time incum­bent Lar­ry Far­nese for state sen­ate in the First Dis­trict in a sur­prise upset. Although the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic threat­ened to derail his cam­paign, the issues Saval embraced — a Homes Guar­an­tee, Uni­ver­sal Fam­i­ly Care, and a Green New Deal — have grown more urgent as our econ­o­my has unrav­eled. And mak­ing him an even more unlike­ly can­di­date, he won the back­ing of a con­ser­v­a­tive elec­tri­cians union — a rare feat for a Green New Deal advo­cate. His plat­form, which was proven pop­u­lar enough to beat a fair­ly pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tor, will be extreme­ly chal­leng­ing to imple­ment. In order to win life-chang­ing reforms like a Green New Deal, Saval and his allies will need to build a broad and pow­er­ful coali­tion — includ­ing with some strange bedfellows. 

Saval’s Green New Deal plat­form includes clean­ing up every tox­ic site in the city with the use of union labor; bas­ing all tax incen­tives, sub­si­dies and con­tracts on project labor stan­dards; retro­fitting schools, libraries and recre­ation cen­ters; and estab­lish­ing a Region­al Ener­gy Cen­ter, which would ​“unite the state’s util­i­ties around the goals of increased ener­gy effi­cien­cy through green build­ings retro­fits, and full elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of Pennsylvania’s build­ings by 2040.” Much like the fed­er­al Green New Deal leg­is­la­tion, many of Saval’s poten­tial poli­cies could mean the cre­ation of thou­sands of union jobs, as some­one will have to dri­ve the new South­east­ern Penn­syl­va­nia Trans­porta­tion Author­i­ty (SEP­TA) busses, clean up brown­fields, and update build­ings with green tech­nol­o­gy. Saval also wants to elim­i­nate coal-gen­er­at­ed elec­tric­i­ty by 2025 and achieve 100% clean elec­tric­i­ty by 2030. These aspi­ra­tions would obvi­ous­ly mean that work­ers in extrac­tive indus­tries would lose their cur­rent jobs, which is why build­ing trades unions — and their pow­er­ful labor fed­er­a­tion, the AFL-CIO — have been wary of the Green New Deal nationally.

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