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Green Unionism in Theory and Practice

By Dan Jakopovich - Synthesis/Regeneration 43 (Spring 2007)

A new current in the global anti-capitalist movement has begun to develop in the last few decades. Rather than unfolding into a cohesive, self-assured and well received movement, it has largely existed on theoretical and practical margins, thwarted by dogmatic party-political, “affinity group” and NGO dominance, yet periodically reappearing as the “star of the day” wherever favorable socio-economic conditions or visionary initiatives gave it the broad attention and determination it needed to flourish.

The biggest hope for the greening of the labor movement lies in the revival of this decentralized, grassroots unionism. The parochialism, corruptibility and ingrained authoritarianism of the union officialdom have been shown time and time again, and only a bottom-up, rank-and-file approach to union work can seriously aid environmental protection and wider social change.

A basic tenet of green unionism is that labor struggles and ecological struggles are not necessarily separate, but have a potential to be mutually reinforcing. The basis for a working relationship between differing strands is the unity-in-diversity approach to organizing a mutually respectful and supportive alliance.

Especially since the late 60s and early 70s, partly as a response to working-class deradicalization and often an integration of traditional “workers’ organizations” — statist, bureaucratic political parties and business unions — there has been a massive practical and theoretical retreat from questions of class and especially class struggle, particularly in the “new social movements” which have gained in popularity after the second world war.

With the onset of neoliberal globalization, there has been a reversal to previously held positions, decomposition of people’s political “representation” (especially in social-democratic parties), a deterioration of workers’ rights and living conditions. A six-hour working day even seemed more plausible at the beginning of the 20th century (and indeed, some called for its implementation) than it does today.

Parallel to the de facto progressive deterioration of working conditions, depoliticization of the workplace has also continued, along with a general activist culture largely still hostile to labor issues (although this has partly been changing recently, especially due to the “new organizing model” exemplified by the Justice for Janitors campaign).

A dynamic understanding of people as workers and workers as activists is missing. For several decades now, there has occurred a shift of the concept of oppression from production relations (as the material basis for exploitation) to consumption, especially among many mainstream Greens who would have us confined to our roles as consumers, where we are inherently relatively powerless and almost always disorganized. This approach, as commonly understood and implemented, produces an individualistic and moralistic substitute for sustained political activity.

It is important to recognize the central importance of class and the revolutionary implications of class struggle at the point of production. People are in their materially most powerful role as producers of goods and services, capable of withholding labor, and also democratically taking over the means of production and distribution.

It is the material conditions of life which restrict and deform peoples’ humanity; therefore the struggle against those conditions also has to be concrete:

The constitution of new identities as expressive human beings in transcendence of alienated class identities implies a successful struggle over the very structures of domination, regimentation, hierarchy and discipline which exist concretely within the workplace. One cannot assume that the job site will simply wither away with the flowering of a new identity. [1]

Murray Bookchin discards the syndicalist strategy as narrow economism [2], and while it is true that the syndicalist movement has in fact often been guilty of “cultural workerism,” productivism and the idealization of the working class and its role in society, especially in the past, this has been widely challenged in and by the movement itself, and is only a secondary tendency now.

Not believing in the future of the workplace as an arena of political and social change, Bookchin calls instead for a sole focus on the “community” (as though communities exist without workplaces or classes). When talking about his libertarian municipalism, Bookchin conveniently forgets it is precisely the syndicalists who have the strongest and most successful tradition of community organizing among all explicitly libertarian currents and wider. [3]

However, democratic unionism from below is not inconsistent with the conversion to a bioregional structure consisting of self-governing, socialized units of producers and consumers, and in a system of production for need, not profit, rank-and-file unions might be able to provide the necessary councilist infrastructure necessary for decentralized decision-making and distribution, at least in the transitional period.

Green syndicalists insist that overcoming ecological devastation depends on shared responsibilities towards developing convivial ways of living in which relations of affinity, both within our own species and with other species, are nurtured (See Bari, 2001). They envision, for example, an association of workers committed to the dismantling of the factory system, its work discipline, hierarchies and regimentation — all of the things which Bookchin identifies (Kaufmann and Ditz, 1992; Purchase, 1994; 1997b). This involves both an actual destruction of some factories and their conversion towards “soft” forms of small, local production. [4]

Building the new society in the shell of the old entails changing who controls production, what is produced and how it is produced. This can be achieved only through democratizing the workplaces and empowering the communities. “The questions of ownership and control of the earth are nothing if not questions of class.” [5]

A Perspective on Sydney’s Green Ban Campaign, 1970-74

Burgmann, V. - Power and Protest, 1993

The background to the green-ban struggles is the story of the destruction of Australia's major cities in the 1960s and early 1970s, when vast amounts of money were poured into property development: giant glass and concrete buildings changed the face of our cities and valuable old buildings were razed in the process. The interests of home buyers and architectual heritage lost out against often purely speculative construction. At one stage, there was ten million square feet of vacant office space in Sydney's business district, while people looking for their first homes or flats could find nothing.

In 1971, the New South Wales branch of the Builders Labourers' Federation (BLF) decided this destruction should stop, even though they were the people employed to do it. The New South Wales branch was led by three men who soon became notorious. They were either loved or hated – Jack Mundey, Bob Pringle and Joe Owens. They argued that:

In a modern society, the workers' movement, in order to play a really meaningful role, must engage in all industrial, political, social and moral struggles affecting the working people as a whole…In this context, building workers are beginning to demand of governments, employers and architects that buildings which are required by the people should have priority over superfluous office buildings which benefit only the get-rich-quick developers, insurance companies and banks.

The union insisted priorities be reversed, that the construction of flats and houses was more important than piling up empty or under-used commercial office buildings. They claimed the right to intervene in the decision-making process and exert a degree of workers' control, determined as they were to use their labour in a socially useful manner. The campaign maintained that 'all work performed should be of a socially useful and of an ecologically benign nature'.

The movement got under way in 1971 when a group of women from the fashionable suburb of Hunter's Hill sought the help of the NSW BLF to save Kelly's Bush, the last remaining open space in that area, where A.V.Jennings wanted to build luxury houses. They had already been to the local council, the mayor, the local state member and the Premier, all to no avail. The union asked the Hunter's Hill women to call a public meeting at Hunter's Hill, to show that there was community support for the request for a union ban on the destruction of Kelly's Bush. Over 600 people attended the meeting, which formally requested a ban. This ban was called a green-ban, to distinguish it from a black-ban, a union action to protect the economic interests of its own members, in this case the union was going against the immediate economic interests of its members for the sake of a wider community and environmental interest.

1976: The fight for useful work at Lucas Aerospace

by Kevin Doyle - Based on an article first published by Workers Solidarity in the Summer of 1988, Workers Solidarity Movement

In the 1970s workers at the Lucas Aerospace Company in Britain set out to defeat the bosses plans to axe jobs. They produced their own alternative "Corporate Plan" for the company's future. In doing so they attacked some of the underlying priorities of capitalism. Their proposals were radical, arguing for an end to the wasteful production of military goods and for people’s needs to be put before the owners’ profits.

Military Matters

Lucas Aerospace in the early 70s was one of Europe's largest designers and manufacturers of aircraft systems and equipment. It had over 18,000 workers on its payroll, spread over 15 factories, throughout Britain. Nearly half of its business was related to military matters - in production of combat aircraft and the Sting Ray missile system for NATO (pictured, above). But it also had small interests in medical technologies.

The company had been formed into the size it was through the take-overs and amalgamations of smaller size companies. It had been backed by the Government of the day who wanted a strong and efficient aerospace company to compete with the other European manufacturers. As part of achieving this Management planned to rationalise the whole 15-factory operation into a more integrated and streamlined company. This would mean lay-offs for at least 20% of the workforce and the closure of some areas. The prize for the owners of Lucas in doing this would be a much greater involvement in the military markets where profit rates were very high compared with other industries.

Poor Wages

The intentions of the company owners and management did not go unnoticed by the Lucas workers or their Shop Stewards Combine Committee (SSCC). The origins of the SSCC was in the strong trade union tradition at the time in Britain though particularly in the aerospace industry. Over a period of years the workers in the different unions had seen the need to co-ordinate their negotiations against a single management so as to avoid poor wage increases as one section was paid off at the expense of the others. So they formed shop stewards committees that bridged their different union memberships. As the company had grown bigger these shop steward committees from different areas also linked up to carry on the same idea of meeting the management with a single voice for all workers in any negotiations.

Video: ROCKING THE FOUNDATIONS - A HISTORY OF THE GREEN BANS MOVEMENT

Documentary Film - 1985

For the full documentary, please visit this page (YouTube).

The film "Rocking the Foundations" is about the Builders Labourers' Federation of Australia who fought victoriously for their rights as a union, the rights of indigenous people, against gentrification, and in defense of the environment. They did this by performing the first of what are now known as the "green bans" or an environmental strike.

Green Bans: Worker Control and the Urban Environment

By Mark Haskell - Industrial Relations, May 1977

Australian trade unions, have long made effective use of the “black ban,” that is, the tactic of boycotting employers and others in order to improve wages or working conditions or to implement political goals. During the Indonesian struggle for independence shortly after World War II, longshoremen placed bans on shipments to and from the Netherlands, More recently arms shipments to South Vietnam were boycotted and an Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) black ban was imposed on French shipping to protest nuclear weapons testing in the South Pacific.

In 1971, the black ban was transposed into the “green ban” when the New South Wales branch of the Builder’s Labourers Federation (BLF) agreed to boycott a construction project in Hunter’s hill, an upper-middle class area on the Paramatta River, an arm of Sydney Harbor. In September 1970, residents of that area had organized to oppose the construction of 25 luxury homes in Kelly’s Bush, an eight-acre bushland tract which had been preserved in its natural state. The tract had been zoned as “residential” just one year earlier despite widespread community opposition. After unsuccessful attempts to interest the state in purchasing the land for recreational purposes, the newly organized group, the “Battlers for Kelly’s Bush,” approached the New South Wales BLF to request that they not work on the construction site. Construction was halted and, despite the subsequent demise of the New South Wales branch in 1975, this green ban remains in force.

Thus emerged an unlikely collaboration between community groups struggling against drastic neighborhood changes and traditionally job oriented trade unionists - a merger which has often been labeled “unique” and may, in fact, have been the product of a special set of circumstances. On the other hand, the green bans do have the possibility of becoming an example for others. This paper is an attempt to analyze this movement for the purpose of providing an explanation for its appearance at a particular time and place. Part of that explanation may lie in the nature of the union which was most heavily involved, i.e., in the characteristics of its leaders, its members, and the way in which the union’s affairs were managed. Hence, the line of questioning will focus on the New South Wales BLF-i.e. why this union adopted this unconventional tactic to achieve this unconventional goal.

Read the entire document (PDF File).

Our Lives Are at Stake: Workers Fight for Health and Safety (the Shell Strike of 1973)

By Berry Weisberg - OCAW 1-591, July 1973
Background Information by Douglas W. Erlandson - USW Local 12-591

On January 21st, OCAWIU President Bob Grospiron called over 4000 Shell OCAW members from 5 oil refineries and 3 chemical plants, out on strike. Then made a nationwide appeal to the public to boycott Shell Oil while the union continued its fight over the right to bargain health and safety issues.

The union was seeking:

  • 1) The establishment of a Joint Union-Management Health & Safety Committee
  • 2) Wanted the Union committee workers paid while performing official committee duties
  • 3) The right to call in independant Health & Safety inspectors
  • 4) Access to all Company information on both death and disease rates
  • 5) Annual Company medical examinations provided at Company expense

As a tactic for the 1973 strike, OCAW employed the first major "corporate campaign" in U.S. history. OCAW forged alliances with the scientific, academic, environmental and labor communities to fight Shell’s position that it would not bargain over health and safety. The union spent nearly half a million dollars to advertise a nationwide boycott of Shell and to educate the public about the need to protect the health of workers and the communities.

Even though 12 other major oil companies had already signed contracts that provided for the new joint union- management health and safety committees, they assisted Shell by buying their gasoline and blacklisting Shell's strikers. The oil industry's thinking was the new joint H&S committees would get in the way of production and profits.

Shell's corporate spokesman, J.H. Walter called the unions joint H&S committee 'another attempt at featherbedding since the workers could then decide how long they could safely work in the refineries and chemical plants.

Moreover, Shell stated that health & safety was none of the oil workers' business: "We are legally responsible for the health and safety of Shell employees in the workplace and this responsibility cannot be shared". The truth was the oil companies didn't want to give up control in this area.

From 1963-1969, Shell used caged canaries as 'safety devices' at their Houston chemical plant.(true story, no joke!) The canary's job was to detect the presence of carbon monoxide. If the canary died, it was time for the workers to leave. Shell went through a lot of canaries, OCAW was claiming by the time the canary died, the workers would already have been exposed.

The union was also seeking the right to inspect company records and financial reports of the pension funds Shell administered and to be able to grieve the company's arbitrary actions with regard to disability pensions. (The union suspected Shell's pension fund was under funded.) One Anacortes member who worked for Shell for 17 years, was certified by two doctors as being disabled, yet Shell wouldn't allow him disabled benefits even though he met the 15 year employment requirement. For the union, this was an item that needed to be addressed.

The International Representative assigned locally was Virgil Coragliotti, with Representative Tom Burkholder assisting on occasion. Don Yates was the Shell unit chairman and the committee members were Gil Nuessen, Wes Shull, F. D. Ferguson, Bob Melton Sr. Jerry Vrooman was the Local President and Jim Burgess was the financial secretary.

Picket pay was $25 a week. The 1-591 union brothers at General Chemical and Texaco assessed their monthly dues to help support the Shell members. Financial support was also received regularly from the Ferndale OCAW 1-590 local. Because Shell Oil’s daily production was unaffected and they didn’t lose any profits during the strike, the strikers received unemployment benefits under what was then known as the ‘dark plant rule’. Not surprising, Shell Oil later lobbied to get that section of the unemployment law changed.

About a week before the strike Snelsons’ had contracted with Shell to do maintenance work on a recently shutdown furnace. Their plan was to use the Boilermakers union, Local 104 out of Seattle. OCAW had gotten wind of it and a group of about 60 Shell brothers were on site waiting for the 14 building trades members when they attempted to cross the picket line, being led through by Bill Snelson. Several Shell picketers became so upset that they turned over both of Snelsons’ trucks and trailers. At the same time, someone smashed out Snelson's rear window. Out of fear, Snelson romped on the gas throwing John Garner, who was standing in front of him, onto the hood of his car. Garner was able to roll off as Snelson bolted on through. The Sheriff was immediately called.

Fred Nelson, Bob Melton and Charlie Pyburn were identified as the lead individuals involved and were fired. Later, after two days in court, Judge Deierlein had Melton and Pyburn jailed, then sharply criticized Shell management for not maintaining better communications with the union and local law enforcement officials in trying to prevent emotional blow-ups. Later Snelson took OCAW 1-591 to court and won $6700 for the damage done to his vehicles. Shell also fired Virgil Avey for breaking windsphrlds with his picket sign. While the other three were unable to get their jobs back, Fred Nelson was eventually rehired. Old time Union members refer to this incidence as the "Day of the Windstorm."

OCAW also had trouble with the Teamster's Union from Seattle. The same teamster leadership that was scabbing on the United Farm Workers, had ordered their drivers to disregard the picket line established by OCAW. And since there was an injunction limiting the number of pickets to two per gate, the union was unable to do much about the Teamsters pushing through with their trucks.

To keep in the health and safety issue in front of the public, OCAW had teams that traveled the northwest speaking to the news media and public about the need for work place safety. Shell later admitted the mobile speakers bureaus were very effective.

Finally, Shell, in the face of public pressure, bargained a compromised health and safety clause as well as meeting the union's demand allowing the pension fund to be reviewed and grieved if necessary. On June 1st the strike was officially ended.

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