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green unionism

Green Unionists: for Jobs and the Environment

Green Syndicalism

By "Donald" - April 3, 2007

Web Editor's Note: This obscure article by this unknown blogger references the IWW liberally but seems to regard the organization as having expired (which it hasn't, of course); and while the suggestions he makes are quite sound, his suggestion that this new "green syndicalist" coalition "not take an adversarial stance" towards AFL-CIO unions is very naïve, given the fact that the AFL-CIO's willingness to follow the dictates of capitalism ultimately works against environmentalism. Still, his proposed strategy is very similar to that which we propose, so we're not adverse to sharing it here:

The surge in environmentalist sentiment in the US should give those of us concerned with the labor movement pause. Progressives across the country, especially younger activists and liberals, have become more actively engaged with green issues than any other social cause in America. The public has followed suit, forcing even an oil-baron administration such as Bush/Cheney's to make token comments on green issues. Ecological action has acquired a momentum that other progressive movements would do well to replicate.

There are myriad reasons for this, though ultimately I will focus on one broad cause. In large part this is simply a question of timing. The catastrophic Bush adventurism in the Middle East has focused America's attention on our oil dependence in a way unmatched since the '70s. At the same time, venture capital and technological development has progressed to a point where industry is willing and able to pursue serious green startups. The internet allows producers and consumers a way to link directly, bypassing retail oligopolies. And of course, there is the burgeoning reality of global warming, and the crisis that confronts us if we fail to act swiftly and intelligently to prepare for its effects.

All of these factors create a perfect storm for a growing environmental movement (in terms of consumer action, popular sympathy, and governmental influence). But I want to focus on three basic qualities of the environmental movement that seem most relevant to the labor movement. Two are positive, one forms the basis of some positive critique.

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 summary and examination of the environmental crisis and its causes, and how we think that the problems can be solved.

Originally Published at libcom.org - October 9, 2006

The Earth is facing an environmental crisis on a scale unprecedented in human history. This environmental crisis is already responsible for high levels of human suffering. If the crisis continues to develop at its current rate, the ultimate result will be the extinction of human life on the planet.

We call for action to end the environmental crisis because of the threat it poses to humankind, and because we recognise that nature and the environment have value in their own terms.

The main environmental problems include:

Air pollution: creates global warming (or climate change): a general increase in planetary temperatures that will severely disrupt weather patterns causing mass floods, droughts, chaotic climate fluctuations and disease killing millions; destroys the ozone layer that filters out dangerous cancer-causing rays from the sun; turns rain water into acid that destroys plant and animal life. It also causes respiratory and other diseases amongst humans which kills over 30,000 people a year in the UK1.

Solid waste: the sea and the land environments are poisoned by the dumping of dangerous industrial wastes (such as mercury and nuclear waste); the use of materials that nature cannot break down in packaging and in other products, particularly disposable products, have turned many parts of the world into large rubbish dumps. This is also a waste of finite resources and it poisons and injures people.

Soil erosion: this takes place in both the West and the so-called “developing” world, and is the result of factors such the (mis-)use of chemical fertilisers, dangerous pesticides etc., as well as inappropriate land use, land overuse, and the felling of trees. For these reasons, soil is eroded at a rate faster than that at which it is being produced which contributes to rural poverty2

Extinction: plants and animals are being made extinct at a faster rate than any time since the dinosaurs died out, 60 million years ago. This results in the loss of many species, and undermines the eco-sphere on which all life depends.

The Environmental Crisis

By the Workers' Solidarity Federation - January 1, 2005

The world is facing a very serious environmental crisis. Key environmental problems include air pollution, the destruction of the ozone layer, vast quantities of toxic waste, massive levels of soil erosion, the possible exhaustion of key natural resources such as oil and coal, and the extinction of plants and animals on a scale not seen since the death of the dinosaurs 60 million years ago. We think that this crisis is likely to have catastrophic effects in the future. Even today, the negative effects of the crisis are evident in the form of growing deserts, increased rates of cancer, and the loss of plant species which could hold out cures for diseases for diseases such as AIDS etc.

What caused the crisis?

We disagree with those environmentalists who blame the crisis on modern machine production. Many dangerous, environmentally destructive technologies and substances (for example, coal power stations, non-degradable plastics which do not rot in the ground) can be replaced with safer and sustainable industrial technologies (for example, solar technology, starch-based plastics). We think that modern forms of production have many potential advantages over small-scale craft production. Such as greatly increasing the number of essential products like bricks produced, and freeing people from unpleasant toil. We also disagree with the argument that says that workers and peasants cause the crisis by consuming “too many” resources. Most goods consumed in the world are consumed by the middle class and ruling class.

Instead, the real blame for the environmental crisis must be laid at the door of capitalism and the State. These structures create massive levels of inequality which are responsible for much ecological devastation. How? The accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few is associated with excessive and unjustifiable high levels of consumption by the ruling elite. The poverty caused by the system also creates environmental problems. For example, by forcing the poor to cut down trees for firewood, exhaust the tiny bits of farm land that they own in a desperate attempt to provide food, pollute rivers because they lack proper plumbing facilities etc.

The Environment

By the Workers' Solidarity Federation - January 1, 2005 [PDF File Available]

1. General Introduction

1. The Earth is facing an environmental crisis on a scale unprecedented in human history. This environmental crisis is already responsible for high levels of human suffering. If the crisis continues to develop at its current rate, the ultimate result wil be the extinction of human life on the planet.

2. We call for action to end the environmental crisis because of the threat it poses to humankind, and because we recognize that nature and the environment have value in their own terms. Although we hold human life above all other life on the planet, we do not think that humans have the right destroy animals, plants and eco-systems that do not threaten its survival.

3. The main environmental problems include:

3.1. Air pollution: destroys the ozone layer that filters out dangerous rays from the sun; creates a general increase in planetary temperatures (the greenhouse effect) that will severely disrupt weather patterns; turns rain water into acid that destroys plant and animal life; causes respiratory and other diseases amongst humans.

3.2. Solid waste: the sea and the land environments are poisoned by the dumping of dangerous industrial wastes (such as mercury and nuclear waste); the use of materials that nature cannot break down in packaging and in other products, particularly disposable products, have turned many parts of the world into large rubbish dumps as well as wasting resources; poisons and injures people.

3.3. Soil erosion: this takes place in both the First and the Third World, and is the result of factors such the (mis-)use of chemical fertilizers, dangerous pesticides etc, as well as inappropriate land use, land overuse, and the felling of trees. For these reasons, soil is eroded at a rate faster than that at which it is being produced; contributes to rural poverty [1].

3.4. Extinction: plants and animals are being made extinct at a faster rate than any time since the dinosaurs died out, 60 million years ago; results in the loss of many species, and undermines the ecosphere on which all life depends.

How to Turn the "Red" States Deep Green

By Steve Ongerth - Truthout, November 6, 2004

The following piece was written in reaction to the results of the 2004 US Presidential Election. Originals of this article seem to have disappeared from their websites (Truthout, ZMag, and Indybay), so this piece is copied from Resilience (the links at the end of the article have been deleted, since many are defunct now, though many new organizations have taken their place in much greater ways. The graphic, right, shows that the predictions made in this article have indeed partially come true. The predicted political transformation is still taking shape.

I am no fan of electoral politics. I think casting a ballot is one of the weakest forms of democratic, libertarian, collective actions that people can use in a functional democracy. America, however, is not a functional democracy. It would take more time than I have at the moment to explain why in great detail. It is sufficient to point out that the powers that be, rich corporations and the US Government use the results of national elections to claim a mandate on their privilege to wage wars for oil and continue to concentrate wealth in the hands of the very rich whether they actually have one or not. Elections merely represent a one-dimensional snap shot of the minds of those casting ballots at best.

That said, there is no denying that the powers that be will (and have) read the results of the 2004 Presidential election as a legitimization of George W. Bush and his neo-conservative imperialist puppet masters. They will spin this "election" as a positive referendum on the so-called war on terror and the Iraq invasion even as the latter continues to grow increasingly untenable for the American occupation. And, the already out-of-control American Taliban, the Christian Right will take the results of this election as a sign that their tactics work and they will continue to turn back the clock on social progress, social justice, and rational thought. During the second Bush term we may well see the beginning steps of a full-fledged theocracy in America. This is very scary to think about.

Forget for a minute that this election may well have been stolen as well as the 2000 election. In fact, the signs are that the theft of the 2004 election were worse than the 2000 fraud. Even if we succeed in proving it, it's not likely to result in a special election, because, to my knowledge, that would require an act of Congress, and seeing as how the Congress is controlled by the Republicans, I don't foresee them voiding the results (though we should continue to fight that fight of course).

I think we need to look at the future. I think the left needs to be completely honest with itself. Even if Kerry did win the presidency, he is not a leftist nor would he do much (if anything) to fundamentally alter the course that Bush and his clowns have set for us. The only positive thing that could be said of John Kerry is that he probably couldn't have done any worse than Bush.

How do we embrace the future?

What happened to Teamsters & Turtles? Arctic Drilling, the Labor Movement, and the Environment

By Alexis Buss - Industrial Worker, October 2001

"They couldn't have done it without the unions," is the sentiment echoed across the environmental movement, as U.S. President George Bush's energy plan passed 240-189 in the House. Although few expect the plan to drill for domestic oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to pass the Senate (although with the potential for war around the comer, political dynamics are bound to change), many are left scratching their heads, wondering what the future will be for a fledgling environmentalist-labor coalition dubbed "Teamsters and Turtles" during 1999's anti-WIO protests in Seattle.

Media pundits had long labeled the ANWR drilling plan as politically unviable because of the Democrats' control of the Senate. A last-minute intervention by the Teamsters played a major part in pushing the plan through the House, and Teamster President James Hoffa plans to help target the Senate when the bill hits the floor in late September.

The Teamsters came aboard as a lobby group for the plan after a closed-door meeting in May with Vice President Dick Cheney and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. Leaders from over twenty labor organizations were present, mostly from construction and maritime. The AFL-CIO also endorsed the Bush plan late in the game, which came as an unexpected move as several power-hitters in the federation including the Service Employees International Union and the Communication Workers of America had stated their opposition to the scheme. (The AFL-ClO's 1993 convention passed a resolution that, in part, called on the country to explore ANWR for oil with safeguards to protect the environment.)

Bush's energy plan - supposedly instigated by the California energy crisis [1] and unstable gasoline prices - calls for building almost 2,000 new power plants and 18,000 miles of fuel pipelines over the next two decades. The Bush teams figures indicated that each new power plant would create 1,000 construction jobs and 200 permanent jobs, while every 1,000 miles of pipeline would bring with it another 5,000 jobs. And there would be another job boom if nuclear power plants came back into the picture. All told, over 700,000 jobs would be created, according to a 1990 report of the Wharton Econometric Institute, paid for by the American Petroleum Institute. (Not to mention the plethora of jobs to be had cleaning up from environmental disasters, guarding radioactive wastes for tens of thousands of years, and such.)

Unions at the Cheney meeting have joined a business-led coalition called "Job Power: Americans for Energy Employment." It's worth noting that Cheney earned more than $20 million last year as CEO of Halliburton, an oil-field services company that would benefit greatly from loosening regulations on refineries and pipelines.

Summing up the Kaiser strike and lockout 1998-2000: Union Leaders Fear A Self-Directed Rank And File More Than Defeat

By Robby Barnes and Sylvie Kashdan - November 5, 2000

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, Eugene Debs asserted that the role of the established AFL union leadership was "to chloroform the working class while the ruling class went through its pockets." This was accomplished through blocking workers' participation in direct democracy in the unions, short-circuiting activist strategies that were favored by the majority, and ignoring or persecuting critics. Unfortunately, this tradition is not dead yet.

When the Kaiser steelworkers' strike and lockout began in 1998, their union, the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), published an article comparing the good old days in the company under Henry J. Kaiser with the bad new days of vicious anti-union and anti-worker practices since Kaiser has been owned by MAXXAM, under the direction of Charles Hurwitz. Henry Kaiser was cited for recognizing and rewarding his workers for their intelligence, craftsmanship, achievements and hard work. Mr. Kaiser was also praised for being responsive to workers' concerns. The article said, "

It's no secret that Henry J. Kaiser is dead, because if he were still alive, we would not be on strike at Kaiser Aluminum. That's because labor relations at our company used to be governed by Mr. Kaiser's philosophy. And as a result, a job at Kaiser Aluminum used to be something special. In contrast to many of today's corporate executives, Mr. Kaiser insisted on treating us like 'human beings', not as disposable tools in the production process. The company's strategy for improving productivity was based on recognizing our "ability, skill and good will."

And when you got a job at Kaiser, it was a job for life." ("Kaiser, Then and Now," from USWA Trentwood Local forum, Why We're On Strike at Kaiser Aluminum A Message to our Communities from the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local Union 329, Spokane, Washington, Local Union 338, Spokane, Washington, Local Union 341, Newark, Ohio, Local Union 5702, Gramercy, Louisiana, Local Union 7945, Tacoma, Washington. Published in Mid 1998 and available at http://www.choicenet1.com/steelworkers/forum/default.asp)

This union perspective helped to define the workers' struggle in artificially limited terms. By romanticizing Henry Kaiser and his workforce policies, it downplayed the real significance of the workers' struggles that convinced this savvy New Deal era businessman to give his employees better-than-average wages and benefits in order to head off the disruptions and financial losses resulting from insurgency. It glossed over many currently relevant issues, including the recent trends in capitalist "restructuring" and "downsizings" which have become standard practice for corporations throughout the world in the past 20 to 30 years. The union bureaucrats also encouraged people to think of the recent problems with Kaiser's policies as due to unusually greedy and evil managers, guilty of bad business practices. They held off placing the Kaiser worker's problems squarely in the context of current trends toward intensified workforce exploitation--as corporations strive for higher rates of profits by simultaneously eliminating skilled jobs, in offices, stores and factories, etc., and demanding that people work harder for lower wages. And on a more basic level, the union leaders continued to encourage the rank and file to believe that their problems lay in having to fight against bad bosses, rather than against the usual interests of employers and socio-economic relations in the world.

They also distorted the realities of Kaiser Aluminum's exploitative practices before 1988, when MAXXAM acquired the company. Even before 1988, Kaiser was periodically demanding that the workers accept sacrifices, including layoffs and lower wages. But at that time union leaders encourage the workers to be "loyal" and accede to those demands. They only began to consider resistance when it became clear that the company was directly attacking the union, by closing unionized facilities and moving production to "right-to-work" states, where laws make it extremely difficult for unions to organize and bargain.

Striking Kaiser Employees Say Hurwitz is the Real Problem

Don Kegley, Mike McIntyre, Carol Ford, and Stan White, interviewed by Mikal Jakubal - River and Range, Winter 1999

Mikal Jakubal: In 1988, Charles Hurwitz's MAXXAM Corporation gained control of Kaiser Aluminum, a few years after his similar takeover of Pacific Lumber. On September 30 of last year, 3,100 members of the United Steel Workers of America walked out of five Kaiser Aluminum plants in Washington state, Ohio and Louisiana. They claim the company was unwilling to bargain in good faith on such issues as fair labor practices, outsourcing jobs to lower wage contractors, pensions, and wage and benefit parity with Kaiser's main competitors, Alcoa and Reynolds.

Ever since, employees at both Kaiser and Pacific Lumber --though in different industries several states apart--have been on an intertwining course: PALCO employees are replacing striking workers, or "scabbing," at Kaiser plants; Steelworkers have vowed to unionize PALCO and have marched in Scotia; and forest activists and Steelworkers have begun a loose alliance.

The Steelworkers consider Hurwitz and MAXXAM the problem--not Kaiser as they once knew it. The Steelworkers first encountered forest activists and issues from Humboldt County through the Jail Hurwitz web site. Soon they began working with environmentalists, who blame MAXXAM for the brutal changes in PALCO's forest management, to fight a common foe.

My connection with the Steelworkers began in late October, in the fifth week of the strike, when I went up and hired in to Kaiser's Tacoma, Washington smelter as a spy for USWA Local 7945. After a week, I revealed what I was doing and quit. Despite wide publicity, I then managed to get a job at one of the Spokane plants and worked for two weeks before walking out the front gate to the picket line with a sign that read, "No More Scabbing for Hurwitz!"

USWA members, especially long-time employees who remember Kaiser before and after MAXXAM, vocally dislike Hurwitz and what he's done to Kaiser--"their" company. Like long-time PALCO workers, they remember a pre-MAXXAM company that cared for its employees and managed their business with recognition of its responsibility to their community and its future. Union workers spoke freely with me about the strike, working conditions, and their concerns for their future and their communities. As the Steelworkers told me stories in the Local 338 Hall, drivers honked their horns in support of the picket line out front. Every now and then a locomotive would come by on the railroad tracks doing the same. The solidarity is strong.

Kaiser severely underestimated the strength and spirit of the union. Less than two percent of union members have crossed the picket line, despite the economic hardships. Recently the union, at the request of local clergy, and concerned about the number of injuries suffered by inexperienced replacement workers, offered to come back to work unconditionally while negotiations took place. When Kaiser rejected that offer, the strike officially became a "lockout." The "lockout" designation also means that if the union prevails in the unfair labor practices case it has brought with the National Labor Relations Board, MAXXAM's Kaiser could be held liable for back wages since the time of the lockout. There are at press time no negotiations in progress and the strike continues.

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