Six Questions for Ecosocialists: Response by Dianne Feeley

Introduction | First Response | Second Response | Third Response

This essay responds primarily to question #4:

Since the self-emancipation of the working class and other oppressed layers is central in the transition from capitalism to socialism, and therefore to ecosocialism, what do we think will motivate these social forces to see the necessity of ecosocialism? How does the ecological crisis affect the orientation of unions and their place in the class struggle? Beyond traditional kinds of demands and programs, are there other demands and programs that might supplement or perhaps supplant the traditional approach of unions?

Seventy-five unions endorsed the People’s Climate March of 400,000 in New York City on September 21, 2014. Having faced the devastation unleashed by Hurricane Sandy two years before, many of the New York City unions took the lead in building a labor contingent.

And at a NYC Climate Convergence workshop on labor and the environment the previous afternoon, panelists and participants agreed that environmental issues are labor issues. But exactly what does that mean?

  • Health care workers, led by the National Nurses Association and the New York State Nurses Association, witness the daily consequences of unsafe working conditions, pollution, industrial “accidents” and increasing climate change that unleash hurricanes and floods. The devastation unleashed by Hurricane Sandy revealed how unprepared state governments, particularly New York, were. Nurses organized themselves to respond to the health needs of the community, and came to understand the growing impact of climate change. They came to the march in the conviction that people have a right to a healthy environment.

  • The Amalgamated Transit Union, representing 200,000 workers—mostly city bus drivers—witness the deterioration of public transit as service is cut, fares are raised and equipment is neither maintained nor updated. They marched for mass transit.

Seeing how the fossil fuel industries create an unsustainable society, these unions are actively engaged in a process of internal discussions about the problems they face and solutions they might be able to propose. This internal education is crucial in developing an activist membership willing to challenge the status quo. This will then be reflected in the way these unions reach out to other unions and the communities in which they live and serve, in the public statements issued, in town hall meetings and actions they support and organize.

These beginning discussions and actions are crucial to the development of a climate justice movement. The truth is that we will not be able to successfully confront an economy that pollutes the air, water and land needed to sustain life without the strength and commitment of the very people who operate that system.

So how can members of unions that have begun to understand how greenhouse emissions are affecting them reach out to other unions? For example what about railway workers, who have historically suffered a high proportion of workplace injuries? Today they face deteriorating working conditions, with few set hours of work, long work days, reduced work crews. Their passenger lines have been reduced and they are forced to carry dangerous cargo. Reaching out to encourage them to find allies in fighting for safer working conditions and the necessity for expanding transit would be a logical next step.

An Historical Example

Fortunately there was a moment in recent working-class history in which dangerous work was contested. By examining that campaign, we can find ways of beginning one that highlights how working people can demand the health and well-being of themselves and the planet on which we live.

Tony Mazzocchi was a radical union organizer and legislative director for the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) in the 1960s. Influenced by Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, he reasoned that if the chemicals she discussed were harmful, the ones workers routinely handle posed even greater danger.

How could the OCAW shine light on these practices? First, workers had a “right to know” what chemicals they were working with and the dangers they represented. These included uranium miners, as well as workers in the asbestos, chemical and nuclear industries. But even in light industries dangerous chemicals were used.

Clearly workers needed safe working conditions. That meant introducing safety issues into union contracts as well as passing state and national legislation. Mazzocchi worked to build a grassroots movement. The union set up town hall meetings where workers and scientists could testify. Also attending were community members and environmental activists. From this knowledge base, educational materials were developed.

In organizing workers around these principles, Mazzocchi forged an effective alliance. He pointed out that “when you build a big movement from down below, regardless of who's in the White House, you can bring about change.” Yes, it was President Nixon who signed the Occupational Safety Act in 1970. And once the law was passed, OCAW kept the pressure up. Although CO2 wasn’t considered a hazardous toxic back then, one provision of the act did include language to regulate an unknown “pollutant of the future.” [Section 111(d)] It is this language that the Environmental Protect Agency has used to shut down about 150 coal-burning plants.

Using the Model Today

An educational, grassroots and coalitional model like the one that OCAW built is necessary in order to educate and mobilize working people to the environmental crisis we now face. It means investigating hazardous working conditions, including the use of fossil fuels in production processes that also affect the community. But this time around, we are going to have to overcome the fear of workers being afraid of losing their jobs and thereby their livelihoods. When plants or industries are shut down, workers are not the ones who should pay. In fact Tony Mazzocchi strongly advocated that in any plant shutdowns or reconversions workers should be fully compensated and retrained.

There are over 80,000 chemical substances used by U.S. industries. OSHA regulates about 400. Actually breathing contaminated air is a problem many workers face. Railroad workers, miners, truck and bus drivers are exposed to diesel exhaust daily. Consequently they have a greater chance of contracting lung cancer, respiratory problems and even premature death than the general population. Air pollutants don’t stop at the plant gates, but permeate the surrounding community, attacking its most vulnerable members.

For example, diesel exhaust is harmful for bus drivers but even more harmful for children who ride diesel buses to school. Their smaller bodies absorb exhaust at twice the rate of adults, making them more susceptible to a variety of childhood diseases, especially asthma.

I live within a few miles of an oil refinery that has recently expanded to process tar sands. Sometimes there is a smell of rotten eggs in the neighborhood, which means hydrogen sulfide is wafting through the air. This chemical can cause cancer, lung disease and nerve damage. My neighborhood is also on the truck route linking the Midwest to Ontario, Canada. Nineteen thousand trucks pass through each day, often forced to idle at the international crossing.

Pollution affects almost every workplace and community. Therefore the workers in that workplace need to be able to devise a plan that can unite the workforce with the community. For example, teachers often work in neighborhoods where the children are suffering the effects of pollution because of transportation patterns or coal-fired plants, and where consequently their learning is affected. In other cases, schools have been built on top of polluted soil. This is not just a community issue but an issue that can be taken up by teachers and their unions.

In fact 20,000 Americans die each year from breathing polluted air, mostly the result of coal- or oil-burning power plants. However this figure does not include health issues and premature deaths resulting from environmental degradation, acid rain, or water pollution. (National Academy of Science study, 2009)

Educating workers about the dangers from extracting, transporting and manufacturing processes is important, but limited if the solutions offered are too narrow—such as using protective equipment or fighting for laws that if passed will be violated every day. In order to confront the danger we must break the longstanding “partnership” between unions and corporations that disadvantages workers. However unions do have contractual provisions that allow workers to stop work if lives or limbs are threatened. Most workers don’t realize the power they have to walk off a job in such cases, but worker education could change that. Part of that education needs to consider the dangers that the surrounding community is being forced to live with and a willingness to develop an plan and monitoring system to find medium- and long-term solutions.

Essential to winning over a large section of the union movement to the climate justice movement would be taking on building trade officials who have been the most vocal in talking about how fossil fuel industries create jobs—even though many of those jobs are temporary. We do know that making the transition to alternative energy sources and retrofitting buildings to be more energy efficient will actually require more jobs, but the reality is that those jobs aren’t necessarily in the exact geographic areas and only exist as potential jobs. Yet today skilled trade workers are forced to relocate to where the jobs are—particularly to pipelines like the Keystone XL.

Many view workers in the building trades as an elite set of workers, who belong to unions and make pretty good wages. Yet people forget how construction workers are the first to be laid off in any kind of economic downturn. Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s (today considered the heyday of American capitalism), I don’t remember the wealth of our household, but rather the number of times my dad, a pile driver, was laid off. First he’d start with household tasks, but after they got done and his unemployment benefits were running out, things became tense around the house. My dad would start talking about signing onto a construction crew in Saudi Arabia and my mother would rule out the idea that a man with two young children could go off to another country for two years.

Workers can’t survive without jobs, and workingmen have been socialized to put themselves at risk, or to leave their families, in order to “bring home the bacon.” Even today, with so many women in the work force, this masculinized culture prevails, particularly in industries where the work force is still overwhelmingly male. Having spent much of my work life in industries where men were the majority, I have seen how this culture allowed the employer to literally “get away with murder.” As women joined this work force, we challenged the ideal of a John Henry, who was unstoppable in the face of speed up or unsafe conditions.

Dealing with Insecurity and Growing Inequality

Once one-third of the U.S. working class was unionized; today while 35% of public sector workers are unionized, only 7% of private sector workers belong to unions. Additionally, 25% of all U.S. workers are “temps.” This precarious situation means that workers live with the stress of their insecurity.

More are forced to take lower-wage or part-time jobs, and feel less confident in opposing speed-up. Researchers have established that, over the past 30 years, the U.S. family’s standard of living has only maintained itself by sending more of its members out to work and by increased indebtedness. They know that since President Ronald Reagan implemented Jimmy Carter’s plan to fire the air traffic controllers, smashing strikes has been the order of the day, whether the employer is a corporation or a government. They also realize a plant—like the Ford plant in Ypsilanti or the GM plant in Flint--that wins honors for its production may also be slated for closure.

Meanwhile officials in most unions encouraged workers to take concessions in their wages and benefits, and for the most part workers reluctantly went along. Supposedly the union has retreated in order to fight for what they have given up when the economy picks up. As work moved or was downsized, union density decreased. As a result of this constellation of factors, unions have less clout whether in negotiations with the company or in the political realm. This diminishment of workers’ voices in politics is magnified by unions being tied to the Democratic Party.

Under the impact of austerity and globalization, the imbalance of power between the broader community and the corporate elite has grown. Corporations roam the world, exploring for natural resources or lower production costs in their attempt to control the market. Over the last thirty years U.S. labor productivity has risen 80% while labor’s share has risen one-tenth of that amount. In Capital in the 21st Century Thomas Piketty has pinpointed this phenomenon as responsible for widening inequality. The salaries and benefits of the top one percent have grown 165%, and those of the top .01 percent 362%. Since the 2008 economic crisis the “recovery” has once again benefitted only those at the top.

Capitalist production is based on the exploitation of both human labor and nature’s resources in order to produce profit. That is, capital buys worker’s labor over some period of time and puts the person to produce a product or service calculated in a time measurement. These are then sold on the market so the capitalist can realize a profit. Intensification of the work day then maximizes that profit. In most U.S. manufacturing enterprises, labor’s cost is less than 10%. Even the advertising budget is higher!

The alienation that a worker suffers from being unable to control the pace of one’s work life is magnified by union contracts that silence workers from having any say in what or how they produce. It is this double alienation that depoliticizes workers and turns them into consumers. As Gregg Shotwell noted, “When a paycheck is all you are worth, you get addicted to spending money rather than spending time doing things that enrich your life.” (“A Practical Solution to an Urgent Need,” Monthly Review, April 2014)

Ecosocialists need to find a way of encouraging the confidence of workers to discuss their problems collectively. Once we make that breakthrough, we can begin to challenge the stultifying routine the bosses’ discipline imposes and develop a capacity for alternatives. This is absolutely critical given today’s political, economic and environmental crises.

Just as corporations secure a cheap and steady work force, so too do they hunt for the natural resources they need. These are to be purchased as cheaply as possible, and extracted quickly, with minimal regard to health, safety or sustainability. Where laws exist to regulate the extraction, transportation or usage of these resources, a battery of lawyers and lobbyists work to circumvent them, keeping any resulting fines to a minimum.

Although the U.S. labor movement’s power has been diminished in the globalized world of today, the labor movement—by which I mean not only unions, but workers’ centers and formations like Jobs with Justice—remains the main organizational form through which working people can come together to discuss, make decisions and build campaigns for change. That change needs to link the struggle for equality on the job and in the community with the need to build a sustainable society, for today, for future generations.

What Kind of Plan Can Labor Develop?

It has been a long time since organized labor carried out such an ambitious plan. Instead most unions have become similar to an insurance company—available to file a worker’s grievance, often advising them to cut a deal with management to keep their job. How often workers are told, both by management and union officials, “you are lucky to have a job”!

Key to re-politicizing the labor movement then is figuring out how to present a concrete alternative to a world in which workers are pitted against each other in never-ending competition. Most working people aren’t clear about what can be done so they go about their daily lives hoping that somehow muddle through. One thing they do know is that they need a job, and even a crappy job is better than none.

Yet with the recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) summary report, scientists have concluded that the main cause of global warming is the burning of fossil fuels. If emissions continue to rise at more or less the current rate, panelists listed how a deterioration of social and ecological factors will compromise how people live and work, and how the productivity of agriculture and fisheries will dramatically decline. To avoid this scenario and stabilize atmospheric concentration will take massive effort: global emissions would have to diminish by 70-95% within the next 35 years.

Given that fossil fuels have been the base of industry, transportation and even agriculture over the last century, the challenge to replace fossil fuels with alternative energy sources in so short a time period requires a massive reorganization. Not only would such a transformation alter how we live and work, but it flies in the face of the current economic and political system. Under capitalism, profitability—not sustainability--is the highest economic goal. Issues of exploration, extracting and transporting raw materials, like issues of what wages, benefits and working conditions workers obtain, are supposed to be mediated by laws and governmental regulations. Yet everywhere we look, governments favor corporations. It’s built into the system.

The powerful and profitable fossil fuel industries have successfully lobbied for credits, diminishing the possibilities of developing sun and wind power as energy sources by claiming they are unreliable. They do develop some alternative energy—but on a limited scale. They also use their levers of power to advertise that they create jobs, and often better-paying ones.

In 2013 an International Monetary Fund report estimated that internationally fossil fuel industries receive at least $1.7 trillion a year in direct and indirect subsidies. Approximately a quarter of that comes from direct credits provided by G7 governments, with the United States contributing anywhere between $10-100 billion a year in direct subsidies. Much of the indirect subsidies are public health costs, or infrastructure.

The fossil-fuel industries have projected their future. As Bill McKibben wrote in his famous Rolling Stone article, the fossil fuel industry already has five times the amount of proven coal, oil and gas reserves than the maximum amount of CO2 that can be discharged to keep us under the threshold of an irreversible tipping point. Yet as the Arctic ice cap melts, the industry responds to the disaster as another opportunity for oil exploration. For its part Peabody Coal projects a campaign around “clean coal” as if such a thing exists. Numerous corporations apply for thousands of permits to frack. The nuclear power industry advertises itself as an alternative. But neither the extraction of uranium at the front end, nor the nuclear waste produced, is “clean.”

While a growing number of industry officials now realize it is no longer tenable to completely deny the crisis, they “diversify” their portfolio by adding natural gas, wind farms and solar panels to their mix. They also suggest that nuclear power is a “clean” option we should consider. Meanwhile they lobby for weaker regulations, continue to mine and transport coal, explore for oil and seek to build additional pipelines—even when spills would mean disaster to land, water and millions of people.

This “diversification” mix will not lead in the direction we need to move. It will keep those who have brought us to the crisis in charge of navigating the way forward. It will also continue the dynamic of a globalized economy where job insecurity and inequality grows.

To break this political and economic hold requires a massive counter-mobilization. The labor movement can be a dynamic part of that coalitional effort for two reasons—first, because it has the capacity to unite the majority and, second, because it can most effectively refute the fossil fuel industry’s trump card about job creation.

Of course labor’s record is mixed in coming to understanding this issue:

  • Beginning with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 an environmental movement sprang up and succeeded in passing a number of regulatory bills including the Clean Air Act. Some labor unions—particularly the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW, now absorbed into the Steelworkers)--were active partners in formulating demands that led to the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act.

  • In the 1990s community-based organizations fighting against the pollution they faced particularly from coal-fired plants and incinerators in their neighborhoods came together to form an environmental justice movement. These communities were mostly located in poorer, often African American or Latino, neighborhoods but they also included indigenous communities in rural areas. (See EJ principles.) However labor unions were generally opposed to these efforts to shut down polluters because the unionized work force was worried about losing jobs.

If labor is central to such an effort to transition to a different society, what are the elements that we need to stress to overcome the propaganda that would hold us back? How can we begin to overcome a powerful fossil fuel industry that continues to advertize, market and lobby for its existence and expansion. The wedge that industry will use, as it always has, is the question of jobs.

The reality is that more jobs would be created if we were to commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero. We would need to construct an efficient national and local mass transit system, build a de-centralized system for our energy, retrofit buildings for energy efficiency, prioritize local food production to cut down on needless transportation lines and put an end to inefficient industrial agriculture as well as repurpose industry to meet these needs. At the same time, we would need to eliminate unnecessary and harmful production—from war materiel to plastic bags. In this scenario, something like 80% of the currently known stocks of fossil fuel should stay in the ground and further exploration stopped.

Unfortunately it’s not as simple as explaining that more jobs can be created. Powerful forces stand in the way. While more jobs would need to be created in order to carry through this campaign, not everyone who has a job could immediately transfer to one at an equivalent level of pay. Additionally we need to incorporate into such a program the massive number of people who work part-time but need fulltime jobs, or who want jobs but can’t find them. That is, a sustainability jobs program must also seek to be a full-employment program.

In the context of shutting down nuclear plants and transitioning that work force, Tony Mazzocchi raised the idea of a Superfund. Workers would be provided an income and the necessary job training in order to make the move, or in the case of an elderly worker, enable that person to be able to retire. The nuclear industry would be responsible for financing the Superfund.

Later a less comprehensive Superfund was developed by Washington as it identified and proposed cleaning up hazardous waste sites. This legislation, passed in 1980, was the government’s response to demands by residents whose families suffered from various illnesses and birth defects that could only be traced to the existence of toxic substances. The U.S. military was also found responsible for a number of hazardous waste sites. While attempting to get those responsible for a contamination site to pay for the cleanup, the program was funded by taxes on crude oil, imported petroleum products, hazardous chemicals and imported substances that use hazardous chemicals as a feedstock, etc.

These taxes expired at the beginning of 1996 and, given industry lobbying, have not been reinstated. Since then the Superfund has been financed from the general revenue. As of October 2014 the Environmental Protection Agency listed 1322 sites, with decontamination proceeding slowly.

The idea of a Superfund or a “just transition” needs to be labor’s central demand. Without it most working people, however reluctantly, will see their jobs as tied to the interests of the employer for whom they work. However much we talk about the number of jobs that can be created by transitioning to an infrastructure that uses alternative energy sources, the concept and the program must be free of corporate control. The elite that controls these corporations, and finances politicians who are willing to do their bidding, cannot be part of the mobilization because their agenda dictates different priorities. Even those corporate heads who reluctantly think climate change is a problem are willing to bet on possible technical fixes such as carbon sequestration rather than the mass education and mobilization necessary.

This is the challenge we face. It’s not just an ecological challenge, but one that attempts to unite the various social movements to mobilize for deep reforms with both programs and funding independent of corporate control. In order to win the confidence of the majority, such a program needs to eliminate insecurity. It is this factor allows the corporate elite to set the agenda and increase inequality and unsustainability as they have been increasingly doing.

I would suggest that in order to mobilize society, including the desperately poor, we need to develop a program that includes the following concepts:

  • Society needs the energy of its entire population in order to move from a fossil fuel economy; therefore the idea of a full-employment economy is necessary.

  • Unemployed and marginally employed people would be entitled to the Superfund and its job training opportunities.

  • In order to carry out the massive campaign and engage the entire society, the standard work week should begin at 30 hours and be reduced as necessary without a reduction of wages.

  • Workplaces could experiment with developing a package of benefits that might include access to job training and advancement, anti-discriminatory programs, childcare and eldercare leaves. Various packages could be evaluated, with the more satisfying ones becoming models.

  • Reinvigorating social services is a necessary component to provide an adequate standard of living that can replace the highly unequal society of today. To this end, it is necessary to have public education from the age of one through college; to have access to a public health care program built on a prevention, community-based model; to build accessible public transit; to establish parks, libraries and community centers so that arts, sports and recreation are available. Any minimal fee for these should be evaluated from the perspective of eliminating them as soon as possible.

Yet unions, today rather a frail working-class institution, ceded economic power to the corporate elite years ago. At least since World War II, U.S. unions, including those from the more militant CIO tradition, conceded that corporations are solely and exclusively responsible for determining “the products to be manufactured, the local of the plants, the schedules of production, the methods, processes, and means of manufacturing” (from a 1997 UAW-AAM agreement).

Referred to as “management’s rights clause,” this contract provision acknowledged management’s control over the shop floor. The payoff was supposedly higher wages, better benefits and job security. Yet it paved the way for joint programs and the concessions that resulted in today’s multi-tiered wages and job insecurity. Fortunately a few unions have taken the lead in reversing this division. Let’s look at a couple of key industries where we could map out a plan to transform unions into climate justice partners.

Energy Workers

The largest share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (33%) is produced by coal and natural gas for electricity. Since approximately 20% of electric power is generated by municipally-owned utilities, expanding alternative energy through these already existing facilities seems like a good beginning. Although these operate with high-paid management acting as if they were privately owned businesses, pro-active utility unions with environmentally aware communities can challenge that model.

Why not push for a new conception of management, composed of workers and grassroots community representatives, which might consider how commercial and residential rates could be calculated on the basis of affordability and energy efficiency, not market rates. Of course in this era of outsourcing and privatization, preserving, extending and renewing municipal utilities will be a fight, but nonetheless one that has the possibility of victory.

Currently there are 500 coal burning plants with a median age of 42 years. Communities around these plants have suffered from air and water contamination that have led to high rates of asthma. As a result of local battles—generally led by communities of color--replacement with new coal plants is off the table. It is expected that about 200 will be shut down, but what will replace them?

With the natural gas industry poised to capture this market, it is essential that unions and communities demand solar, wind and/or geothermal sources. Additionally, by keeping electricity municipally owned, there can be more local control and more job creation. Such a model can be a “demonstration project” for other communities. For environmental sustainability, the public sector needs to grow.

But there is an additional concern. Since president Obama took office, U.S. coal exports have risen about 50%. If exploration, mining and transportation of dirty energies is unhealthy for us, U.S. corporations should be forbidden to dump coal in the developing world. That will only happen if the same forces that demand renewable energy sources for U.S. electrical production follow through to stop the exporting of coal. Currently there are struggles in both the states of Washington and Oregon to prevent the development of exporting docks from which coal would be shipped to India and China. Struggles in Canada to oppose the construction of oil pipelines have already mobilized First Nations peoples, community activists and the Canadian mega-union Unifor.

The Transportation Industry

The transportation industry contributes 28% of the total U.S. fossil fuel emissions. In fact 90% of the fuel used for cars, trucks, buses, ships, trains and planes is petroleum based. Except for a half-dozen U.S. cities, most urban areas have an inadequate, inefficient and expensive public transit system. That is even truer at the regional and national level. As a consequence, the manufacture of vehicles and the construction and maintenance of a road system consumes resources that could better used to construct a mass transit system that, according to studies, would begin by cutting emissions in half. Not only would such a system be more energy efficient, it would also begin to reverse urban sprawl. To maximize usage it should be free to riders.

The auto plants that manufacture vehicles could be converted to the manufacture of energy efficient trains and buses while construction workers could be building roadways for trains, buses as well as dedicated bike lanes. It is true that converting plants from auto production to manufacturing public transit could not take place overnight. But there have been experiences in converting plants from one use to another, particularly during World Wars I and II, when this was accomplished within months, not years.

Today there are two separate questions to be considered. The first is paying workers for their retraining rather than laying them off. Second, the plants themselves need to develop alternative energy sources. Currently industry contributes 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Key to converting industrial production is unleashing the knowledge and creativity of a work force that understands the necessity of eliminating fossil fuels as energy as quickly as possible.

This writer views establishing workers and community committees that begin to replace “traditional” management prerogatives as necessary to reverse capitalism’s destructive capacities. Since this conception rejects capital’s conception of its “rights” there should be no illusion that this is an easily won struggle. Such committees would have more of a chance to establish themselves over municipally owned utilities and could be attractive models. Frankly this model challenges capital’s “right to property” by placing a higher value on community rights to health, safety and sustainability. From this perspective, humans are a part of nature, and in fact have no other environment in which to survive.

This essay has attempted to look at some of the key areas of pollution and the unions that represent the workers in those industries. Obviously a campaign to reach working people on their jobs and in their communities would build on an understanding of the dangers facing us and solutions we can devise. The National Nurses Association provides a striking example. They explain their commitment to transitioning to renewable energy sources on the basis of their health concerns--for themselves and the patients they care for. Their moral position, as health care providers, provides the labor movement with a platform from which unions can unite with local communities and environmental activists.

No one should be required to work in dangerous situations; society should refuse to allow work under dangerous conditions. Above all that means stopping further development of an infrastructure dependent on fossil fuels. It means ending further exploration. It means cutting the billions in direct subsidies to the fossil fuels industry and redirecting them to developing renewable energy.

Today we face ecological disaster. The most pressing issue is global warming, but in fact all aspects of our world are under siege. We need to face the reality that the exploitation of people and nature does not provide a sustainable world. We see this in the growing social inequality, levels of unemployment, health problems, food insecurity, in the degradation of land, in the pollution of water and air. That is, environmental degradation and the social injustice stem from the same source—a world where profit is the highest goal. Only a movement that intertwines environmental justice and social justice is capable of offering an alternative world. Regional and international programs will be shaped by the experiences local councils provide.

Where’s the Political Will?

When there is a political will to transform production, it can occur swiftly, as industry did for World War I and World War II production. If there was a political will to end fossil-fuel production, the capacity to retool could be relatively swift. But of course the longer it is delayed by corporations, and the more the petroleum companies spend on exploration and construction of their infrastructure, the more difficult and costly that transition will be.

Despite the resilience and innovation of the environmental and environmental justice movements, without the collective power of workers institutions, it will not be enough to stop the fossil fuel industry. In fact an excellent and attractive campaign that unions could launch--instead of supporting the Keystone XL pipeline and its inflated but temporary jobs—would model the one that is discussed in the

British pamphlet, One Million Climate Jobs Now. The pamphlet concretely describes these jobs, primarily focusing on the transportation and electricity sectors as well as refitting homes, businesses and public buildings so they are energy efficient and use renewable energy. Reorganizing industry, agriculture and education are additional job creation strategies.

Ten years ago oil sold at $30 a barrel; today it is hovering at double that amount. Today the United States is the world’s leading petroleum producer—producing more than Saudi Arabia or Venezuela when counting fracking and natural gas. Three corporations—ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron—planned to invest almost $120 billion last year. Much will be for allotted to exploration of new sites and expanding infrastructure--particularly in deeper wells, fracking operations and pipelines. If it is not stopped, the money will have been allotted and the infrastructure put in place. In that case, it will take much more will, energy and money to build a renewable alternative.

That is one reason why opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline is so crucial. The fact that president Obama keeps putting off a final decision indicates the strong impact the movement of indigenous people, farmers, students, workers and environmentalists has had through its actions, civil disobedience and divestment campaigns. However in this campaign, working-class institutions, aside from the transit and nurses unions, have not been present. Yes, many working people agree that we face serious ecological issues, and have even joined in various actions, but not yet as the working class.

What this article proposes is a form of workers and community councils that would challenge capital, not make peace with it. It seeks to reverse the thinking that has dominated union negotiations with corporations over the last 75 years. Being independent of the corporations that got us into this mess is essential. How can worker/community councils take on planning and enforcing regulations?

Insofar as such councils were able to function, part of the discussion would not only reorganize the production process, but discuss the necessity of the product or service. Clearly auto plants could retool for mass transit and institute a massive reduction in costs by eliminating advertising and CEO salaries, but in other industries, such as war production, workers and the community would need to consider how a site might meet new priorities.

Most of this discussion has centered on the situation in the United States, but of course both social and environmental injustice is a global phenomenon. Therefore our vision and our alliances need to build on this reality. Concretely, solidarity isn’t merely helping out poor people, here and internationally, it means understanding the connection between their problems and the ones we have, and building links to end the disastrous situations we face together—particularly when we are employed by the same corporations.

The fossil-fuel industry exists everywhere, and workers and farmers in countries as diverse as Indonesia, Ecuador and Nigeria have suffered from the degradation of oil extraction. On the average, the world’s top ten oil producers extract four million barrels of oil a day—almost 20% more than they extracted a decade earlier.

This is why the movement to demand the divestment of pension funds and college investments--and so far over 180 institutions have done so. Here is an area where union pensions should divest, but it will happen only with membership insistence.

The imposition of heavy taxes on fossil fuels as a way of ending these corporations’ capacity to explore and extract is a beginning. Here James Hansen’s fee-and-dividend proposal makes sense as a tool to accomplish this.

Worker-solidarity networks already exist. LaborStart, a listserve devoted to supporting workers in particular countries and international federations to defend workers on strike, fired or imprisoned. Bi-annual conferences of Labor Notes, a monthly publication and website, feature workers from key unions around the world. U.S. Labor Against War (USLAW) has organized U.S. delegations to Iraq and toured Iraqi trade unionists, and exposed Washington’s complicity in maintaining anti-union laws dating from Saddam Hussein’s regime. USLAW is actively involved in educating the labor movement on the connection between war and environmental destruction. While most of these networks are focused on defending workers’ rights, they are also developing ties that link workers’ rights to environmental justice.

There are also a few think tanks that produce materials for the labor movement about the environmental crisis. These include labor programs at universities as well as Labor Network for Sustainability and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy. (See some of their educational materials listed in the reading section.)

What is crucial in developing a worker-led environmental justice movement is providing space for working people to discuss their problems and develop a vision for alternatives. Their health and safety, on and off the job, is key to starting that conversation. Rejecting the notion that working people must somehow support the corporations that employ them is crucial to developing alternatives.

These conversations, and the actions that flow from them, can coalesce a movement that challenges a profit-driven system. It can be a central element in rebuilding unions into tools that working people can use in their struggle for a better life, linking up with other working-class organizations, from workers centers to solidarity networks. Questions about how to reorganize a society in which everyone has the right to participate in meaningful and productive work include discussions about the nature of work, how work is connected to the rest of our lives, what priorities do we set for ourselves, and how we might envision a different world.

Some people believe wants are insatiable and therefore it is unrealistic to think that “ordinary” working people can develop alternatives to the commodified and dog-eat-dog world that we live in. The reality is that we suffer alienation and desire a different way of life—but generally become resigned to the reality we are forced to live in. A discussion that puts social and ecological justice at the center can inspire working people to explore possibilities.


For further reading:

  • If Not Now, When? A Labor Movement Plan to Address Climate Change,” by Jeremy Brecher, Ron Blackwell and Joe Uehlein, New Labor Forum.

  • Jobs Beyond Coal & Keystone Pipeline Debate: An Alternative Job Creation Strategy at Labor Network for Sustainability. Many other interesting articles posted there too.

  • Jobs, Ecology, and Survival,” Against the Current 175 (March/April 2015).

  • One Million Climate Jobs Now, Campaign Against Climate Change, pamphlet from eight British unions, 3rd edition.

  • Resist, Reclaim, Restructure: Unions and the Struggle for Energy Democracy, Sean Sweeney, Cornell University ILR School, November 2012.

  • Why Unions Need to Join the Climate Fight,” Naomi Klein.
  • Additional resources:

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