Labour and Nature: Power in Numbers

February 25, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed“Good jobs! Clean environment! Green economy!”

That is the rallying cry of the BlueGreen Alliance, an impressive coalition of environmental organisations and labour unions in the US, with over 15 million members. Their existence is part of a growing synthesis between the labour and environmental movements, which is based around two core ideas: 1), that building a sustainable society has the potential to create millions of decent ‘’green-collar’’ jobs, and 2), that the effects and even the mitigations of climate change will have serious impacts for workers and will hit the poorest hardest, unless they have a voice in the debate, ensuring their right to a ‘’just transition”.

Over the last few decades, the labour movement has gradually increased its involvement in the UN debates on the environment, development and climate, first receiving ‘observing organisation’ status for unions in the 2007 Bali conference. There was a large and vocal trade union presence at the 2009 Copenhagen flop, calling for an ambitious binding climate deal and a just transition for workers. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) – which represents 175 million workers throughout 153 countries – now boasts on its website that climate change is one of the core issues it works on. In fact, after its recent annual meeting it has been decided that climate will be one of their top three issues to focus on in 2015, in the run up to the UN Paris conference in December. A recent poll run by the ITUC of 14,000 people in 14 countries also found 73% wanted more ambitious climate action, and 62% wanted corporate power to be tamed.

Possible co-operation between the environmental movement and the trade unions has so far been largely seen through the prism of green jobs, and Green New Deal style policies. Although some of these ideas can be criticised for staying too comfortably within the growth-based capitalist framework, I think it’s important to recognise the value that such win-win solutions carry.

There has historically been a rift between these two movements purely because of the supposed environment vs. jobs trade-off, which is a massive missed opportunity because the two movements do actually share many common goals. Trade unions want a safe climate, for key resources to be properly managed, and to have sustainable livelihoods. The environmental movement has long been tightly entwined with demands for social justice and a more equal society – foundational to the labour movement. And of course they are largely pitted against the same force: the corporations that so recklessly pollute and damage the environment are the same ones that pay poverty wages, offer dangerous working conditions and mass-fire workers in search of an even more exploitable workforce overseas. In short, there is massive scope for co-operation between the two movements, and it has only really been the perceived (and sometimes true) trade-off between environmental protection and jobs that has blocked this. So what’s so powerful about the new discourse of green jobs, is that it renders this historical block obsolete, and allows the two to work towards a common goal together, as the BlueGreen Alliance are doing in the US.

One of the most exciting examples of the call for green jobs has to be the UK-based and union-led campaign for One Million Climate Jobs. The campaign proposes a 20-year plan to create a million decently paid green jobs and cut the country’s emissions by 84%. All fully costed, the plan would involve massive public investments in renewable energy, public transport, building-retrofits and carbon sequestration. What makes the campaign particularly radical is that it demands the creation of a National Climate Service to carry out this work of transforming the economy from high carbon to almost zero carbon with public sector workers. Apart from arguing the private sector would be too slow, their main reason for this is because they want a jobs guarantee scheme where anyone that loses their job through environmental regulation (e.g. in fossil fuel sectors) would be offered a job in the National Climate Service, with re-training if required. This kind of proposal goes a long way towards eliminating the sense of risk that many people feel about change and transition, and would dramatically increase popular support for decarbonisation. It is also a serious departure from the dominant economic orthodoxy of neoliberalism, which rules that everything is better managed by private profit-seeking business and everything public is inefficient. The One Million Climate Jobs report details how for this task the public sphere can get the job done faster and with better social outcomes, and points out how ineffective the private sector has been at mitigating climate change so far.

The job swap guarantee part of the climate jobs campaign is a good example of the principles of the emergent framework of ‘just transition’ in action. This framework is based on an acceptance that transition to a sustainable post-carbon economy is necessary and inevitable, and also a concern that periods of radical economic restructuring in the past (such as industrial to post-industrial) have happened in a chaotic fashion, forcing poor and working class people to bear the brunt of the negative effects. A just transition calls for the costs and benefits of environmental and economic change to be distributed equitably, for workers to have a voice in the decisions that affect them, and for the government to plan for long term stability and protect vulnerable people. The concept was developed by trade unions and NGOs in the US, and has gained prominence since its inclusion in the negotiating documents of the UN 2009 Copenhagen summit. I think this concept of a just transition is vital, because we all know that environmental damage impacts the poor first and worst, exacerbating existing inequalities. Even mitigation policies can dump the cost of transition on those with less socio-economic advantage if care isn’t taken to make such policies socially just.

I’m incredibly excited to see the growing linkages between the environmental movement and the labour movement. Through demands for green jobs and the discourse of just transition the two are beginning to work together and trade unionism is undergoing a significant greening process. As Naomi Klein writes in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, there have even been growing examples of unions getting involved with direct environmental action, such as protesting against the XL oil pipeline in North America along with farmers and Indigenous people. Coalitions of such previously disparate groups are becoming more and more common. However, trade unions are still almost completely locked into the growth paradigm, which we can only assume is because of the “growth = jobs” narrative and the very real threat recession poses to job security.

In Trade Unions in the Green Economy (edited by Nora Rathzel and David Uzzell) there is a chapter by John Barry on the need to transition to not only a post-carbon but a post-growth economy. He writes that continual economic growth is not biophysically possible nor is it socially desirable, as it automatically creates inequality and is incapable of solving global poverty. Barry says the foundational values of the labour movement – equality and social justice – are incompatible with the dogma of economic growth, and that challenging capitalism at its core could “re-politicise, re-radicalise and revitalise” the trade union movement. He makes the very good point (based on several studies that he cites as well as Wilkinson and Pickett’s well-known thesis) that it is not economic growth per se that working people care about, but economic security and relative (not actual) wealth. He argues that an economy geared towards wellbeing and security (rather than growth and consumerism) could be both environmentally sustainable and compatible with the goals of the union movement. He calls for unionists to make their political demands within a post-growth context, and to get into the post-growth debate, which he says has so far been “largely the preserve of green activists”.

I don’t know to what extent his calls for trade unions to get into the post-growth paradigm has been heeded, but I can certainly agree with John Barry that the new discourses of green jobs and just transition have opened up exciting opportunities for coalition between the two movements. Additionally, I would like to see the post-growth movement reaching out to trade unions – especially those turning towards a “green growth” model – with the hope of re-sparking their foundational and radical critiques of capitalism and showing them how a post-growth economy can be one of justice, decent green jobs, economic security and high levels of wellbeing.

I really think the one major advantage citizens like us have over the profit-crazed super-rich corporate class is the power of numbers. To utilise that advantage, we need to network, organise and co-operate like never before. Workers, environmentalists and post-growth advocates are on the same side: it’s time to act like it.

Photo credit: Solar panels being installed in the US. Photo taken by Alex Snyder, creative commons licencing.

Tegan Tallulah

I'm a passionate sustainability enthusiast, blogger and digital marketer. I live in Brighton, UK, with my boyfriend and tortoise. Can usually be found reading, writing or eating chickpea burritos.

Tags: environmental movement, post-growth economy, social movements