A workshop on 'work and transition' at the Reclaim The Power protest camp in Balcombe, Sussex, was part of an ongoing conversation between the labour and climate movements. It is a conversation which, in Britain, has involved the historic links between the Reclaim the Streets movement and striking dock workers in the 1990s. Lucas Aerospace workers’ transition plan in the 1970s, which proposed to repurpose their socially and ecologically unsustainable factories to produce socially necessary goods.
With the climate movement reviving in the context of the government’s newfound mania for expanding fossil fuel energy generation and 'extreme energy' solutions like fracking, it is a conversation which must be had again with a new generation of activists.
The workshop aimed to give activists who might not have engaged with the labour movement before to learn about trade unions and workers’ organisations, and to discuss questions around workers’ agency in fighting climate change and the potential for worker-led models of transition.
Manuel Cortes, general secretary of transport union TSSA, spoke about the links between the fight for a top-quality, publicly-owned transport system and the fight against climate change. Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) assistant general secretary Chris Baugh introduced the Campaign Against Climate Change’s 'One Million Climate Jobs' pamphlet, a campaigning publication which argues for investment in and expansion of 'green collar' jobs in sustainable, socially-necessary industries like transport, social housing construction, and renewable energy.
PCS officer Clara Paillard recounted her experiences as a workplace environmental rep fighting for sustainability in the workplace, making links with local environmental campaigners to fight the construction of a privately-operated, for-profit waste incinerator in their local area. Green Party activist Derek Wall discussed models from economic theory, including Karl Marx and Elinor Ostrom, which could help develop a vision for democratic collectivism and a sustainable future.
I spoke to tell the story of Workers’ Climate Action (WCA), a direct-action solidarity network active between 2006 and 2010 which aimed to bring a working-class political approach to the climate movement and radical ecological politics to the labour movement. WCA sought to make links with workers in high-emissions industries like energy and aviation, because we knew that a conversation about transition was only possible from within a framework of basic solidarity with workers’ day-to-day struggles.
Small-group discussion in the workshop covered a range of topics. It would be disingenuous to deny the difficulty of discussing the potential power of aviation, construction, and energy workers in a workshop made up of participants who had little or no experience of working in such industries. However, with participants working as teachers, journalists, and in local government – all sectors and industries with high levels of trade union organisation – there was plenty of opportunity to discuss applying workplace and union-focused models of environmental activism to participants’ own workplaces and experiences, rather than seeing them solely as something we can engage some alien worker 'other' with.
The green bans movement
An episode that came up repeatedly in the discussions was Australian construction workers’ 'green bans' movement in the 1970s (in fact the movement that originated the use of the term 'green' in politics). The New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation union put 'green bans' on a number of socially and environmentally unsustainable construction sites, insisting that their skills would not be used to damage the environment and the interests of working-class communities. The confidence and power of the BLF to launch such a movement was built up over years of struggle, including within their own union, over issues as fundamental as the right to have access to toilets on construction sites.
The lesson is that by organising and fighting over issues of day-to-day exploitation, workers can develop sufficient confidence in our own power to fight for the transformation of our industries and for control over what our labour is used for.
The workshop discussion generated one particularly exciting aspiration: a workers’ 'green ban' on fracking sites. That aspiration is not going to be realised overnight. Work is hard to come by for everyone, union organisation in the construction industry is weak, and with many construction worker activists still suffering from the long-term effects of blacklisting, it’s a big task to try and persuade workers to refuse jobs. But if the climate movement can develop a solidaristic, rather than antagonistic, relationship with construction workers on fracking sites or on new fossil-fuel power plant construction projects, we can amplify that conversation and put that aspiration at its centre.
In the workshop, we discussed some small-scale recent precedents for this, including WCA’s work engaging with workers at Kingsnorth and Ratcliffe-on-Soar power stations (the targets of the 2007 Climate Camp and the 2009 Climate 'Swoop' respectively).
The workshop, and the ongoing conversation of which it was a part, speak to the very core of the climate movement’s politics. A systemic understanding of where climate change comes from necessarily implies an integral role for organised labour in fighting it. The exploitative relationship between workers and bosses that is at the essential core of capitalism causes ecological damage because it subordinates labour, the process which mediates humanity’s relationship to our environment, to the chaos of markets and the profit motive.
A working-class political economy for the environment sees organised labour as a privileged agent in fighting not only against the immediate effects of climate chaos but for a democratic-collectivist society based on democratic planning in the interests of human need. That society should be the common aim of both the environmental and labour movements. If it is, we can begin to dissolve the distinction between 'environmental activist' and 'trade union activist' and aspire to a common identity as class-struggle activists fighting for a democratic and sustainable society – in other words, for socialism.
This conversation is set to continue at a TUC fringe meeting this week: Unions and communities together against fracking and for one million climate jobs, Monday 9th September, Bournemouth
Australia’s red-green pioneers', a history of the New South Wales BLF’s 'green bans' movement, abridged from his 1999 PhD thesis Going Into Uncharted Waters.
Lessons from the past: Lucas Aerospace and workers’ plans, a WCA briefing on the Lucas Aerospace workers’ plan
Real Green Deal: Lessons of the Lucas Aerospace plans by Hilary Wainwright and Andy Bowman