Solidarity and the Environment

“Exploited workers and an exploited planet are, it turns out, a package deal.” —Naomi Klein

Brian Charlton

Photo by Brian Charlton

We have a problem. Humans and our present economic system of corporate capitalism are slowly and irrevocably destroying the Earth. The only way the destruction can be stopped is for a majority of humanity to take concrete actions now; however, we cannot do that as long as we allow ourselves to be divided into distrustful (and at times hostile) camps. Unless two of the largest and most influential movements of the past century – the labour movement and the environmental movement – can find common ground and build a united front, we and our descendants are going to suffer terribly.

Some history

Unions are not some “Johnny come lately” to the environmental cause. From the “right to roam” societies that campaigned in the 1930s to maintain access to England’s common lands to the early battles against toxins in the workplace during the 1920s in the U.S., workers and their organizations have been front and centre. People don’t often think of workers’ health and safety as an environmental issue, but (for example) the toxins and pollutants poisoning tanners and pulp and paper workers at work were the same poisons polluting the workers’ communities.

As Joseph Yablonski of the United Mine Workers stated back in 1968, “Unions represent men and women who are part of communities, are citizens of states and a nation. The public environment affects the wellbeing of miners and their families. What good is a union that reduces coal dust in mines only to have miners and their families breathe pollutants in the air, drink pollutants in the water and eat contaminated commodities?”

Over the past 55 years of the modern environmental movement, trade unions have, at various times, both supported and attacked measures to stop pollution, to preserve wilderness areas, and now to mitigate climate change.

In his paper, “A Brief History of the Relations between the US Labor and Environmental Movements (1965-2010),”  Jean-Baptiste Velut explores the beginnings of “blue-green solidarity”:

“[The] United Auto Workers sponsored the historic Earth Day in 1970 – a nationwide demonstration designed to raise environmental awareness. Other symbolic signs of nascent blue-green solidarity was labor support for a series of pioneering environmental laws including the National Environmental Policy Act (1969) which made the federal government responsible for assessing the environmental impact of federal projects.”

“What good is a union that reduces coal dust in mines only to have miners and their families breathe pollutants in the air, drink pollutants in the water and eat contaminated commodities?”

Another time of collaboration and joint action was during the anti-globalization campaigns of the 1990s. With multinationals seeking cheap labour and zero environmental regulations overseas, trade agreements were struck to circumvent the very regulations that had been enacted with pressure from an earlier united front of environmentalists and union activists. The “Battle of Seattle,” where “Steelworkers and sea turtles” joined together to shut down the World Trade Organization was the culmination of a long period of organizing that included face-to-face meetings, workshops, and demonstrations.

There were other periods when the divide was wide. With the oil crisis and economic turmoil of 1973, “jobs vs. environment” rhetoric severely damaged blue-green alliances. Here in BC, the “war in the woods” of the early 1990s pitted forestry workers against people out to stop the practices of clear cutting and logging of old growth. It got very ugly and poisoned the relationship between unions and environmental NGOs for many years.

Today we are facing the very same divide around tar sands and pipelines, with building-trade unions in both Canada and the US supporting right wing politicians in exchange for jobs for their members. There are plenty of unions that see the shortsightedness of that deal, and it is leading to a serious rift within the labour movement.


What is the labour movement?

Wikipedia defines the labour movement as “the collective organization of working people [to] campaign for better working conditions and treatment from their employers and, by the implementation of labour and employment laws, their government.” That collective is made up primarily of trade unions, but also includes political parties and groups.

While the labour movement is far from monolithic (even national labour centrals like the Canadian Labour Congress are more of a federation, with each union autonomous), unions tend to fall somewhere along the spectrum of two general approaches, depending on their history, their leadership, and the kind of industry they are in.

Unions that practice “business unionism” tend to focus on bread and butter issues like pay and work rules, to see unionism as insurance for the workers, and to be more conservative, both politically and socially. The leadership often tends to identify with the employer. They tend to be predominantly male (in the past mostly white) and concentrated in the resource or construction trades. The other stream is “social unionism,” which believes that unions need to be involved not just on the work floor. So they are active politically, and often involved in social movements. They tend to take a more adversarial approach with the employer, and the membership tends to be mixed gender or predominantly female, and racially diverse.

There are a couple of things to remember about unions. Unlike many civil society organizations, unions do not choose their members. The employer hires them and unions have a legal duty to represent all workers in their bargaining unit or workplace. The other thing to remember is that with some variations, unions are democratic. Members vote on leadership, the union’s policies and constitution, and collective agreements. In certain unions, even unemployed members can vote if they maintain their membership.

The way unions are structured and function is considerably different than environmental NGOs. Jean-Baptiste Velut explains: “Since the late 1960s … the environmental network has become increasingly diverse…. Today grassroots environmentalism functions as a loosely structured movement with three overlapping, but distinct levels of organizations: community based groups, regional or statewide coalitions, and national organizations…. Apart from their organizational structure environmental groups also vary considerably in their ideological orientation.”



Besides the different way unions and environmental groups are structured, one of the first obstacles is the different functions they have. Environmental groups have one main focus – the environment. Unions, especially in a political climate of austerity and neoliberalism, have to be dealing with a number of issues confronting their members, from local grievances to privatization and outsourcing, to adverse labour legislation. It not only stretches resources but also leads to conflicting priorities.

Another obstacle is “class” – the economic and social hierarchies of our society. Many workers see the environmental movement as essentially a middle class movement whose main concern is green spaces for their kids, and who have more empathy for seals, whales and giant firs than for unemployed carpenters. The fact that this is a misconception doesn’t mean it is not a factor.

Of course, the biggest obstacle of all is the “jobs versus environment” scam that has been hindering the necessary unity since the beginning. While we know a green economy will result in more jobs overall being created, there will be industries where workers will lose their jobs – especially the fossil fuels industry.

Related to the class issue is the propensity of many environmental organizations to lean on private market solutions and the good will of corporations. Ideas such as state and cooperative enterprises (or variations thereof) being used as alternatives for more direct interventions don’t appear to be given any consideration. Of course, many in the trade union movement seem to lack that same vision.

Of course, the biggest obstacle of all is the “jobs versus environment” scam that has been hindering the necessary unity since the beginning. While we know a green economy will result in more jobs overall being created, there will be industries where workers will lose their jobs – especially the fossil fuels industry.

Sociologist Dr. Brian Obach explains the fraud succinctly: “Workers are not typically the lead opponents in environmental measures. Environmental movement organizations are more commonly pitted against private industry executives who wish to avoid costs and constraints of environmental regulation. It is when industries need allies in opposition to environmental measures that workers are drawn into the fray. Employers seek to enlist workers to rally against measures using the threat that less profit may result in layoffs or a complete shutdown. Knowing that a threat to corporate profits will not move the public, a more sympathetic victim is necessary to win public support and workers are the obvious group for this purpose.”


The way forward

With Trump wreaking havoc on both the environment and workers’ rights, and Trudeau’s Liberals backtracking on their campaign promises, it is hard to be optimistic. However, progress is being made. There are a number of alliances or coalitions, such as the Blue Green Alliance, the One Million Climate Jobs campaign, and Iron and Earth, which  have led to direct collaborations between union activists and environmental activists, allowing for free exchange of ideas and strategies.

For unions, some fundamental changes are needed. In their paper “Mending the Breach Between Labour and Nature: Environmental Engagements of Trade Unions and the North-South Divide,” Nora Rathzel and David Uzzell posit that “A transformation of unions would mean that they do not merely react to the capitalist crises, trying to defend the achievements of their past struggles, but would instead embark on new struggles in which they become the inventors of new forms of production. Comprehensive union policies that merge the protection of workers and the protection of nature have several implications for trade union policies. They require that unions reinvent themselves as social movements, aiming not only to improve member’s lives but to take part in transforming societies and the present economic system. This implies a need to build alliances with environmental movements.”

Some unions have already taken that step. In 2011, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers proposed that the new contract include an article that would require the parties to work together to reduce the Corporation’s environmental footprint. It was rejected by Canada Post management. Last year, along with a number of other organizations, they launched the ‘Delivering Community Power’ project that called for conversion of the country’s largest vehicle fleet to electrical power and public charging stations at all post offices, among other ideas aimed at making post offices community hubs.

Environmental groups also need to transform themselves. They can no longer just campaign to end an unsustainable practice or a dirty industry, be successful, and then walk away. They also need to be there to help deal with the fallout. They need to support frameworks like “Just Transition” that call for economic and educational assistance to displaced workers. They need to engage with workers and their unions directly, even ones that are resistant or even hostile to that dialogue.

We must not sugarcoat the difficulties ahead. Let us not exaggerate the obstacles either, or conclude they are unbridgeable. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted back in 2007, “We have options but the past is not one of them.”

Brian Charlton was president of the Vancouver Local of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (1989-96) and the Education and Organization Officer for the Pacific Region of CUPW (1996-2002). He lives in Courtenay, BC.

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