Saturday, April 6, 2013

Trade Unions in the Green Economy: Working for the Environment

06 APRIL 2013

Need there be a conflict between jobs and climate change? The positions of trade unions internationally on problems of climate change and the environment is explored in a varied collection of articles, reviewed by Douglas Coker.

Trade Unions in the Green Economy: Working for the Environment, eds. Nora Rathzel and David Uzzell, foreword by Tim Jackson (Routledge: Earthscan, 2013), xiv, 238pp.

The threats from global warming and climate change are well established. Progress on implementing measures to mitigate global warming have been woefully inadequate and currently seem to have stalled completely. Governments at all levels have disappointed, business responses vary with much greenwash evident, so what, one might wonder, have trade unions been doing in response to the threat from global warming? This much needed book, Trade Unions in the Green Economy: Working for the Environment, provides some answers.

Edited by Nora Rathzel and David Uzzell with a foreword by Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity Without Growth, a wide range of authors contribute eighteen chapters in total. Academics dominate, senior staff from UN and trade union organisations contribute, and we have one contribution from a consultant, and last but not least one contribution from a Swedish autoworker (one of Gramsci's ‘organic intellectuals’?).

The political approaches taken by the authors are diverse, ranging from the light green to the altogether more radical and challenging. Similarly, the reporting on trade union activity and policy is from a wide range of countries including the US, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Brazil (the Amazon), Taiwan and South Korea.

You do not have to read much on global warming to come across some seriously scary information and in that respect this volume does not disappoint. Sean Sweeney in his chapter, ‘US trade unions and the challenge of “extreme energy”’, takes us through the tale of fossil fuel extraction from the Alberta tar sands in Canada, the transportation of this ‘unconventional’ fuel via pipeline all the way to refineries in Texas, the role played by the Tea-Party-supporting and ‘notoriously anti-union Koch Industries’ (p.198), in this process, and the response of the trade unions to all this. Sweeney reminds us that James Hansen, the leading NASA climate change scientist, has warned that exploiting these tar sands will result in an increase of 200ppm (parts per million) of CO2 in our atmosphere making it ‘game over’ with regard to ‘climate stabilisation’ (p.199). No wonder some campaigners demand we ‘leave it in the ground’.

However, the prevailing view taken by the key trade unions in all this supports jobs in the ‘jobs versus the environment’ debate. As Sweeney has it ‘trade unions’ support for Keystone XL [the tar sands pipeline extension] reflects an explicit industry-labour partnership designed to promote an extreme energy agenda with a public message built around the issue of jobs and energy independence’ (p.201). He continues by arguing that a few unions are working against the interests of ‘most of the world’s workers’ (p.201), and pursuing a course of action which will result in more global warming and more ‘political and economic power’ for big fossil fuel companies (p.201).

Sweeney was writing at the tail end of 2011. There have been major protests against this pipeline extension. However a 15 March, 2013 update from Suzanne Goldenberg, the Guardian’s US environment correspondent, contains the news that ‘on the most immediate environmental decision in his in-tray - the future of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project - White House officials indicated on Friday that Obama’s green and liberal supporters would be in for a disappointment. Officials signalled that the president was inclined to approvethe project’. Oh dear! Big fossil fuel backed by the state and supported by trade unions are taking us down a route which is just plain scary.

The ‘jobs versus the environment’ frame has featured prominently in recent decades but really does need to be thoroughly examined and interrogated. There are those who argue strongly that a red/green alliance is both possible and can provide us with a more optimistic view of the future. Verity Burgmann addresses this issue in her chapter, ‘From “jobs versus environment” to “green-collar jobs”: Australian trade unions and the climate change debate’. She reminds us that past Prime Minister Kevin Rudd objected to the rhetoric of ‘jobs versus environment’ and adds that it deliberately distracts attention from ‘the fact that capitalism destroys jobs and the environment’ (p.131). In explaining some recent history on the climate change debate she argues that ‘Australian unions were amongst the first in the world to push the issue of green jobs’ (p.133), and reports that ‘today, green employment initiatives are flourishing’ (p.135). Why have these arguments gained traction? In addition to mentioning Al Gore, Nicholas Stern’s Climate Report and Ross Garnaut (the Australian equivalent to Stern), she refers to recent extreme weather, record high temperatures, drought and floods, and adds that the recent financial crisis and recession have eroded trust in neo-liberal and free market solutions. All of which leads to the formulation of green New Deals in one form or another.

Burgmann draws heavily on documents from the Australian Council of Trade Unions but in doing so has to admit a watering down of initially strong positions partly as a result of concerns expressed by the Australian Workers’ Union, which represents workers in ‘aluminium smelters and other carbon-intensive industries’ (p.140). Generally, however, she makes a strong case to the effect that, properly addressed, the transition to a low carbon economy can be achieved, and she quotes Climate Connectors: ‘The good news is, it’s not “jobs or the environment”. Cutting pollution creates jobs’ (p.141). In conclusion, she caveats this by admitting that these initiatives do not present ‘any fundamental challenge to capitalism’ (p.144).

There are a number of other terms in this debate with which we are increasingly familiar but there is a tendency for them to be used as slogans. These need unpacking and interrogating. We need to go beyond the slogans. Dimitris Stevis in his contribution, ‘Green jobs? Good jobs? Just jobs? US labour unions confront climate change’, confirms that there is a very mixed picture with regard to US trade unions’ response to climate change with many negative features. On a more positive note he reports that, for instance, the BlueGreen Alliance supports ‘green jobs’. But in what ways are these ‘green jobs’ green? Stevis argues we need to take into account a range of factors in making our assessments. To what extent does the pursuit of localism help? The impact of supply chains needs to be investigated. Do we take account of the effects on ‘natural’ stakeholders as well as human stakeholders? Do we focus on ‘green processes [as well as] green products’ (p.187)? He continues in this vein with many searching questions including whether green jobs are just. Stevis concludes with this: ‘the US labour movement has not developed a “just transition” strategy that takes into account its structural role in the world economy. Rather, it has adopted a very particularistic approach that may well solve local problems by reproducing global inequalities’ (p.192).

So let us have a look at the term ‘just transition’. Increasingly widely used, it is an integral part of our own TUC’s approach to climate change. Darryn Snell and Peter Fairbrother in their chapter ‘Just transition and labour environmentalism in Australia’, present their view of what must be incorporated in any ‘just transition’. A return to ‘industrial planning’ is necessary; ‘unions, workers and local communities’ will contribute to this planning and ‘appropriate and decent jobs’ will result, there will be ‘training for displaced workers’ and in addition ‘“just transition” challenges the notion that a market-based solution … is the only solution’ (p.149). They make no claim this will be easy and ask how unions can influence the process. By way of illustrating the difficulty they point out that coal contributes 30% to Australia’s global trade and is also the main fuel used for generating the country’s electricity. They conclude that pursuing necessary and robust climate change policies may result in ‘an unjust outcome for workers and communities who are dependent on ‘polluting industries’. Consequently unions need to pursue a ‘new development model’ which incorporates fairness and equity (p.158).

Many will find all this seriously challenging. We really do need to consider dramatic changes to the way we live on this planet. Greens are sometimes accused of advocating a return to a lifestyle characterised as living in a cave lit by a candle. This is nonsense of course. However, the wide scope of this book allows the inclusion of perspectives which are not those of relatively comfortable inhabitants of developed western societies. Take Andrew Bennie’s chapter, ‘Questions for trade unions on land, livelihoods and jobs’. In a very detailed case study Bennie explores the tensions between the proposed extraction of minerals from sand dunes in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa and the ‘local ecosystems and the livelihoods of the affected population’ (p.104). The local population argue that mineral extraction is the ‘wrong kind’ of development (p.104). Further, our (‘western’) definitions and understanding of poverty are challenged. While too lengthy to quote fully here, the exchange between local people and a government minister is well worth reading (p.107). Bennie helps us by referencing the writer Alastair McIntosh’s early life in the Scottish Hebrides: ‘Our “poverty”, if it is that, is a dignified frugality, not the degrading destitution of economies where an elite harbours all the resources to profit from artificially maintained scarcities’ (p.107).

There are other contributions which explore challenges. Tim Jackson challenges the pursuit of traditional economic growth and his choice as the writer of the foreword is surely significant. What evidence is there that trade unions are paying enough attention to this crucial concern? Lars Henriksson, our ‘organic intellectual’, in his chapter, ‘Cars, crisis, climate change and class struggle’, opens with this blunt statement: ‘When the financial shit hit the fan in 2008, overproduction in the auto industry immediately became visible’ (p.78). Green house gas emissions from vehicles and peak oil mean the days of the automobile are numbered. The ‘… “green car” … is an illusion’ (p.79). Referencing war economies, Henriksson argues that the knowledge and skills of the auto industry could be diverting into sustainable production. He reminds us of the Lucas Aerospace workers who, in 1976, drew up an alternative corporate plan to produce socially usefully products instead of weaponry for the military. He understands that the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions challenges capitalism and the power of the corporations. Henriksson argues for a radical change in what we produce with a view to dramatically reducing emissions but stops short of addressing the issue of growth per se.

John Barry in his chapter, ‘Trade unions and the transition away from “actually existing unsustainability”’ does address the need to go ‘beyond economic growth to economic security’. Unfortunately, as his chapter title might suggest, his style is anything but blunt. His terminology is an example of academic obscurantism and his writing is less than transparent. However it is worth persevering because he has much to say that we need to consider. Trade unions have been ‘uncritical [in] embracing orthodox economic growth’ (p.227) and need to undergo a process of ‘repoliticisation, re-radicalisation and revitalisation’ (p.228). Barry then takes us on an excursion based on the writings of a certain Thomas Simon, which some might care to explore but seem to be about ‘reducing harm and focusing on helping the most vulnerable … without the need for some shared “blueprint” or “green-print” …’. However he does not eschew the idea of ‘an alternative economic vision’, (p.237), and admits ‘to pitching his argument at a theoretical and high strategic level’ (p.237). And of course he very usefully draws on the work of the NEF (New Economics Foundation), Wilkinson and Pickett of The Spirit Levelfame, Herman Daly (a proponent of zero growth economic models) and Tim Jackson.

Jackson’s key argument is that it is not possible to decouple economic growth from the growth of CO2emissions. This could be the most important statement in the whole book, and it is worth quoting Barry on Jackson: ‘For Jackson this decoupling is a “myth” and “assumptions that capitalism’s propensity for efficiency will allow us to stabilise the climate and protect against resource scarcity are nothing short of delusional”’ (p.234). Altogether, Barry is hard-hitting and argues persuasively that Green New Deal policies are ‘necessary but not sufficient’ (p.235). He also argues that the post-growth debate is one in which ‘the trade union and wider labour movements have yet to contribute’ (p.238).

This is a book best read selectively. The contributions from labour organisation ‘bureaucrats’ (chapters 2, 3 and 4) might be described as worthy but do tend to be somewhat self-serving. There is repetition throughout the book, maybe an inevitable consequence of commissioning eighteen chapters. There are outbreaks of excessive detail and obscure academic language. China (which emits the most CO2 taken by quantity alone) and Russia (which produces large quantities of subsidised fossil fuels) are only referred to in passing. Of course this, no doubt, has something to do with the nature of Chinese and Russian ‘trade unions’. But why also nothing of substance on the UK? This omission is less understandable. This could have been a different book. The authors could have focussed on the most important themes and distilled the best into 150 pages or so making all this more accessible to the general reader.

So, in conclusion, a couple of final thoughts. Some trade unions are very much aligned with business interests primarily with the aim of securing jobs. At the same time there are positive references to good trade union policy on climate change but how much of this policy translates into serious, concerted, effective action? After all, the biggest climate ‘criminals’ are easy to spot. How are we going to dismantle big finance, big advertising, big fossil fuel, big auto, big tourism, big bling and the rest?

Douglas Coker is an old lefty who gets the green agenda. He joined the Green Party in 2005 and is also active in The Enfield Alliance Against the Cuts and the United Nations Association.

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