Want to Save the Climate Justice Movement? Join a Union

by Chris Saltmarsh

24 August 2018

10 10/Flickr

During a summer defined by predictions of a “hothouse” earth and with unprecedented heat making the working and living conditions of the average Brit close to unbearable, social media has been awash with directionless cries to ‘do something’ about runaway climate change.

Despite wildfires blazing from Lancashire to Athens to California, most governments still fail to act. The narrative among activists around the landmark Paris negotiations back in 2015 was that we would abandon nation states’ failed bureaucratic talking shops and use the conference’s accompanying mass mobilisation as a springboard into escalating action for radical demands.

But almost three years on, not enough has changed. As the public takes note of the urgency of the crisis, the climate movement lacks unifying and practically implementable demands to get us on the path to climate justice (beyond the overarching abstractions of a decarbonised economy, 100% renewables and vague allusions to a just transition). We are without an organisational structure to welcome this concerned public and channel their erratic fear of climate breakdown into sustained action.

This barrier to mass movement building is only heightened by the widespread framing of the climate crisis as arising within the ‘anthropocene’. The myth that human civilisation has caused ecological breakdown misdirects popular attention away from the true structural root of the climate crisis and often towards misanthropic false solutions such as limiting family size or deindustrialisation towards primitive ways of living.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that despite their rich respective histories there’s been a clear split between climate and labour organising. The two traditions have had divergent political and organisational traditions, not to mention a mutual suspicion of each other. Among unions there is an understandable blockage to fully integrating into the climate movement, as the defining symbol of decades of labour movement disempowerment in this country is the jobs lost in coal mining (from which the afflicted communities are yet to recover). For trade unionists fighting the precarity workers currently endure, organising for anything beyond maximising employment and rights in the short term is seen as a privilege enjoyed by middle-class environmentalists.

However, this split between the climate and labour movements need not be the case. Against the ‘anthropocene’, Jason W. Moore argues our dangerous new geological epoch should be called the ‘capitalocene’. Clunky nomenclature aside, Moore identifies that at the core of capitalism’s imperative to accumulate is a symbiosis between the exploitation of workers and the unsustainable appropriation of natures by capital. It is the capitalist system we must confront to win climate justice, not human civilisation, and the climate and labour movements therefore need not pit themselves against each other. Instead, we can converge around our shared antagonism with capital and name as our enemy its drive to reproduce itself through the relentless pursuit of profit at the expense of lives, livelihoods and traditional cultures and relationships to nature. From this, we can co-develop shared demands and a strategy to break free.

In recent weeks, unions have shown they can successfully organise around issues outside of the workplace. As trade unions such as the RMT and the FBU respond urgently to the rise of the far-right, it becomes clear that anti-fascism is not a fringe affectation, but an essential component of class struggle in the twenty-first century. The same must be understood of climate justice. Climate breakdown is an assault by capital on the global poor and working class and must be struggled against accordingly. It is an existential necessity for the labour movement to take it as seriously as exploitation in the workplace and fascism on our streets.

For the future prosperity of the global poor and working class, climate justice and just transition to a zero-carbon society must become mainstream demands of the labour movement akin to safe working conditions, higher pay and universal public services. Without organising to lay the groundwork for this alternative, workers will be the losers when the carbon bubble bursts precipitating a fresh financial crisis, where losses will again be socialised after decades of climate change’s profits being privatised.

Work is already being done to bridge the gap between the climate and labour movements, such as by the Campaign Against Climate Change’s trade union group, by unions (including PCS) opposing Heathrow expansion, and by many supporting anti-fracking campaigns. But it’s rare to find a climate campaigner active in their union, and labour movement involvement in climate organising remains limited. Our challenge is to scale this solidarity beyond specific smaller unions or the fringes of larger ones. We can only be satisfied when our movements are practically inseparable in membership, strategy and demands.

Climate organisers should begin by getting active in our own unions. A union membership drive within the climate movement alongside practical solidarity with workers in dispute with their bosses would begin to lay the foundations for more strategic co-planning and organising for a just transition. We must understand unions not as another interest group to ‘get involved’ in climate activism, but as the essential collective vehicle through which we will win justice for all affected by the climate crisis. This is how will we move beyond decades residing in the fringes of political discourse and bring our grand ambitions into sight.

With a Tory government forcing an unwanted fracking industry upon us while a new European dash for gas and major pipelines are being forced on indigenous communities in North America, we urgently need to mobilise unions’ political funds and institutional structures and incubate a radical programme of proposals necessary for just transition to zero-carbon economy. This is the moment the direct action campaigns of the climate movement must strategically align with unions’ tactics of industrial action to achieve those aims. Only this way can we protect our climate from new extractive infrastructure while demanding a renewable energy revolution for the many and not the few.

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