‘Jobs or the Environment’ Is a False Choice Deployed by the Right

Good jobs, clean air.

by Polly Smythe

1 May 2024

Striking workers at Grangemouth oil refinery in 2008. REUTERS/David Moir
Striking workers at Grangemouth oil refinery in 2008. REUTERS/David Moir

Hurray hurray, the first of May, the holiday that comes from below. The festival marks the start of spring, and since the 1880s, demands from the labour movement for an eight-hour day. Rather than seeing these as two separate histories – the maypole and the strike – May Day reminds us that the struggle to build a better world runs through both the red trade union movement and the green environmental movement.

Take AI. Its rollout risks a technological shift that could automate away thousands of jobs in the Global North, while relying on outsourced, exploited, and underpaid labour across the Global South to function. Fossil fuel bosses are busy briefing the FT that the electricity needed to power the “AI revolution” could usher in a “golden era for natural gas.” In Querétaro, Mexico, the scarce water supply is being sucked up by data centres and chip manufacturing facilities. At a 2022 protest against the water crisis, one sign read: “it’s not drought but plunder.” Here, ecological and labour exploitation intersect.

So how is it that two of the most powerful challengers to capitalism – the red labour movement and green environmental movement ­– all too often find themselves pitted against each other?

Fearful of a red-green united front, politicians and corporations have set the two movements against each other. During last October’s United Auto Workers strike against the big three US automakers, Donald Trump told non-union manufacturing workers in Michigan: “You can be loyal to American labour, or you can be loyal to the environmental lunatics, but you can’t really be loyal to both. It’s one or the other.”

This framing – jobs versus the environment – has long been deployed by the right, who use it to attack environmental action by portraying it as a threat to employment. In setting the two movements against each other, the right frees itself to rip up climate legislation while simultaneously taking credit for protecting jobs.

Corporations are similarly quick to seize on the “jobs” narrative. If businesses oppose environmental regulation on the basis that it threatens shareholder returns, they are unlikely to tug at many heartstrings. But if they make workers the face of public opposition, they’re likely to get much more sympathy.

Case in point: in justifying its decision to grant new North Sea oil and gas licences to companies including BP and Shell, the government has repeatedly asserted that the sector supports 200,000 British jobs. Up until last month, that number was reliably trotted out to silence the outrage of climate scientists and tens of thousands of people throughout the UK outraged at the decision.

But it has since been revealed that the number was not an independently verified government statistic. Instead, it was an industry figure, provided by Offshore Energies UK. David Whitehouse, chief executive of the industry body, had previously attacked Labour’s proposed windfall tax on oil and gas on the basis that the party hadn’t “considered the alarming jobs impact that will be felt up and down the country.”

A simple response to those hoping to drive a wedge between the two movements was given by the United Steelworkers of America in 1990: “In the long run, the real choice is not jobs or environment. It’s both or neither.” It is important to reject the jobs versus the environment narrative, and the division of the two movements it risks.

But not all conflict between red and green movements can be chalked up to manufactured hostility stoked by corporations and the right. Within trade unions, there has always been a tension between serving the immediate interests of members and the broader interests of all working people. It’s a tension made sharper by declining membership and vicious assaults on workers’ standard of living.

For unions directly impacted by the transition away from carbon-intensive industries, there’s a suspicion that reducing emissions means losing jobs. Gary Smith, the GMB’s general secretary, has called net zero a “fundamentally quite a middle-class environmental debate,” and demanded that Keir Starmer abandon Labour’s proposed ban on granting new North Sea oil and gas licences.

As Rebekah Diski, a researcher on trade unions and climate breakdown points out, the pretence of isolating members’ interests from the world outside of work collapses in light of the existential threat of ecological breakdown: “What about workers’ interests in breathing clean air? Or in protection from floods, droughts, and social breakdown?”

But without convincing examples of decarbonisation close at hand, trade unions’ defence of members’ interests remain informed by experiences of previous disappointments. Thatcher’s assault on trade unions and the legacies of deindustrialisation have made secure and unionised work scarce.

Watching the startlingly unjust transitions unfolding at Port Talbot and Grangemouth, many workers see the trajectory of the green industrial transition as mirroring the decimation of coal industry and steel in the 1980s and 90s. Community and the GMB are balloting for industrial action at the Welsh steelworks, with Unite steelworkers having already voted for strike action. This should be a wakeup call: without action by the red and green movements, hopes for a transition that is genuinely just will be shattered.

The rallying cry of May Day is “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” Today, as we celebrate workers’ deliberate decision to down tools, we must renew our struggle over the kind of world we want to build, and the work that will make that possible. Just as the labour movement fought for the eight-hour day and the weekend, it now makes the call for a four-day workweek with no loss of pay – which in turn can reduce carbon emissions.

As a former Detroit automaker put it in a poem in 1980: “So, on this first of May we should all say / that we will either make it or break it / Or, to put this thought another way / let’s take it easy, but let’s take it.”

Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.

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