Unions, Ecology and the Contradictions of Our Time

There is a contradiction between workers’ immediate self interest and the broader and more long term interests of other parts of humanity and nature. Forced to sell our labor power to survive, we are deprived of any real ability to control the economy. We love under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. Given nothing but lemons, the proletariat – even relatively well-paid parts of it – can only hope to make lemonade. This unfortunate fact leads to many complications in what, to the average radical, seems should be a simple formula of class struggle: class against class.

In fact, both major classes in the USA host struggles within themselves that sometimes make it seem like sections of the enemy class are more friendly to the interests of the proletariat than other proletarians are! For example, Ford hired black workers at a time when black migrants from the South sought economic opportunity and social freedom in the North, only to find that white workers did not welcome them in their jobs. To the black worker, Ford may have appeared more friendly than the white worker. WWII led to a great expansion of industry and unprecedented demand for labor, thus convincing millions of US workers of all colors that the war was a good cause. Meanwhile, US workers in uniform were conquering the globe for imperialism, just as their prior generation had in WWI. In the aftermath of one particularly militant strike, one famous robber baron once boasted that he could hire one half of the working the class to kill the other half (referring to professional strikebreakers). And of course let us not forget that, as Maria della Costa oted, there has never really been a truly “general” strike because even if all the men stopped working, the women still had to cook and clean the home.


It is a normal function of the capitalist division of labor to combine the proletariat as a class facing the same condition of propertylessness in an uneven manner, causing a tendency for workers to fight one section at a time. The uneven character of the class struggle, allows for victories to be gained in isolation from other sectors, and this way perpetuating the selfish interests at the cost of those sections of the class who stand idle.

Today, many parts of the industrial proletariat have been convinced that growing the economy is in their self interest, and therefore support harmful development projects. This makes it hard for radicals, with our all-around consciousness gained primarily through university education in the social sciences and liberal arts, to identify with workers as workers. After all, worker consciousness tends to focus on wages which are one part of capital. We hate this part of ourselves, of our class, that is dependent upon and under the dictate of the bosses.

There are two clear contemporary examples of blue collar workers supporting the bosses’ vision of the world, plan for development and growing the economy. In these we see the union leadership endorse capitalist projects, presumably with the overriding support from the rank and file.

The ILWU supports the expansion of coal because it means more jobs for its members who would be shipping it. The communities where coal passes through object to it. At the same time, the shipping companies are uniting in an unprecedented attack against the longshore workers.

This makes it hard for some radicals in the pacific northwest of the US who have in the past fought alongside port workers to offer the kind of support that the ILWU needs at a time when capital is trying to smash the strongest union in the country. Is it right for leftists to withhold solidarity on condition that the workers sacrifice hopes of economic security and embrace an ecological program? Following capital’s imperatives obediently, working class betrayal of the ecology is a general contradiction in the class struggle, one rooted in industrialism itself.

Here is one more example of the problem we confront, regarding the shortsightedness of union bureaucrats who do much to determine the consciousness of the ranks beneath them.

The AFL-CIO Executive Council has just issued a statement supporting expansion of the U.S. pipeline system — which in the current context can only be interpreted as supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, and the Building Trades Council immediately issued a statement applauding the AFL-CIO’s action (see below).

In the cases of both the coal terminals and the oil pileline, Native peoples’ land is being violated and they have raised protests against these developments.

Socialist John Bellamy Foster has written extensively about Marx’s notion of the “metabolic rift”, wherein capitalist development, unleashed by industrialization, initiated a divide between humanity as a whole and nature. This bifurcation between humanity and nature was unprecedented, even in Europe. Sylvia Federici has written about the ideological shifts that accompanied this same transition from a natural (yet oppressive and class divided) economy to a capitalist one, noting the demonization of women as animalistic beings as well as the rise of a “scientific” outlook that interpreted nature as machine.

Our epoch of renewed revolutionary upheaval will have to be defined by worker control of all of production, with the understanding that production occurs in the workplace as well as outside of the workplace, in the home, and in the earth. Workers will have to understand the earth’s ecosystems as a model of governance to imitate, with its self regulating mechanisms and inherent recycling properties.

Revolutionaries who adopt an earth-based model for revolutionary renewal of humanity, have the responsibility of a) proving their solidarity to workers in all their struggles against capital and b) producing alternative solutions to the problems workers seek to solve with the boss’ program. In the US, we seem to be lacking the second part of this equation. Therefore, the most eco-conscious amongst us are in a bit of a catch-22 which is, put crudely, “support workers or support native people and the environment?”

Do those radicals in the Pacific Northwest who confront a capitalist attack on the ILWU and an ILWU that supports the further degradation of our planet with dirty coal and further tramples indigenous sovereignty have a positive program to offer the workers who are driven in their support for expanded coal export not by hate for mother earth and native peoples, but by a desire to have good pay and consistent work? Does anyone else anywhere in the US have such a program? If so, by what means is it being spread, fought for, implemented?

In South Africa, workers have started to reject bureaucratic trade union “leadership” to form worker committees that seek to control production. Ecologically-minded socialists in the Democratic Left Front are pushing for lay-offs at the platinum mines there be reversed, for the mines to be under public ownership, for these committees to control the mines and what they produce in conjunction with community organizations. Whats more, the DLF recommend platinum be mined for use in “green” technologies such as fule cells and catalytic converters. This is one example of ways worker’s self interest can move through phases of defending unions, transforming them , and eventually superseding them with new forms of organization that have correspondingly new programmatic content. Ultimately, all talk of environmentalism and respect for indigenous lands is hollow if the worker’s movement is not supported and pushed in its trajectory toward seizing political power.

To insist on ecological consciousness in addition to anti racism and rejection of patriarchal norms as prerequisites to supporting workers struggles is ultra-vanguardist arrogance. To support workers struggles without offering an alternative plan to that proposed by the bosses is base opportunism. The left as a whole remains trapped between these twin pitfalls to this very day. AS is no exception, but we recognize the problem and are humbly stumbling toward the answers with the help of our allies and friends.

AFL-CIO Executive Council Backs Keystone XL Pipeline

February 28, 2013
Steven Greenhouse
Thursday, February 28, 2013

ORLANDO — The A.F.L.-C.I.O., the nation’s largest federation of unions, has issued an apparent endorsement of the Keystone XL oil pipeline — apparent because it enthusiastically called for expanding the nation’s pipeline system, without specifically mentioning Keystone.

And while some union leaders said the federation’s stance stopped short of an official endorsement, the nation’s building trades unions — eager for the thousands of jobs the pipeline would create — issued a statement saying the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s stance was a clear endorsement of the Keystone pipeline.

The labor federation’s embrace of the pipeline, even with some ambiguity, will give President Obama some political cover as he weighs whether to approve the pipeline, which would carry more than 700,000 barrels of Canadian crude oil each day to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.

But the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s move is likely to strain the alliances that organized labor has sought to build with the environmental groups that are battling the pipeline.

Those groups oppose it because it would carry oil derived from tar sands in a process that, compared with other forms of oil production, is dirtier and releases more carbon dioxide.

Gathered in Florida for its annual winter meeting, the executive committee of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. said it supported a comprehensive energy policy that fostered energy security, created jobs and addressed the threat of climate change.

The full New York Times article can be accessed by clicking here. The AFL-CIO Executive Council statement follows:

xl-keystone-protest-628AFL-CIO Statement on Energy and Jobs

February 26, 2013

The AFL-CIO supports a comprehensive energy policy focused on investing in our nation’s future, creating jobs and addressing the threat of climate change. It is clear that for the foreseeable future our nation will continue to use a wide range of energy sources—including both traditional sources like coal, oil and natural gas, and newer sources like wind, solar and nuclear. Any serious effort to tackle climate change must begin with ensuring we use a range of tools, including policy incentives and technology, to make our economy more energy efficient and by doing so to minimize greenhouse gas emissions from all of these sources.

A key part of this challenge relates to the systems by which we transport energy. These systems—our transmission lines and pipelines, freight rail and waterways—are vital parts of our nation’s infrastructure. But like our roads and bridges, they have been allowed to decay, to become outmoded and to be outpaced by demand. As new sources of energy come on line—from wind to natural gas to new oil fields—new, properly designed and safe infrastructure must be built to transport that energy to market. In particular, pipelines—when properly designed, manufactured, installed and maintained by skilled workers—are a low carbon emissions method of transporting oil and natural gas. In addition, pipelines lower the cost of the fuel they carry compared with other forms of transportation, making that fuel more economically attractive. And pipelines create jobs—in the manufacture of the pipe, the laying of the pipe, the maintaining of the pipe and the economic activity that springs up in the wake of reliable supplies of energy and chemical feedstocks.

However, when our energy infrastructure is allowed to decay, it becomes a threat—a public safety threat as shown by natural gas explosions in California and Kansas City, an environmental threat both in terms of toxic leaks and the release of methane and other powerful agents of global warming, and an economic threat as the efficiency of our domestic energy production is diminished. In Massachusetts alone, pipeline leakage is estimated to cost natural gas ratepayers $40 million per year. As a result of allowing our pipeline infrastructure to decay, leaks from pipelines have become a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and a totally preventable one.

The AFL-CIO supports the expansion of our pipeline infrastructure and a much more aggressive approach to the repair of our more than 2.5 million miles of existing pipelines. Repair and buildout of the natural gas pipeline system alone has been estimated by the INGAA Foundation as likely to create, on average, 125,000 jobs a year between now and 2035.

The AFL-CIO supports measures that ensure pipeline and other energy infrastructure development creates good jobs and builds America’s industrial base—project labor agreements, Buy Union and Buy America provisions, and robust training requirements for both installers and repairers of pipelines.

There are immediate steps that could be taken by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration under the newly enacted Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011, to accelerate repairing our nation’s energy infrastructure. These steps should be an area in which business, labor and the environmental community can unite around improvements to our nation’s energy infrastructure that make business more efficient, create good, skilled jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

More broadly, the AFL-CIO and the global labor movement, in looking at the challenge of energy policy in a warming world, have embraced the notion of just transition. As the mix of energy sources used in the world economy changes, workers in the energy and industrial sectors are at risk of bearing the full cost of that change. Without a comprehensive, legislative approach to energy and jobs, there is no way to make the necessary investments in new energy technologies that can create new good jobs, to provide a just transition for workers and their communities that will be harmed due to changing energy sources and technologies, or to make the investments needed to power our nation’s long-term economic competitiveness.

For these reasons the United States desperately needs a comprehensive jobs and energy policy—a policy that only can be put into place by legislation. Our nation’s need for a comprehensive, job-creating energy policy only has grown over time. The AFL-CIO calls on President Obama and Congress to move forward with such an effort in 2013.

Finally, in view of the seriousness of these issues for the long-term competitiveness of the United States, for our ability to create jobs and for the environmental sustainability of our society, the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO is establishing an Energy Committee to focus our work on energy, joebs and the environment, and to develop deeper expertise and leadership on energy and environmental issues and their broader implications for working people.

To view the statement at the AFL-CIO website, click here. The statement of the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department follows:

2 responses to “Unions, Ecology and the Contradictions of Our Time

  1. AS asks a very good question about the need for and availability of a positive program to present to workers (as well as others). In the first issue of Insurgent Notes (http: insurgentnotes.com ) we outlined the beginnings of a positive program that could be implemented after a transfer of power. We reprint it below:

    implementation of a program of technology export to equalize upward the Third World.
    creation of a minimum threshold of world income.
    dismantling of the oil-auto-steel complex, shifting to mass transport and trains.
    abolish the bloated sector of the military; police; state bureaucracy; corporate bureaucracy; prisons; FIRE; (finance- insurance- real estate); security guards; intelligence services; cashiers and toll takers.
    taking the huge mass of labor power freed by this to radically shortening of the work week
    crash programs around alternative energy: (in the long run, if possible) nuclear fusion power, solar, wind, etc.
    application of the “more is less” principle to as much as possible (examples: satellite phones supersede land-line technology in the Third World, cheap CDs supersede expensive stereo systems, etc.).
    a concerted world agrarian program aimed at using food resources of North America and Europe and developing Third World agriculture.
    integration of industrial and agricultural production, and the breakup of megalopolitan concentration of population. This implies the abolition of suburbia and exurbia, and radical transformation of cities. The implications of this for energy consumption are profound.
    automation of all drudgery that can be automated.
    generalization of access to computers and education for full global and regional planning by the associated producers
    free health and dental care.
    integration of education with production and reproduction.
    the shift of R&D currently connected with the unproductive sector into productive use
    the great increase in productivity of labor will as make as many basic goods free as quickly as possible, thereby freeing all workers involved in collecting money and accounting for it.
    a global shortening of the work week.
    centralization of everything that must be centralized (e.g use of world resources) and decentralization of everything that can be decentralized (e.g control of the labor process within the general framework)
    measures to deal with the atmosphere, most importantly the phasing out of fossil fuel use by 3 and

    There may well be some short-term possibilites for drawing on elements of that outline to articulate useful suggestions for the immediate situation. But, more important, we should be clear–there is no real positive program short of the replacement of capitalism by socialism/ communism. That would be a very positive thing to say to all concerned.


  2. Karen Silkwood

    I don’t know how to say this politely, but there’s something very, very seriously wrong with you and your ilk if you want “nuclear fusion power.” Advocating technological fixes to apocalyptic ecological problems make you an ally of bourgeois reactionaries and my enemy. [moderator snip] what side are you *really* on?

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