In the Global South, environmental movements are often an integral part of working-class struggles against capitalist expropriation and exploitation. But the ruling classes have not only gradually co-opted workers, they have also managed to polarize them (migrants vs. natives, unionized vs. non-unionized, factory vs. farm), turning the idea of a unified “working class” on its head and also undermining forms of eco-solidarity, argues Silpa Satheesh in her contribution to BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series, focusing on struggles in Kerala, India.
In a neoliberal capitalist world, an alliance between labor and environmental groups seems strategic to fight capitalist appropriation, at least conceptually. But labor-environment relations are often characterized by conflict rather than cooperation. The standoff between trade unions and grassroots environmental movements is further complicated in the context of countries in the Global South, given the history of colonial domination and the onslaught of neo-colonial forms of control in the present. This essay examines the interface between industrial workers’ unions and a local environmental movement in Kerala, a southern Indian state. A history of working-class struggles, communist governments and a unique development model make Kerala an interesting site for understanding the complicated relationship between these two movements with class in mind.
Labor-environmental conflicts: A view from the Global South
Conflicts between labor organizations and environmentalists are often considered as a job vs. nature trade-off between working-class unions and middle-class environmentalists. A closer analysis of the nature and composition of environmental movements would reveal the limitations of such an understanding, mainly because many of the grassroots environmental movements in the Global South are working-class struggles (including poor and marginalized dissenting groups).
Mobilized from the margins, these struggles highlight the linkages between material and environmental consequences of capitalist accumulation. In other words, these movements highlight how the destruction of nature derails the lives and livelihoods of workers in resource-dependent communities. The reliance on common pool resources for everyday survival makes the traditional fish workers or farm workers more susceptible to the damage caused by capitalist plunder. Therefore, it is important to place labor-environmental conflicts within this larger backdrop to gather contextual information to ponder on the possibility of building bridges.
Tensions between Unions and Greens in Kerala
The Eloor-Edayar industrial region in Kerala was created in the name of factory jobs and local development. The chemical industries, which occupied the banks of the Periyar River in large numbers, soon started discharging untreated effluents into the river, which was not accidental but deliberate as the site was chosen because of the availability of water. The Periyar Malineekarana Virudha Samithi (Periyar Anti-Pollution Campaign, hereafter PMVS) was formed in response to this sudden increase in industrial pollution that brought daily life to a standstill. Protests began as early as the 1970s, but a more organized form of struggle emerged in the late 1990s with the formation of PMVS by a group of individuals active in the leftist movement.
What distinguishes the PMVS from the mainstream understanding of environmentalism as a post-materialist phenomenon is its strong working-class orientation rooted in Marxism. The confluence of material and ecological grievances is further reinforced in the protest repertoire and campaign materials produced by the movement, which condemn the release of toxins into the local ecology and the contamination of drinking water sources. The resulting discoloration of river water and fish kills have affected the daily catch of traditional fishermen, not to mention dwindling sales due to safety concerns. The mass participation of villagers, including inland fisherfolk and agricultural workers, in the early stages of the struggle indicates that the PMVS successfully problematized and framed the issue of clean air and water alongside the livelihoods of resource-dependent workers.
However, the rise of a local environmental movement soon led to the strengthening of a counter-movement comprising the region’s industrial workers’ unions, the Standing Council of Trade Unions (SCTU). What makes the tensions between the PMVS and the SCTU peculiar is the presence of workers on both sides of the conflict, and even more so the dominance of workers broadly aligned with the political left. The trade union collective offers a strong rebuttal to the Greens, using the loss of jobs in the region due to the closure of polluting industries. The trade union collective’s frames are not limited to protecting the rights of industrial workers, but extend to discrediting and delegitimizing the local environmental movement through labels such as “anti-national” and “pseudo-environmentalism.”
When asked about claims of job loss, PMVS members explained, “We never say that industries must close… How can you even take such a stand? The company must operate…but it must control pollution. That’s all we’re saying!” Adding to the argument, Greens point out that “jobs” are often singularly categorized as factory work by the union collective. Citing the tens of thousands of inland fishermen who depend on the river, environmental actors reiterate the importance of defining and conceptualizing work beyond the factory floor, especially in a country where 80% find work in the informal sector.
The tensions between unions and environmentalists also expose the dominance of institutionalized unions in collective bargaining and access to the regional state, while precarious workers who often lack social or employment security, including interstate migrant workers, fall through the cracks. Aftab, a member of the local environmental collective Janajagratha (People’s Vigilante), recounted how industries swept under the carpet the death of an interstate migrant worker inside the factories:
“Such incidents won’t see the light…Soon after the accident, they would rush them to the hospital along with the union leaders…once the worker is declared dead, they will move the body to the government mortuary in General Hospital. We have heard people complain that the bodies of these deceased workers are sent home in wooden boxes without even embalming them. The compensation offered is very meagre, they will be given something around Rs.25,000 (285 Euros).”
The excerpt underscores the complicity of trade unions, where instead of fighting for the rights of the deceased worker, they join hands with the capitalist. In other words, there is a clear hierarchy of workers within the institutionalized unions depending on the status of the worker: i.e., migrant vs. native, unionized vs. non-unionized, factory vs. farm, or more broadly an idea of “us” vs. “them.” This complicates the idea surrounding worker solidarity, class-for-itself, and class-consciousness as the unions appear as sectarian organizations serving only their “members.” The graded hierarchy among workers as a category is hard to miss and turns the idea of “working class” as used in the lexicons of communist politics upside down. The bottom line is that unionized workers have more power and often exclude non-unionized workers, even in the face of occupational hazards and death.
The left and the environment in Kerala
The absence of an alliance between unions and the green movement in Kerala is interesting because both movements are, or were, ostensibly opposed to a common enemy, capitalism and its ruthless exploitation. Perhaps the tensions can be explained in terms of the shifting class politics in the state and the presence of many variants of left politics and their adherents. This is indicative of the efforts of the party and the Chief Minister to do the face work and make the state “investment friendly” by publicly castigating “militant trade unionism.”
The repeated accusations against members of the state government, particularly those linking them to industries involved in environmental destruction, show how the state has transformed itself into a facilitator of capitalist expansion. The link between state capital and the institutionalized trade unions indicates a kind of compromise (as suggested by Patrick Heller) between the workers and the capitalists. Both classes seem to accept the goal of profit and accumulation as desirable and indicative of progress. Despite the qualms about capitalist exploitation, there seems to be a growing affinity within the unions for the idea of capitalist growth and development as a means of emancipating people from poverty.
Discussions with union members and Greens explain how local industries have managed to coopt the trade union movement, using political power as well as financial incentives. This cooptation has hindered the possibility of building a sense of solidarity and collective identity among workers of different backgrounds. This begs the question of which side the left is on when it comes to the rights and dignity of workers. However, it would be a partial analysis to blame workers without recognizing the pressures imposed by local variants of capitalism and how they invade the landscape of progressive social movements. The structural location of factory workers in the system of industrial production, combined with job blackmail, prevents them from participating in environmental activism despite their suffering.
Class and environmental inequalities
The persistent divisions described above can be linked to the perception of environmental inequalities or burdens as something outside the realm of trade union politics. Despite the global model where many trade unions actively campaign for environmental rights and call for a just transition away from polluting and fossil fuel industries, the dominant discourse in Kerala seems to be largely highly reductive in terms of defining the scope of class and class interest and limiting it to the realm of economics.
For example, there is growing consensus among international workers’ organizations about the disproportionate impact of climate disruption and heat stress on poor and marginalized workers in the Global South. Experts point to the vulnerability of workers on the lower rungs of the income ladder to climate change. However, this global consensus does not seem to have trickled down to the local networks of trade unions, especially in developing countries like India, where the threat of job loss is an obstacle.
A similar trend can be seen among trade unions and the left movement in Kerala, where environmental grievances are singularly framed as middle-class issues. Such approaches conveniently ignore the fact that lower-income workers are among the groups most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate crises. With the growing threat of climate disruption increasing the vulnerability of communities in the Global South, it is imperative to develop a variant of left politics that integrates class and environmental inequalities that can form formidable alliances to create a just and sustainable world.
The way forward
Despite its celebrated status as a haven of communist politics and public action, Kerala’s movement landscape is replete with instances of conflict between labor and other progressive social movements. Studies have shown how the dominant left in the state has largely failed to forge links with contemporary local struggles, largely organized by marginalized communities, including Dalits, Adivasis, gender and sexual minorities, and victims of environmental degradation. This is often in line with a global tendency where issues deemed “non-class” or “identity-based” often fall outside the realm and lexicon of left politics.
The tensions between trade unions and the local environmental movement over industrial pollution in the Eloor-Edayar industrial belt in Kerala are thus part of this larger trend. However, the presence of workers aligned with Marxist politics and practice on both sides of this conflict raises a number of questions about capitalist environmental burdens, class solidarity and left politics in the state.
Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series. For more content, visit the “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look: https://berlinergazette.de/projects/allied-grounds