The Strategic Hypothesis of Ecological Unionism: We Need a Social-Ecological Rationalization of Labor and Natural Resources

Why workers’ struggle is a key to overcoming the climate crisis becomes clear not least by the realization that it is not enough to fight for a better wage here and there, or a better position in society, because these steps alone will not put an end to the economic system that exploits and degrades workers. Thus, capitalism can continue both to seek new means of exploitation and to excessively destroy the planet. Therefore, if the workers’ struggle is to achieve real emancipation, it must challenge the system as such and, to this end, combine social and ecological demands, as the union activists Antje Dieterich und Daniel Gutiérrez argue in their contribution to the BG text series “Allied Grounds.”


There is no doubt that the relationship between the environmental and labor movements is tense. The two movements seem to defend opposing interests: the former, the general interests of nonhuman life, the latter, the general interests of workers. According to this antagonistic logic, to defend environmental interests is to deny the ability of workers to sustain and reproduce their own lives, whose wages depend on ecologically destructive labor.

Such a division is challenged by climate change and the deepening ecological crisis, of which climate is only one part. These crises make evident that the ecological and the social are bound together. The conditions of ecological systems function to determine the general field of social possibility. The devastation of ecological systems is ultimately the devastation of human systems, since they are part of the same universal system of earth-based life.

Beyond environmental blackmail

The climate movement’s introduction of slogans like “System Change Not Climate Change” and “No Jobs on a Dead Planet” points the finger at the problem of the tired environment vs. labor dichotomy: Why are we forced to do work that we know has harmful ecological (and thus social) consequences? Why, in the midst of a planetary crisis, are resources not organized to address the reorganization of work necessary to expand the amount of ecologically beneficial (or nonconsequential) work and to eliminate the planet-killing work?

The answer, in a word, is capital. It is capital, after all, whose prerogative it is to organize human and non-human resources according to its own logic: for its own endless and ever-increasing accumulation and valorization. To paraphrase Karl Marx: Is there a specter we can summon to exorcise this vampire-like monstrosity that lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more the more labor – human or non-human – it sucks?

The hypothesis of communism introduced the revolutionary potential of the class of humanity that must sell its labor to capital — namely, workers. Mario Tronti, however, recognized that although it may seem that labor is dependent on capital, capital is ultimately dependent on labor and must do everything in its power to make labor submit to its desire to organize the relationship between society and nature.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

We recognize that ultimately a diversity of strategies and social subjects will necessarily be mobilized to overcome the current system of exploitation and natural destruction. Nevertheless, we join a broader chorus in asserting that workers have a central role to play in this struggle, given their potential to transform the relationship between society and non-human nature. It is their labor, after all, that mediates the relationship in the first place – albeit at the command of capital.

To do this, we, the workers of the world, must not think of “nature” as that which is pristine and untouched and exists outside of society. Rather, we must understand that it surrounds us as the reified world of commodities that furnish our everyday lives. These are the artifacts of the labor process that capital commands, in which ecological labor and resources – be they social, biological, geological, or whatever – unite to produce a commodity that capital sells for its own benefit and at the expense of life as a whole.

Ecological unionism

What if the historical potential of labor is expanded not only for its social benefit, but for the benefit of all beings and, more importantly, of life in general? What if ecological unionism became an additional front in the broader struggle against climate change and ecological crisis?

In fact, we are already witnessing this in many places around the world. While the unity of social and environmental goals through the vehicle of unionism has been heralded before – the struggle of the Brazilian rubber workers in the 1970s and 1980s is just one example – we are now seeing this working class hypothesis of ecological unionism circulate more broadly and across industrial sectors beyond those directly related to “pristine” nature.

In Germany, for example, this hypothesis is actually quite widespread. Here, public transport unionists have built both an associative and discursive articulation between the climate and labor movements by focusing on the power of the bargaining table and the collective labor agreement to change the way social and natural relations are organized against capital.

Unions have a historic opportunity to play a critical role in this epochal and existential moment. But this means re-theorizing what ecological unionism is if it is to play this critical role. Is ecological unionism simply the expansion of public transportation or the reduction of working hours in steel production? Or must it be more?

In fact, the main obstacle we identify in trade union discussions is the lack of clarity about the problem of economic rationalization of labor and natural resources and the related problem of economic growth, which hinders the realization of ecological trade unionism.

Following André Gorz, we define economic rationalization as organizing human and non-human resources towards the realization of profit. Needless to say, the word rationalization in no way implies that such an organization is actually rational. After all, what is rational according to one imperative is highly irrational according to another, as we will explain shortly. Rather, we use rationalization to refer to an internal organizational logic.

The goal of such rationalization is to sell the largest possible quantity of goods produced with maximum efficiency, which in turn requires the maximization of consumption and needs. In short, the resources that humanity and nature produce are organized to sell as much as possible, as cheaply and as quickly as possible, in order to constantly expand the consumption of finite goods (i.e., natural resources).

Social-ecological rationalization

The problem with economic rationalization, of course, is not only its social dimension, which requires the exploitation and domination of workers by capital. Rather, it is that the infinite accumulation of capital is taking place on a planet whose biophysical characteristics are ultimately finite and exist within a delicate and complex web of relations. In other words, the problem of economic rationalization also has an ecological dimension, which we face today not least in the form of the climate crisis. Capital, as the chief organizer of human and non-human resources, cannot help but drive this problem, since its own existence depends on the destruction of planetary life systems. Ecological unionism must therefore fight not only against growth, but against the engine of growth: the accumulation of capital and the power relations that capital maintains over human and non-human labor and resources in order to sustain this accumulation.

Historically, unions have focused heavily on social rationalization. By social rationalization, we mean the organization of human and natural resources according to wants and needs deemed necessary (ends), regardless of their ability to generate profit, through non-economically determined labor processes (means). In the face of the planetary crisis caused by capital’s demand for growth, the traditional struggle for social rationalization of human and non-human resources by unions is not enough.

To put it bluntly, fighting for non-ecological social rationalization of resources and labor always means shifting the problem to another place or time. Not only does non-ecological social rationalization have an immediate negative impact on local downstream populations (in the Global South or in other zones of extraction), but in time it also calls for sacrificing the conditions of future generations on the altar of today’s “necessities.”

Ecological rationalization then acts as a third pole of tension and must be brought into unity with social rationalization against economic rationalization. It would ultimately entail organizing resources in ways that regenerate ecological systems. Ecological rationalization tends to treat ecology as a common, complex, and dynamic web of interdependencies with a multitude of agencies, and to attend to the restoration and strengthening of these agencies. The social-ecological rationalization of labor and natural resources thus leads to the satisfaction of social needs with the smallest possible amount of resources defined by high use-value and durability.

This scheme allows us to understand the following: If social rationalization ends up in democratic control of labor and natural resources without adequate consideration of ecological needs, then this “solution” is still part of the problem. As Amita Baviskar reminds us, “it’s not just about redistribution. It’s also about what those resources are, how we use them, and (as environmental degradation becomes more apparent) it’s also about ecological limits and how we manage resources in different ways within those limits.” In this way, ecological unionism refers to labor’s struggle to reorganize its relations within ecology – and not to merely reorganize labor using nature.

Not because it is good for capital

Ecological unionism thus has two primary goals that differ from traditional “social” unionism. The first is the expansion, transformation, and abolition of labor according to social and ecological needs and means. This necessarily includes feminist and anti-racist struggles and boundary struggles that fundamentally challenge which labor is worthy of compensation and which is “free” or “natural,” since capital will fight tooth and nail to keep these externalities off its own books. More broadly, rather than focusing on expanding the purchasing power of labor, ecological unionism will necessarily fight for quality of life demands and a general challenge to the profit motive, since what is to be produced must be produced not because it is good for capital, but because it is good for the land and the life that inhabits it.

This leads us to the second primary goal of ecological unionism. This social-ecological rationalization tendency must ultimately lead to – and have the explicit goal of – the decommodification of a large number of social needs through democratic and ecological provision: communalization, in a word. That is to say, if the means of production are not finally removed from the death grip of capital and fundamentally reorganized according to social and ecological rationalities (ecological socialization), the tension of economic rationalization will remain, and capital (given its growth prerogatives) will try to constantly undermine whatever balance is necessarily sought. The ecological crisis is finally a problem of power: Who has the power over the planetary resources and the power to defend this power?

What we will need, then, is a redefinition of the demands that workers develop alongside their empowerment. We don’t want a share of the profits, we want a living planet worthy of the pride of posterity.

Editor’s note: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; the German version can be found here. For more content, visit the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look here:

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