Put on the defensive by capital’s aggressive demands and abandoned by many of their political allies, many labor organizations now see the climate crisis as a challenge to regroup and recalibrate their bargaining power. A renaissance of the labor movement is on the horizon, and it could become the anti-capitalist base of the climate movement, Toby Mckenzie-Barnes and Chris Saltmarsh argue in their contribution to the text series “Allied Grounds.”
The global climate movement is failing. In 2022, carbon emissions grew yet again (this time by 0.9%) while the political-economic structures that have produced climate change and its associated injustices remain intact. Organizationally, the climate movement is dominated by two main actors: First, corporate NGOs, constrained by conservative donors and ideologically wedded to a pseudo-radical liberalism. Second, horizontal initiatives that use direct action and civil disobedience to grab headlines but are structurally incapable of scaling up to build a truly powerful mass movement. The political consequence of this is an incoherent cocktail of eco-austerity, technocratic market-based ‘solutions,’ limited programs of green fiscal stimuli, and reactive calls to ‘stop fossil fuels’ divorced from an alternative propositional program.
Why we need a worker-climate movement
The current impotence of the climate movement is a great historical tragedy, due in part to the defeat that collective organizing has suffered at the hands of capital under neoliberalism. It is our conviction that building a powerful worker-led climate movement is a necessity if we are to stand any chance of ‘containing’ climate change and realizing anything approximating ‘justice’ demanded by the climate justice and just transition movements. Against the common sense of late capitalism, which rejects the social significance of ‘the worker,’ we insist that the status of climate change as a capitalist crisis and its industrial scale render workers as the enduring agents of socio-ecological transformation.
Despite unwelcome narratives pitting labor and environment against each other, we know that the exploitation of workers and ecological despoliation share a root cause in capital’s relentless drive to accumulate through profit maximization. If climate change is a symptom of the class war waged by the rich against the poor, then workers power and environmental justice are two sides of the same socialist coin.
Workers and their communities are among the most at risk in the climate crisis. While the ‘global working class’ already has insufficient resources to protect itself from the shocks of extreme weather, pro-capitalist energy transitions are being used to bust unions, drive down wages and further erode working conditions. However, workers also occupy a unique structural position of power in the economy amid the climate crisis. Throughout the history of capitalism, organized labor has demonstrated the capacity to win big in the realms of the workplace, industry, and national politics because industrial action can hurt profits and cause social disruption.
Furthermore, we agree with Karl Marx that workers are able to manage industries as part of nationally coordinated planning and structures of state ownership. Many workers are practically best placed to lead a rapid and fair energy transition. In relevant industries, workers hold embedded knowledge of industrial production processes and existing conditions. Moving beyond calls for a retrograde greening of post-WWII ‘social democracy’ and empowering workers in the climate crisis means genuinely democratic forms of public ownership.
What should a worker-climate movement look like?
But settlements such as democratic forms of public ownership will obviously not be handed to the working-class without the pressures of a powerful movement. In this sense, we take climate change as a prompt to assess the current status of the workers’ movement and advocate for its development into a new political-strategic stage appropriate for contemporary capitalist crises. Despite the existential assault of neoliberalism, trade unions remain the enduring organizations of the working class. This survival should be celebrated. But it should also be noted that the relentless aggressiveness of neoliberalism has made industrial struggles overwhelmingly defensive. In the UK, for example, strikes have saved pensions or faced off real-terms pay cuts. Rarely have they made political/industrial demands and won.
As trade unionism rediscovers its industrial militancy, it is important that we do not valorize this defensive status quo or accept it as permanent. Instead, we should agitate to embed these workplace struggles into a wider movement with more ambitious political and industrial goals. As questions of energy transition come to dominate our politics, we must ask: Will the transition be fair to workers, or will it benefit the capitalist class? Will the transition happen at all, and on what timetable? It is time for the labor movement to begin advancing transition plans beyond the silos of individual workplaces or industries.
While many will criticize current trade unions’ climate politics and action (or lack thereof), it is important to affirm that a worker-climate movement must be built both between and beyond the existing structures of the labor movement, without abandoning them. After all, trade unions are an institutionalized base of workers’ power: Many have a tradition of democratic and socialist politics and generations of experience in carrying out effective direct action. In the UK, trade unions have over the past five years demonstrated growing capacity to embrace pro-climate and just transition policies. For example, Unite the Union has recently campaigned for public ownership of the whole energy system and for investment in green steel; and national union-coordination bodies are developing significant resources supporting workers organizing for a just transition (i.e. WTUC; TUC; STUC).
To build on this progress, an effective worker-climate movement would therefore see a growing trade union membership in general, including younger members joining to advance both workplace and climate struggles; widespread support across trade unions and worker organizations for a socialist climate program making huge demands of the state for public ownership, mass retraining and large-scale infrastructure investment; preparedness across trade unions to take militant industrial action in support of such proposed transition plans and national political demands, as well as continuing to fight and win on workplace issues; and an effective network of coordination among rank-and-file activists across unions and among union leaderships as they work together to lead an ambitious national movement.
How to build a worker-climate movement
One of the most challenging elements of such strategic plans is the dissonance between the time it takes to effectively build such a movement and the accelerating urgency of climate change. This contradiction should impel us neither to give up nor revert to immediately gratifying but ineffective folk politics. Instead, it obliges us to embrace the longer and harder work of movement-building, but to get to it quickly.
That’s why Labour for a Green New Deal (LGND) has prioritized our worker-climate project, contributing to this movement-building work. Firstly, we have used the workers’ inquiry method. In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels developed workers’ inquiry to address the historically unique situation of a proletarian class becoming collectively conscious for and of itself on an international scale. Now in the twenty-first century, we face our own unique period, with the climate crisis necessitating the building of an internationally coordinated proletariat to fight for the possibility of a liveable and flourishing society. As such, to better understand and connect existing worker-climate organizing, we have conducted long-form interviews with worker-climate activists on their organizing, networks, and structures. This allows us to discover commonalities in methods, tactics, and challenges while building relationships and trust to discover and mediate genuine points of difference.
Building on this understanding, LGND has begun to create spaces for worker-climate activists to collaborate in sharing approaches and forging new solidarities. A first example of this was LGND’s Worker-Climate Conference, hosted in Sheffield in October 2022. In these spaces, it is important to strike a balance between facilitating the reproduction of existing organizing and instigating new forms of organizing based on careful analysis of the successes and limitations of the current movement.
Eventually, these spaces should become incubators of ambitious propositional plans for economic and social transformation that can then be taken by activists back into unions as the basis for political campaigns and industrial organizing. Inspiration can be drawn in particular from Rolls Royce workers in the West Midlands who worked – with the support of LGND Coventry, Zarah Sultana MP, Unite the Union, and founding proponents of the Green New Deal – to develop a plan for worker-led workshops on transition in the defense and aerospace sector. Developing such plans can contribute to building a mass base for the worker-climate movement by, firstly, demonstrating what the movement can achieve, and, secondly, acting as the basis for practical action.
As tempting as it may be to retreat from the malaise of Parliamentary politics into the workplace, we are insistent that a worker-climate movement must maintain a strategic connection between workplace organizing and national politics. An orientation towards state power – ideally capturing it – is necessary for any climate politics interested in transformations that are just, rapid, and at scale. Democratic electoral politics remains a key terrain of struggle in which workers can exert considerable power, both through and outside of party structures. A key lesson from the defeat of Corbynism and other Left-electoral projects is: weakness came from the lack of power bases in strong trade union and social movements. In this way, electoral strategy should never again come ahead of building this popular power. If we are to build a new political-economic settlement, in which workers lead a genuinely just energy transition, the necessary electoral work of leveraging state power must be sublimated to a wider worker-climate movement. Now, it is time to build it.
Editor’s note: The article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” series. Further content can be found on the “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look: https://berlinergazette.de/projects/allied-grounds/