Workers as Agents of a Post-Growth Transition: Recalibrating Our Work-Life Balance Beyond the Needs of Capital

Confronted with the interconnected collapse of ecological and economic systems, workers could become the leading actors in a transition, as they are the ones whose lives will have to change most dramatically, and as they have, at the same time, the specific knowledge needed to make change happen. Trade unions, in turn, could act as organizers, involving workers along the entire global value chain and bringing workers in the Global South into the planning process, Nora Räthzel argues in her contribution to BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series.


“I work for a living, but what sense does that make, if I cannot live?” asks Alexis, a worker in a Spanish copper factory, explaining why he now rejects overtime. The popular image is that workers only want jobs, but a closer look reveals that their interests are more complex. An ecological and just transformation that does not depend on the growth of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) responds to the needs of workers.

We are facing a crisis of life on Earth due to a mode of production based on the need for ever-increasing profits. Global warming, water scarcity and pollution, acidification of the oceans, degradation of arable land, and loss of forests and biodiversity threaten the lives of humans and other living species. Green deals tend to focus on technological solutions, believing that “green growth” is the answer. New technologies are sometimes necessary, but since their development and production are subject to the imperative of perpetual growth, they are inextricably linked to perpetual growth in material throughput, through mining, transportation, water use, and deforestation. Thus, new technologies tend to exacerbate rather than solve ecological crises, costing not only jobs but also lives.

While workers do fear the loss of their jobs, they would also prefer to work less, to produce socially useful products that do not destroy nature. Historically and presently workers have demonstrated that they have the knowledge, creativity, and ingenuity to become actors of a profound transformation. William Faulkner said, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Therefore, let’s begin with a short look at history.

Workers want bread and roses too

Trade unions, founded in the mid-19th century, fought for decent wages, job security, and occupational health. But they also fought to reduce working hours. Workers – women, men, and children – labored 12 to 16 hours a day: there was no time to live. Unionists in the women’s suffrage movement described the needs of workers beyond the workplace: “Woman is the maternal element in the world, and her vote will help to advance the time when the bread of life, which is home, shelter and security, and the roses of life, music, education, nature and books, shall be the inheritance of every child born in the country in whose government she has a voice,” as Helen Todd notes in “Getting out the Vote” (1911). In 1913, a strike of 20,000 mostly immigrant women mill workers in Lawrence (USA) demanded “bread and roses.”

Work less, live more

Burnout is becoming a major occupational health issue in all sectors of the economy. In the Netherlands, 75 percent of women work part-time and say they want to, even if it means earning less. Millennials prefer a work-life balance to higher salaries. A study of tech workers in Spain found that, among those who wanted to change their working lives, 64.5 percent of women and 56.7 percent of men wanted to work less.

Reducing working hours to reduce production, giving workers more time for other activities, and distributing work to avoid unemployment are some of the key proposals of feminists and degrowth advocates. To compensate for the reduction in paid employment, they propose: a universal basic income, free access to social services, a cap on housing rents, and a minimum income. Trade unions respond to workers’ demands for less work by calling for a shorter working day for the same wage.

Producers’ pride: Workers transforming their workplaces

In the 1970s, Lucas Aerospace, a British defense contractor, employed 18,000 workers and salaried staff at 17 sites, producing mainly military equipment. The Labour government cut military spending and Lucas planned to make thousands of workers redundant, claiming it was necessary to remain competitive.

Multi-layered collage: Workers protesting arms production at Lucas Aerospace and demanding “socially useful work”; details from the “Alternatives Are Possible” poster, illustrating the success of the workers’ protest to stop the production of tanks in favor of agricultural machinery; women working at Lucas Aerospace. Artwork: Colnate Group, 2023 (cc by nc).
Artwork: Colnate Group, 2023 (cc by nc).

The Lucas Aerospace Combine Shop Stewards Committee, made up of unions representing clerical and manual workers at all 17 plants, developed a new strategy to fight these layoffs. They created an “alternative plan” for products that could be made with existing skills, materials and machinery to “meet the unmet needs of those suffering from social deprivation and lack of power.” Over 100 projects were proposed, including cutting-edge green products such as heat pumps, solar cell technology, wind turbines, and fuel cell technology. The outpouring of proposals for “socially useful work” demonstrated not only the skills of the workers, but that they wanted to produce things they could be proud of because they met the needs of people and the planet.

Workers and environmentalists join forces

Today, workers at the former GKN factory in Florence show how the fight for jobs can turn into a fight for socially and environmentally useful products – and for producing less. In 2021, the GKN factory closed. The workers received a text message saying they were being laid off. They occupied the factory to fight for their jobs. Their struggle has now expanded into a plan for different kinds of jobs and a different way of working and living altogether. Their slogan is #insorgiamo (let’s rise up). They demand: “Stop the consumption of land, the destruction of aquifers, large useless productions. Nationalize car factories and integrate them into a pool that produces public, ecologically sustainable means of transport. Revitalize public university research to design solutions that are truly ecologically sustainable. Public, free transportation, control the cost of living, for climate justice.” They have drawn the region into their struggle, mobilized workers across Italy, and inspired activists and intellectuals worldwide.

When they opened the doors of the occupied factory, economists and engineers from universities visited. Together with researchers and Fridays for the Future, the workers developed an alternative production plan, including the production of solar panels with local materials and electrolysers for green hydrogen production. Shifting the goal of production from making money to making useful products means that the quality of products becomes more important than their quantity. Work becomes a source of satisfaction.

Creating transformative strategies from the bottom up

The knowledge and experience that we are living through a crisis of life on earth is growing. This could be the moment to turn politics around and create a pathway to ecological and social transformation in which workers become leading actors. Their lives need to change more dramatically, but they are also the ones with the specific knowledge needed to make change happen.

Factory workers have already begun to organize themselves, demanding that their unions set up workers’ assemblies. For example, members of the Aviation Workers Union have submitted a proposal to their union, UNITE, arguing: “An open and democratic process, involving discussion to produce recommendations, incorporating workers’ own perspectives to deliver positive action, is most likely to lead to success. The role of trade unions should be to promote these dialogues and to encourage positive proposals by facilitating them within and between sectors. The union must adopt the approach of workers’ assemblies to produce independent, worker-led visions of the sustainable future for each industrial sector.”

Organizing workplace assemblies

Scottish oil and gas workers write: “Social partnership instruments along the lines of Just Transition Commissions have shaped and managed the transition processes for phasing out coal mining in countries such as Germany and Spain. Trade unions and local governments were involved, ensuring infrastructure upgrades and the creation of alternative jobs, but there was no mechanism for rank-and-file workers to be involved in the planning.”

Unions could organize such worker assemblies at the local and regional level. Starting with broader questions about how workers want to live and work in the future, they could proceed with analyses of their specific workplaces: What is its ecological footprint? What is the benefit of the product, for whom, and how much is needed? Where do the materials, tools, and machines come from, and where does the product go after it is consumed?

Such questions would involve workers along the value chain in the Global North and South, bringing workers in the Global South into the planning process, a perspective not yet included in most trade union Just Transition policies. Moreover, including researchers and other civil society movements in these assemblies, as the GKN workers have done, would support workers in developing a comprehensive, workable plan that links proposals for change at the workplace level with proposals for change at the societal level.

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:

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