Cutting waste at “the coalface”

Submitted by Newcastle on 8 October, 2009 - 7:11 Author: Darren Bedford recommends the Labour Research Department’s Unions and Climate Change pamphlet.

Don’t let the uninspiring foreword by TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber put you off the Labour Research Department’s pamphlet on “unions and climate change”. It provides a wealth of facts — and some useful pointers for action — that working-class environmental campaigners can use to develop their struggles.

The pamphlet is mainly focused on potential roles for “green reps”, and places particular emphasis on measures that such reps can fight for management to take in order to decrease emissions and wastefulness within individual workplaces.

Statistics show, for example, that almost 50% of workplaces have taken no action whatsoever to reduce emissions resulting from car travel. Only 8% of employers provide significant subsidies for public transport use, meaning that many workers are financially penalised for taking the environmentally-conscious step of travelling to work by means other than their car. Some workplaces have made a botched attempt to improve the situation by charging for parking spaces — which, again, penalises workers rather than incentivising them (as public transport subsidies would).

Although the pamphlet includes sections on international agreements and the idea of “just transition”, it is principally focused on demands to be fought for in individual workplaces, and contains substantial anecdotal reports from union activists about bosses’ frequent resistance to even discussing the question.

Climate change and environmental activism often involves dealing with the biggest of big questions, and the focuses of this pamphlet could seem myopic compared to a struggle like Vestas. But they are, in their own, no less important and no less implicitly anti-capitalist.

Just as Vestas highlighted the need for a social system that responded to what was socially and environmentally necessary (jobs and renewable energy) rather than profit, so this pamphlet makes an articulate, if at times a little veiled, case for workers’ control.

The pamphlet quotes a UCU rep who reported that “when we have raised our members’ concerns about excessive heat in the workplace, we have been told its our fault for leaving computers switched on.”

When PCS members in the civil service tried to open windows to reduce overheating, bosses insisted on turning the air conditioning up instead (thereby increasing emissions).

The point, of course, is that it is workers — the people on the shop-floor, and the office floor, the people who make workplaces, and indeed society, function — who can develop and put into action the solutions to environmental waste in the workplaces. Bosses will always bend first to the will of profit.

Struggles around the issues the pamphlet highlights, as well as struggles for workplace green and environmental reps to be given the same legal recognition and facility time as other reps, should accompany “bigger” struggles — for a massive expansion of the renewable energy sector and the renationalisation of the railway, for example — in the coming period.

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