The shop stewards who represent the future

Submitted by AWL on 18 August, 2015 - 5:05 Author: Martin Thomas

Martin Thomas reviews a new book by Paul Hampton – Workers and Trade Unions for Climate Solidarity: Tackling climate change in a neoliberal world.

Under the carapace of often sluggish official union responses, a network of “thousands of union [workplace] reps [is] making a substantial contribution towards curbing carbon emissions across the UK”.

The movement to have workplace reps active on environmental issues, or to elect special environment reps, was stimulated by official union and Labour government policies, and in some workplaces even by bosses wanting to show a green face.

But Paul Hampton’s research finds that “even less adversarial union reps tended to go beyond the parameters laid down by government and employers”. And sometimes where “the company says it is interested in climate change”, still “when proposals are put forward by union reps, they are rejected allegedly on cost ground every time”.

“No buy-in from senior management. Seen as trouble-making!”

At least one workplace reports a “greater appetite amongst rank and file members to get involvement with tackling environmental issues than... for... traditional trade union areas. We have no problem recruiting green reps”.

The numbers are still in the thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands, and there is always the danger of union reps being channelled into just cajoling workmates about switching off photocopiers and the like. But Paul Hampton finds some workplaces where union initiatives have led to sizeable cuts in emissions, 40%, or 55%.

Official union attention to climate change tends to fade when severe immediate economic problems hit, but Paul Hampton also finds that rank and file reps, once activated, retain their interest even when climate change is out of the news.

His chapter on workplace reps is joined in the book by chapters on the interrelation of climate politics and class politics; on union debates and policies worldwide and in the UK; and on the 2009 Vestas occupation, in which workers at a wind turbine factory in the Isle of Wight occupied the workplace to try to stop closure.

Older union responses tended to be reactive and conservative, focused on defending existing jobs with little regard to long-term social viability. Paul Hampton reports exceptions from long ago, such as the New South Wales (Australia) Builders Labourers Federation’s “green bans” in the early 1970s, the action which first gave the name “green” to a strand of politics. But the TUC congress did not debate climate change until 1988.

Soon the idea of “just transition” became hegemonic. Paul Hampton recounts the origins of the idea in the late 1960s, in the thinking of Tony Mazzocchi, a radical left-wing official in the US Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union.

The “GI Bill” of 1944 had provided four years of income, health coverage, and college fees for demobilised soldiers. Mazzocchi argued for similar provision for “demobilised” workers in irreparably-polluting industries.

The formula has gone through many reworkings. It now appears in official UN documents. In 2009, in the same year as it was refusing to save the Vestas factory by nationalising it or to give legal back-up to union environment reps in workplaces, the Labour Government announced a “Forum for a Just Transition” as a joint body of bosses, unions, and government.

Elsewhere, “just transition” has been seen as a matter of pressing for worker-protection clauses in emission-reduction policies which it was assumed capitalist governments would push through anyway, rather than as a matter of the workers’ movement formulating and pressing independent policies for emission-reduction.

Most trade union policies operate within the discourse of “ecological modernisation”, which Hampton identifies as one of the two main bourgeois responses to climate change (beyond, of course, the out-and-out right-wing response of ignoring it).

Neo-liberal climate-mitigation policies see the answer entirely in terms of tweaking markets, by carbon taxes or emission trading schemes. Ecological-modernisation policies include more direct government action and the nurturing of a “climate change advocacy coalition” around “an awkward alliance of technocratic civil servants, opportunistic environmental NGOs, and profit-seeking financiers”.

However, more independent working-class responses continue to emerge. Paul Hampton describes the campaigns for “energy democracy”, centred around public ownership and control of energy industries, and for “one million new climate jobs”, to be created by direct employment in a public climate service. He explains the difference between “green jobs”, which can be more or less anything, and “climate jobs” working specifically on climate mitigation.

He also describes some unions with more advanced policies. “Considered to have the most progressive union environmental policy” is, perhaps surprisingly, the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, which “argues for a comprehensive industrial policy, laying the foundation for a just transition to a low-carbon economy”.

The chapter on the Vestas factory occupation in 2009, where Workers’ Liberty activists were central in building initial momentum and organising support, tells the story of the most radical recent working-class climate action at a rank and file level.

Framing all the detailed research is an argument against seeing the climate question as one of whether an undifferentiated “we” can save the planet. “ ‘We’ should not assume that the same structures that gave rise to climate change in the first place will continue... ‘we’ cannot rely on the same business and state actors who caused the problem to tackle it”. The working class is the social force which has the strongest interest in tackling climate change, and the embedded sense of social solidarity and social cooperation necessary to tackle it.

Inevitably, the book bears the marks of its origins in a PhD thesis. It has one shortcoming which must be due to that, since Paul Hampton has been trenchant on the question in other writings. The limits and potentialities of trade-union thinking and action on climate change are discussed in abstraction from the issue of building a socialist working-class political party.

But if we have not built such a party, and so long as that party has not won a leading role in the unions, then there is no vacuum. Other parties, other political formations, other ideologies dominate. There will always be sallies and spurts of working-class initiative going beyond those political and ideological influences of the old society, but trade-union organisation of itself, without a socialist political-party backbone, can never stably transcend those influences.

I would also have liked to see more discussion is market-tweaking policies. Paul Hampton makes a convincing argument that current such policies are “at best insufficient and at worst a distraction”, and slams the inefficacy of the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme.

But markets will exist for some time even after a socialist revolution. A workers’ government would not only tolerate those markets, but also judiciously manipulate them, for example to make energy from renewables or nuclear cheaper than energy from fossil fuels.

Market-tweaking policies are surely insufficient, but they have to be part of the package even under a workers’ government. Which ones are useful (although insufficient), and which ones are merely “a distraction”? They will all have downsides: how can those be mitigated?

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