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Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 1039
September 24, 2014

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Ten Points for a Trade Union Strategy
Against Climate Change

Asbjørn Wahl

Since each of us gets only a few minutes for our contributions on such a large subject as climate change, I have chosen to put forward ten brief points for a trade union strategy against climate change. Firstly, I will establish some of the important factual basis on which we have to build our strategies and policies.

Over 300,000 people march through the streets of New York, 21 September 2014.

1. Climate change is not a threat of the future, it is already happening here and now, it is man-made, and the consequences can be catastrophic.

2. The climate threat will have widespread implications for social development – either as a result of climate change itself, or as a result of measures to prevent or mitigate climate change. The way we live and work will thus change considerably, whether we take action or not. Inaction, or postponing action, represents the greatest threat – with disastrous effects.

3. Because measures to combat climate change will require great changes in society, we face a major social struggle. Thus, the struggle against climate change is first and foremost a struggle for social power, a struggle on what kind of society we want. In the current situation, this means that the climate change struggle will have to be unified with the struggle against the effects of, and the driving forces behind, the economic crisis, the crisis of capitalism.

Wider Political Context

4. Today's economic growth regime and the ruthless exploitation of natural resources is an embedded part of the capitalist economy. A narrow focus on environmental policy will therefore not be sufficient. The climate and environmental struggle must be put in a wider political context. A system-critical approach will be necessary. To prevent climate change we will need democratic control of the economy – particularly energy generation and distribution. Thus, the environmental, as well as the economic, crisis, not only represents a threat, but also an opportunity to fight through important and necessary social change.

5. In this social struggle, the trade union movement will have a major role to play, because of its strategic position in society. However, trade unions are on the defensive all over the world, and they are under immense pressure from strong economic forces. Therefore, for the trade union movement to be able to assume a leading role in the fight against climate change, it has to be revitalized, refocused and reactivated.

6. Climate policy cannot be reduced to a question of sacrifice, of what we must give up of our hard-won rights, as some parts of the environmental movement tell us. The struggle is first and foremost about creating a better society for all. The financing of CO2 mitigation measures must therefore go hand in hand with a radical redistribution of wealth – from the North to the South, and from the rich to the poor. Without this, it will be impossible to achieve broad support for necessary policies against climate change.

7. Preventing climate change will require extensive restructuring of our societies. Activities which damage the climate must be reduced, while renewable energy, energy efficiency and environmentally sustainable activities must be developed – in a planned and systematic manner which maintains and strengthens the social and economic security of people. We cannot accept that certain groups of workers have to bear the brunt of climate change mitigation measures through unemployment and marginalization. The transition has, in other words, to be just – and to be just, it has to be planned and managed in a democratic way. All serious research has shown that necessary policies against climate change will create more jobs than it destroys. This has everything to do with workers’ power in the labour market, of shorter working hours and how we distribute the necessary work in society.

Sustainable Society

8. Transition to an environmental sustainable society has many advantages. Thousands of new jobs in public transport, renewable energy, house retrofitting and sustainable industry will be created. A reduction of greenhouse gases will also lead to less polluted workplaces and communities. Increased democratic control of the economy will reduce competition and pressure at the workplaces. Less stress, strain and mental pressure will be important effects of such a development.

The climate struggle is about democratization of the economy and society, redistribution of wealth, the free use of our common knowledge

9. The market-based solutions to the climate crisis, primarily through carbon trade, which have been promoted by governments and strong vested economic interests, have so far failed. Neither will global summits save us. To the degree that we have achieved increased social equality, decent work, poverty reduction, gender equality, etc. in our societies, we have not done so through global summits. We need binding international agreements to save the climate, but to achieve that, it is necessary to mobilize social forces for alternative solutions built on solidarity, equality and people's needs. Governments and multinational companies proved at the last COP 19 in Warsaw that not only were they not able to move forward, they actually took a step backward. Thus, they have had their chance, and they have failed. It is time for others to take over.

10. Therefore, to succeed in this social struggle, we need to build long-term, broad popular alliances. This has particularly to happen between labour and the environmental movement. The climate struggle is about democratization of the economy and society, redistribution of wealth, the free use of our common knowledge – without patent barriers. To save the climate, we must change society. Only then can we create the necessary conditions for a better life for all – including our descendants. •

Asbjørn Wahl is an adviser for the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees. This contribution was made at a Rosa Luxemburg Foundation/Left Labour Project meeting in New York, 18 September 2014.


#2 Walter 2014-09-24 07:32 EST
Green/Left co-operation
This is a particularly timely statement in the context of New Brunswick (Canada) politics where the controversy over allowing shale gas/oil exploration and exploitation has become one of the dominant political issues, to the point where the Green Party was able to have its leader elected to the Legislative Assembly few days ago, whereas the social democratic New Democrats failed yet again to have one of theirs elected. The time has clearly come for the New Democrats (as the representatives of organized Labour) and the Greens to co-operate and start speaking with one voice.

#1 Bob Lyons 2014-09-23 23:39 EST
Only the Working Class Can Save the Planet
Only the working class can save the planet from the environmental catastrophes which await the human species. This is not an ideological position, but one based on the fundamental contradiction within capitalist productive relations, the alienation of not only labour through the appropriation of surplus value, but the alienation of nature through the expropriation of power over the processes and products of the relationship.

Both occur simultaneously, indeed both these aspects of the fundamental contradiction are inseparable. The need for workers' control over the productive process is not just for the production of social commodities, but for the change in the both the relations of production and the form and structure of the process itself.

The workers of the world literally hold the future of the planet in their hands. This is the message which the Marxist left must popularize: that system change is a task for the workers to undertake, a task which can have very concrete political ramifications.

One example will suffice. The pulp mill at Abercrombie Point in Pictou county, Nova Scotia, is an old, tired industrial plant which a series of capitalist groups have successively stripped of its value. It has a pollution control system which is non-functioning, which allows the sulfide based gases to dominate the air, and which has been the cause of a growing movement by country residents and by small business groups to shut the mill down. In addition, the effluent from the mill is dumped via a pipe which crosses the Pik'to First Nation and into a tidal basin. This practise has been going on since the mill started 40 years ago.

This past summer, the effluent pipe broke and spilled thousands of gallons per hour on the reserve land. Failing to get any signs of action on the part of the company, the band members blockaded the road leading to the effluent facilities and raised the demand that the government provide the funds to clean up the effluent pond. They were successful in their tactics and the government promsed to provide funding via legislation no later than 1 March, 2015.

But the effluent spill was the last straw for many residents of the area. They organized demonstrations and pickets, took out newspaper ads, held town hall meetings and raised the demand that the mill be shut down until it was cleaned up. This demand was rejected by the workers, because the company which owns the mill, is an Indonesian capital group of fly-by-night asset strippers, has no intentions of doing any major maintenance on the plant, despite the $100 million given the plant operators by the provincial government over the years.

This is the point at which the Left needs to intervene, to show what looks on the surface as diametrically opposed views; the classic environment vs jobs dichotomy; can be overcome if the workers take matters into their own hands. It is clear that the mill will be shut down unless the workers take over the plant, and following the leadership of the Pik'to band members, hold the plant until the government agrees to take it under provincial control, and provide the funding necessary for a massive overall and modernization, to be undertaken by the plant workers themselves and by the tradespersons who are band members.

This action would have the support of the strong environmental movement in the area, the small business groups which want to expand the tourism potential of the area, particularly Pictou town which suffers from a nauseas air quality, and from the general populace who were told in the middle of the summer, in a report released by the provincial department of health, that the county suffered from the highest rates of respitory disease and several types of cancer.

It is these types of exemplary struggles which need to be animated by the Left in order to show the linkages among the trade union and environmental movements, and to convince workers that the posing of jobs against the environment is a false choice. It will also help the environmental movements understand that those who are in the position to bring about the system change which is needed, are the workers of their region, country and the globe.

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