Lighting striking in storm at dawn

Storm at Dawn. Photo by Michael D at Unsplash

Power, Workers, and the Fight for Climate Justice

Who has more power than Shell Oil? This is one of the first questions a climate activist should ask themselves, because without finding an answer, we can’t win.

Power

Who has more power than Shell Oil? This is one of the first questions a climate activist should ask themselves, because without finding an answer, we can’t win.

The power of the fossil fuel industry is massive. Fossil fuel companies are worth at least $18 trillion in stock equity, which represents about a quarter of total global stock markets. These vast resources and their outsized share of the world economy allow the industry to continually assert their interests, no matter the destruction this entails. They do so through any means available, of which there are many.

The notorious work of Exxon in first understanding, and then deeply misrepresenting, the science on climate change is one example. After generously funding its own climate research, and being told explicitly in 1977 that global warming due to the burning of fossil fuels was likely to lead to a two- to three-degree increase in global temperatures, Exxon embarked on an industry-wide quest to promote doubt in the science. This lengthy “fake news” campaign cost millions of dollars, and arguably set back the climate movement by decades.

However, the power of the fossil fuel industry goes well beyond the manipulation of global public thought. From the time of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, the history of modern capitalism has been replete with wars fought over fossil fuels. These have served to maintain strategic interests and, just as importantly, the profits of fossil fuel companies. A map of twentieth-century imperial conquest would show the disproportionate number of wars waged in the Middle East, where the world’s largest and cheapest oil deposits lie. As Alan Greenspan, a former chair of the US Federal Reserve, stated about one of these wars: “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.”

How, then, do we go about exerting equivalent force, in order to dismantle the fossil fuel industry within the limited timeline outlined by scientists, while at the same time building an equitable, habitable, and just society?

There are a number of competing answers to this question. 

Many view advocating within our existing parliamentary political framework as a means to challenge Big Oil. This is the standard approach of the large non-governmental environmental organizations (ENGOs). In the United States, for example, groups like the Sunrise Movement take action to pressure the Democratic Party to enact a Green New Deal, a legislative package for a just transition to a renewable energy economy. But while the demands of a Green New Deal are critical, the parliamentary road to climate justice has never yet led to a single country meeting its climate targets. This is because the parliamentary framework is precisely where fossil fuel companies are most able to exert their power. They do this through campaign financing, backroom lobbying, advertising, and astroturf campaigns, to buy public opinion and scare workers through threats of joblessness. Ultimately, politicians will do what they always do: appear to respond to pressure for change by proposing watered-down policies that do nothing effective to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Some look to civil disobedience as a mechanism to create widespread disruption, recruit sufficient numbers to the cause, and thereby force governments to act. This includes the use of economically disruptive actions such as blockades – used often within the Indigenous Land Back movements – as well as property sabotage, a popular tactic to confront fossil fuel infrastructure projects. Proponents of civil disobedience as a theory of change point to research in the social sciences, and particularly that of Erika Chenoweth, who claims that nonviolent civil disobedience carried out with the support of 3.5% of the population is sufficient to force social progress. 

Yet Chenoweth’s research catalogues political advances that did not fundamentally upset the economic system. They did not upset a primary driver of the world economy, which is precisely what fossil fuel is, nor did they disrupt the land ownership relations that protect extractive industries. The civil rights movement, one example used to support a strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience, was successful in pushing forward an agenda of equality, but it did not eliminate or even clearly diminish racist state violence in the United States. Campaigns by Indigenous land defenders have had some successes in stopping particular development projects. But governments and fossil fuel companies frequently find workaround solutions such as altering the path of a pipeline, or using brute military force to end blockades. Civil disobedience campaigns did overturn Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe, but these governments were already on the brink of financial collapse, and the resistance typically included various elements: nonviolent civil disobedience, but also strong electorally oriented opposition parties, as well as substantial labour strikes. More recent examples of mass civil disobedience, such as the umbrella protests in Hong Kong two years ago, show the limitations of this tactic used on its own, even with large majorities. So long as the economy is still running, expressions of mass dissatisfaction are not enough to create system change. 

Students in the climate movement have adopted a different approach. Beginning with a very small “school strike for climate” in August 2018, young people across the globe were captivated with the message and tactic of the strike. Within a year, this movement grew to tens of thousands, culminating in some of the largest environmental demonstrations ever seen. But despite those rallies’ size, their organizers quickly realized the limitations of a school strike, which, while somewhat disruptive, failed to apply any meaningful economic pressure.

In the spring of 2019, though, the student strikers expanded their call to action. It would not be enough for students to walk out. Everyone had to walk out, they said, including working people. That summer, organizers of all ages set themselves to making this happen.

It was a critical shift in the climate movement. For the first time on a large scale, climate activists saw solidarity with organized workers as key to building the power necessary to confront the fossil fuel industry. They understood that governments were failing them, and that the kind of disruption caused by very large demonstrations was not sufficient. After demonstrations around the world, attended by hundreds of thousands of participants, greenhouse gas emissions were still increasing. 

The Global Climate Strike in September 2019 was certainly monumental. Six million people answered the call to action, in strikes spanning the globe. In many countries, businesses and government offices shut down, and there was significant participation of working-age adults in the streets. 

Yet despite the work of many student groups to actively engage with unions, the participation of organized labour was still limited. A few examples demonstrate the success of individual efforts. A group of college-worker unions in Montreal voted to take strike action, forcing their schools shut. In Australia, 33 unions officially joined the strike. And in the UK, many unions affiliated with the Trades Union Congress (TUC) walked off the job for 30 minutes in solidarity with students. But the level of engagement by workers through their organizations remained piecemeal and framed primarily as “solidarity” with the students, rather than as a demand of the workers themselves.

Winning workers to the fight for climate justice

If we believe this turn towards working-class power is the right one, how do we convince workers to exercise the power necessary to confront the climate crisis?

Workers are not strangers to the issue of climate change, and to a plethora of environmental crises that impact them both at work and at home. Many workers are environmentalists, although probably a minority see their union as the venue in which to pursue environmental activism. Attempts to engage unions in so-called “blue-green” alliances have had some small victories, but also some large failures. The divisions between workers and environmentalists are as old as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. And of course such “blue-green” alliances represent one more arena where the fossil fuel companies, and the politicians in thrall to them, interfere to sow those divisions. Who would be surprised to see the heading “Jobs Versus the Environment” buried in some secret Exxon white paper?

The first step in winning workers to the fight for climate justice is to develop a framework that does not pit workers against the environment. Groups such as 350.org and the Council of Canadians have attempted to do this. They have written comprehensive policy papers which describe how to transition away from fossil fuels while respecting worker’s rights, by including items such as wage loss protection and retraining programs.  

A particularly useful Just Transition framework is the report adopted this spring at the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), “A Climate Action Agenda.” It deals with many of the major issues that have plagued labour in the last twenty years, including the false dichotomy of jobs versus the environment. It states: 

The struggle to stabilize and preserve our environment will continue to be a significant concern for unions and working people but it also represents a historic opportunity. The transition to a sustainable economy will require enormous investments and supplies of labour. This provides working people an opportunity to mobilize their skills and expertise and lead a fundamental transformation of our economy and society. Those that demand we choose between good jobs and ambitious climate action are presenting a false choice—we can and we must have both.

Unfortunately, despite the many claims to reject a jobs versus environment binary, both in the environmental movement and more recently in the labour movement, there remains a significant contrast between what is said and what is done. Many unions have officially “signed on” to a Just Transition or a Green New Deal, but few have taken action beyond some educational work. Meanwhile, many in the climate movement continue to focus on tactics such as blockading forestry worksites, disrupting traffic, and shutting down pipelines. While we certainly need to protect trees and stop fossil fuel infrastructure expansion, these actions send few signals to workers that the climate movement is serious about the well-being of workers and communities who will be impacted by the tremendous changes necessary to transition to a low-carbon economy.

Recognizing this gap between ideas and actions can help guide strategies as we move forward, allowing us to leverage the incredible power of unions in the fight for climate justice.

1. Create jobs first

Climate actions should always include demands for new and better jobs. Job creation cannot be deferred to some amorphous future. It must be now – before, or simultaneous with, halting extraction. The demand for jobs should be used by the labour movement, where it will be obvious, but also within the broader climate movement. A worker who encounters a campaign to win new jobs in their sector or community is likely to respond very differently compared to the worker faced with losing a well-paid job in their industry. This approach was employed in a recent joint campaign by the youth climate justice group Fridays For Future and the ver.di union in Germany, aiming to secure improved public transit, including better working conditions for drivers. This strategy can be employed both by those of us within unions and by those outside them – by anyone seeking to build networks of genuine solidarity between climate groups and organized labour. 

2. Use the full structure of unions for deep organizing

For too long, many climate activists have either ignored their union or worked within the narrow confines of an environment committee that meets independently and may have little interaction with the rest of the union. But we cannot win without a large majority of society on board to take action for climate justice. This means not only involving activists, but also reaching out to every layer of society. 

Workers in unions who already identify as climate activists need to see their union as a primary site of climate activism, and to take advantage of their position to engage in deep organizing across the full membership of the union. As articulated so well by trade union activist Jane McAlevey in her book No Shortcuts: Organizing For Power in the New Gilded Age, unions provide an opportunity to talk to many people about an issue, not just those who see a poster and will show up to a meeting. With the existing structure of the union and the shared experience of the workplace, there is a unique opportunity to build mass support. Deep organizing means utilizing all the structures of the union as a way to reach people who don’t already agree with an argument. Rather than confining climate conversations to a committee or a newsletter, climate activists within a union should be trying to reach every single worker, with one-on-one conversations, in the same way we might build for a big strike vote.

3. Establish climate change as a health & safety workplace issue

There is incredible potential to win a large majority of workers to the fight for climate justice if we use the existing language of workplace health and safety standards. Imagine, for example, workers feeling committed to climate demands the same way they are to the eight-hour workday or unemployment insurance. While planetary collapse may feel far off today, it is also a simple fact that a habitable earth is our most important working condition.

Workers understand the need for health and safety protections, an issue that the pandemic has raised to the top of most workers’ priority list. Many collective agreements already have whole sections devoted to health and safety clauses, and union safety committees already exist. The immediate concerns that arise from climate-related weather events can provide an entry point for discussion. Smoke from forest fires, for example, could prompt demands for workplace improvements like sufficient ventilation, but it isn’t hard to make the connections to wider issues. Any gas-heated workplace is emitting greenhouse gases that are contributing to the risk of more wildfires and air pollution.

4. Use climate-related weather events as opportunities to organize

As Naomi Klein taught us in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, the ruling class regularly uses the diversion of a crisis to push through neoliberal reforms. For example, Hurricane Katrina provided cover to greatly expand the charter school system in New Orleans at the expense of public schools. Climate activists too should be using the moments when climate disasters enter our homes and communities to harness the will for change that these moments can activate. It was Hurricane Sandy that brought twelve unions together in New York State to finally have a serious conversation about labour and climate. This resulted in a powerful coalition, Climate Jobs New York, that has won substantial gains in its campaign for a transition to wind power, as well as the creation of thousands of new jobs, and is now pushing for minimum labour standards and a transition program for new climate infrastructure work.

5. Bargain for the climate

Putting these ideas together means developing concrete climate demands and incorporating them into our bargaining strategies. Workers in established unions already have bargaining structures to develop and fight for specific demands. While labour leaders clamour more than ever for a seat at the climate policy table, there is an opening for rank-and-file union members to organize from below to place climate at the centre of bargaining over the next decade. Workers have won some of the greatest improvements to living conditions in history, such as the eight-hour workday. Now workers can be central to a sustained struggle for a healthy planet.

What we need to win

Just as we should not understate the power of the fossil fuel industry, so we should also be realistic about the power we will need to fight it. We will not prevent catastrophic global warming without a global response. Key to a mass, worldwide labour-based climate movement is solidarity. This means taking the “justice” in climate justice very seriously, and not falling prey to divisions of race, gender, or nation.

A racial and gender justice analysis should shape all of the labour movement’s climate demands. Retrofits, for instance, should happen first in communities where buildings have been poorly maintained. This means fully funding them, and not relying on schemes such as cash back incentives. Job creation demands need to include gender equity provisions that focus on whole communities, rather than simply moving predominantly male fossil fuel workers into renewable energy jobs. Protection of Indigenous land and respect for Indigenous sovereignty should be paramount. This means applying the principle of free, informed, and prior consent to any proposal that would affect unceded or treaty land, as well as supporting Land Back claims.

Because the climate has no borders, our fight must be international. Organized labour in the Global North should put forward timelines and targets that recognize wealthy, industrialized countries’ debt to those least responsible for climate change, who are also suffering the most from its early consequences. Unions will need to forge alliances that unite behind shared demands. Workers everywhere will need a shared understanding of our collective interests in order to articulate common goals. 

The history of the 20th century demonstrates the incredible power of organized labour, its capacity to push against corporate interests to win real advances. The weekend, maternity leave, pensions – all gains won by workers in struggle. But the labour movement also won employment insurance, universal medicare, and free public education. These are advances that benefit not only the workers and unions that fought for them, but the whole population. 

If we are going to successfully fight climate catastrophe, the labour movement is not optional. Workers will be key to creating the power strong enough to win.


Tara Olivetree (Ehrcke) is an educator and a settler living on the stolen territories of the lək̓ʷəŋən-speaking peoples. They are currently a member of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) Committee for Action on Social Justice, working on environmental justice initiatives. They have recently completed Jane McAlevey’s Organizing 4 Power course and recommend it to everyone! They also work with other unions under the umbrella of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy and hope to one day be part of organizing a global general strike for climate justice.

This article was originally published by Midnight Sun, a new online magazine “for everyone watching the catastrophes deepen and wondering with urgency, even with desperation: What do we do? And how? And with whom?” In introducing Midnight Sun, the editors write:  “Midnight Sun asks those questions from a revolutionary socialist perspective. We assert that any acceptable answers must centre Indigenous sovereignty and Black freedom. Must fight for disability justice, women’s liberation, and the flourishing of Two-Spirit, queer, and trans people. Must be committed to workers’ self-emancipation, socialist feminism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, full decriminalization of sex work, and solidarity with migrants. Must be abolitionist, standing against the violence enacted daily by all of the state’s repressive institutions. Must be rooted in new organs of radical democracy in workplaces, schools, neighbourhoods, and communities more broadly. Must recognize that capitalism is bound up with ongoing land theft from and genocide of Indigenous peoples, a situation that demands of settlers active struggle to end the genocide and give the land back. Must respond to the increasing number of our friends and neighbours hungry for credible alternatives to capitalism’s cruel, banal death-cult. Must forge an internationalist socialism-from-below for our time.”

© 2021 Midnight Sun. Used with permission.

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