Setting advocates of environmental protection against the representatives of workers is a decades-old tactic that serves the interests of those who care about neither. It overlooks how the victims of environmental hazards are usually from the same working-class communities that trade unions represent and obscures the long history of environmental and labour struggles winning crucial victories hand in hand. In the second of two interviews, Lorenzo Marsili brings asks researcher Stefania Barca how the climate movement and trade unions can best act as allies.
Lorenzo Marsili: It should be obvious that social and ecological inequalities must be treated as one. Why is it so often not the case?
Stefania Barca: This has been the case for a very long time, but not always and not completely. The global climate movement today is making it increasingly clear that this struggle is one for global justice. In a world where people and places are valued equally, industrial hazards cannot be dumped on workers and workingclass communities, racialised and indigenous people, or ecosystems.
The labour issue is at the core of the ecological contradiction and avoiding addressing it can only hamper the best efforts of environmental movements. This fact is increasingly acknowledged on both sides as we witness an epochal shift in terms of ecological awareness. Until a few years ago, the mainstream response was that of greening the economy via market-based and technological solutions. 25 years of failed COP meetings and alarming scientific reports have made it clear that this model has failed, and the same applies to the jobs versus environment dilemma. Markets and technologies are not fixing the ecological crisis but are failing workers and environment alike. After decades of neoliberal propaganda that convinced everyone – Left and Right – that “there is no alternative”, people are finally recognising that alternatives are precisely what we need.
Can we learn from past struggles that brought together labour and environmental demands?
Globally speaking, the stricter regulation of industrial hazards that the international trade union movement managed to impose throughout the last century represents major achievements. The golden age of labour environmentalism was the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1970 Labour Statute, Italian unions imposed direct worker control over various risk factors on the shop floor, including physical, chemical, and radioactive hazards. The unions then struggled to extend the right to health to the Italian population in general. The National Health Service was established in 1978 and was also responsible for monitoring industrial hazards. In the same period, the most powerful trade union in the US, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, lobbied Congress to pass some of the US’s first and most important pieces of anti-pollution legislation: the Clean Air Act in 1963, the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. The new public agency was tasked with enforcing the right to a safe and healthy environment for all American citizens. However, occupational and environmental rights have often remained “paper rights”. Due to resistance from both governments and corporations, implementation has been weak and requires constant mobilisation on the part of unions. Unfortunately, unions have not kept their environmentalist promise and such mobilisation has diminished over the past two or three decades. The moment has come for critical self-reflection and a thorough reconsideration of their priorities.
Looking at the climate crisis in class terms means reframing class conflict in terms of capital versus life.
How should we go about ensuring greater involvement of workers and their representatives in the ecological transformation?
Many trade unions and international confederations are discussing this question. “Just transition”, the trade union movement’s strategy for the climate crisis, was put forward in the early 2000s. The idea is beautiful in its simplicity: the cost of a post-carbon transition must not be paid by workers. This is also in line with the environmental justice principles that the climate movement follows, so convergence is already happening on the ground in many places. Not everywhere, however. Nobody has heard of just transition in Taranto or even in Italy for the most part. With respect to the ILVA plant in Taranto, trade unions at the local and national levels have largely accepted the work versus environment trade-off. (1) The results are a staggering number of accidents, occupational illnesses, and a public health disaster in the community, all documented by the highest scientific authorities in the county. Sadly, labour environmentalism has failed Taranto and many other working-class communities. Not only that, it has also failed the general public interest for the pursuit of a development model that sacrifices environmental and public health for industrial production and GDP growth.
The wider political economy is of course important. Italy’s governing elites have been very reluctant to regulate industry and even to have an industrial plan. But we will never progress if unions do not acknowledge their cultural complicity. They bought into the toxic narrative that sees industrial production as the single most important driver of social wellbeing. Only if a new generation of union representatives feel encouraged and pressed to take up this epochal challenge – environmental justice – and make it their struggle, a struggle that has everything to do with the wellbeing of workers and working-class people, can I see the possibility for real change.
We suffer the effects of a biopolitics that has produced the idea of homo economicus and a collective complicity in growth through hyper-consumption. How can we break this mechanism?
Putting labour rights at the centre of environmental campaigning is crucial. If workers’ rights – from safety to living wages – could not be systematically infringed upon, then cheap commodities would not exist. In a globalised economy, this could only be effective if applied on the global scale. However, transnational corporations and the World Trade Organization are not omnipotent and true labour internationalism and solidarity could achieve a great deal, as the history of successful strategies and campaigns shows. Labour was a powerful global economic actor before the neoliberal backlash, and this is the historical moment for it to regain that role. The world is not divided between workers and environmentalists, as common sense once had it. But what today’s global climate movement tells us is that the world is not divided between capital and labour in the old sense either. Wage labour is only a fraction of the world’s proletariat and industrial wage labour a tiny fraction within it. Looking at the climate crisis in class terms means reframing class conflict in terms of capital versus life. Labour movements could be on the right side of history, as International Trade Union Confederation official Anabella Rosenberg has claimed, but only if they free themselves from capitalist realism – the idea that there is no alternative – and start to act according to global ecological class consciousness.
1. The ILVA plant is Europe’s biggest steelworks. Approximately 20 000 people work there or as part of the supply chain. Located close to the centre of Taranto, the plant’s toxic emissions cause high cancer and respiratory disease rates in the area. In 2019, Luxembourg-based Indian steel giant ArcelorMittal announced that it was pulling out due to the high refurbishment costs needed to improve environmental standards. The Italian state is considering a bailout.
Read the first interview in this two-part series, “United We Stand: The Green Industrial Revolution in Italy“. This interview is part of our latest edition, “A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond”.