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 first of two interviews, Lorenzo Marsili spoke to the general secretary of the Metalworkers’ Federation (FIOM), an Italian trade union, to ask what the climate crisis means for trade unions and industry in the 21st century.

Lorenzo Marsili: The Metalworkers’ Federation represents workers in some of the most heavily polluting industries, from car manufacturing to steel production. Do you see the need for an ecological and industrial transformation as a threat or an opportunity?

Francesca Re David: The relationship between industry and the environment has long been ignored. During the economic boom in the years following World War II, it was completely absent. State holdings were pivotal for Italian heavy industry, so, in theory, companies need not have only looked at their profit margins, but no attention was paid to the impact of production on the environment.

The theme of ecological and social transformation is key to the work of unions today. The social and ecological aspects must be kept together. That this link is often lost speaks to the defeat of the Left in recent decades. Companies pollute, not workers, and “what” is produced is determined by those who hold the levers of power and control the distribution of production. A socially inclined ecological transformation is a great opportunity to advance rights in the workplace, starting by giving workers a greater say and moving beyond profit maximisation as a sole objective.

Let me play devil’s advocate: it could be argued that your jobs are dependent on consumerism and the destruction of the planet. The more people consume, the more needs to be produced and the better the negotiating position of workers. How do you break this link?

Trade unions are associations of people whose livelihoods depend on work, as opposed to rent. Workers’ rights are made up of wages, safety, health, and the possibility of having a say in the workplace. Having a say means determining what is produced and how, as well as with what effects on people working or living near the production site. Every phase of transformation and technological development naturally has different effects and transforms the way of working and producing.

The world is not divided between ecologists and workers who like to pollute. The world is divided between exploiters and exploited, between capital and labour. On some things, we need to get back to basics.

It is not that we should no longer produce anything. Rather, we should produce goods in a different way, for example by focusing on recycling and reuse. Globalisation has widened markets and opportunities. It is right, for instance, for everyone to own a fridge: we cannot think that one part of the world is entitled to household appliances and another part is not.

The post-war compromise saw an alliance between industrial growth and social protection. Captured in the image of workers driving to the factory in their own car, that compromise has imploded after years of financial capitalism. Do we risk trying to save what is left of it rather than imagining a new approach to wealth production and industrial policy?

Italy has not had an industrial policy since it joined the Eurozone. The European Union, with its emphasis on privatisation, helped erase any idea of industrial policy and Italy, perhaps more than elsewhere, underwent a total conversion to the idea of the self-regulating market. Since then, inequalities have grown and strategic assets have been lost. The iron and steel industry was set up through state intervention but today is controlled by multinationals that do what they want with no commitment to the territory, and often manage to pay their taxes elsewhere. The other striking example is computer science and digital technologies. Olivetti, an Italian company, invented the personal computer but now that whole sector is gone. 1

There is the example of Telecom Italia too. In the 1990s when it was still state-run, it invented the SMS and nearly bought Vodafone …

Whereas now Italy just transforms other peoples’ products. Italy still has the second largest manufacturing sector in Europe, but the multinationals are overpowering. They decide where to operate and with what impact on social conditions and environmental policies.

Capital mobility is a powerful weapon in defeating social and environmental demands and also fuels the nationalist right. What is the progressive approach to tackling offshoring and dumping?

We must learn to work at the European level. It is paradoxical that EU funds channelled to support poorer countries often produce industrial relocations that impoverish workers in contributing countries. The much discussed crisis is not an actual industrial crisis because the companies are growing through shifting production. It’s a crisis of fair labour and competition. The European trade union movement has not lived up to this situation in recent years. Since the early 2000s, FIOM has held talks to encourage our partners to form a common European union but we still do not have one. Individual national unions manage all the processes at the European level.

Unions and new ecological movements need a frank exchange to find elements of synergy and mutual growth.

Hundreds of thousands of climate marchers are taking to the streets and they often seem detached from the traditional concerns of labour. Can the worlds of trade unions and new ecological movements speak to one other?

This movement is a great opportunity whatever the contradictions. An ecological movement that was indifferent or in opposition to industry would be unable to get to the heart of the challenge. I have met representatives of environmental movements who have asked me to close down car plants. But if I represent workers, the question cannot be one of closure but the transformation of the production line. Unions and new ecological movements need a frank exchange to find elements of synergy and mutual growth. Only by restoring dignity to work can we build new power relations that can change the conditions of production. If we do not manage, capital will continue to win and pursue profit maximisation at all costs. The world is not divided between ecologists and workers who like to pollute. The world is divided between exploiters and exploited, between capital and labour. On some things, we need to get back to basics.

The far right is rising in Italy, while the government is unpopular and lacking any vision for change. Could the trade unions contribute to such a vision? Maybe it’s time to bring back demands such as full employment and working time reduction?

People are turning to the Right because abandonment and poverty fuels anger. The priority is restoring the value and dignity of labour, in whatever sector. Ken Loach’s latest film about a delivery driver, Sorry We Missed You, gives us a measure of how lonely working in the gig economy can be. So yes, we must speak about full employment and, particularly with today’s technology, reducing working hours. The benefits of innovation cannot all be left in the hands of those who control capital and the machines. Wages for Italian metalworkers have remained stagnant since 2008, while companies’ profits have doubled. These profits did not go to investments in environmental transformation, higher salaries, or shorter working hours. They go to rent and dividends.

Footnotes

1. The Programma 101, the “Perottina”, was the first personal computer. Presented in 1965, it was a worldwide success and was used by NASA for the Apollo 11 moon landings in 1969. Olivetti’s electronics division had been sold to the American firm General Electric in 1964 but the Italian firm managed to keep the Programma 101 out of the deal.

Read the first interview in this two-part series, “United We Stand: Labour Environmentalism and the Climate Movement“. This interview is part of our latest edition, A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond”.

A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond
A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond

This edition explores the different worlds of green politics today. From concepts such as ecofeminism and the Green New Deal to questions of narrative and institutional change, it maps the forces, strategies, and ideas that will power political ecology, across Europe as around the world.

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