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Labour and the Environment

Labour

Buzz Hargrove recently ignited controversy over the environment and auto-industry jobs. While seemingly criticizing federal environmental policy, Buzz may have played into the Harper government’s unprecedented campaign of deception and trickery on climate change.

Harper first provided an unsubstantiated threat of economic Armageddon to set himself up to introduce a plan that will let big industry increase its emissions through numerous loopholes and phony “intensity” targets. Workers have seen these types of scare tactics and deceptions while bargaining with employers, and unions have stood up to them. So, why should workers accept threats to prevent Canada from fighting climate change?

The labour movement, and the CAW in particular, has a long history of progressive environmental activism. The CAW in Windsor led struggles against toxins and formed active environment committees in the 1980s. The “Green-Work Alliance” formed in coalition with CAW locals in the 1990s to convert a shutdown Caterpillar plant into a worker- owned green industry. The Alliance called for “A Green Belt, Not a Rust Belt” around Toronto. And the CAW has been an enthusiastic endorser of the Kyoto Protocol.

Hargrove’s comments show that the Left has still been unable to fully develop and gain broad support for a policy of green industrial transformation that would strengthen worker democracy, empowerment and the right to secure and safe employment. The issue of jobs and the environment strikes at the heart of how social movements grapple with internal tensions and contradictions that are confronted within capitalism. Both the labour and environmental movements seek to restructure society within their own spheres – the labour movement to restructure the workplace, environmentalists to restructure systems that exploit nature. From either’s vantage point, each seems opposed to the other’s agenda.

Both movements have made compromises, to their own detriment. Labour leaders, concerned for their members’ jobs, have sided with the bosses on environmental issues without considering the social impacts and long-term effects on the industry. Environmentalists often appear oblivious to job concerns, while failing to look at the destructive relations inherent in capitalism and the need for profound industrial restructuring to create a green economy.

Labour and environmentalists ought to recognize that the exploitation of both workers and the environment creates new opportunities for radical politics.

In the 1970s workers were confronted with a choice of “your health or your jobs.” They rejected that choice and demanded better health and safety. This led to a cleaner environment and better working conditions, as well as worker-led demands for product and process innovations.

To prevent the bleeding of the manufacturing sector in Canada, our labour movement has again started to discuss industrial policy. Can a “green industrial policy” benefit both workers and the environment?

For such a policy to be effective, the environmental movement must recognize that ecological politics is profoundly integrated with the national and international distribution of wealth and power, and with the process of capital accumulation, and that labour is a fundamental player in transforming the nature of industrial production. Labour must accept socially responsible production as a new front, and recognize how the call for environmental production can reinvigorate the struggle for democratic workplaces and better jobs.

A call for a “just transition” can be more than just a defensive policy for labour. The labour movement should concentrate on making the new jobs created in a green economy safe, secure, equal and democratic, and then move to accelerate the transition.

This article appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Canadian Dimension (Artists & Politics).

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