What is the role of workers and unions in the green transition? Over the last few years Nora Rathzell and David Uzell have brought together activists and analysts from around the world demonstrating that the question is both relevant and timely. Projects in various countries, such as Austria and Canada, explicitly seek to understand the agency of workers in this process. As one looks at these efforts it becomes apparent that there are lineages of thought and practice that we need to reclaim and that the role of workers and unions in the green transition is as pressing as it is contested.
Looking into the past may reflect a certain degree of nostalgia for a period of time when emancipatory futures seemed more possible. But there are also practical reasons for doing so. In immediate terms, we can learn that the issue of work and the environment has been with us far longer than we may think, albeit without using those terms. By the 1970s the relationship between the two was on the agenda of some unions and some environmentalists in terms that we all now recognize and during the 1990s sociotechnical systems served as the core analytic of a US project on work and the environment, green jobs were an important issue in Australia, and greening industrial relations was the subject of an international project in the European Union.
But we can also learn a great deal by examining labor’s record with respect to transitions involving gender, ethnicity and race. How have unions engaged social groups and people that many amongst its ranks had cast as ‘other’ – as may be the case with the environment today. Whether we look at environmental or social transitions we cannot treat labor as a homogeneous and uncontested arena nor hide behind a veil of ignorance. Rather, we must confront the reasons why visionary and emancipatory ideas did not find fertile ground in many unions during their most influential decades –and why that remains a possibility in our days.
Knowledge of the past, though, is not sufficient. It must be used as a springboard for confronting the challenges of the present. A look at the various proposals that emanate from national and global organizations suggests that there are as many visions of labor in the green economy as there are ideologies. Some, like the World Bank and the OECD, would be happy to ensure that there are plenty of well-trained workers, preferably unencumbered with radical ideas about participation and equality. Others, like the ILO, strive to ensure that jobs are both green and decent within a social liberal world. But there are also instances of ‘realistic utopias’ advanced by national and global union organizations, and it is those that we need to study closely.
Are unions striving to be agents of change or are they followers offering their support for neoliberal transitions? A number of unions are content being junior partners in hegemonic alliances that give them limited voice and choice. Others allow themselves to be included in the calculus of capital as factors of production in exchange for their ‘fair share’. When ‘jobs’ and ‘growth’ are promoted uncritically, there is not much space left for union agency.
But what kind of agency? Workers and communities must not be the only ones paying the costs of a green transition. Just transition must address those left behind but unions cannot simply react. They must also formulate a proactive politics of socio-ecological change that is more inclusive. Exploitation has been part and parcel of the world political economy for centuries. But perhaps now we can confront more fully that our well being or suffering depends on workers, communities and environments across production networks and the world political economy.
One task, as researchers and workers, is to broaden our moral calculus in order to render those workers, communities and environments fully visible. Another task is to move beyond zones of sacrifice –whether those are due to extraction or production or to outsourcing from Detroit and Manchester to Guangzhou and Sao Paolo. We need to identify and build zones of hope that move us in the direction of deeper and broader democracy. These goals certainly require that, as researchers and unionists, we speak truth to each other in order to move from a politics of reaction to a politics of socio-ecological emancipation. Our dialogue will be made easier if we understand that we are all workers in an increasingly globalized world.
Dimitris Stevis is professor of international politics at Colorado State University, USA. His research examines the social governance of the world political economy in the areas of labor and the environment, with sustained attention to union environmentalism and environmental unionism.