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Union Environmentalism


Let me recommend Trish Kahle’s Jacobin piece on the Miners for Democracy (1970s reformist United Mine Workers members) and the potential of energy workers embracing environmentalism. Brief excerpt:

Ultimately, the group of miners arguing for an energy workers union federation — or even a new union to represent all energy workers — were unsuccessful in transforming their union in that vision. This failure helped lead to the decline of the MFD, and along with it, the radical environmentalist vision they put forward.

The political space that had been opened up by the incredible levels of self-organization among rank and file miners allowed broad debate and agitation on issues like the environment. But as it became harder for workers to go on the offensive and the energy conglomerates continued to consolidate their power, miners found themselves fighting an increasingly uphill battle that left less and less room to fight for anything except survival.

Although they were some of the last workers to do so, the United Mine Workers did eventually face decline accompanied by the growth of conservatism. Today, rather than being seen as the vanguard of a movement to protect the land, miners are portrayed by many environmentalists as backwards, reactionary, and part of the problem.

I think this is pretty much correct for the UMWA, but in other industries, it wasn’t so much consolidation as it was capital mobility that undermined union environmentalism. The labor-green alliance she describes was not unique to the UMWA at the time. The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers were the pioneers here, but the International Woodworkers of America, International Association of Machinists, and United Steel Workers of America had pretty strong environmental records as well. She concludes by talking about union democracy as central to a labor environmentalism, but my own research on the IWA really doesn’t suggest this is necessary. For the IWA, it was the union leadership pushing the green message and the locals embraced it or didn’t depending on the issue. When there was rank and file resistance, it was against environmentalism, not for it. So in the case of the UMWA, the connection between union democracy and environmentalism was profound because it was so connected to the leadership’s indifference to workers dying of black lung and in accidents. But that’s very much not a universal thing.

Despite this quibble, this is an excellent article on the potential of energy workers embracing a green future, even if, understandably enough, how to get from Point A to Point B remains pretty hazy.

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  • jon

    It’s the same problem that many major power companies have. They see their job as running big power plants, with a minor focus in the transmission and distribution grids. So they lock themselves into dinosaur power plants and technologies. If they saw themselves as energy facilitators, then it wouldn’t matter how the power was produced or where. Amory Lovins has been making this point for decades – and it’s still true that energy conservation and efficiency is the cheapest, quickest way to provide energy to new users and demands. The change is happening and picking up steam. The problem is that companies who made poor decisions, are now looking at immense fixed costs and liabilities, as renewable start driving down wholesale, open market electricity prices.

  • Loomis, thank you for posting on this.

    As a member of LiUNA who gave money to help prevent the Northern Gateway pipeline, and whose dues are giving money to make it, Keystone, et al. go through, I am very thankful you’re bringing attention to the issue.

    I think with the pipelines, the same kind of safety – environmentalism connection that worked for the UMWA can be made – there are grave safety concerns in building these pipelines, and worker deaths are expected. As well, our current stance is alienating us from other unions in my province – so a solidarity argument can be made, too. There’s juts nobody inside the union making these arguments, even though to me it seems that most of my co-workers, for example, are against the pipeline.

    I talked to my union rep about this, but it seems the decisions were made much higher up and have already long been made. So in this case, democracy in the union would actually be the way to go, I think.

    One sliver of good news is that unions should be able to demand important conditions for workers on the pipeline if they’re part of the coalition – and that’s the argument that’s been made to me, but to me, that’s not nearly enough.

    • And I don’t really think there will be all that many guarantees made to union labor on the final agreement, if it happens.

      It’s an interesting comment and the way you describe it, it definitely sounds like a union democracy movement would be the way to go to make noise with the honchos on environmental issues.

  • Randy

    It’s interesting that you mention the Machinists’ Union. My father was a member of the IAM, and the only mention of environmentalism I can recall from the late 60s-early 70s were cartoons of the “anti-progress ecology folks” protesting the SST.

    • I’m not an expert on the IAM, but at least its leadership was involved with some of the alliances with environmentalists. It was the union most closely allied with the IWA, which is where I’m getting this. How extensive it really was within the IAM, I haven’t personally researched.

      • Randy

        The IAM moved to the left in the late 70s under President Winpisinger. I don’t know much more than that, as my IAM research is limited to recollections of what I saw flipping through Dad’s copy of The Machinist.

  • Pingback: Unions and Pipelines | Rated Zed()

  • Anonymous

    Unions were in much better shape in the 60s/70s and there was more cohesion on the left. As labor continued to declined and the “left” fractured, unions became much more focused on preserving themselves.

    Construction/extraction unions are similar to their employees, much easier to get them to think about larger issues when they are not worried about where the next paycheck is coming from.

    The service industry unions might be the exception as equality is cemented into their brand.

  • The primary job of a union is to protect incumbents.

    In an era of declining employment, extractive industry unions can’t afford environmentalism. When employment is expanding, they can (and indeed it tightens the labor market).

    Further, no union involved in coal mining will ever support serious efforts against global warming.

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