Rooting labor action on climate change in the revolutionary struggle against alienation

Book Review of Jeremy Brecher's Climate Solidarity:  Workers vs. Warming, published online by the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS), (Takoma Park, Md., 2017), 83 pp.; download is free.

For decades, organized labor in the United States has been divided, at best, on the subject of combatting climate change.  The AFL-CIO opposed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that it threatened jobs and job creation; the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) has strongly favored the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) recently opposed President Obama's Clean Air Plan in the name of preserving jobs.

It's true that a growing number of other U.S. unions have made fighting climate change a major priority, and even some unions most opposed to the phasing out of fossil fuel production have committed themselves to "green jobs" initiatives to the extent that such initiatives promise paid work for their members.  Yet as a whole, the labor movement has not committed itself to ending greenhouse gas emissions that most scientists believe are likely to produce climate catastrophe by the end of this century.

The reason this is so, radical labor journalist Jeremy Brecher argues in Climate Solidarity, is because of the basic problem of alienated labor -- a reality that Marx saw as central to the functioning of modern capitalism, although in this book Brecher doesn't go out of his way to identify Marx as the source of this insight.

As Brecher puts it:

"Workers have no greater interest than to prevent the destruction of Earth's climate. Yet workers often act as an organized force to oppose climate protection measures in the name of our interests as workers. There is a persistent gap between working people's goals and the actual destruction of the Earth's climate that we produce through our work and activities. We seek such goals for ourselves and our posterity as survival, health, happiness, security, quality of life, and doing something useful, enjoyable, interesting and productive that has a positive impact on the world. But we are actually producing self and mutual destruction by means of destroying the Earth's climate."

The term that best captures the process of working people, through their own efforts, inadvertently strengthening institutions and processes that go against their interests is "alienation," Brecher notes.  In a brief but dense chapter on "The World Order of Climate Alienation" he locates the roots of alienation in the gradual development of modern capitalism since the early European Middle Ages.

In particular he discusses how alienation has grown over the centuries through (a) the development of a global order organized around nation states, (b) the metamorphosis of feudal property relationships into capitalist private property characterized by ownership in "fee simple," (c) the dissolving of feudal economic relationships and their replacement by free-market competition, (d) the nearly universal development of capitalist wage labor, and (e) last but not least, the dependence of modern industrial capitalism on fossil fuels.

In order to overcome climate alienation, Brecher concludes, it is not necessary to abolish the nation state system, the existence of private property, the market exchange of goods and services, and the existence of wage labor, yet it will be necessary to make radical changes in each of them.  The system of fossil fuel production, on the other hand, must be brought to an end, while society takes a number of steps that Brecher specifies in the book to ensure that working people whose livelihoods now depend on the production and use of fossil fuels are guaranteed a decent future.

"Climate alienation," the division of the U.S. labor movement over the issue of climate change and the dependence of millions of workers on forms of fossil fuel production and use that are threatening a grim future for everyone, is hardly the only kind of alienation that the modern capitalist world order has promoted, Brecher notes in passing.

In addition to climate change itself,

"Poverty, insecurity, injustice, war, pollution, resource depletion, discrimination, domination, oppression, degraded work, democracy deficit, and the denial of human freedom and dignity are ubiquitous, everywhere around the world, and are in considerable part produced and reproduced by what working people do in our daily question to make a living."

In an economy in which most employer organizations are virtually forced by free-market competition to sacrifice environmental and social values to the pursuit of profit, Brecher indicates, most working people feel helpless to avoid earning their living by various destructive activities.  The question is how working people can organize to change this situation.

Brecher identifies three primary strategies the labor movement has used over the last few centuries to reduce if not eliminate the worst forms of alienation.  Essentially, these involve solidarity among different categories of workers (extending across racial, religious, ethnic and national lines, for example, and embracing workers in competing business concerns), self-organization (such as the formation of trade unions and industrial unions, as well as social democratic political parties), and challenges to authority.

The second half of Climate Solidarity attempts to identify concrete ways in which workers can achieve the elimination of fossil fuels and the organizing of a more socially just society through the adaptation of these three basic strategies.

Among the most dramatic of the measures Brecher recommends are a World War II-style mobilization here in the United States to achieve a fossil fuel-free economy, as advocated by Margaret Klein Salamon, founder and director of The Climate Mobilization (see the May - June 2017 Washington Socialist for our article on DC DSA's "Building a Green Economy" panel discussion for details), and international efforts to launch a "Global Green New Deal," as former Vice President Al Gore (among others) has advocated for years.

What organized labor must not do in the short run, Brecher warns, is succumb during the Trump administration to the temptation to support expanded fossil fuel development and use "in order to garner the short-term economic benefits of [Trump's] trade and infrastructure policies."  Brecher argues that such a course would be "suicidal" for labor because it "would divide the working class and separate labor from the allies it desperately needs to fight Trumpism's anti-labor agenda."

Climate Solidarity, available online for free through the LNS web site, is one of a trilogy of books by Brecher on labor and climate change that LNS has published.  They include Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival (2nd edition), Climate Solidarity: Workers vs. Warming, and Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual.  For more information about the trilogy, some books of which carry a price, go here.

In addition to publishing Brecher's books, LNS has been instrumental in organizing a "Labor Convergence on Climate" campaign, which was officially launched during a convention early last year.  The LNS web site has links to several resources associated with the Convergence campaign, including:

  • a 10-page "LNS-Convergence Toolkit," with specific steps labor activists can take within their union locals to advance climate solidarity;
  • a Draft Statement of Principles for the Labor Convergence on Climate;
  • a "Labor Landscape Analysis," offering among other things profiles of 38 unions, labor federations and other organizations on sustainability concerns; plus a discussion of "past, present and future cooperation and conflict" between labor unions and environmental organizations; five case studies of instances in which unions have changed their official positions of controversial political issues; and a guided tour of the labor movement for labor and climate activists seeking to work within it; and
  • notes from the Labor Convergence on Climate Conference on how participants have envisioned climate protection campaigns within the labor movement unfolding over a number of years.

For access to these and other resources available from LNS, go to their home web page at their home page

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