Banksy graffiti in Marble Arch supporting Extinction Rebellion protests. Photo: Shabbir Lakha Banksy graffiti in Marble Arch supporting Extinction Rebellion protests. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

The fight for workers’ rights and jobs goes hand in hand with the fight against climate change, so we need the environmental movement and trade unionists to work together, writes Richard Allday

The school students who have so enthusiastically taken up the challenge issued by Greta Thunberg, and who have, unquestionably, been the spark that ignited the recent mass civil disobedience campaign headed by Extinction Rebellion, have clearly posed a question that Britain’s labour movement has preferred to duck for all too long.

George Monbiot, a prominent ecological campaigner for many years, wrote in last week’s Guardian “For most of my adult life I have railed against the evils of ‘corporate capitalism’ and ‘crony capitalism’. It took me a very long time to see that the problem is not the adjective but the noun” (in last Thursday’s [April 25] Guardian Journal). Unfortunately, he rejects the alternative (socialism) in a very idiosyncratic interpretation of what it stands for, based very largely on an uncritical acceptance of what its opponents claim rather than our actual beliefs or actions. This rejection, incidentally, leaves him unable to offer any alternative other than a somewhat idealist exposition of alternatives within the system.

Jeremy Corbyn has at least committed the Labour Party to definitive support for Thunberg’s central demand, that politicians ‘feel the heat’ and propose concrete and radical policies to address the issue. Labour’s manifesto commitment to a green industrial strategy to create a million new jobs in the process of tackling climate change is a start, and a welcome one, and is at least the beginning of an argument that the environment and the economy need not be seen as separate, even opposing, priorities.

The trade union movement, on the other hand, has barely begun to address the issue. Britain and Ireland’s largest trade union, Unite, is currently committing considerable resources to fighting the closure of the Honda car plant in Swindon. Our senior reps at the old GM Vauxhall plants (now owned by Peugeot), at Jaguar LandRover, Toyota and Nissan are all looking apprehensively to the future; not just Brexit, but the long-term prospects for the industry that provides them and their fellow workers with the means to pay their bills.

According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) 186,000 people are directly employed in the UK auto industry. A further 856,000 jobs are dependent on the sector. The official government figures (House of Commons Briefing Paper 0061) are about 10% lower, but still mean that in excess of 2.5M households rely on the sector for their economic needs.

Thus there are substantial numbers of working class people who are not predisposed to lend a sympathetic ear to any argument that they see as threatening their immediate interest for some abstract future problem. This is precisely the angle of attack that Trump has (so far successfully) used to weight public argument against US environmentalists in his defence of the coal and steel barons.

Whether it is the car industry, steel, civil aviation, nuclear power, or a range of other industries, we can no longer afford the artificial dichotomy between real people’s real needs, and the equally real existential threat posed by a profit-driven economic model that threatens the very survival of the planet.

This was starkly exposed at the recent London Labour conference in the discussion over the expansion plans for Heathrow. Unite delegates strongly defended their union’s policy of supporting expansion, for the sake of employment and economic security. Constituency representatives stoutly opposed the expansion plans on the grounds of pollution (not just atmospheric, but noise as well). We have seen the same tensions in the ongoing debate over Trident at Unite’s Policy conferences, with reps from the industry decrying the environmentalist (and ethical) opponents of the nuclear deterrent.

We cannot afford to have the debate polarized between two artificially opposed positions. It is not in the interest of union members, or people employed in any sector, to take as a given that what is good for the employer is automatically good for employees. We do not accept this when it comes to matters of pay, or terms and conditions (Ts & Cs) so why do we seem to suffer a collective collapse of critical judgement when it comes to industrial strategy?

We desperately need an environmentalist lobby that actively defends existing (and future) employment, and sides with workers defending jobs, terms and conditions. To do otherwise means driving millions of ordinary people into the enemy camp. We desperately need a trade union movement that takes environmental and ethical issues seriously, with concrete policies. To do otherwise means driving a whole generation of young activists into the belief that trades unions (and socialists) are the enemy.

I have worked in road haulage for nigh on 30 years. It is environmentally destructive, and economically daft, for the logistics network to rely on road transport for the transport of bulk goods. By any objective standard, rail provides a far more efficient mode of transport. But to suggest that tens of thousands of (pretty crap) jobs be wiped out is not going to endear you to the average lorry driver. On the other hand, a government strategy that reduced the working day of a lorry driver to 10 hours maximum – with no loss of pay – and guaranteed no compulsory redundancies in the sector? This could be very popular in a sector where the 15-hour day is all too common.

This is where Monbiot’s ideological opposition to a mythical ‘state communism’ is exposed for the dead end it is. Even by his own logic, he accepts that the current (capitalist) economic system is driven fundamentally by the acquisition of profit: the strong (profit-makers) succeed and grow; the weak (loss-makers) go to the wall. The idea that ‘doughnut economics’, or workers’ co-ops, or ethical new-starts can successfully oppose the big players on a piecemeal basis is hopeful at best, dangerous at worst, because it underestimates the ruthlessness of the system they oppose. An alternative economic model requires a strategic approach, with the power to compel industrial compliance. In turn, this requires legislation, with punitive sanctions against non-compliance. Can you imagine the consequence of health and safety regulations being a matter for employers to sign up to, or not, dependent on their goodwill to implement, with no sanctions for non-compliance?

The logical conclusion is that environmental concerns can only be addressed by a government committed to the interests of the vast majority (i.e. working people and their families); a government prepared to confront the inevitable opposition of capital. The labour movement would be an essential part of the support such a government would require, if it is not to either capitulate or collapse, but this requires the trade unions to play a far more interactive role in developing such an industrial strategy – which will not happen unless and until we break from the unnecessary identification of our interests with those of the employer.

The cotton weavers of the northwest of England realized this, during the American Civil War, when they collected money for the North and supported the fight against the horror of slavery in the South. They refused to swallow the employers’ argument that their jobs depended on the slave-grown cotton imports from the southern states, and put solidarity first. Two thirds of the mills of Lancashire closed because of the embargo of cotton from slave states, with the consequent unemployment and hardship. Still, the millworkers refused to side with their employers’ lust for profit, and supported the fight for emancipation. 

We desperately need activists in the trades unions to put concern for the environment on an equal footing with the fight for jobs, and we desperately need activists in the environmental lobby to put the fight for decent jobs on an equal footing with concern for the environment. Then perhaps we can find a constructive solution to the questions of airport expansion, nuclear weapons, transport and logistics strategy, without offering succour to the employing class.

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.