The working class, agricultural workers, and poor peasants are the overwhelming majority of the world’s population. They suffer the most from environmental damage, but also have the power to change things. Almost all the improvements of life, the vote for men and women, the democratic freedoms, improved wages and conditions at work and the provision of social services, were fought for and won by mass action.
Who Are the Working Class?
Often, when socialists talk about the role of the working class in the environment movement, they are met with confusion. After all, everybody is affected by the hole in the ozone layer, or a rise in sea levels.
We don’t talk about the working class because we have some sentimental attachment to ‘old-fashioned’ workers in heavy industry, or because we like to see men in flat caps breeding whippets.
Apart from the fact that the working class comprises the vast majority of the population, at least in the developed capitalist countries, it is the root source of the wealth of capitalism, and therefore the solution to breaking its grip on that wealth and power. Capitalism rests on the private ownership of industry, land, and resources. But none of this is worth anything without the labor power of workers to extract, construct, or manufacture things that can be sold for a profit. Without the working class, there can be no profits. Without old labor there would be no transport, communications or goods produced in factories. Nothing can be built, or moved, if workers don’t do it.
The role of the working class in production means that workers have the power to change society. The working class includes many people who don’t work in heavy industry, but who only survive by going out to work for a wage or salary, for example teachers, civil servants, as well as shop workers, are all working class.
Socialists build an alliance of the working class with all others who have an interest in protecting the environment, including peasants, the unemployed, retired, ill and students.
One of the best-known modern fighters for the environment was Chico Mendes. As a rubber tapper in the Brazilian Amazon, he was influenced by Marxism in his youth and became an active union organizer, fighting for better pay and conditions. As the moves by the Brazilian government to dominate and exploit the rainforest increased, the workers in their union fought to preserve their way of life. The government privatized large tracts of the forest to ranchers who cleared the forests driving out the people living there, rubber tappers, native people and small farmers.
This policy was a disaster as the soil and climate is not suitable to cattle, but the ranchers weren’t bothered. Their main aim was profiteering on land speculation. What they couldn’t buy legally they stole. Some 50 million hectares of the forest went up in flames. Even the valuable timber wasn’t harvested.
In the early 1980s as the Brazilian dictatorship weakened, workers gained confidence. There was a huge strike wave across Brazil and the formation of the PT, the Workers’ Party. Mendes was a founding member of the PT in his province and stood several times for election. The rubber tappers linked with this movement, gaining strength and determination. They used direct action, empates, to stop rainforest clearance. They established schools for their children, a co-operative to bypass the swindling middlemen, and built an alliance with other forest dwellers, including native people, in the Alliance of Forest People.
In spite of the murderous campaign of the landowners, including murdering Chico Mendes in 1988, the rubber tappers won victories. Although big business have as little regard for the poor as for the wildlife species in the forest, unlike other species, people can fight back. This is why they are the best hope for the environment.
In the mid 80s environmentalists from outside the rainforest began to make links with the rubber tappers. To some it was a shock to discover there were even people in this ‘wilderness’ and it took some re-adjusting for environmentalists in the USA to work with union organizers. Far too often the local people treat them as part of the problem. But local people are worried about both their environment and their jobs and living standards. Big business attempts to use divide and rule tactics by claiming that it is a choice between jobs and the environment. Policies that address these worries can expose such claims as false and build united campaign of local people and environmentalists.
Mendes and the rubber tappers gained from the support and publicity provided by the environmentalists and were able to force the Brazilian government to slow the cutting of the forest and set aside areas as ‘extractive reserves’. The rubber tappers’ union provided a policy for the environmentalists. They showed sustainable ways to live in the forest. Most importantly they provided a force on the ground to take effective action. 1
Workers Fight Back
Almost from the first days of workers’ struggles environmental issues were central to their fight. The fight for workplace health and safety, for a healthy working environment, has been a major union struggle. These struggles continue today. In recent times many battles have been waged against unions, often linking with the community against environmental problems. The National Union of Seamen in Britain refused to dump nuclear waste at sea, while dockers refused to unload PCBs (toxic organic compounds) which were going to be incinerated in South Wales. Both of these actions would now be illegal, under the Tories’ anti-trade union legislation of ‘secondary action’, which New Labour have promised to keep.
Green Bans in Australia
In Australia building workers, in the 1970’s, waged many battles alongside local communities to protect the environment. They took action to stop work that would damage the Great Barrier Reef. In New South Wales, led by the radical left-wing Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (BLF), they also instituted over 100 ‘Green Bans’, which stopped building work. One in Sydney involved action to prevent developers building a luxury development on Kelly’s Bush, 12 acres of open space enjoyed by the community. After years of protest by the local community, the plans were eventually dropped when the Bull-dozer and Crane-Drivers’ Union refused to work on them. Other bans were to protect working-class communities from roads being built through the middle of them, historic buildings and other open spaces. A ‘green ban’ even stopped a plan to build a car park for the Sydney Opera House in a local cliff face. This was one of the reasons the employers and the government launched a vicious attack in the 1980s on the BLF.
Jack Mundey, secretary of the New South Wales BLF between 1968 and 1973, commented on the bans that: “Its strengths were its achievements. The Green Bans are there. The legacy of the bans lives on.” He also points out that one of the major problems with the environmental movement is that it “has failed to address the issues of workers’ conditions and urban environmental issues.” Also, too many environmentalists are “the enlightened middle class … some think that you have to include business interests too, but the Atlantic Richfield oil company, for example, give money to the World Wildlife Fund in the US but are ripping the shit out of Alaska.” 2
One of the biggest battles across the world in recent years has been to try to halt or slow down the privatization of the major utilities – gas, water, electricity, telephones, etc. Because of the inability and lack of preparation of most of the trade union leaders, most of these privatizations went ahead – often with devastating environmental consequences.
The Tories, and other governments around the world, have launched an attack on what they call ‘red tape’. What they are really attacking are legal controls on companies that restrict their ability to pollute the environment, carry out unsafe work practices, produce dangerous products and pay low wages. The cutting of ‘red tape’ is an employers’ charter to increase profits at the expense of workers and the environment.
Workers should have the legal right to refuse to work, without any loss of income or threat of discipline, on any process that is a threat to their health or the environment. Health and Safety Inspection Officers need to be strengthened, with the power to make unannounced visits and stop dangerous and harmful practices. Trade unions should have full access to information about the substances used and any possible effects.
German Workers Fight Dangerous Chemicals
In the late 1980s the main engineering union in Germany, IG Metall, launched a campaign in Baden Württehmburg against a number of harmful substances used in industry that damaged workers health and the wider environment. Illness from industrial chemicals is widespread including skin diseases, breathing problems and cancers. Over 25,000 substances were used, many of them with unknown effects.
Health and Safety inspection and control was weak, with 403 officials covering over 273,000 companies and 3.5 million workers. Often visits were only every five years, with the company being given advance warning.
The union decided to act. They launched a campaign highlighting the dangers of chlorinated hydrocarbons which attack the nervous system, cause skin problems, liver and kidney damage and cancer in workers. These chemicals, which are long-lasting, were also released into the environment poisoning soil, water and forests. The union exposed the dangers both to workers and to the public. The pressure in the workplace and from the communities caused the use of these substances to be cut by 50% in a couple of years.
Since then similar campaigns have been launched in other regions and against other harmful substances and practices.
The Environment and Jobs
Some people in the environmental movement, however, do not treat the working class as allies and in some cases they even see them as opponents. Too often they blame workers in an industry as much as the owners. This leads some environmentalists into the trap of the bosses’ argument that it is a choice between the environment and jobs, making it hard to win local support for defending the environment. Yet when have bosses cared about jobs?
Rudulf Bahro, a German Green, who some consider as on the radical wing of the Green movement has stated that: “It would simply be a further priority to the fight against unemployment and the social decline in the wake of the old trade union and left socialist strategies. We are not here to defend or create jobs in the industrial system.” This attitude is a gift to employers and governments trying to argue that it is choice between jobs and the environment.
There are now 35 million people unemployed in the developed capitalist countries of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development). In Europe the equivalent of the whole working class of Spain and Portugal is on the dole. The Tories and their equivalents throughout the world don’t care about unemployment – in fact, it’s in their interest, as a means of driving down wages. If they said they were concerned about jobs in any other context, no-one would believe them: so why should we believe them when it comes to jobs and the environment? It is simply an attempt to divide and rule people.
Most workers and middle-class people are rightly concerned about both jobs and the environment. But there is no division between the two: unemployment, low pay and the destruction of the environment are all caused by the same profit system. The police and courts are used to protect the interests of big companies and land-owners. The battle to protect the environment is linked to a social struggle for decent living conditions and against the established order. As Chico Mendes said, “Poverty is the enemy of the environment.” The bosses who rule the world exploit both the people and the environment in their greed for profit.
The rubber tappers of the Amazon showed the advantage of policies that included local people in environmental protection. A program of sustainable use of resources would create long-term jobs and a better life for the peoples of an area than leaving big business to get on with its profiteering extraction of resources or construction of some mega-project. Energy saving by insulation, replacement of leaking water systems, provision of public transport, and many of the other policies advocated in this pamphlet would all provide jobs. Factories designed not to produce pollution and waste would be safer to work in and live near. Socialists also campaign for a dramatic shortening of the working week – at first to 35 hours, without loss of pay – which would create thousands of jobs.
The failure of the present leaders of the workers’ organizations will not be able to hold back the struggle for long. Life itself, with all the attacks of big business, drives people to fight back. The renewal of struggle will create new mass socialist movements. These movements will be the major force for protecting the environment.
The struggle against apartheid became a key focal point of the struggle for a better world in the 1980s. Millions of people across the planet watched a revolutionary movement unfold on their TV screens every night. They were inspired by the battle taking place in South Africa, where workers and young people mobilized in massive numbers and confronted on of the most heavily armed regimes in the world. It was this mobilization, particularly following the formation of the independent trade unions in the early to mid-1980s, which eventually brought the racist regime crashing down. The consumer boycott of South African fruit, wine and other produce, the demonstrations and calls to ‘public opinion’ all helped, but they were very limited compared to the struggle of the black working class in South Africa itself.
It is the power of ordinary people, the vast majority of whom are workers and poor peasants, organized and active together, which has the strength to change the world and protect the environment.
Nigeria: Struggling for Democracy, Fighting for the Environment
Today, in Nigeria, the battle against environmental degradation and the struggle for socialism are as intimately tied as you’ll find them anywhere else in the world. But the link is, perhaps, more apparent there than elsewhere. The Nigerian people suffer massive oppression at the hands of the combined weight of neo-colonialism (in particular, British interests), a corrupt military regime and the multi-nationals (particularly Shell).
Nigeria is dependent, like many other nations dominated by neo-colonialism, on one export for the vast majority of its wealth. Oil revenues account for 86% of total foreign exchange earnings and 96% government revenue. Shell – a British-based multi-national – produces 50% of this oil.
Shell’s activities, particularly in the Niger Delta, have been an absolute catastrophe for ordinary Nigerians. High pressure oil pipe-lines have been laid above the ground, without permission of local people, resulting in frequent spills which pollute farm land, fisheries and drinking water. Canals cut by the company have polluted drinking water and led to a resurgence of cholera. Gas from the oil wells, instead of being utilized, is ‘flares’ off – i.e. burnt for 24-hours a day in jets – making the atmosphere noxious and leading to a high incidence of respiratory diseases. It has been estimated that these flares contribute to about 10% of the total world production of greenhouse gases.
All of this is backed up on a massive scale by both the corrupt and repressive military regime, which has rigged elections and then refused to recognize the results, and by their backers in Western governments. As far as the West is concerned, neither ‘democracy’, ‘respect for human rights’, nor their alleged conversion to environmentalism, means anything when compared to protecting the interests of Shell and the other multi-nationals operating in the region.
As The Economist, the house-journal of world capitalism, commented in an editorial (5 October 1995); “In private, British officials admit to preferring strong government in Nigeria to democracy. And all for the sake of British investments in Nigeria’s oil industry.”
Workers, students and peasants who have fought back against this ‘triple alliance’ wrecking their lives and their environment have faced massive repression. Hundreds of oppositionists have been arrested, tortured, imprisoned without trial or assassinated.
Yet, even in Nigeria, the potential power of the organized working class, in alliance with other groups in society, is plain for all to see. The July/August 1994 oil workers’ strike against military rule shook Nigeria to the core. Shell were petrified of the potential effects on their profits. The strike’s defeat – by a combination of the regime breaking the unions and removing their leaders and the lack of solidarity from other unions – once again underlined the vital importance of international support and solidarity. As we point out earlier on in this chapter, it is not for sentimental reasons that we point to the role of the working class in changing society and protecting the environment, but because they are in the best position to effect real change.
The environmental problems are many and complex. They are due to an economic system that only looks at short-term profits; the false separation of humans from the rest of the planet; and a narrow and distorted view of science and technology.
While fighting now to protect the environment, we believe that, in order to tackle the fundamental problems, we have to change the way society is run. Solutions will take time and effort, even in a world where the environment and human needs are the priorities.
Freeing the world from the huge waste produced by capitalism, the enormous drain of war and debt, would give great opportunities to improve the world. The use of all humanity’s abilities and skill will be a powerful resource for a better world.
A new society, based on the democratic control and use of the potential marvels of science, in a rationally planned economic system geared to the benefit of humankind and the planet as a whole, could open up a new future.
Socialism would be a society based on two basic things: the common ownership of the economy: the land, industry and finance; and their democratic control by the people who work in them and consume their products. What possible reason would such a society, based as it would be on the common good of all, have to destroy the environment that needs to be passed on to future generations?
One of the famous strikes in the USA was the textile workers of Lawrence in 1912. Their slogan was Bread and Roses. We, like them, fight for the physical means of life and a better world. A sunset over the sea, a soaring forest of trees, spring flowers and laughing children are as much port of a socialist vision as are decent wages, public transport and housing. The struggle for socialism is equally about a life free from hunger, unemployment, war and disease as it is about a world rich in beauty that all can enjoy.