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Labor and the Struggle for a Healthy Environment

Report to the 2014 Convention of Socialist Action
by Bill Onasch

While preparing this report I recalled a conversation I had twenty years ago with the late Tony Mazzocchi when he visited Kansas City promoting Labor Party Advocates. I happened to mention how reading Rachel Carson’s popular 1962 book The Silent Spring had sparked my lifelong interest in environmental questions. I could tell Tony was not impressed, and I asked him why. He responded, “Carson did a great job in exposing the damaging effects of DDT on soil, water, and birds. But she mostly neglected what it did to those who manufactured it, sprayed it in the fields, or harvested those crops.” It was a fair criticism of not only Carson but of too many environmentalists for whom workers are a transparent part of the process.

Mazzocchi was a somewhat maverick leader in the old Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers, whose remnants today are in the Steelworkers. Despite the headaches he often caused for more conventional union bureaucrats, he was selected to direct labor’s successful fight to get OSHA passed. From his own early shop-floor experiences in a cosmetics plant to his work with Karen Silkwood to expose radiation poisoning at Kerr-McGee, Tony came to understand workers are the frontline victims of the environmental crimes of capitalism where we work and where we live. He believed workers shouldn’t be part of the environmental movement—they should lead it.

That was incorporated in to the Program adopted at the 1996 Labor Party Founding Convention in Cleveland attended by 1,400 mainly union activists. It said in part, “the Labor Party calls for the creation of a new worker-oriented environmental movement — a Just Transition Movement — that puts forth a fair and just transition program to protect both jobs and the environment. All workers with jobs endangered by steps taken to protect the environment are to be made whole and to receive full income and benefits as they make the difficult transition to alternative work. The cost of this Just Transition Income Support program will be paid for by taxes on corporate polluters.”

Unfortunately, this once promising Labor Party initiative was steadily weakened as mergers and leadership changes in affiliated unions withdrew material support. Though some state and local bodies are still functioning—the South Carolina Labor Party is running a candidate for Congress—the national party was placed in a sort of medically induced coma a couple of years ago. We believe there will be a revival of a labor party movement, and remain alert for any openings within the unions. For now, as the [Socialist Action] Draft Political Resolution (DPR) states, the labor party is an important part of our propaganda but not agitation.

The single biggest obstacle to winning working-class support for the far-reaching restructuring required to stop climate change, that we describe in the DPR, is fear of job loss. Such anxiety is not totally irrational. Millions of present jobs will need to be eliminated in the conversion to a sustainable economy.

That is why Just Transition is of such crucial importance to our class and climate program. We pledge to leave no worker behind. If you lose your livelihood for the benefit of society we will provide retraining and relocation if necessary, while maintaining your living standard until you find a suitable new job.

This is a promise not of charity but of solidarity—and we can back it up because we know suitable jobs will become abundant. While we will make some big changes in wasteful consumption, we can’t, even if we wanted to, go back to living like Little House on the Prairie.

We will still use electricity—but generated from clean renewable sources such as solar and wind. That requires manufacturing and installing solar panels, wind turbines, and a new grid.

We will still transport people and goods in powered vehicles. But for presently dominant fossil-driven, inefficient internal combustion we’ll substitute superior electric motors, either hooked up to wires on the renewable power grid or to a new generation of batteries which will make them virtually emission-free. And we’ll mostly replace wasteful personal car dependency with trains, buses, and bicycles in urban areas.

As we convert to organic, sustainable farming methods instead of poisoning our environment with chemical saturation, agriculture will become much more labor intensive. In collaboration with unions such as the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, we’ll allocate resources to ameliorate the often back-breaking working conditions today imposed in the fields.

More clearly demarcating urban and rural, we will start to roll back insidious urban sprawl. We’ll repair, renovate and rebuild our deteriorating urban cores, making them livable and ecologically sound, while restoring the surrounding forests, wetlands, and farm land wrecked through irresponsible “development.”

We can and must do all these things and a whole lot more while stopping global warming and extending a quality standard of living to all. But it will require all hands on deck for generations to come, working to implement the democratically determined centralized plan we envision.

Now some shrewd observers may detect that this perspective of ours not only upsets free markets but mortally threatens the property rights of those who presently own and mismanage the dominant private sector. We have neither the need nor the ability to plausibly deny such assertions.

Of course, socialist revolution is, as they say, what we are all about. Facing the climate crisis we have become generic ecosocialists. We’re convinced there can be no acceptable outcome to the climate crisis without socialism and, of course, no socialism if our biosphere collapses. That is an unshakeable core principle that guides all of our work, as we plainly publicly declare in our DPR and general socialist propaganda.

But as we circulate our excellent newspaper with perceptive articles and resolutions among workers we seldom hear, “Where the hell have you people been? When and where do we start the revolution?”

Widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo is palpable throughout the working class. It ranges over a broad array of issues including increasingly concern about the early warning signs of climate change. But as the DPR concludes, this prevailing sour disposition has not yet progressed to a generalized fighting radicalization. Very few are ready to seriously consider socialist revolution. We still recruit mostly in ones and twos.

One of the great contributions of the Trotskyist current to revolutionary Marxism is the concept of transitional demands. We start with the present level of consciousness and combativity of the workers—which is today generally, with some important exceptions, still pretty low—and formulate demands aimed at building bridges to higher levels of understanding and action. Such demands should not just sound good, like the pablum bourgeois politicians cook up in focus groups, but actually be achievable. While not necessarily revolutionary, they can only be won through major battles with the ruling class.

We have a rich heritage of such transitional demands as fighting for the shorter work week with no reduction in pay, cost of living clauses in union contracts to protect against inflation, free health care for all, and bringing the troops home now.

We are now moving forward with a transitional program tailored for climate change. For years this work was primarily the province of a few comrades who had become self-educated experts. They wrote some good articles and pamphlets and presented very useful classes. We’re counting on them to continue—but every comrade needs to become as familiar with the basics of climate and environmental questions as we are presently with surplus value and the need for a Leninist party.

Comrades in unions should sign up with the Labor Network for Sustainability. It’s really more of an e-mail list than a membership organization but they advocate positions similar to ours and are a good source of information.

There have been some big changes since our last convention which Carl will deal with in some detail. The climate has got worse—but the prospects for a mass movement around climate change are much improved.

Particularly encouraging is growing, substantial official union participation, first around the Keystone XL pipeline, then around fracking in some regions, and most impressively around the People’s Climate March in New York and the other support actions around the country. Unions such as the Service Employees International Union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, AFSCME and National Nurses United devoted financial and staff resources to mobilize thousands of their members to march about climate change. Doing this during a midterm election season is a truly remarkable development.

We will certainly want to follow up in these unions, and probe others, for possible ongoing work. As we test the waters around climate we may find contacts interested in other issues in the labor movement as well.

It’s the early days for a mass climate movement, but changes can come quickly. When the Kansas City Royals can make it to the World Series, we are reassured that anything is possible. We want to be at the stop, fare in hand, ready to board as we recognize our bus finally rolling in.