by Bill Onasch
Getting Our Class On Board
The American working class, along with workers in most other countries as well, has long been taking a beating from the boss and banker class that commands both the economy and government. Class inequality is the greatest in living memory. We could go on and on preaching to the choir.
Bad as these attacks are on the living standards of working people all of these could be stopped and reversed in the long run by a rejuvenated labor movement and labor party. But the long run approach won’t do for the overarching climate crisis that is collateral damage from the ruling class exploitation of workers and our environment. Much of the serious damage already done to the fragile biosphere that has allowed humans to prosper cannot be reversed. Left unchecked, climate change will render civilization as we know it unsustainable and will even threaten the very survival of our species. There would be no sequel.
Some of the wealthiest elite in history talk “green” on occasion while others denounce climate change as a hoax. But, as noted in the last WIR, none are prepared to take needed bold action that conflicts with the material interest of their class.
Our class does not share this material interest—or many other interests for that matter—with the ruling capitalist class. But a lot of workers are in jobs that contribute to global warming big time. I got an e-mail blast from Mark Dudzic early Sunday morning informing his friends of a strike at nine oil refineries that could escalate in to the first national strike in the oil industry since 1980.
As a class aware worker I, of course, believe we should show solidarity with the oil workers in their struggle with the boss. As one who has paid attention to and accepts the findings and alternatives offered by science to prevent climate catastrophe I also believe we should work to wind down the oil, gas and coal industries to near zero as quickly as we can. I’m convinced this seeming contradiction can be satisfactorily resolved with full employment and quality living standards. This is possible and essential if our class—who do the work, and make up the big majority of society—mobilizes to replace the rule of climate and job-killing capital with the rule of workers and our allies, guided by science.
But clearly, while many are disillusioned with the present Establishment and their political parties relatively few have been galvanized in to class and climate actions. I promised last time to review some approaches to motivating our fellow workers. I am a strong believer in recycling, including reusing past remarks by a source I trust explicitly—myself. I offer some extended excerpts from a report I was invited to give to the Socialist Action national convention in Minneapolis last October:
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…
The single biggest obstacle to winning working-class support for the far-reaching restructuring required to stop climate change…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….
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….
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.
The attentive audience of workers, students, and retirees showed enthusiasm for the class and climate justice approach in a lively discussion. I was not surprised that they sounded like pretty smart folk; most workers are a lot smarter than their boss, or even sometimes themselves, are willing to admit. And, just as Dylan told us “you don’t need to be a weatherman to tell which way the wind is blowing,” you don’t have to be a climate scientist to recognize climate change. As for the class justice struggle, once you try it, it comes pretty naturally.
My generation that listened to Subterranean Homesick Blues at 45rpm are confronting an energy crisis of a more personal nature. But, at our own pace, with our own style and idiom, we each and all have ability and duty to mobilize the working class to resolve the greatest crisis humanity has yet faced.
That’s all for this week.
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