DSA Labor Perspectives, Part 1: For Eco-Socialism and Workers’ Power by Joe Allen
Humanity faces the prospect of extinction during the course of this next century as our planet becomes increasingly uninhabitable. The climate crisis is no longer an obscure subject of concerned scientists and activists: it impacts all of humanity. The apocalyptic fires in Australia have extinguished nearly a billion animals and killed dozens of people. Last year’s fires in the Amazon — the ‘lungs of world’ — under the watch Brazil’s fascist President Bolsonaro, had millions worrying how much longer we will have air to breathe. The yearly disastrous fires in California have wiped out entire towns like Paradise.
The list of climate-related disasters is getting so long it’s hard to keep track. But we are all agree that they are overwhelmingly disasters for the indigenous, people of color, and workers: stretching from Staten Island to Puerto Rico to the Amazon. We are at the turning point when whole regions of the planet are becoming uninhabitable: with rising ocean temperatures producing apocalyptic storms and changing weather patterns producing Biblical fires. Meanwhile, working conditions across the planet are rapidly deteriorating whether it be for California farm workers or UPS drivers. This is just the beginning of the horrors to come.
The popularity of the Green New Deal and Bernie Sanders — who’s made combating climate central to his presidential campaign — demonstrate that there has been a major shift in public attitudes towards climate change and the urgent need for action. This is not the place I want to go into a detailed critique of the Green New Deal, except to say that framing it as a ‘New Deal’ is a mistake because the New Deal was about saving capitalism and forestalling the potential for revolution. We can’t save the environment and save capitalism. The state capitalist policies at the heart of the New Deal, especially during the war years, ultimately strengthened the U.S. capitalist class and prepared it for global domination for the next six decades.
Let’s be clear: we need a workers revolution to save the environment. The old socialist slogan that the future was “socialism or barbarism,” is now Eco-socialism or Extinction. Let also be clear about another thing, our rivals on the fascist right provide their own Eco-fascist answer to the climate crisis: war and genocide.
We are all aware that AOC and Sen. Ed Markey’s Green New Deal (GND) was opposed by the Mineworkers and IBEW and several other trade unions. This should not surprise anyone. After all, the sclerotic leaders of U.S. trade unions are both afraid of their own shadows, and hostile to anything that threatens their little fiefdoms and comfortable class collaborationist policies. If the problem were only at the top of the unions, it would be one thing. But industrial workers are rightly skeptical of talk of a “just transition” from a fossil fuel based economy. Industrial workers have only ever known ‘unjust transitions’ — or deindustrialization — that also created an opening for Trump and the far right.
We’ve relied too much on the broad GND appeal to try to solve the political problems we face in the big industrial unions. With promises of millions of high wage, union jobs, we come off as just blowing hot air. The only industrial union to support the GND is the tiny United Electrical Workers (UE), which is marginal to the U.S. labor movement. This largely top-down strategy of tangling jobs before the union officialdom obscures what should be our strategy: building an Eco-socialist political base in the industrial unions to wage an all-out fight for political power. Passing the occasional resolution is not enough: we need to achieve rank and file power in the unions.
Take the IBEW, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, one of Joe Biden’s favorite unions, for example. They represent the bulk of the unionized workers at Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), California’s behemoth electric utility. It’s hard to think of a greater, on-going criminal enterprise when it comes to environmental destruction in California. During the past six years PG&E has been responsible for over 1,500 fires. It has always put shareholder dividends before public safety and its own workers’ safety while somehow managing to be nearly bankrupt, and begging for a public bailout. Despite the public outcry against PG&E, the IBEW has staunchly opposed public ownership. Only a complete political change in the union leadership could change this.
We also need to old challenge the old ways of small reform movements that exist in the industrial unions. For example, the old and venerable Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) recently endorsed the ‘Teamsters United’ slate, led by Sean O’Brien and Fred Zuckerman, for the 2021 Teamster election. TDU has little to say about climate change, despite the trucking and logistics industry being one of the biggest polluters in the U.S. Teamsters United has said nothing about climate change even though the Teamsters longstanding General President James P. Hoffa has a disastrous environmental record. As I wrote last December,
“Hoffa who earned a reputation as one of President Donald Trump’s most reliable union supporters on trade and infrastructure projects, including the environmentally disastrous Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines.”
Even more troublesome was the Hoffa administration’s agreement with U.P.S. — the largest Teamster employer and the largest private-sector unionized employer in the United State — to move work from the railroads to U.P.S’s over-the-roads or feeder trucks, even though the Teamsters represent rail workers across North America.
Sean O’Brien’s record on the environment isn’t much better than Hoffa’s. The President of Teamsters Local 25 in Boston sits on the governing board of Massport: the regional superagency that runs Logan Airport in Boston, one of the region’s major polluters. In last year’s local elections in Boston, O’Brien endorsed Michael Flaherty for city council. Flaherty caused a flap when he blamed Boston’s parking problems on “bus stops.” Flaherty later revealed that he owns five cars.
Most worrisome is O’Brien’s endorsement of Rep. Joe Kennedy III, of the Kennedy political dynasty, to run against Sen. Ed Markey, for the U.S. Senate. However, after embarrassing revelations for both candidates, Kennedy and Markey were forced to refund campaign donations to the fossil fuel industry. Meanwhile, Kennedy also had extensive financial holdings in the fossil fuel industry, according the watchdog newsletter Sludge:
“As he considers whether to enter the race, Kennedy owns as much as $1.75 million worth of stock in the fossil fuel industry, including oil and gas companies that see Markey’s Green New Deal as an existential threat, according to a Sludge review of financial disclosure documents.”
The big logistics companies supply chains — UPS, Amazon, FedEx, and the Post Office — are knitted together by cross-country and regional air networks. Regional air transportation is one of the worst polluters along with diesel fuel trucks, and cause both workplace illness and death in the surrounding communities. Many of the older hubs are located in areas near the city center and African-American and Latino working class neighborhoods; raising issues of environmental racism.
Eco-Socialism should be the prism that we use to examine and judge our labor perspectives. Here are a few concrete proposals for rank and file transport workers to fight for: Regional air transport and diesel fuel over-the-road and delivery vans have to go immediately, along with moving logistics work to rail and electric trucks and cars should be a top priority. Meanwhile, we should be opposed to the continued use and spread of nuclear power by painting it as a “green” alternative to fossil fuels.
We need to lead on these concrete issues and build rank and file movements that will fight for them. These are difficult battles to fight, no doubt. If we don’t fight on them, they’ll be used against us. I predict that there will be corporate “Green” attacks on unions and our livelihood soon.