A Piece for the Free Press Cooperative of Central MN and the IWW Blog by EJDoyle
Friends, readers, and fellow workers,
last month in this Free Press Cooperative, I wrote on the need for Industrial Unionism here in Central Minnesota, to combat the exploitation of the working people. I write this month to highlight a second great injustice of the capitalist system: the degradation our common home, the pollution of our air and water, the waste of both finite and renewing resources, the devaluing of nonhuman life, and the permanent altering of our habitat in such a way that it is no longer hospitable to that life which has heretofore adapted to it- in short, the ecological devastation that has seized the world in its deathly grip since the dawn of our current economic epoch.
Capitalism lays waste to our common home. Some would be inclined to blame industry, or the concept of civilization itself, as the source of these problems; this is ignorant. While there is no doubt that the specialization of labor allowed by the agricultural revolution has enabled our species to construct a myriad of technologies, which have in turn enabled us to expand our footprint within the ecosystem, to blame technology is to ignore the power that chooses how we use that technology.
In capitalism, that power is the capitalists, both as individuals and a class. To understand how we have reached our ecological crisis, we must understand how capitalism has forcibly guided the hand of industry in the short-term interest of the few at both the short and long-term expense of people and the Earth.
The capitalist system places value only in what is both owned and can be sold. For example, to this system, air quality is an ‘externality’, because it is a damage to our common resource- air cannot be owned nor sold and so does not count in the economic calculations of capitalists. While this is called, by the apologists of exploitation, a ‘tragedy of the commons’, we know it for what it really is; a tragedy that occurs when the needs of private holders takes precedence over the needs of those who use the commons; it is a tragedy of privatization and commodification.
The response to this tragedy, enforced on the global south by the World Bank and their ilk, and increasingly coming to invade and dismantle the scant protection of progressivism in the north (all in the name of ‘free trade’), is to further privatize what is commonly held; already, they have privatized land, water, fisheries, and even ‘genetic information’- seeds. Such privatization serves only to further consolidate wealth into the hands of the capitalist class, to be further mismanaged.
Capitalism mismanages because it and the privatization scheme places the power to make decisions in the hands of a tiny class, disregarding the needs of communities. Consider the suffering of Appalachia: Who decides that it is most ‘efficient’ to blow up mountains, dump the mud and rock into the valleys, choke the air with carcinogens, and poison the rivers with acid runoff, all to extract coal to power some capitalist’s machines in some other place, choking that town’s air and poisoning its water, and at every step of the way spewing forth carbon, contributing to the deathly toll of climate change?
It is the capitalist (or, in the modern corporation, the Board elected by the capitalists), safe in his office, away from the poisons he commands- the capitalist who can afford to keep his own home relatively free of pollution, and keep some crude semblance of wilderness alive in his estates for his enjoyment.
The needs of the people of Appalachia do not factor into the mining company’s decisions, nor do the needs of the people of Manchuria factor into the decisions of the manufacturing bosses or the State’s party bosses- so can the absentee bosses shift the ecological burden to the working classes, and ignore the costs of production, making a false efficiency from willfully blind industrialism. To the people who live and work in Appalachia or Manchuria, however, the pollution of their air and water, the loss of habitat and wildlife, the losses to public health, are all pressing concerns.
Had the workers, living with the consequences of industry, their say, would such degradation be tolerated? Common sense, and the growing alliance of labor with the environmental movement, dictates that it would not, but as long as the decisions are made in the board room, dictating the will of the capitalist class without regard to the consequences suffered by workers and their communities, such degradation continues.
These insanities of capitalism, among others, ensure that any attempt to ‘green’ the system is doomed. The public can try, as they have and as they should, to introduce public regulation of pollution. But, the hand of the boss class, kept powerful by the labor of the dependant workers, has ways of breaking down, bypassing, and rewriting these regulations. Unopposed by the organized power of the workers, the bosses can make these regulations mean little or nothing, and continue with more or less regular capitalist relationships to the environment. The other action people can take is direct and economic; they can refuse to purchase unsustainable products. This is a popular and welcome strategy, but again, it is not enough- it does not change the fundamental nature of the industry, but only creates a niche market, a sub-section of that industry, still controlled by the capitalists, but selling organic or ‘fair trade’ (less exploited) goods- often, with the money flowing to exact same corporate despoilers to be reinvested in their deadly industrial processes.
Consumer pressure alone is not enough, because it requires the huge majority of consumers to choose not to support industries that are poisoning people and destroying ecosystems. While it seems obvious that it is no more acceptable to pollute someone’s air and water or otherwise destroy their environment than it is to outright assault them, there are enough shortsighted blockheads and scissorbills in the world who don’t realize this and will continue to buy whatever good is cheapest in commodity price, regardless of its cost to the world. There is another course of action, an effective and powerful course that addresses the problem directly at its primary source. This is the course of green unionism. Labor addresses the threat to the environment where it is greatest; in the factories, fields, and mines of industry.
A capitalist may work around the other two strategies of environmental defense, and can even recuperate the losses of direct action, but what can they do, when the labor that keeps their industry running, refuses to work until real change is made? Though any union will help to bring the environmental needs of the community into the question of economic decision-making, industrial unionism is especially suited to this job.
An industrial union, such as the IWW, does not believe in shifting the burdens from one group of workers to another, as some business unions do. We don’t believe that getting rid of a polluter is progress, if they just move their pollution to a poorer side of town. We don’t think that putting solar panels up to power a business is sustainable, if the copper was gotten by ruining someone else’s home. We recognize that industrial pesticides hurt not only the workers in the field, but all the workers and communities downstream. Moving towards sustainability means solidarity not only with your own local community, but with people all over the world; this is a value that both bosses and too many business unions lack, but that forms the foundation of industrial unionism- a harm to one, whether through economic or ecological injustice, is a harm to all.
An industrial union is suited to green unionism because it is democratic. As we’ve already seen, hierarchical power relationships mean that the goals and values of one party take precedence over the values of others. While business unions are certainly better than no union, even they can form a controlling clique, and ignore the needs and desires of the rank and file. Industrial unions like the IWW don’t allow this centralization of power.
The IWW structure is radically democratic- each shop, industry, and local is its own center of power, with the IWW general body serving as a coordinator, not a commander, of activities. This structure, whether applied to a union, an activist network (for example, Earth First!, which the IWW has worked with in the past and which uses this grassroots, federative organizational principle), or a society, ensures that people get a voice in what affects them; a central goal of designing an ecologically just society. Finally, industrial unions are key to the defense of the environment in the workplace, because unlike business unions, the IWW and other industrial unions are openly and proudly advocates of economic democracy. Economic democracy is the negation of the capitalist method of organization, and the expansion of those things that make industrial unionism great; it is worker and community control of the factories and fields, the primacy of the people’s needs, both for constructed goods and for a healthy world, in the economic process, and the replacement of top-down control that benefits the owners without regard for the workers, with worker’s control, which benefits the workers and the community. In an ecologically conscious economic democracy (almost a redundancy), all value is considered; not only the value of commodity goods and stocks to the capitalist, but the very real value of our common resources and the people who depend on them, our children’s futures, and habitats and lives of non-human species- values that capitalism, in its commoditization of human and non-human life and devaluing of the wants and needs of the dispossessed, can never realize. Whatever other measures are taken to ensure the continued well-being of our environment, the power of industry will exploit and recklessly plunder the world, unless guided by the hands of all those who share that world, and not a privileged few.
Sustainability requires economic democracy and green unionism, and these demand industrial unionism. The IWW, with its commitment to sustainability and real change, is just the union we need, to make ecological and economic democracy come to life.