Towards Workers’ Climate Action

Against the Current, No. 181, March/April 2016

Traven Leyshon

Workers and Trade Unions for Climate Solidarity:
Tackling climate change in a neoliberal world
By Paul Hampton
Rutledge, 2015, 211 pages, $54.95 kindle.

For Workers’ Climate Action:
Climate Change and Working-Class Struggle
By Paul Hampton, 54 pages, £4.

[The workers had] “done more for the future of green energy and green jobs in the UK in two weeks than the government has done in 12 years.” — National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers President Bob Crow speaking of the Vestas factory occupation.
“The myth that the environment movement is the preserve of the do-gooding middle class must be exploded. It is, in fact, the workers who are most affected by the deterioration of the environment and it is therefore up to the trade union movement to give it a higher priority to fighting to improve it.” — Builders’ Labourers Federation Secretary Jack Mundey.

“The AFL-CIO Executive Council therefore calls upon the President to refrain from signing the proposed Kyoto Protocol to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.” — AFL-CIO Executive Council statement, January 30, 1998.

IN THE FACE of capital’s ecocidal embrace of extreme energy, unprecedented numbers of people are mobilizing in climate marches, bravely engaging in direct actions to stop the expansion of fracked gas pipelines. There is also a growing anticapitalist, climate justice wing, including an ecosocialist current.

While workers are participating in these “inter-classist” protests, we are told that “they do not participate as workers, with a consciousness of their specific role…the working class is now in the rearguard of the struggle over the climate, while peasants and indigenous peoples are in the front line with anticapitalist demands.” (Daniel Tanuro, Confronting the Ecological Emergency,

Paul Hampton, a trade union researcher in Britain, addresses these issues offering a Marxist perspective on the potential role of the working class in climate politics, as well as the tasks of revolutionaries, in this pamphlet and book (which originated as a PhD thesis on climate change and employment relations).

In his introduction Paul poses key questions for climate politics:

“Whether workers organized in trade unions possess the interest and power to tackle dangerous climate change, and whether unionised workers can become strategic climate actors.”

“Whether trade unionism in the twenty-first century can succeed in reinventing itself as a social movement capable of tackling climate change.”

Workers and Trade Unions for Climate Solidarity focuses primarily on the interrelation of climate and class politics; on union climate debates, policies and practices worldwide and in the United Kingdom; on UK workplace green reps; and on the 2009 Vestas occupation, in which workers at a wind turbine factory occupied the workplace to try to stop closure.

Workers and Climate Agency

Hampton challenges the notion that an undifferentiated “we” can save the planet. “‘We’ should not assume that the same structures that gave rise to climate change in the first place will continue… ‘we’ cannot rely on the same business and state actors who caused the problem to tackle it.”

Contemporary climate change politics has reached an impasse, “the great inaction.” None of the representatives at the head of states and multilateral institutions has a credible plan to tackle climate change — as became clear to all who would see in 2009 at Copenhagen.

Instead, a new age of extreme energy is emerging. Despite talk about “going green,” renewable energy use is not growing fast enough to appreciably slow down the rise in fossil fuel use. Hopes for a Green New Deal have reached a political dead end.(1)

While unions have been weakened during the neoliberal period, Hampton posits waged workers(2) and organized labor as the essential starting point for developing a climate counter-power, a working class based movement to fight for a “just transition” to an ecologically sustainable society.

He argues that the international working class has the social power to overthrow capitalism and to reorganize production under different imperatives — such as to meet social needs and to respect ecological limits.

The shorter pamphlet For Workers’ Climate Action urges the left to reach out to climate activists to explain the limits of green politics, to make the case that being “anti-capitalist” is important but not enough.

We should be arguing for working-class agency and an orientation to workers’ organizations and struggles. It advocates that “climate activists could make alliances and join coalitions with organised labour to form a working-class based climate movement. This would be a social movement with workers’ self-activity at its core.”

While Hampton writes that it is highly unlikely that climate change will be tackled at all adequately, or at least in an equitable way without socialism — a systematic, democratic, collective, planned alternative to capitalism — he chooses not to use the term ecosocialism as he sees it as a “fudge” that fails to clarify confusion over the social forces for socialism.

For example, he critiques Naomi Klein:

“Klein does see organised labour as an agent in this climate movement, but only as one actor among many. Indigenous struggles are far the most prominent in the book, yet her writing is testimony to the weaknesses of most indigenous communities opposing capital. Of course indigenous fighters are valuable allies in the climate struggle, but they are neither sufficiently universal nor sufficiently powerful to constitute the fulcrum of a revived climate campaign… This is the role of the global workers’ movement. It is organised labour, shorn of its own business unionism and bureaucratic structures, which can coalesce a new climate movement.”

While recognizing the oppression and market coercion of exploited groups such as indigenous peoples, peasants and the self-employed, Paul’s view is that the location of working class within capitalist relations of production makes it the agent with both the power and the interest to modify and stop capitalist production, ultimately to overthrow it, to supersede the waged labor-capital relation, and create the political and organizational structures to replace capitalism. This defines the role of socialists — to put socialist climate answers at the heart of the reviving climate movement.

Marxism has a great deal to say about the causes of climate change. In Capital, Marx described the metabolism between human society and its natural environment. Climate change is a form of the metabolic rift between humanity and the conditions of our existence. Paul praises John Bellamy Foster’s work(3) for helping revive and develop the metabolic approach to ecological questions pioneered by Marx:

“On this view, labour mediates the relationship between society and nature; capitalism (and other modern class societies such as Stalinism) generate a metabolic rift in the ecology of the earth; and metabolic restoration requires a new, more progressive socialist system.”

However, Hampton rejects Foster views on “rift-healing” social agency: “those workers, primarily women, peasants, the indigenous, whose daily work is directed at biological growth and regeneration.” In Hampton’s view:

“The Monthly Review school long ago wrote off the proletariat of the imperialist centre as an agent for socialism, so this move is not surprising. It is also incoherent. The work of these groups, while important in their own terms, is not the central dynamic of capitalism. Without tackling the exploitation of waged labour and its connection with ecological degradation, which are the real core of the system, strategies built on the margins will remain marginal to fundamental change.”

Hampton writes that we should extend Marx’s account of the production of surplus value (or the subsumption of labor to capital) to the subsumption of nature to capital, and within that process the subsumption of the climate to capital, revealing the basic responsibility of the bourgeoisie for climate change.

“It is the subsumption of nature to capital that both reveals the irreformable nature of capitalism and points to the potential of labour in tackling its own condition to simultaneously change the dominant relationship to the nature.”

False Market Solutions

Climate change is already being used to rationalize anti-working class politics. Workers will be expected to pay for market-inspired “solutions” in lower wages, lost jobs, higher prices, higher taxes and other penalties. Yet most trade union policies operate within the paradigms of ecological modernization and neoliberalism.

Workers and Trade Unions for Climate Solidarity interrogates how union climate politics are shaped by those frameworks.

Neoliberal climate-mitigation policies see the answers entirely in terms of tweaking markets, e.g. by imposing carbon taxes or establishing property rights for emissions trading schemes. On the other hand, ecological-modernization accepts the predominant role for markets, but also provides for regulation and other non-market instruments to be used in state climate policy — as well as fostering advocacy coalitions around environmental NGOs, some unions, and profit-seeking financiers.

Paul Hampton slams the inefficacy of the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme and makes a convincing argument that such policies are “at best insufficient and at worst a distraction… (and) that, the current impasse of climate politics can be traced to the misframing of vital matters by the dominant discourses of neoliberalism and ecological modernisation.”

For those of us organizing in the backward U.S. terrain, this dismissal seems too absolute. Campaigns for a progressive carbon tax as advocated by James Hansen and others, as well as divestment (union pension funds!) from fossil fuels, even with their limitations, could give rise to valuable organizing and worthwhile stopgap reforms.

Hampton believes that meaningful reforms can be won in the short term, but that a “transitional politics” with transformative goals that bridges the gap between reform and revolution should help shape the “reforms fought for, the alliances formed and dictates the partners in the alliances.”

Working-Class Climate Politics

Hampton’s work provides both a theoretical and empirical basis for understanding that working-class climate politics starts from the recognition that the causes of climate change are rooted in the core drives of capitalism. But perhaps the most valuable part of his work for labor climate organizers is his wide ranging study of independent and class-focused union climate activity.

The increasing union participation in ecological protests going beyond existing government and international climate policy, as with the 2014 Peoples Climate March and around COP21, is well known. Hampton lifts up lesser known activity starting with an analysis of the network of “thousands of union [workplace] reps making a substantial contribution towards curbing carbon emissions across the UK.”

While often using the rhetoric of union partnership with employers, research shows that “the actual activity more closely resembled the organising approach,” and that union reps embody enormous potential for effective climate politics.

Paul cites many very practical steps that unions are taking: UK’s Fire Brigades Union is organizing to combat the worst effects of climate change — like demanding the creation of an adequate flood rescue service. In Germany, construction unions have negotiated an agreement with the government to fund energy efficiency improvements in homes. In Spain, unions have been involved in national, regional and workplace collective bargaining on climate change.

Capitalism presents working people with the impossible choice: Your job or your life. A program to address the crisis facing people and communities who are dependent on the industries that are killing them, and threatening the ecosystem, must be both practical and genuinely radical. That means, for example, fighting to provide jobs for all by shortening the work week and mandating longer holidays.

Paul Hampton questions the viability of the partnership approach to “just transition” held by most unions, pointing out that “given the scale of the transformation required, it is questionable whether such a transition is ever likely. If someone has to pay, then it is simply impossible to ally with every other actor.”

Business only appears to want “partnership” as window-dressing, while governments of all political stripes have failed to fund just transition support. Most significantly, just transition does not have much traction with union members.

A more radical interpretation like a “worker-led just transition” is necessary to project a more transformative project and prioritize organizing centered around the labor movement. Hampton points to the successes of the green jobs movement in South Africa, where the slogan of a “worker-led just transition” is finding real purchase so that even the coal mining unions are arguing for a just transition to carbon-neutral work.

In the U.S. context we should look to examples like that of the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs, a coalition of environmental and labor leaders brought together by the Labor Network for Sustainability. Their mission statement reads:

“We seek to build a worker-oriented environmental movement that supports a fair and just transition program to protect not only the environment, but also the livelihoods of working people endangered by both climate change and the steps taken toward mitigation and adaptation. Workers making the difficult transition to alternative work deserve well-paid, secure jobs with benefits and the right to union representation.”

We desperately need infrastructural renewal (including mass public transit. Think of the Amalgamated Transit Union’s labor-community campaign). Campaigns are needed for cheap or free public transport to provide a real alternative to the car, including building cheap high speed rail transport.

We should be fighting for a program of free insulation and other energy saving measures, starting with public housing.

Going beyond any market-led transition to a low-carbon economy some unionists, brought together by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, are advocating democratic public ownership or “energy democracy.” There is considerable international labor support for the idea that renewable energy must be considered a public good.

Workers’ Planning, Energy Democracy

Trade Unions for Energy Democracy also counsels that focusing on climate change as a separate issue is counterproductive. To connect with our own members unions need to embed climate protection into the work we are presently doing to defend and promote workers’ rights, fight privatization and austerity, and defend public services.

During the 1970s, many unions and rank and file organizations in Britain produced workers’ plans to tackle unemployment, restructuring and other employers’ attacks. Invariably such plans questioned the logic of capitalist production for profit and asserted the need for “socially useful production” — often making explicitly pro-environment proposals.

Probably the most famous was the Lucas Aerospace Corporate Plan(4), which included a detailed section on alternative energy. Workers at other UK firms — including Vickers, Hawker-Siddeley, Rolls-Royce, BAC, Chrysler, Ernest Scraggs, Dunlop — undertook similar initiatives. Many workers’ plans emphasized conversion, paid for by the employers and the state, to renewable and environmentally friendly technologies.

These workers’ plans indicated the ecologically progressive direction of many trade unionists in the 1970s. Had a fraction of these ideas been implemented, the fight against climate change would have been much more advanced today.

Although these plans were snuffed out by the employers’ offensive and the austerity imposed after Thatcher become prime minister, they indicate the potential power of a militant working class movement to relate constructively to pressing ecological issues.

Another inspiring labor movement-based environmental campaign was led by building workers in Australia in the1970s. The New South Wales Builders’ Labourers Federation imposed some 50 green bans, refusing work on environmentally injurious constructions.

The 2009 Vestas wind turbine factory occupation is another example of radical working-class climate action at a rank and file level. Workers at the nonunion factory faced closure (Vestas proved just as rapaciously profiteering and just as disregarding of workers’ rights as any fossil fuel firm.)

Workers’ Climate Action (a coalition of socialists, IWW and anarchist activists) was central in building initial momentum and organizing against the proposed factory closure. The workers organized into to a radical union, took action, occupied the factory, and with environmental activists launched a huge campaign to save the wind turbine plant as socially and ecologically necessary.

The Vestas occupation demonstrated the very different types of environmentalism. While most NGOs offered only nominal support, radical environmentalists like Workers Climate Action and direct action groups played very positive roles.

But U.S. Labor…

While much of the international trade union movement is taking significant steps towards addressing climate change that cannot be said for most U.S. unions (with honorable exceptions).

The AFL-CIO has been the leading trade union opponent of serious climate mitigation, from its vocal opposition to the Kyoto Treaty in 1997 to distancing itself from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) on targets and timetables, and even the Obama Administration’s much weaker emissions reduction target.

Unlike the ITUC, the AFL-CIO’s report (as well as that of the Blue Green Alliance coalition of unions and environmental groups) from Copenhagen was unreservedly positive. Support for the Obama Administration’s “all of the above” energy policy that perpetuates the burning of fossil fuels is tantamount to climate change denial. This reflects the influence of many of the unions in the building trades and carbon intensive sectors.

The fantasy of “clean coal” has been used as a political cover for the development of new coal infrastructure, despite the fact that carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) will likely never be deployed on a large scale, leaving us with a locked-in carbon infrastructure without the promised mitigation.

Further, labor’s support for CCS, fracking, the Keystone XL and other pipelines allies it with industry rather than with those frontline communities who are taking the lead in building a movement for climate and environmental justice.

Unions need a new course — a “pressure from below” strategy — based on educating, organizing and mobilizing our members for collective action.

Labor cannot present itself as a progressive social movement while siding with extreme energy corporations against communities jeopardized by dirty energy development. Unions should be allying with climate justice activists who share our broad social objectives, many of whom have been actively engaged in the battles to protect workers’ rights and collective bargaining.

As a starting point, we need to fight to strengthen links between the labor and climate movements, transforming both in the course of doing so. This includes support for anti-fracking and anti-tar sands campaigns.

We ought to support direct action on climate change — even where this conflicts with the immediate attitudes of unions in those workplaces. However, we should seek to build understanding with the workers in those industries and challenge the idea that these workers are “part of the problem” in the struggle against climate change.

Our Urgent Tasks

U.S. union activists are working with the Labor Network for Sustainability ( to organize a Labor Convergence on Climate that “will encourage climate protection advocates to organize locally and nationally in their own unions; encourage climate solidarity with workers around the world; build cooperation among climate protection advocates and caucuses in different unions; educate labor’s leadership and rank and file on the realities of climate change; transform the discourse and ultimately the policy of the labor movement; and bring local labor unions and activists into engagement with climate organizations and activists.”

Our tasks are enormous. Given where we are, it is a useful step when unions vote to send members to climate protests. This makes it easier for activists to organize. For example, in the runup to the 2014 Peoples Climate March, the New York State Nurses Association, a union with a new reform leadership, held lunchtime workplace meetings to discuss the climate crisis.

Still, our primary focus needs to be building cross-union rank-and-file solidarity rather than cajoling union officials to make statements or engage in “resolutionary activity.”

We are reminded by Labor Notes that the “troublemaking wing,” union activists who want to put the movement back in the labor movement, is growing.

What is crucial in developing a worker-led environmental justice movement is providing space for working people to discuss their problems and develop a vision for alternatives. Paul Hampton’s writings, drawing on a close study of union policies and practice as well as Marxist theory, provide a much needed contribution to the development of socialist climate work.

If climate justice activists solidarize with workers struggles, directing their activism at all levels of the labor movement but primarily with a rank-and-file orientation, and toward building relationships, then the lessons will be drawn all the quicker.

In the short term, capital will have to be driven through regulation, pressure and mobilization to undertake meaningful climate mitigation and adaptation measures. And ultimately, “restoring the social-climate metabolism” can only result from working-class self-emancipation. That of course is the reason why revolutionary socialists organize, is it not?


  1. Sweeney, S. Resist, Reclaim, Restructure: Unions and the Struggle for Energy Democracy; Climate Change and the Great Inaction: Trade Unions for Energy Democracy; Climate Change and the Great Inaction,
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  2. “(E)mphasis on workers and organizations such as trade unions should not assume a generic ‘worker’ who turns out to be white and male… Class relations do not preclude other relations of domination, such as ethnicity, gender, nationality and sexuality. These forms of oppression intersect and interpolate with class relations….”
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  3. John Bellamy Foster, Marx and the Rift in the Universal Metabolism of Nature,
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  4. See Hilary Wainwright and Dave Elliott’s “The Lucas plan: a new trade unionism in the making?” (1982).
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March-April 2016, ATC 181