Some working class issues have to be approached with a patient, measured, long term perspective. There are always ups and downs and it’s common to hear after a set back the consolation “we live to fight another day.”
But others demand a greater sense of urgency, with less tolerance for failure. Certainly war is one such issue. Many in such conflicts don’t live to fight another day. Increasingly, another such high stakes priority is the environmental crisis.
Number one in this category is Global Warming. There is no serious dispute among scientists that Global Warming is real and dangerous. If projected trends continue, the way human beings live will be drastically, adversely, and irreversibly altered during the lifetime of our children.
Nor is there any serious debate among scientists not on corporate payrolls about the principal cause of this pending ecological disaster—the production of “greenhouse” gasses that are the byproduct of burning fossil fuels.
In addition to greenhouse carbon dioxide, coal burning releases dioxins and toxic heavy metals such as nickel, mercury, arsenic, chromium, and cadmium, in significant quantities. These pollutants produce nasty effects in most living things—including humans.
Mercury blood levels are now alarmingly high in ten percent of American women of childbearing age. This does not bode well for their offspring. Exposure to pollutants from coal combustion induces asthma attacks, respiratory infections, and dramatic changes in lung function. Asthma is becoming epidemic in children living in urban areas. It’s estimated that breathing in particulate matter cuts short the lives of some 30,000 people in this country.
Fossil fuels also generate nitric oxides that contribute to acid rain.
Of course, it’s not just the air that is fouled by present economic practices. Just on Labor Day alone these headlines could be found (if you looked deep enough) in the mainstream media: Nuclear plant leak investigated; Spain hit by highly toxic spill; Nuclear Sludge Leaks as Errors, Costs Stall Cleanup; Rules Ignored, Toxic Sludge Sinks Chinese Village.
The people who run our global economy are not on some evil mission to destroy our planet. Some even recognize and speak out about the danger. Former Vice-President Al Gore is to be commended for his popular explanation of Global Warming in graphic format through the film, An Inconvenient Truth.
The problem is neither one of ignorance nor ethics among the ruling class. We cannot just educate them, or shame them. The obstacle to making meaningful progress in any area of the environment is profits. The unintended consequences of pollution are the inevitable result of the internal, intrinsic forces of the global capitalist market. Unfortunately, the needed fundamental solutions to our environmental problems cannot be market driven.
That’s not to disparage individual efforts. Our household recycles whatever we can. We now use only CFL light bulbs, recycled paper products, environmentally friendly laundry detergent, and spend a major part of our grocery bill on organic foods. If such growing practices become truly wide spread they can have a measurable, positive effect on slowing down energy consumption, need for landfill sites, and chemical pollution of our farm land a bit.
But we’ve gone way beyond the point where consumer and life style choices alone can bring us back from the brink of ecological catastrophe. Massive changes in energy production, transportation, and agricultural methods are required—on a global scale. That means the industries presently driving the global economy need to be radically restructured, largely converted to other uses.
When forced to choose between maximizing profits today, or the human need for saving our mortally threatened environment in the short term, we cannot rely on the captains of industry and finance to do the right thing. Indeed, their duplicitous response has been to simultaneously deny there is a crisis while in many cases also offering what they claim to be “green” solutions to our problems.
Their half-hearted green initiatives are marginal at best—such as hybrid cars and SUVs—and some are potentially harmful, such as the food for fuel ethanol scam. Their real attitude toward the environment was captured well in the excellent documentary film, Who Killed the Electric Car?
The only social force with both the material interest and social power to effect the environmental sea change needed is the working class. Defense of our air, land, and water is not just the concern of middle class “tree huggers,” but our issue above all.
The bosses try to tell us otherwise. They threaten massive job loss if forced to change their destructive ways. They’ve sold a bill of goods to a section of the union bureaucracy who fear any change just as much as their “partners” in management. They have a group in place called Unions for Jobs and the Environment, that includes the Teamsters, UFCW, Boilermakers, and most rail and building trades unions. They champion such “common sense policies to protect jobs and the environment,” as drilling for oil in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and opposing all restrictions on coal fired power plants.
Fortunately, there are some in the labor movement who reject the phony, lose-lose counterposition of jobs versus the environment. In July, the Sierra Club and the Steelworkers announced a relaunching of the Blue Green Alliance, a partnership between unions and environmental organizations. USW president Leo Gerard said, “We're going to work together to try to blow up the myth that you can't have a clean environment and good jobs.” Retired Steelworkers district director Dave Foster is the executive director of the Alliance, with headquarters in Minneapolis.
The Twin Cities has other labor/environmental initiatives going. In response to Ford’s announcement of its plan to close the St Paul assembly plant UAW Local 879 approached community and environmental organizations with a proposal for a community takeover of the plant—which has the unique benefit of its own hydroelectric source of zero emission power production—to manufacture mass transit equipment. AFSCME and UE locals have endorsed the idea as has the recently formed Climate Crisis Coalition of the Twin Cities (3CTC), headed by a veteran union and socialist activist, Christine Frank.
This excellent local solution could and should be expanded out nationally. During World War II the government took charge of the auto industry (though not its profits.) Almost overnight, factories were converted to build massive quantities of planes, tanks, jeeps—an arsenal the likes of which the world had never before seen. Without that industrial mobilization the Axis powers would likely have prevailed.
There’s a different enemy today—human destruction of our environment. Defeating it requires the same kind of urgent, bold action shown during the Second World War. We don’t need war planes and tanks today. But we do need to start replacing car and truck dependency with greatly expanded rail and bus transportation. Isn’t it time to project a vision to nationalize the auto industry and convert much of it from environmentally destructive to socially needed production?
These examples by the USW and the Twin Cities unionists are hopeful steps in the right direction. But, to end on the theme we began with—we cannot afford to take a routine, patient, long term approach to this question. This is an issue that requires bold, urgent action. It’s fallen to the working class to save our planet as we know it. If not us it’s nobody—no two ways about it.
Some Sources on the Web
Build A Just Transition Movement to Protect Jobs and the Environment
From the Labor Party program
Blue Green Alliance
Review of ‘An Inconvenient Truth: A Global Warning’
by Christine Frank
Labor Day Special TOC Labor Advocate Online Main Page KC Labor Home Page