The TUC and climate change: don’t mention the wars

Unions tail-end middle-class eco protests and stoke illusions in ‘green’ capitalism.

Proletarian writers

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A protester's ‘helpful’ suggestion to address climate change at the demonstration in Millbank, September 2019.

Proletarian writers

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On 16 September, the TUC called on union members to come out in support of striking students who were urging action on climate change. In so doing, it deftly avoided a golden opportunity to introduce some working-class politics into the spontaneous movement.

Embarrassingly meaningless ‘action’ plan

Instead of explaining how the intensifying destruction of the natural environment is an inseparable feature of the crisis of capitalism itself, grounding the eco protests in a wider class struggle, the TUC simply tail-ended the spontaneous movement. The sum total of its advice to workers is as follows:

1. “Join an action near you”;

2. “Organise a solidarity photo in your workplace or community”;

3. “Support the student strikes on social media”;

4. Er … that’s it. Lest any of this should prove too alarming to the powers that be, the earlier call by the university workers’ union (UCU) for a half-hour general strike was diluted into a “workday campaign action”.

Get along to an action, explained the TUC helpfully, “if you’re not working on Friday, or you can start early or finish late”. Nothing that might inconvenience your employer, naturally, or require your trade union to stand up for your rights to walk off the job.

In a statement on 8 July, the TUC called for “a just transition to a greener, fairer economy”, clearly in line with Labour promises of a bonanza of green jobs supposedly awaiting workers under a social-democratic government.

The statement, noting that the present heavy reliance on fossil fuels in the British economy must be curtailed if environmental catastrophe is to be averted, acknowledged that, “if left solely to the market”, the transition to a “decarbonised” economy “could have massive economic and social consequences” with jobs lost and communities destroyed.

Empty ‘demands’

The question then is: how to resolve this apparent contradiction between protecting the natural environment and protecting the interests of the working class?

The TUC statement sought to resolve this contradiction through a snappy phrase. What we must fight for, it said, is a transition that is “just” and “fair” to workers. So long as matters are not left solely to the market, we were told, then it will be possible under capitalism for the accelerating deindustrialisation of Britain to usher in a brave new world of green jobs and workers’ rights.

By unions “making workers’ voices heard” and securing a seat at the table where decisions on Britain’s economic future are made, it is pretended that the green ‘transition’ can be not only pain-free for workers but will also herald a positive improvement in workers’ conditions.

The statement waxed lyrical, rejoicing that the “international trade union movement has called for a ‘just transition’ to a greener economy, where new jobs that are just as good in terms of pay, skills, pensions and trade union recognition replace those that are lost”.

Yet this promised land of social justice under capitalism is held up for our admiration by a trade union movement that has been in retreat for the past thirty years, standing by as successive Tory and Labour governments assisted in the destruction of jobs and industries and made a bonfire of workers’ rights.

And we are asked to believe that it is now, as global overproduction crisis wipes jobs out wholesale and becomes ever more reckless of damage to the natural environment in the mad stampede for profits, that the TUC is going to rise from the dead and ‘make workers’ voices heard’ amongst the great and the good.

After all, says the TUC, ‘following union pressure’, “the concept of a just transition was included in the preamble to the 2015 Paris Agreement and in the Silesia Declaration at the climate talks in 2018”.

So that’s alright then.

Don’t mention the wars

The TUC prates about the “potential opportunities” for improving the “quality of employment”, fretting that these opportunities will be missed “unless the workers most affected have a seat at the table where key decisions are taken”.

In the same vein it calls on the government to “set up a cross-party commission on long-term energy and energy usage strategy, involving affected workers, unions, industries and consumers, to plan a path that will deliver a just transition”, etc, etc.

What it is very careful not to do is to call attention to the huge impact that imperialist war has on the planet’s environment – far more of an impact, in fact, than the holiday flights to Majorca that are regularly held up as prime culprits in the official climate change blame-game.

Since imperialism developed its industrialised machinery of death, war has been growing ever more environmentally devastating. From WW1 to Vietnam, from Yugoslavia to Iraq, from Gaza to Libya, the imperial armies have left a trail of chemical and radioactive waste in their wake whose toxic effects will in many cases take centuries to neutralise.

Moreover, the military machines are themselves huge polluters, even before they have dropped a single bomb. According to a study carried out for the US Congress, the US military is estimated to be the number one fossil fuel consumer in the world. (Cited in Environmental impact of war, Wikipedia)

According to an article in Newsweek, it is also one of the world’s biggest polluters. (Alexander Nazaryan, 17 July 2014)

Why would the TUC not want to talk about this? Why do the green movement and Extinction Rebellion not make the abolition of the aggressive imperial war machine their number one demand?

For the simple reason that neither wants to threaten the imperialist superprofits that pay for their ‘first world’ privileges.

Moreover, the TUC continues to stick to its cretinous line of ‘protecting jobs’ no matter what those jobs are, and is thus vociferous in its defence of jobs in the arms industry. Suggestions that armaments factories could be turned to come socially useful purpose have been around for decades, but remain a perpetual talking point.

When Jeremy Corbyn suggested in 2016 that the Labour party’s policy in favour of renewing Britain’s nuclear submarine programme (Trident) might be reversed, he provoked this angry response from the GMB’s former general secretary Paul Kenny:

“If anybody thinks that unions like the GMB are going to go quietly into the night while tens of thousands of our members’ jobs are literally Swaneed away by rhetoric, then they’ve got another shock coming.” (Jeremy Corbyn and the trade unions go to war over Trident by George Eaton, New Statesman, 11 January 2016)

The party’s 2017 manifesto contained a pledge to renew Trident, and the media had fun getting Corbyn, one-time chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) to state his support for the policy. (Corbyn: Labour is committed to renewing Trident, BBC News, 20 May 2017)

The TUC’s dreams about a ‘just transition’ to a ‘green’ capitalist economy are at best illusions, and at worst seek to fool workers into taking the blame for the social chaos for which capitalism is alone responsible. (Telling them that they are making the ‘wrong’ consumer ‘choices’, for example, rather than targeting the real industrial polluters and ravagers of the environment.)

Only when the anarchy of capitalist production is superseded by a planned socialist economy under working-class control will the needs of the working class and of the natural environment be brought into alignment.

The contradiction between the productive flourishing of human nature and the sustainability of the natural environment in which our species finds itself is a temporary one. The contradiction will be resolved, not by the introduction of a snappy phrase, but by the overthrow of the exploiters by the exploited.

In the ensuing planned socialist economy, with power in the hands of the working class and production serving the needs of the masses rather than the profits of an exploiting minority, there will be no problem too complex to overcome.