Workers Can Change the World: guest post by Daniel Randall (RMT Union)

11 Sep, 2023

What makes society move? According to the story capitalism tells about itself, employers are the “wealth creators”, generating profit almost by magic, by sheer force of innovation. This is a myth.

The power of workers

Without warehouse workers and delivery drivers, Amazon makes no profit. Apple cannot make money without factory workers in China and Taiwan, and without miners in Africa extracting the minerals needed for components. Commercial airline bosses don’t repair, load, and fly the planes themselves.

Workers whose labour may not directly generate private profits, but who are relied upon for basic social services – health workers, teachers, transport workers, and others – are equally vital. In short, workers’ labour makes society move. This gives workers’ action a unique potential power to achieve social transformation.

Hundreds of workers defy Amazon rules to protest company's climate failures | Amazon | The Guardian

Amazon workers protest against the company’s lack of climate action

Workers’ collective action

The most basic kind of workers’ action is the strike – withdrawing our labour, refusing to work until our demands are met. The use of the strike is as old as class society itself; the first recorded strike in history took place in Egypt over 3,000 years ago.

Wherever workers have won major victories, it has been through combining into collective organisations. Under capitalism, the fundamental form of workers’ organisation is the union. A union is a collective of workers, formed to bargain with employers and win changes we would not have the power to win as individuals. As the US collective Labor Notes puts it in their “Troublemakers’ Handbook”:

“The first time a group of workers went together to face the boss and say ‘we want things to be different here’, a union was born. Each time that primal confrontation takes place for the first time in a workplace, a union is born or reborn […] When we confront the employer, we show that we can act together as a group, and we gain power vis-à-vis the employer.

XR UK position on Strike Action - Extinction Rebellion UK

XR Trade Union activists join RMT London Underground picket line

Trade unions in the UK

In Britain today, 6.25 million workers are members of unions. Our unions are imperfect; they organise only a minority of workers, and often on the basis of job role, rather than seeking to organise all workers in the workplace. They are bureaucratic, invariably run by officials who see the union as an institution (and a career) rather than a weapon of struggle. And they are less accessible and responsive to their grassroots members than they need to be.

But despite these limitations, the labour movement is the largest democratic movement in Britain, the only one in which working-class people regularly take part in discussion, voting, and direct action about issues that affect us at work and in wider society.

In the past year, organised labour in Britain has spectacularly reappeared as a visible social force, after a generation of historically low levels of strikes. Workers such as dockers, bus drivers, and others have won significant victories after launching sustained, sometimes indefinite, strikes. Other groups of workers have settled for poor compromises, recommended by their union leaders, highlighting the need for strong grassroots organisation within unions that can hold leaders to account. In response to the strike wave, the UK Conservative government has implemented yet more anti-strike laws, adding to an already heavily restrictive legislative regime that constrains when, how, and over what issues workers can legally strike. The legal repression of unions shows how much the powerful still fear workers’ action.

For workers’ climate action!

How does trade unionism connect to the struggle to avert the climate crisis? Climate change is caused by capitalism – not in some loose sense of being impelled by the greed and immorality of individual capitalists, but directly and systemically. Just as it must exploit and degrade workers’ labour to extract value, so must capitalism exploit and degrade the planet’s resources in order to expand markets and deepen its drive for profit. Workers’ action has the power to subvert that drive – and ultimately, to overthrow it, and replace it with a system of social and economic organisation in which human and ecological needs are hegemonic.

There is a rich, but too little known, history of workers’ action for the climate. In Britain in the 1970s, workers at several factories developed plans to repurpose their workplaces’ productive capacity towards “socially useful production”. Perhaps the most prominent of these was the Lucas Plan, where aerospace factory workers developed a plan for producing medical equipment and renewable energy technology instead of military hardware.

In the same decade, on the other side of the world, construction workers in the New South Wales Builders Labourers’ Federation (BLF) launched a campaign of “green bans”, refusing to work on socially and ecologically damaging construction projects. Their action helped save working-class neighbourhoods from gentrification, and prevented corporate property developers from building on parklands and nature reserves.

In both cases, workers were able to make the leap into a kind of trade unionism with radical ecological horizons because they had built up strong workplace organisation through fights over immediate industrial struggles. The Lucas Plan emerged out of a struggle against job cuts by a company-wide committee of union reps; the “green bans” campaign was the product of a lengthy and hard-fought struggle to radicalise and democratise the BLF, undertaken by a caucus of socialist worker-activists who began by leading strikes over basic health and safety issues on construction sites.

Green Bans - The Commons

In the 1970s the Builders Labourers Federation in New South Wales, Australia, imposed “green bans” where they refused to work on environmentally and socially damaging projects

The climate question within the trade union movement

How to respond to climate change is a contested question within the labour movement. Some unions have policies supporting airport expansion and even fracking, seeing the issues narrowly in terms of defending and expanding jobs. But the histories of the workers’ plans movement and the green bans campaign show a different kind of trade unionism is possible. Today, those traditions are being rediscovered in some sections of our movement. In 2021, striking workers at GKN Drivelines, producing parts for cars, produced a workers’ plan to save jobs at their factory by repurposing production towards parts for electric vehicles. This year has seen the launch of the “Our Power” report, produced by climate NGOs Platform and Friends of the Earth working with oil workers’ unions, setting out a workers’ plan for transition out of fossil fuel extraction and towards renewable energy. And Safe Landing is seeking to develop worker-led transition models in the aviation sector.

Whether these approaches win out against a narrower, conservative, and ultimately climate-damaging model of trade unionism depends in part on how actively workers who want to confront climate change take up the arguments within the movement. If we can win our unions to radical ecological perspectives, then we can build towards leveraging workers’ power in defence of the environment. 

The right-wing press promotes a narrative of division between climate activism and workers, suggesting climate protests only serve to disrupt “normal people” who are “trying to get to work” — as if no-one with a job cares about the climate. This narrative also glosses over the fact that working-class and poor people, in Britain and globally, are disproportionately affected by pollution and most at risk from heat waves, flooding, and food and energy price rises. Some unions, like the Fire Brigades Union, whose members have to deal with the impact of floods and extreme weather events, are already organising around climate change as a workplace issue.

Safe Landing at Unite the Union’s 2023 Policy Conference

To accelerate the climate fight – join a union!

Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil have been successful at raising the profile of climate issues in public and political discourse, but the impact of small numbers of activists disrupting sporting events is dwarfed by the impact and leverage of thousands of workers taking action. 

So if you want to win change at work, join a union. And if you want to change society, get active in the struggle to expand the horizons of the labour movement so it can become an instrument for radical social change. The future of the planet depends on it.

Daniel Randall, Author at JewThink


Daniel Randall is a railway worker and workplace rep for the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport workers (RMT). He writes in a personal capacity.

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