When workers fight for our environment

Issue: 168

Kim Hunter

The role of trade unions and organised labour in preventing catastrophic climate change is a burgeoning field of research.1 Many academic contributions investigate climate policy issues but leave aside discussion of workers’ action.2 In contrast, this article focuses on past industrial action to protect the environment and asks what that can tell us about likely future action to prevent climate catastrophe.3

The theoretical underpinning here is Karl Marx’s central idea that the working class must free itself and that its industrial muscle is central to that task. There are two aspects to this: the concentration of working-class power in the workplace and the process of transformation that happens when workers exercise that power.

The first aspect is fairly obvious. We are ranged against the biggest firms in the world, and they will use their enormous power to maintain their interests. Protests, marches, direct action and camps are politically crucial and can win concessions, such as the British government’s recent moratorium on fracking.4 But the collective withdrawal of labour is the ultimate sanction that workers can apply in a system based on wage labour. Industrial action will be necessary not just to win protection from the effects of climate change at work and to demand policies to slow and offset global warming, but also ultimately to overthrow the system that drives climate change.

However, workers mobilising against environmental degradation have to overcome the tendency under capitalism to separate economic and political fields of struggle and to restrict industrial disputes to “bread and butter” workplace issues.5 This division reflects workers’ experience of exploitation in the workplace. But it is compounded by self-reinforcing institutional developments such as the growth of sectional trade unions and parliamentary labour parties which “built their very structures upon the separation of economics and politics”.6

Yet, depending on the scale of struggle, the separation of economic and political issues can be overcome when workers mobilise their industrial power. Workers can become aware of the distorted social relations they labour under, including ultimately their separation from the rest of nature.7

The past 400 years have witnessed riots and insurrections against land privatisation and rebellion, often on indigenous lands, against industrial and mining pollution, fossil fuel extraction, pipeline construction and the damming of waterways.8 The struggles against extractive projects such as the Dakota Access, Keystone and Coastal GasLink pipelines have often become household names.9

This article is concerned with those struggles, from the second half of the 20th century onwards, in which workers stepped beyond the bounds of everyday trade unionism to stake a claim to our environmental future. Such examples have a new relevance today. Movements such as Extinction Rebellion and the student climate strikes have placed a strong emphasis on collective action and “system change”. However, significant parts of the climate and environmental movement still dismiss organised workers as putting jobs and consumption before ecological concerns.10 This view is frequently reinforced by trade union leaders.11 Yet the division is also expressed by campaigners who are sympathetic to workers’ struggles but argue that support for workers in dispute should be kept separate from environmental campaigns. This reduces organised workers’ role to lending solidarity, doing nothing to either boost the confidence of workers or to challenge the separation of environmental and economic concerns.

To counter these attitudes, I will present a series of examples of workers engaged in industrial action that took up ecological issues. These are set out in a roughly chronological order, with varying degrees of detail. The list is far from exhaustive. Some of the struggles flowed from policy, others from immediate workplace demands. Some won concessions; others gained little in the short term. In some, the environmental message was central; in others, it was peripheral. Some took place during upturns in workers’ struggle and politically charged periods; others occurred against the backdrop of the long “downturn” in industrial militancy from the late 1970s. One occurred under conditions of dictatorship.

Despite these differences, there are common threads and the article concludes by exploring the lessons we might draw from these struggles.

The green ban movement

The Australian green ban movement of the early 1970s surpasses all other historical examples of worker environmental action. One participant has rightly referred to it as “one of the most exciting chapters of any union…anywhere in the world”.12

The green ban legend begins with a clutch of upper middle class Sydney women known as the Battlers for Kelly’s Bush, who in 1971 recruited trade unionists in defence of an eight-acre tract of bushland that was about to be replaced by luxury flats.13 The Battlers had heard the rank and file leadership of the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation (NSWBLF) say trade unionists should fight over social conditions: “Those women more or less said, ‘Well here’s a chance to put your theory into practice.’”14 NSWBLF members (known as “BLs”) agreed to boycott the flats. The developer threatened to use scab labour. A site meeting on one of the developer’s sites in north Sydney then issued a now-famous riposte: “If one blade of grass or one tree is touched…this half-completed building will remain forever half completed as a monument to Kelly’s Bush.”

The branch was soon flooded with requests for similar action. From 1971 to 1974 its members boycotted 42 developments, which were collectively worth more than AUD46 billion (US$33 billion) in current values.15 The bigger bans stopped historic working-class districts, such as The Rocks, Victoria Street and Woolloomooloo, from being replaced by office blocks. Without them, the fig trees at the Sydney Opera House would have been dug up for a car park. The birthplace of European settlement would have been concreted over. Parks, historic churches and theatres would have been razed. Central Sydney, in particular, would have lost much of its heritage.

However, this was not a typical heritage movement. It involved raw class struggle. BLs and campaigners fought developers, their henchmen and the state for the right to decide what would be built, what would be preserved and in whose interests. The Rocks became a battleground in 1973 as police protected scab-driven bulldozers and NSWBLF general secretary Jack Mundey was detained in a mass arrest of campaigners and residents. Victoria Street went to the barricades.16 A leading campaigner was abducted by the developer’s thugs.17 Another prominent resident disappeared, presumed murdered.18 Mundey was told a contract had been taken out on his life. He refused millions of dollars in bribes.

NSWBLF members also took part in struggles for Aboriginal land rights and against the Vietnam War, apartheid and the oppression of women, LGBT+ people and migrants. Women were encouraged to work in the sector, and the union became the first to appoint Aboriginal organisers.19 Mundey was clear about the class nature of the struggle: “The power of workers to bend capital to their will via the withdrawal of labour was necessary to achieve environmental objectives; and success in these environmental objectives was especially important to the working class, which suffered disproportionately from the problems caused by pollution and ecologically unsound planning.”20

Mundey was part of a rank and file group that had won branch leadership amid the militancy and political excitement of the late 1960s. This group was determined to free the membership to act for itself and set about democratising the branch. Officials’ tenure was strictly limited and they were paid BL wages, including strike pay. Decision-making delegate and rank-and-file meetings were held regularly, with translations for the majority migrant workforce. Participation in union affairs shot up, as did membership.

The BLs won every major confrontation with employers between 1970 and 1975, achieving solid wage increases, workplace facilities and full injury pay. The 1970 and 1971 strikes to civilise the building industry and to reduce the gap between labourers’ and “skilled” building workers’ wages, known as the “margins strike”, set the tone for later, often wildcat actions. BLs occupied sites, formed “vigilante” squads to destroy scab building and elected their own foremen. The leadership rejected the arbitration that would have strangled industrial action and would only eat the bosses’ lunch if their office had been occupied and sandwiches left on the desk.21

Mundey claimed that these struggles cemented support for the leadership and the political action it argued for. The margins strike, in particular, lifted “the second-class status of the builders’ labourers” and increased support for political action. By 1973, the majority of members strongly supported the green bans.22

A campaign for permanency in the building industry linked BLs’ right to permanent work with the social impact of their labour, creating a direct path to the green bans. The campaign demanded the government form a Building Investigations Committee to stabilise the building industry, end the inflow of “hot money” and decide what should be built.23 Mundey said: “This opens up the other side of it, the social responsibility of workers, the examination of the end result of their labour is now on, and it’s tied right up with the ecological crisis which exists in our society”.24

It is worth noting the impact the bans had on building labourers’ confidence. Mundey wrote: “They saw the success of the union and felt that the union was contributing something of a social nature and there was an uplifting in the confidence of the union members”.25

Other Australian union leaderships did not draw the same political conclusions from the industrial opportunities of the early 1970s.26 The Rocks residents group received just one reply from the 30 unions they asked for help. The Federated Engine Drivers and Firemans Association was a stalwart green ban ally, but the skilled construction workers’ Building Workers International Union refused to cooperate, although individual branches did.27

This relative isolation combined with tightening economic conditions, high staff turnover and a campaign to undermine the branch meant the end of the green bans as a mass, active force from 1974. That year, the national BLF leadership moved to destroy the New South Wales branch. In a series of events known as “the intervention”, federal secretary Norm Gallagher closed down the NSWBLF and replaced it with a federal branch.28 The replacement branch negotiated a job preference agreement with the Master Builders Association, in effect locking out recalcitrant NSWBLF members.29 In October 1974, the new branch lifted the ban on Victoria Street.30 In April 1975, Gallagher imposed stringent requirements on future bans. His attitude to the community campaigns, whose activists he denigrated as “residents, Sheilas and poofters”,31 was that they “deprived our members of their jobs”.32 The green ban era was over.

The anti-uranium movement

In the late 1970s, the Australian anti-uranium movement asked trade unions to help stop uranium exports.33 Port workers and others were inspired by the movement to take action and received solidarity from union movements across the world. But grassroots efforts were frustrated by “increasing left pessimism and obstruction by some union officials”.34 The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) was officially opposed to uranium mining, but rather than back this up with concrete calls for action the leadership stuck to health and safety issues.35 This ambivalent attitude isolated metal workers, railway workers and wharf workers who attempted to implement the policy locally. Wharf workers, in particular, complained they were left to “carry the burden” of opposing uranium mining alone.36

Nonetheless, there were important actions. In 1976, North Queensland railway worker Jim Assenbruck refused to load materials heading for the Mary Kathleen uranium mine, in line with union policy. A national one-day rail strike followed his suspension. In June 1977, rank and file dock workers cheered protesters invading the wharves as a uranium stockpile was exported from Sydney. However, in the absence of an official sanction for action, the dock workers later loaded the consignment.37 Less than a fortnight later, Melbourne wharf workers refused to handle uranium and called a 24-hour strike following police violence against protesters at the dock. The Melbourne branch of the Waterside Workers’ Federation (WWF) defied their union’s federal leaders by imposing a ban on a container ship then in port and on future ships carrying uranium.

The Melbourne docks struggle forced the Labour Party to issue policy strongly opposing uranium mining. Then in 1981, Sydney dockers forced two ships to sail without their cargo of uranium. In the same year, Brisbane tug workers refused to guide ships carrying uranium downriver.38 The struggle culminated in Darwin between October and December 1981 when coordinated action by three Darwin transport unions held up a uranium consignment for six weeks. Their action only ended when ACTU officials intervened to undermine the union’s own policy, emphasising the isolation of the workers, the dangers of scab labour and the risk of legal sanctions.39

Asbestos: killer dust

In Britain, in May 1976, construction workers’ refused to work with asbestos at the Barbican Arts Centre site in central London. When major building firm Laing ignored their refusal, 500 construction workers walked out for a fortnight. Construction workers’ shop steward Alf Reid said: “Our strike to get the dust out is not just about the building of the centre, but about the people who move in as well”.40 The building workers demanded a complete ban on asbestos, a demand supported by a national campaign and carried on within the construction unions, often against the union leaderships.41 Communist Party of Great Britain scaffolder Vic Heath, then working at Camden Council’s Direct Labour Office (DLO), moved an emergency motion at construction union UCATT’s May 1976 National Delegate Conference, calling for a ban on asbestos-based materials.42 Camden DLO banned the material even though UCATT’s leadership did not support the motion.

The ban boosted confidence to strike over asbestos at other London sites, including the Barbican and a hotel site at Russell Square.43 As a result, the Barbican was one of the few large, mid-century projects in Britain to be free of asbestos. The workers went back to work after Laing backed down. Nevertheless, a ban on the use of asbestos in construction in Britain was only won in 1999.

The Lucas Plan

Lucas Aerospace was a large employer in Birmingham, in the English midlands, in the mid-1970s—part of Lucas Industries—which announced plans for thousands of redundancies as part of a major restructuring. In response, the shop stewards at Lucas drew up an alternative plan for production with the support of Tony Benn, Secretary of State for Industry and a leading member of the Labour government of the time.

The Lucas Plan was published in 1976 by the Combine Shop Stewards Committee (CSSC), a cross-union, cross-site liaison body. It is included here because of its considerable influence on subsequent generations of activists. The six-volume plan involved a radical re-imagining of the content, methods and social organisation of production at what was then the largest aircraft systems and equipment manufacturer in Europe. The plan detailed the production of more than 150 environmentally and socially useful products including solar battery cells and wind turbines. It envisioned these being produced without waste and in non-hierarchical arrangements that developed workers’ knowledge and skills.

The plan was dismissed by management and its implications evaded by Britain’s Labour government of 1974-79. But its critique of capitalist production and vision of production for human need went on to inspire trade unionists and environmental activists for decades.

The Lucas Plan expressed the contradictions of the period. It was advanced in scope but represented a retreat from the CSSC’s tradition of “aggressive militancy”, which would have been necessary to realise its vision.44 This journal noted at the time that the plan mistook “the question of what is controlled for who is to control and according to what interests”.45

In its content, the plan was influenced by the same social movements against environmental destruction and resource depletion, and for working-class control over industry, that affected the NSWBLF in Australia.

In Britain, the question of workers’ control was raised by the wave of occupations against redundancies and site closures which followed the Upper Clyde Shipyard occupation in 1971.46 Its organisational expression was the movement around the Institute for Workers’ Control (IWC), which at its height in 1970 hosted a 1,000-strong conference of trade unionists and the left. IWC seminars made “a serious effort to elaborate programmatic solutions” to economic and political questions and proposed control structures in individual industries.47

The Lucas Plan was initially suggested by Benn, a strong supporter of the IWC and workers’ cooperatives, in response to a request that Lucas Aerospace be nationalised. Benn said defence contracts were likely to reduce under Labour and suggested the CSSC instead create a programme of alternative technological products. The plan would be presented to the government for financing and negotiated with management.

The idea of making a rational appeal for sustainable production chimed with a CSSC aware that, despite its successes,48 it had not been able to prevent “the break-up of multi-union work organisations, management attacks on the Combine and de-skilling”.49 Between 1970 and 1975 more than 5,000 jobs had been lost, the pace of work forced up and skill levels pushed down.50 The CSSC’s public statement at the time was notably less radical than the content of the plan, suggesting it made a “small contribution” to challenging “existing economic assumptions” while showing workers were “prepared to press for the right to work on products which actually help to solve human problems rather than create them”.51

Although some CSSC members did not expect Lucas management to adopt the plan, others were reportedly surprised when management refused to discuss it and set out to break the CSSC.52 Job cuts and restructuring went ahead, though some jobs were saved by workers taking industrial action. “As a lever to exert pressure, the workers embarked upon a broader political campaign” focused on Labour MPs and ministers and full-time union officials.53 Yet the Labour government was seeking to impose pay cuts by keeping wage rises below the rate of inflation through the so-called Social Contract with trade union leaders. Some in the Labour Party promised workers greater control over their workplaces.54 In practice, ministers avoided the plan “like the plague”, as did senior union officials.55

However, the plan struck a chord. Shop stewards at other manufacturers in Britain, including Vickers, the British Aircraft Corporation, Dunlop, Parsons and Chrysler, developed their own alternative plans in the face of redundancy programmes. So did others abroad. The idea of socially useful production was also taken up at conferences and workshops and in books and documentaries, allowing the Lucas Plan to live on long after bitter disillusion with the Labour government gave way to the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Nuclear dumping at sea

Trade unions in Britain instigated a ban on dumping nuclear waste at sea in 1983 and forced a reversal of government policy. This came about after international treaty organisation the London Dumping Convention succumbed to campaign pressure and agreed a two-year moratorium on nuclear dumping in February 1983. The British government, which had been disposing of low and intermediate-level nuclear waste at sea since 1949, declared the moratorium “not legally binding” and instead planned to increase the amount it dumped at sea. Britain already dumped 90 percent of low and intermediate-level radioactive waste at sea.

Environmental campaign group Greenpeace approached Britain’s trade unions for help. Former Greenpeace director Pete Wilkinson recorded in his autobiography that he had been badgering National Union of Seamen (NUS) general secretary Jim Slater for years about NUS members’ involvement in dumping radioactive waste.56 Slater was in favour of seafarers withdrawing their labour to stop the dumping. Now he could cite the moratorium. He was able to convince the union executive to adopt a policy of non-cooperation and seek cross-union support.

This was a far cry from four years earlier when the nuclear “ambitions” of Britain’s Trades Union Congress had been larger in scale than the plans of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.57 However, leaked minutes’ from a cabinet meeting in October 1979 had undermined the TUC position, revealing the government saw its nuclear programme as a means to attack the unions. Nuclear power would “have the advantage of removing a substantial portion of electricity production from the dangers of disruption by industrial action by coal miners or transport workers”, the minutes suggested.58

The NUS conference in March 1983 passed a motion calling on other unions involved in transporting waste to institute a joint ban. At a meeting organised by Greenpeace the following month, senior officials of the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU), the National Union of Railwaymen and the train drivers’ union ASLEF backed the decision in principle. On June 17, the unions formally backed plans to boycott the movement of nuclear waste to port, where a new dumping ship, Atlantic Fisher, was waiting. The ship’s owners unsuccessfully petitioned Slater to allow the dumping to take place. A “protest armada” was ready to support the ban if the Royal Navy was brought in and court action taken against the unions.59 In the face of the seafarers’ refusal to carry out the dumping, the government reversed its policy. The London Dumping Convention subsequently made the moratorium a permanent ban.

Brazilian rubber tappers

Rubber tappers had harvested latex deep in the Amazon rain forest for well over a century, working as “debt peons”—semi-slaves whose compliance was enforced by brutality.60 These landless labourers living on isolated homesteads were not obvious candidates for union organisation, but organise they did. The murder of Chico Mendes, one of their leaders, made their struggle one of the best-known examples of collective resistance to environmental destruction. The rubber tappers and their allies saved more than three million hectares of forest and the livelihoods of thousands of families.61 They physically defended the land from clearance, formed co-ops, built schools and created an alternative development plan based on sustainable extraction. They forced the creation of Brazil’s first publicly owned extractive reserve and played a key role in publicising the rainforest as the “lungs of the world” and a major source of species diversity.

Mendes was a revolutionary socialist who learned his politics as a teenager from Euclides Fernandes Tavora, an old Communist who was hiding out in the forest. Tavora quoted Lenin as he taught Mendes to read and write, and advised him not to stay out of a union “just because it’s yellow”, that is, established by the state or bosses in order to co-opt workers and diffuse their anger.62 Mendes aimed to take a stand on behalf of workers. The year before his death, he insisted, “my stance hasn’t changed.”63 However, the nature of the struggle had.

Initially, Mendes worked largely alone to stop rubber tappers paying rent so they could escape the estate monopoly system that kept their families trapped in poverty.64 These were years of the military dictatorship in Brazil, which ruled between 1964 and 1985. Mendes described the five years to 1973 as “almost fruitless”. He formed a group and taught almost 50 people to read and write, but was forced to spend almost two and a half of those years in hiding.65 By the mid-1970s, the military had declared the Amazon a development frontier and shifted subsidies from rubber barons to ranchers who were paying gunmen to clear land. The whole region fell “under the sway of the landowners”.66 The struggle now was not for independence from the estate but for the right to remain on the land. Another shift in military policy, when the government moved to co-opt sections of the working class through state-controlled unions, provided the organisational framework for that struggle. The National Confederation of Agricultural Workers (Conferderação Nacional dos Trabalhadores na Agricultura; CONTAG) began to set up unions in Acre, Mendes’s home state. In 1977, Mendes himself established the Xapuri Rural Workers’ Union.67

The following year, São Paulo car-workers went on strike, initiating a strike wave that spread first to other urban centres and then to rural workers in 1979.68 The strikes “went beyond the narrow limits set by the anti-strike law, beyond wage compression and beyond the forced silence of the working class”.69 They were the beginning of the end for the military government.

With their labour no longer wanted, rubber tappers could not strike. Instead, they surrounded and dismantled clearance camps in what they called an “empate”. They appealed to clearance workers for solidarity, which was invariably forthcoming until the police arrived to ensure an eviction. Empates were dangerous events requiring deft handling. At an empate on Mendes’s own Cachoeira estate, for example, women and children started to sing the national anthem in order to deflect the anticipated violence by the police, who were required to stand to attention during the song. One participant recalled: “Fifty police stood—we singing the national anthem and the armed police standing at attention, presenting arms, with the lieutenant saluting”.70 Around 400 rubber tappers and their supporters were arrested during the 45 empates that Mendes was involved in. At least 40 were tortured and several were killed. The murder of rural workers and their union leaders was common. Mendes’ murder in 1988 was the fifth of a rural trade union leader that year. It became the first ever to be investigated.

Fifteen of the empates were successful.71 However, the balance of forces was too unfavourable for empates alone to secure the rubber tappers’ future. Mendes wrote: “We had a fight on our hands… [but] didn’t have strong enough arguments to justify why we wanted to defend the forest”.72 It was necessary to forge alliances of common interest with other users of the forest and to organise nationally and internationally. The first National Council of Rubber Tappers met in Brasilia in October 1985 and presented an alternative to the state’s aggressive developmentalism. It demanded extractive reserves of government-requisitioned forest for rubber tappers, indigenous users and others to develop sustainably. The council and the union worked with indigenous communities to mobilise around common demands and indigenous extractivists began to join the rubber tappers’ empates. The rubber tappers’ movement also made increasing links with international environmental movements to defend the Amazon forest.73

The rubber workers also established links with Brazil’s recently formed Landless Workers Movement and the (Central Única dos Trabalhadores) trade union federation, which was set up in opposition to the state-controlled unions. However, Mendes described ties with other workers’ organisations as “quite weak” and CONTAG largely withheld support.74 Nonetheless, these alliances were “of increasing concern to the landowners” and government officials. A minister of agriculture was shocked to find indigenous people and rubber tappers united in opposition to the government, declaring: “‘Indians and rubber tappers have been fighting each other since the last century. Why is it that today you come here together?’ We told him things had changed.” When the dictatorship ended in 1985, both sides of the rural class divide envisaged land reform that would favour their interests. But the landowners furthered their ends by funding the armed wing of a newly formed political organisation, the Democratic Association of Ruralists (União Democrática Ruralista) and the murder of rural activists increased. Since then, fears about the fate of reserves established in the Amazon have sadly been borne out.75

Visteon and Vestas

There was a long pause in factory occupations and workers’ demands for sustainable production in Britain after the IWC and Lucas projects came to an end, with one or two exceptions.76 The quiet was temporarily broken in 2009 by occupations at the car components plants of Ford supplier Visteon in Belfast and Greater London, and at the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight. These formed part of a global mini-wave of strikes and occupations in defence of jobs following the financial crash of 2008, inspired by examples such as that of the Waterford Crystal occupation in Ireland.77

Environmental demands played only a small role in the occupation at Visteon in March 2009. Nevertheless, the occupation illustrated both the enduring appeal of the Lucas Plan and workers’ growing environmental concerns. The workers at three components plants owned by Visteon, a supplier spun off from Ford, were sacked at a few minutes notice and without redundancy pay. Workers at all three plants occupied, demanding compensation for loss of earnings, which they won.

However, some argued the factory’s injection-moulding capacity could be turned to produce alternative, environmentally useful products. This suggestion was included in a leaflet and press release issued by the occupiers which argued: “Our skills—we can make anything in plastic—should be used to make increasingly needed parts for green products: bike and trailer parts, solar panels, turbines, recycling bins and so on”.78 The leaflet related sustainable production alternatives to the bailout of the banking system, noting: “Government investment in this rather than throwing money at bankers could be profitable and save jobs in the long term.”

An account of the occupation by a supporter identified the workplace plans of 30 years ago as an inspiration, noting:

The precedents were by now quite well known. The workers have been suggesting to their bosses for several years that they should diversify into making different products. They saw how the car market was going, and they have the same environmental concerns as everyone else.

By contrast, the Visteon bosses’ response was reported to have been: “We’d be a laughing stock at the automotive shows”.79

Three months after events at Visteon, about 25 workers occupied the management suite of the Vestas Wind Systems factory in Newport on the Isle of Wight in a bid to force the government to nationalise the plant and save it and a sister site from closure. The Danish owners claimed the UK-based plants were unviable despite rising international demand for wind turbines. They planned to shift production to the US.

Some Vestas workers had moved to the island specifically in order to work in climate-related jobs.80 The government had just announced targets for renewable energy and a “green revolution”, saying would create 1.2 million jobs by 2020 and investment of up to £120 million in the offshore wind industry.81 Nationalisation was an obvious demand, particularly in the wake of the banking bailout and the £2.3 billion in loan guarantees recently given to the UK car industry. The occupying workers noted the government “can and should step in to save the infrastructure we are really going to need to prevent a climate catastrophe”.82

However, the call to occupy did not come initially from within the plant, but from socialists organising around the dispute, aware of the spate of similar actions in Britain and Ireland as the economic crisis bit. Michael Bradley, the Socialist Workers Party’s industrial organiser at the time, recalled: “We said you have to fight over jobs, and the climate change angle will hit the headlines and you will make a huge stir”.83

The majority of those who came to support the Vestas workers from around Britain were also socialists and trade unionists for whom “a workers’ occupation made a kind of immediate visceral sense”.84 Bob Crow, leader of the RMT transport workers’ union, was a high-profile supporter. Workers at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire, fresh from a successful 20-week dispute, sent aid—as did Visteon workers, teachers who had occupied against the closure of a primary school, the FBU firefighters’ union, South Korean car workers, Danish and US trade unionists and others.

Vestas activists breached security lines to deliver food to the occupiers as the company determined to starve them out. Occupiers who had left the occupation took the Vestas message around the country. A standout feature of the Vestas campaign was the way it “brought together” grassroots socialists, trade unionists and campaigners from the growing climate movement.85 While the non-governmental organisation (NGO) wing of this movement “struggled to meet the challenge posed by the occupation”, the radical wing camped at the gates, raised money and helped organise marches under the slogan “Our Jobs, Our Planet”.86

Ultimately, Vestas workers did not secure their jobs, but they made the call for climate jobs “real and concrete”. Socialist activist Jonathan Neale argued at the time: “The Campaign against Climate Change and the RMT, PCS, CWU and TSSA trade unions have been working on a plan for a million green jobs. That was a plan. After Vestas we can imagine making it happen.”87


September 2019 saw a highpoint in the fast-growing climate movement, spurred by an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2018 that warned there were only 12 years left to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.88 Hundreds of thousands of school students around the world were inspired to strike by Swedish school student Greta Thunberg’s Friday vigils outside the Swedish parliament. The civil disobedience movement Extinction Rebellion, set up in mid-2018, had closed down central London in an “uprising” in April.

Yet the week of 20-27 September marked a step change in this movement, as school student strikers asked workers to take industrial action alongside them. GlobalClimateStrike, one of the protest coordinators, ranked the action on a par with the 2003 anti-war protest as one of the largest global protests in history. Seven million strikers and protestors around the world demanded “an end to the age of fossil fuels and emergency action to avoid climate breakdown” and criticised politicians and fossil fuel companies who “willingly handed over their responsibility for our future to profiteers whose search for quick cash threatens our very existence”.89

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) encouraged its 200 million members to take industrial action while staying within the law. Australia’s 350,000 youth strikers were backed by 33 unions. A Sydney rally was joined by large trade union contingents and a feeder march from the university education union, reflecting the fact that “there are now rank and file climate staff groups at most of the big universities in Sydney”.90 The event in Melbourne, Victoria, drew delegations of cleaners, firefighters, teachers, community and transport workers, retail and banking staff and public sector workers.91

Britain also saw a shift in workers’ activity for the climate. Trade union members joined 200-plus rallies, marches, roadblocks and sit downs after the Trades Union Congress (TUC) backed a 30-minute “workplace action” call. National Education Union general secretary Kevin Courtney and University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady addressed a London rally of 100,000. The RMT transport union urged an organised presence at rallies. The PCS civil service union recommended the day be used “to highlight, and call for the repeal of, anti-trade union laws”.

The widespread support from unions did not mean workers walked out en masse. Workplace action was usually time-limited and sanctioned by employers, albeit often under pressure. Several municipal councils—including Portsmouth and Camden in London—supported the action, having declared a “climate emergency”. There were some instances of action as part of existing disputes and, more rarely, unsanctioned walkouts.

At Sydney’s Port Botany, 380 Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) stevedores from Hutchison Ports stopped work for four hours.92 This was the first known instance of Australian workers taking industrial action to attend climate rallies, which they did under cover of action over wages and conditions. MUA placards demanded: “Stop blocking offshore wind—climate jobs now.” This major Australian union, which represents oil and gas workers, describes itself as “trying to get ahead of the curve” on climate action. It has official policy to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.93 Elsewhere in Australia, about 50 National Union of Workers (NUW) members in dispute with engineering manufacturer Fenner Dunlop attended the rally in Melbourne.94

In Britain, the PCS branch for outsourced workers in the government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy matched the MUA action. The workers, on indefinite strike for the London living wage, marched from their picket line to the main London rally under the banner “Fighting for a Green, Fair and Just Society” and chanting the slogan “A Living Wage on a Living Planet”. Support workers at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies struck for half a day. Sandy Nicoll, a union rep at the university, explained, “because the day had been pitched as a strike, we were hostile to the idea of asking management permission.”95 The branch’s boldness forced management to declare a climate emergency the night before the strike, expressing its understanding for the action and establishing a climate action committee.

Some lessons

The impetus for making environmental demands can range from the purely political, in the case of the climate strikes, to action that develops out of more general workplace demands. These may have an environmental element, such as the loss of climate-related jobs, or workers may demand that threatened jobs be replaced by work in sustainable forms of production. The leap from workplace to environmental demand is not automatic—rather, it also involves a subjective element.

Industrial confidence

The green ban movement was possible because it was underpinned by industrial strength. Building labourers’ rising confidence, especially after the 1970 margins strike over pay parity, increased their willingness to fight for political causes. The rise and fall of the movement roughly correlates with employment figures in the sector. In 1971, unemployment in Australia’s building sector was 1.4 per cent. By the autumn of 1974, it stood at 3.6 per cent and by the end of 1975 was 5.1 per cent.96 However, although confidence was a factor in the early 1970s, other unions at the time did not spend their industrial capital so politically. Mundey argued that the objective conditions had not changed in the couple of years up to the first ban—the union had.97

Most of the examples cited did not take place during an economic boom or an upturn in industrial action, but rather during the long downturn in struggle across many of the most developed capitalist states from the mid-1970s onwards. The climate strike of 2019 was called amid historically low strike figures in Britain. The Vestas and Visteon occupations took place in the wake of a major economic crisis, amid fears of unemployment. So the subjective element is important. The threat of redundancy can inspire either pessimism or struggle.

Drawing strength from politics

All the actions described here took place in the context of broader political campaigns. The green bans came towards the end of a wave of political and economic resistance around the world. Mundey said the May 1968 general strike and student protests in France had encouraged the union’s attitude towards “offensive strikes”.98 He was personally influenced by the Black Power movement and youth counterculture of the period.99

The backdrop to last September’s climate strike was the “new cycle” of global revolt, including the Extinction Rebellion protests that blocked much of central London and the school student strikes.100 As Nicoll says, the growing climate campaign meant workers “take confidence from being on the right side of history” and it would have been “reputational suicide” for management to stop the action. He notes: “We’re a long way from the period where we can walk out at the drop of a hat…but…we were testing to see if we can do it on this issue.”

In this context, it becomes possible for political activists to connect their struggles with working class demands. Nicoll argues he was “amazed how clear the youth strikers…are on the need for working class engagement”.101 The use of the word “strike” itself was an important development, given “it’s a long time since the word ‘strike’ was used in a positive way beyond the trade union movement”.

These experiences highlight the importance of campaigning for a class dimension to, and union participation in, environmental campaigns. By linking the climate crisis with issues of unemployment and pay, the Million Climate Jobs campaign, initiated by the Campaign Against Climate Change’s trade union group, has built connections between unions in Britain and internationally, sparking similar campaigns from Norway to South Africa.102

Political leadership

Radical political leadership appears to have been a significant element in most of the episodes detailed in this article. Even where this is not visible it is likely that, as Antonio Gramsci put it: “The elements of ‘conscious leadership’…have left no reliable document”.103

Mainstream history tends to overemphasise the role of individuals. The leaders of the most high-profile campaigns, Jack Mundey and Chico Mendes, have been singled out as heroes (and yet simultaneously demoted to the status of “environmentalists”).104 However, both were members of a broader leadership within the radical left. Mundey himself highlighted class conscious leadership as the “most essential ingredient” in the green ban movement.105

The NSWBLF executive fought for political action as an expression of working class interests through its publications and at meetings. They held cross-Sydney strike meetings when an important political issue arose. Executive members Bob Pringle and Johnny Phillips cut down goalposts in protest at an appearance by apartheid South Africa’s rugby team. Mundey was charged with contempt of court over the same issue. The way the union’s leadership waged economic struggle gave them the mandate “to go into uncharted waters”.106

The radical leadership of Chico Mendes, Wilson Pinheiro and other rubber tappers’ leaders made the difference between a last-ditch defence of the forest and no fight at all. Mendes’ friend, the union adviser Gomercindo Rodrigues, described him as a gifted interpreter of class struggle who was adept at forging alliances of common and tactical interests.107

Left-wing forces also played a part in building the organisational strength of construction workers at London’s Barbican site in the late 1960s and early 1970s. About half the active members of the London Joint Sites Committee were estimated to be Communist Party members.108 Their “confrontational” ideology brought success in the struggles on large London construction sites in the late 1960s.109

The importance of the rank and file

Mundey complained that “entrenched bureaucracy” was a barrier to politicisation for most rank and file workers.110 Even militant union leaderships “content themselves with strongly-worded resolutions”.111 A vacillating national leadership similarly held back Australia’s anti-uranium mining movement: ACTU officialdom “did not provide active support to the protest movement at any time”.112

By contrast, even limited official sanction can encourage grassroots action. Paul Hampton’s book on climate solidarity among workers explores how rank and file trade unionists have used the opportunities provided by a “partnership-based” model of climate work to take independent action, including through the “green” or climate rep positions now common in some union branches.113 The transport workers who embargoed uranium handling in Australia could appeal to the official policy passed by the ACTU. The TUC sanction for 30-minutes’ climate action in Britain in September 2019 gave many union representatives confidence to raise the issue and ensured there were more union banners on the streets.114 Some workplace reps, including at Camden council and SOAS, were able to use official support to stretch the action beyond the workplace and beyond 30 minutes.

It is important activists fight for trade unions to take positions on environmental issues. However, the fact that trade unions function to protect or improve the terms of capitalist exploitation at work tends to orientate their environmental activities on top-down fixes within a “greener” capitalism.115 This limits unions’ climate demands and can make for contradictory policy positions, such as support for airport expansion and “balanced” energy mixes including nuclear power and fracked gas.

The structural position of trade unions is expressed through a layer of full-time officials, whose “specific role as intermediaries between capital and labour” causes them to vacillate between the working class and the bosses.116 As well as channelling union policy towards accommodation with capital, full-time officials often act as a brake on industrial struggle.117 But they are also susceptible to pressure from below. Officials who “failed to articulate their members’ grievances or lead strike action that delivered at least some improvements in pay and conditions” would lose support.118 The potential for workers’ struggles to transcend the top-down approach and play a transformative role rests ultimately on rank and file strength.

The Unison union branch at SOAS was able to coordinate the September 2019 walkout because of its organisational strength. The branch had a history of fighting and winning on issues such as collective representation. As a result, it was embedded in the university, had an unusually high membership density and its decisions were trusted by members. The union worked with the academic union and students’ union on a successful campaign to bring outsourced support staff back in-house. It also had a history of walkouts: management had tried to sack Nicoll twice; each time his colleagues struck and students closed the union in solidarity.

Strong organisation also characterised the rubber tappers’ struggle. The slogan, “Our Victory Depends on Our Organisation and Discipline”, summed up the political method of the Xapuri Rural Workers Union under Mendes’ leadership.119 Mendes and his comrades learned from the murder of Wilson Pinheiro in 1980. They deepened the base of the organisation, spreading out from a single geographical location, and made links with other oppressed groups to spread resistance across the region.

Barbican union activists built their organisation on a campaign for welfare facilities in the 1960s, then fought casualisation and attempts to break union organisation. By the time of the asbestos battle in 1976 they had “one of the best union-organised sites in the industry”, with a string of local disputes and the national building workers’ strike of 1972 under their belts.120 Indeed, the organisational origins of that national building workers strike can be traced back to the Barbican.121


There may be no shortage of motivations for action over the environment as the climate crisis intensifies. When a ring of fire surrounded Sydney in December 2019, the MUA union stood down 100 members working in dangerous air pollution at Sydney’s Port Botany. Employers labelled the stand-down “illegal industrial action”.122 In Britain, a refuse worker who in late 2019 refused to drive a bin wagon spewing emissions was similarly threatened by bosses.123 Employers will not willingly protect workers where this impacts on profits, as illustrated by the necessity for so many workers to demand protective equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020.

It is not difficult to imagine the development of climate-related class struggles or struggles that begin over other issues that then take on climate demands. Think about, for example, if the French oil refinery workers who struck in January 2020 over pensions went on to demand climate jobs.124 Consider how often regressive taxation is touted as a way to reduce fossil fuel use and the reaction when French president Emmanuel Macron attempted to impose a fuel tax. Macron’s tax sparked the Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Vests”) movement which protested at inequality and clashed with the state. The Gilets Jaunes were often derided as ignorant and poor. Yet ultimately this class movement was able to forge links with trade union and climate campaigners around a slogan that may mobilise many more in the future: “End of the World, End of the Month—Same Fight.”

Kim Hunter is a Yorkshire-based socialist and climate activist.


1 This article is dedicated to the memory of New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation general secretary Jack Mundey, who died on 10 May this year. Thanks to Joseph Choonara, Richard Donnelly, Martin Empson, Camilla Royle and Martin Upchurch for comments on the article in draft. All errors and omissions are mine.

2 Exceptions tend to come from writers who are also activists or trade unionists. See, for example, the discussion of the Vestas wind turbine occupation in Hampton, 2015, pp155-183.

3 Industrial action over climate change is relatively recent; there are more examples of action to defend other aspects of our ecology.

4 Vaughan, 2019.

5 See Meiksins Wood, 1981.

6 Darlington, 2008, p233.

7 For a discussion of the rediscovery of metabolic rift theory, see Angus, 2019, pp151-167.

8 For a discussion of resistance to land enclosure in Britain see Empson, 2014, pp127-138 and Empson, 2018, pp175-180.

9 Since this article was first drafted 300 British Colombian longshore workers refused to cross a picket line set up by Coastal GasLink protestors at Deltaport, closing the largest container port in Canada—Champ, 2020.

10 Responding to Extinction Rebellion’s demand for Citizens’ Assemblies to debate solutions to the climate crisis, MEP Molly Scott Cato recently asked the British Green Party’s conference: “What if the Citizens Assemblies are all taxi drivers and people who like a high-carbon lifestyle and fly off to Torremolinos?” A floor contribution to the same Green Party Conference session equated attending trade union councils with “peddling death”—Read, 2019.

11 In 2016, Community, Britain’s main steel union, signed a memorandum of understanding with onshore oil and gas industry body the United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas industry body, based on potential job creationHayhurst, 2016.

12 Mundey, 2000.

13 Burgmann, 1993.

14 Mundey, 2007.

15 Based on Meredith Burgmann’s repeated suggestion that NSWBLFs prevented development worth AUD5 billion in 1974 term—see, for example, Burgmann and Burgmann 2017, p4.

16 Milliss and Brennan, 1974.

17 Burgmann and Burgmann, 2017, p208.

18 Developer Frank Theeman’s associates were imprisoned for plotting to kidnap Juanita Nielsen, but not her murder. Her body was never found.

19 Burgmann, 2017. 

20 Quoted in Burgmann and Burgmann, 1999, pp44-63.

21 Burgmann and Burgmann, 1999, p67.

22 Mundey, 1973.

23 Mundey, 1973.

24 Mundey, 1973, p16.

25 Mundey, 1973.

26 Burgmann and Burgmann, 1999, p47.

27 Haskell, 1977, p211. A list of other unions taking similar action can be found in Thomas, 1973, pp57-59.

28 Burgmann, 1993. The intervention was carried out to the approval (or connivance) of property developers and politicians. In June the Master Builders Association had the national BLF deregistered for “violating” its charter. In October Federal BLF officials fought for NSW branch leadership. Having lost, they applied for reregistration without the NSW branch and established a Federal branch in Sydney under the leadership of Norm Gallagher, a member of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and a Maoist. The internal CPA battle to de-Stalinise the party after Russia invaded Czechoslovakia is often cited as a factor in the enmity between the federal and NSW branch. It was also an element in the development of the green ban movement leadership itself: “It allowed people like Jack Mundey to take an independent radical position and start looking at issues like ‘ecology’”—Burgmann, 2017.

29 Haskell, 1977, p211.

30 Rainford, 2013.

31 Burgmann and Burgmann, 2013, p54.

32 Haskell, 1977, p212.

33 McCausland, 1999.

34 McCausland 1999, p8.

35 McCausland, 1999.

36 McCausland, 1999, p338.

37 McCausland, 1999, p190.

38 McCausland, 1999, p333.

39 McCausland, 1999, p336.

40 Wall and others, 2012.

41 Dalton, 1979. A 1976 UCATT survey found 15 deaths among its members and 68 cases of asbestosis.

42 Author’s private communication with McGuire in 2019. McGuire interviewed Vic Heath in 2011. Vic was a shop steward during the strike on the Turriff Barbican site in 1965.

43 McGuire, 2013. Please contact the author if you have details of the Russell Square strike.

44 Albury, 1979.

45 Albury, 1979.

46 Occupation also became an offensive bargaining tool as the wave of occupations spread. Sherry, 2010, p115.

47 Hyman, 1974, p244. Hyman is critical of IWC’s failure to properly account for the fact that aspirations for industrial control were located within an “environing political economy, a structure of political and economic domination” that shapes the “essentially reactive and defensive” nature of workers’ organisation under capitalism.

48 Occupation of the largest Lucas site in Burnley in 1972, and solidarity action across the Lucas factories, won a wage increase 167 percent larger than the national award. After Burnley, the CSSC was able to achieve much better pay and conditions.

49 George, 1980. George was coordinator of the CSSC’s research and campaigning unit.

50 Albury, 1979.

51 Public statement by CSSC, quoted in Carnoy and Shearer, 1980.

52 Smith, 2014.

53 Smith, 2014.

54 The October 1974 election manifesto promised to “make industry democratic—to develop joint control and action by management and workers across the whole range of industry, commerce and the public services”—Labour Party, 1974.

55 George, 1980.

56 Wilkinson, 1994.

57 Blowers, Lowry and Solomon, 1991, p79.

58 Winterton and Winterton, 1989, p32.

59 Blowers, Lowry and Solomon, 1991, p82.

60 Hecht, 1989.

61 Mendes, 1989, p22.

62 Mendes, 1989, p22.

63 Rodrigues, 2007, p150.

64 Mendes, 1992, p165.

65 Mendes, 1992, p170.

66 Mendes, 1989, p22.

67 Unions were separated by profession and municipality under the military’s labour code.

68 Fontes and Corrêa, 2018. The 1979 sugarcane workers’ strike in Pernambuco was a “key moment” for rural labour.

69 Fontes and Corrêa, 2018.

70 Rodrigues, 2007, p118.

71 Mendes, 1989, p22.

72 Mendes, 1989, p37.

73 Mendes, 1989, p51. Support within Brazil only followed international recognition and pressure. These links have at times been exploited to declaw Mendes as an ecological martyr, “in the almost pejorative and depoliticised sense of those words”—Rodrigues, 2007, p140.

74 Mendes, 1989, p51.

75 The reserves “must inevitably confront the isolation and vulnerability of such a small sector of workers in the face of a ruling class that has not hesitated to use the police and army to maintain its control over the region’s resources”—Treece, 1992. Brazil’s first woman union president told a World Rainforest Movement gathering that inhabitants of the Chico Mendes reserve are “terrified and criminalised”, pay “exorbitant fees” to maintain subsistence gardens and are paid little from the forest market—Teles, 2017.

76 Sherry, 2010, p129.

77 Bradley and Kimber, 2009.

78 Empson, 2016, p22.

79 Woodward, 2009.

80 Hampton, 2015, p158.

81 Morris, 2009.

82 Williams, 2009.

83 Bradley and Kimber, 2009.

84 Neale, 2009.

85 Neale, 2009.

86 Hampton, 2015, p174.

87 Neale, 2009.

88 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2018.

89 GlobalClimateStrike, 2019; Fridays4Future, 2019.

90 Sandev, 2019.

91 Sandev, 2019.

92 Sandev, 2019.

93 Radio Stingray, 2019.

94 Marin-Guzman, 2019. NUW has amalgamated with the United Workers Union.

95 Interview with Nicoll by the author (January 2020).

96 Haskell, 1977, p205.

97 Burgmann and Burgmann, 2017, p77.

98 Burgmann and Burgmann, 2017, p25.

99 Burgmann and Burgmann, 2017, p31.

100 Choonara, 2019.

101 Interview with Nicoll by the author (January 2020).

102 Neale, 2014.

103 Gramsci, 1971, p196.

104 Burgmann and Burgmann, 2011.

105 Mundey, 1973.

106 Quoted in Gregory, 1999.

107 Rodrigues, 2007, p140.

108 Heath, 2013.

109 Moher, 2013.

110 Mundey, 1973, pp20-21.

111 Mundey, 1971.

112 McCausland, 1999, p340.

113 Hampton, 2015, p150.

114 The fact that some unions wrongly described the action as a “stoppage” was a happy accident for activists.

115 Hampton, 2015, for a discussion of trade unions’ partnership (“eco-modernist”) approach to climate issues.

116 For example, Darlington and Upchurch, 2011, p86.

117 Darlington and Upchurch, 2011, p78.

118 Darlington and Upchurch, 2011, p85.

119 Rodrigues, 2007, p101.

120 Smith and Chamberlain, 2015, p71; McGuire, Clarke and Wall, 2013.

121 The London Joint Sites Committee, a solidarity organisation between the Barbican and other London sites, was born of these disputes, and was key to creating the Building Workers’ Charter. McGuire calls the charter “critical” to the 1972 national building workers’ strike—McGuire, 2013.

122 Hannam and Patty, 2019.

123 Author’s conversations with council workers.

124 Leather, 2019, p21.


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