Download the bulletin in English and German we made that we wrote this article for here.
In 2016’s Ende Gelände, 4,000 people occupied coal diggers in Lausitz, blocking coal mining infrastructure for over 48 hours. This kind of climate activism challenges the coal industry and raises awareness of the urgency of ending it. It contributes to building a mass movement that takes direct action to challenge climate change, while capitalist states and market “solutions” completely fail to. We must build and expand this movement, but crucially we need to link with workers in the energy sector, including coal, to end coal and transition to a sustainable society.
There is a little-known but inspiring history of workers organising to take environmental action, that we can learn from and build on:
- Builders organised “Green Bans” in Australia in the 1970s, organising company-wide strikes to successfully prevent environmentally destructive construction projects, sometimes working with community activists.
- In the UK in 2009, previously un-unionised workers at a large wind-turbine factory were supported by environmentalists to occupy the factory for nearly a month, demanding that the factory should not be closed down but instead be kept open, and taken into public ownership. Whilst ultimately unsuccessful, it pressured the government and gathered lots of support from trade unionists and trade unions, and community campaigners and beyond.
- The Lucas Plan was advocated and campaigned for by workers across the factories of an arms company, Lucas Aerospace. The plan set out a blueprint for a transition to making environmental, and socially useful, technology using the company’s pre-existing technologies and the workers’ skills.
The workers’ movement can and must replicate and build on these cases to fight for a transition to a zero-carbon society. In these examples, and others, environmental activists – both workers, and activists in solidarity with these struggles – raised the possibility and urgency of such actions, sometimes bringing environmental angles to originally non-environmental disputes.
The unlimited drive for more profit within capitalism means that ultimately climate change cannot be effectively tackled without overthrowing capitalism, and creating a democratic and sustainable alternative. Whilst the climate crisis threatens most of humanity, its roots in capitalism and so the exploitation of the working-class means that workers must play a central role in stopping it. The working-class alone has the power and interest to replace capitalism with a democratic alternative that is socially just and ecologically sound. Capitalism’s unlimited profit drive necessarily also drives it for the greatest possible exploitation of workers. This in turn pushes workers towards organising and fighting in defence of their interests and against exploitation. These struggles as they increase in strength tend to increasingly challenge capitalism, and point towards a society beyond it. As workers and the whole working-class perform the labour which keeps society running, they have the potential to overthrow capitalism, and are the only class with the power to build a new, democratic society.
Not only do working-class climate actions – such as green bans and worker-led transition plans – prevent environmental destruction and support sustainability, but they build towards overthrowing capitalism and creating a new society. Through these struggles workers build their collective organisation and strength, and simultaneously challenge the idea that their industries and society should be run by the capitalist boss in the interest of profit. Rather, actions like these raise the possibility of industries and societies run by the workers themselves, in the interest of humans, and of environmental sustainability – and they demonstrate that this is possible.
We need working-class orientated revolutionary environmentalism within both the workers’ and environmental movements. As an environmental movement we need to engage with and support workers’ struggle. In our activism we must raise demands and slogans which reflect this. Not only to shut down coal mines and coal-fired power stations, but for investment in green energy and technology that will replace the energy and jobs produced by the coal industry. Energy workers must be part of leading this transition. We should link to and engage with workers in RWE and beyond, finding activists and potential activists, and taking up jobs in the sector to organise for this. This kind of activism is difficult as workers in such industries, feeling their jobs threatened, are often encouraged by their bosses to feel hostility to environmentalism. But such activism is necessary to stop climate change, and to build a better society.