Green Syndicalism: An Alternative Red–Green Vision

Most approaches to Red and Green (labour and environmentalist) alliances have taken Marxian perspectives, to the exclusion of anarchism and libertarian socialism. Recent developments, however, have given voice to a “syndical ecology” or what some within the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) call “green syndicalism”. Green syndicalism highlights certain points of similarity between anarcho-syndicalism (revolutionary unionism) and radical ecology. These include, but are by no means limited to, decentralisation, regionalism, direct action, autonomy, pluralism and federation. The article discusses the theoretical and practical implications of syndicalism made green.

Green Syndicalism:
An Alternative Red–Green Vision
JEFF SHANTZ
http://ecowobbly.blogspot.com.au

Introduction

Recently, interesting convergences of radical union movements with ecology have been reported in Europe and North America. These developments have given voice to a radical ‘syndical ecology’, or what some within the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) call “green syndicalism” [Kauffman and Ditz,. 1992]. The emergent greening of syndicalist discourses is perhaps most significant in the theoretical questions raised regarding anarcho-syndicalism and ecology, indeed questions about the possibilities for a radical convergence of social movements. While most attempts to form labour and environmentalist alliances have pursued Marxian approaches, Adkin [1992a: 148] suggests that more compelling solutions might be expected from anarchists and libertarian socialists. Still others [Pepper, 1993; Heider, 1994; Purchase, 1994: 1997a; Shantz and Adam, 1999] suggest that greens should pay more attention to anarcho-syndicalist ideas.

Pepper argues [1993: 198] that an infusion of anarcho-syndicalism might shake up the contemporary green movement in North America just as syndicalism shook up the labour movement of the 1910s. Martel [1997] argues that confronting ‘jobs versus environment’ blackmail may require nothing less than militant labour-based organisations, arming workers with the necessary weapons to confront the power of capital and to strike over ecological concerns. Still, little has been said about green syndicalism and its specific red–green vision. This article attempts to correct that oversight by offering a discussion of the varied perspectives, the different theoretical and practical strands, which might make up a syndicalist ecology.

The Emergence of Green Syndicalism

In Australia, the ‘green bans’ movement showed a number of features which were suggestive of a syndical ecology although the primary union organisation behind the green bans was not a syndicalist organisation [Burgmann, 2000; Burgmann and Burgmann, 1998]. Beginning in the early 1970s in New South Wales, the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) worked to stop the destruction of green spaces, historic districts and working-class communities by refusing to work on those projects. The BLF did all of this against its own economic interests, taking advantage of labourers’ newfound economic clout in the midst of a massive development boom which was transforming Sydney and destroying low-income neighbourhoods. Between 1971 and 1975 more than 49 bans halted projects worth more than A$5 billion [Burgmann, 2000]. Forest and island reserves were defended and parks were saved from destruction. In what must have been a blow to the national bourgeoisie, the bans successfully ended plans for a car park adjacent to the Sydney Opera House which would have threatened the root systems of Moreton Bay Fig trees. Perhaps most significantly, the BLF was able to make the connection between destruction of the environment and the destruction of working-class communities. The union opposed the eviction of tenants and refused to take part in gentrification projects. Significantly the union’s actions inspired a groundswell of local opposition to redevelopment [Anderson and Jacobs, 1999].

During 2000 the Electrical Trades Union resurrected the green ban tactic in an effort to halt construction of a 34-metre light tower near the Melbourne Zoo. The union claimed that the light towers would harm the sleeping and breeding patterns of some animals. In September 2001 a number of community actions were held to support green bans against construction of a gas fired power generator and its pipeline in Somerton, Victoria because the pipeline would destroy the habitat of the endangered Growling Grass Frog.

In the early 1990s Roussopoulos [1991] noted the emergence of a green syndicalist discourse in France within the Confédération Nationale du Travail (CNT). Expressions of a green syndicalism were also observed in Spain [Marshall, 1993]. There the Confederación General de Trabajadores (CGT) adopted social ecology as part of its struggle for ‘a future in which neither the person nor the planet is exploited’ [Marshall, 1993: 468].

Between 31 March and 1 April 2001, the CGT sponsored an international meeting of more than one dozen syndicalist and libertarian organisations including the CNT and the Swedish Workers Centralorganization (SAC). Among the various outcomes of the meeting were the formation of a Libertarian International Solidarity (LIS) network, commitments of financial and political support to develop a recycling cooperative and the adoption of a libertarian manifesto, ‘What Type of Anarchism for the 21st Century’, in which ecology takes a very crucial place [Hargis, 2001]. The real contribution of these decisions may not be known until the next congress scheduled for 2003 in France.

Among the more interesting of recent attempts to articulate solidarity across the ecology and workers’ movements were those involving Earth First! activist Judi Bari and her efforts to build alliances with workers in order to save old-growth forest in Northern California. Bari sought to learn from the organising and practices of the IWW to see if a radical ecology movement might be built along anarcho-syndicalist lines. In so doing she tried to bring a radical working-class perspective to the agitational practices of Earth First! as a way to overcome the conflicts between environmentalists and timber workers which kept them from fighting the corporate logging firms which were killing both forests and jobs. The organisation which she helped form, IWW/Earth First Local 1, eventually built a measure of solidarity between radical environmentalists and loggers which resulted in the protection of the Headwaters old-growth forest which had been slated for clearcutting [Shantz, 1999].

The IWW’s Greenward Turn

In 1991 the Wobblies (IWW), following a union-wide vote, changed the preamble to the IWW constitution for the first time since 1908. The preamble now reads as follows:

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.
There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among
millions of the working people and the few, who make up the
employing class, have all the good things of life.
Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers
of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of
production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the
earth [emphasis added].

These seven words present a significant shift in strategy regarding industrial unionism and considerations of what is to be meant by work. At the same time, their embeddedness within the constitution’s original class struggle narrative draws a mythic connection with the history of the IWW and the practices of revolutionary syndicalism.

The greening of the IWW was more explicitly expressed through a statement issued by the General Assembly at the time of the preamble change. It is worth quoting at length.

In addition to the exploitation of labor, industrial society creates wealth by exploiting the earth and non-human species. Just as the capitalists value the working class only for their labor, so they value the earth and non-human species only for their economic usefulness to humans. This has created such an imbalance that the life support systems of the earth are on the verge of collapse. The working class bears the brunt of this degradation by being forced to produce, consume and live in the toxic environment created by this abuse. Human society must recognize that all beings have a right to exist for their own sake, and that humans must learn to live in balance with the rest of nature.

This philosophical shift has been simultaneous with the recent upswing in IWW activism. While the IWW has never returned to the numbers of members it enjoyed in the 1910–20s, the last decade has seen a revitalisation of the radical union as it has organised a number of workplaces in North America. As it was historically, the IWW is a union which organises the unorganised including the unemployed. Significantly, the increase in direct actions around ecology have come from the largest workplace branches, not simply students or unemployed members. Ecological activism has encouraged a decentralisation of formerly centrist union projects along with a revival of contacts with other industrial unions.

Murray Bookchin’s Anti-Syndicalism

Upon first reading it might appear curious to seek an ecological or antiindustrialist theoretic within anarcho-syndicalism. Syndicalism is supposedly just another version of narrow economism, still constrained by workerist assumptions. Certainly, that is the criticism consistently raised by social ecology guru Murray Bookchin [1980, 1987, 1993, 1997].

Bookchin’s work has served as a major focal point for much discussion, at least in libertarian Left and anarchist environmental circles. Even, Marxist ecologists, in journals such as Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, have given much time to discussions of Bookchin’s writings.

His recent [1995] re-discovery of social anarchism aside, social ecologist Bookchin has displayed a longstanding hostility to the possibilities for positive working class contributions to social movement struggles.

Bookchin’s critique rightly engages a direct confrontation with productivist visions of ecological or socialist struggles which, still captivated by illusions of progress, accept industrialism and capitalist technique while rejecting the capitalist uses to which they are applied [Rudig, 1985; Blackie, 1990; Pepper, 1993]. These productivist discourses do not extend qualitatively different forms, but merely argue for proletarian control of existing forms.

Bookchin’s critique of the workplace, by asserting the inseparability of industry from its development and articulation through technology, offers a tentative beginning for a post-Marxist discussion of productive relations and the obstacles or possibilities they might pose for ecology.

Severe limits to Bookchin’s social theorising are encountered, however, within the conclusions he draws in his attempt to derive a theory of workers’ (non)activism from his critique of production relations. Bookchin [1987: 187] makes a grand, and perilous, leap from a critical anti-productivism to an argument, couched within a larger broadside against workers, that struggles engaged around the factory give ‘social and psychological priority to the worker precisely where he or she is most co-joined to capitalism and most debased as a human being – at the job site’.

In his view, workers become radical despite the fact that they work rather than through their work experiences.1 He concludes that the efforts of socialists or anarcho-syndicalists who might organise and agitate within the realm of the workplace are typically only strengthening those very same aspects of workers’ identities which must be overcome in the radical transformation of social relations. And, moreover, this is correct in so far as workplace discourses are limited to purely corporatist demands of a quantitative nature [Gramsci, 1971; Telò, 1982]. However, within Bookchin’s schema the Marxist error is repeated, only this time in reverse.

For Bookchin, workers’ relations to capital, rather than being objectively antagonistic as in the Marxist rendering, are depicted as being necessarily conciliatory. In each case workers’ positions are drawn as one-sided, derived from a supposedly external and objective realm, in abstraction from the diversity of their often contradictory expressions and outside of any transformative articulation. Bookchin, as with the Marxists, substitutes an abstraction ‘the proletariat’ for the complex web of subject positions – including that of ecologist, feminist and worker – constitutive of specific subjectivities.

Bookchin is correct in asserting that categories ‘worker’ and ‘jobs’ as presently constituted are incompatible with ecological survival. Likewise, industrial production has already been rendered ecologically obsolete. But how can the authoritarian ‘realm of economic necessity’ [Bookchin, 1980] ever be overcome except through direct political action at the very site of unfreedom? There is no disagreement with Bookchin as regards the importance of overcoming the factory system; a difference emerges over the position of workers’ self-directed activism in any democratic articulation toward such an overcoming. It cannot be expected, except where an authoritarian articulation is constituted, that industrialism will be replaced by non-hierarchical, ecological relations without workers’ confronting the factory system in which they are enmeshed.

It is difficult to follow the logic of Bookchin’s leap from a critique of industrialism as ‘social relations’ to his explicit rejection of any and all working-class organisation. Bookchin insists upon a grass-roots politics, including any of the new social movements, but he is unclear how a movement might be grassroots and communitarian while at the same time excluding an articulation with people in their subject-positions as workers.

What he actually recommends sounds more like the radical elitism so often attributed to ecology [Adkin, 1992a; 1992b]. Bookchin’s rigid dualism of community/workplace further interferes with his critique of syndicalism. The idea, which Bookchin attributes to syndicalism, that social life could be organised from the factory floor is but a simplistic caricature. ‘This caveat is, of course, pertinent to all institutions comprising civil society. It would be impossible to nurture and sustain democratic impulses if schools, families, churches, and the like, promoted an antithetical ethos’ [Guarasci and Peck, 1987: 71]. While he rightly criticises those, such as Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman, who permit a wilderness/culture duality he falls into a similar trap himself in his vulgar separation of workplace and community.2

Finally, Bookchin’s biases are especially curious in light of his own ecological conclusion regarding the resolution of ecological problems: ‘[t]he bases for conflicting interests in society must themselves be confronted and resolved in a revolutionary manner. The earth can no longer be owned; it must be shared’ [1987: 172]. This provides a crucial beginning for a radical convergence of ecological social relations articulated beyond a ‘jobs versus environment’ construction. In turn it must be recognised, even if Bookchin himself fails to do so, that questions of ownership and control of the earth are nothing if not questions of class.

Theoretical Syndicalism and Radical Working-Class Histories

For his part, R.J. Holton [1980] explicitly rejects the characterisation of syndicalism as economistic. He suggests that such perspectives result from the gross misreading of historic syndicalist struggles. In the works of Melvyn Dubofsky [1969], Jeremy Brecher [1972], David Montgomery [1974], and Kenneth Tucker [1991] one finds substantial evidence against the positions taken by radical ecologists such as Bookchin, Dave Foreman [1991] and Paul Watson [1994]. Guarasci and Peck [1987] stress the significance of this class struggle historiography as a corrective to theorising which objectifies labour. Tucker [1991] argues that much of the theoretical distance separating new movements from workers might be attributed to a refusal to explore syndicalist strategies.

Historic anarcho-syndicalist campaigns have provided significant evidence that class struggles entail more than battles over corporatist concerns carried out at the level of the factory [Kornblugh, 1964; Brecher, 1972; Thompson and Murfin, 1976; DeCaux, 1978; Tucker, 1991]. In an earlier article, Hobsbawm [1979] identifies syndicalist movements as displaying attitudes of hostility towards the bureaucratic control of work, concerns over local specificity and techniques of spontaneous militancy and direct action. Similar expressions of radicalism have also characterised the practices of ecology. Class struggles have, in different instances and over varied terrain, been articulated to engage the broader manifestations of domination and control constituted alongside of the enclosure and ruthlessly private ownership of vast ecosystems and the potentialities for freedom contained therein [Adkin, 1992a: 140–41].

From a theoretical standpoint Tucker’s [1991] work is instructive. His work provides a detailed discussion of possible affinity between French revolutionary syndicalism and contemporary radical democracy. Tucker suggests that within French syndicalism one can discern such ‘new’ themes as: consensus formation; participation of equals; dialogue; decentralisation; and autonomy.

French syndicalist theories of capitalist power place emphasis upon an alternative revolutionary worldview emerging out of working-class experiences and offering a challenge to bourgeois morality [Holton. 1980]. Fernand Pelloutier, an important syndicalist theorist whose works influenced Sorel, argues that ideas rather than economic processes are the motive force in bringing about revolutionary transformation. Pelloutier vigorously attempted to come to terms with ‘the problem of ideological and cultural domination as a basis for capitalist power’ [Holton. 1980: 19].

Reconstituting social relations, in Pelloutier’s view, becomes possible when workers begin developing revolutionary identities, through self-preparation and self-education, as the means for combatting capitalist culture [Spitzer, 1963]. Thus, syndicalists have characteristically looked to labour unrest as an agency of social regeneration whereby workers desecrate the ideological surround of class domination, for example, deference to authority, acceptance of capitalist superiority and dependence upon elites. According to Jennings [1991: 82], syndicalism ‘conceived the transmission of power not in terms of the replacement of one intellectual elite by another but as a process of displacement spreading power out into the workers’ own organizations’. This displacement of power would originate in industry, as an egalitarian problematic, when workers came to question the status of their bosses. ‘This was not intended as a form of left “economism” but
rather as a means of developing the confidence and aggression of a working class threatened with the spectre of a “sober, efficient and docile” work discipline’ [Holton, 1980: 14]. Towards that end syndicalist movements have emphasised ‘life’ and ‘action’ against the severity of capitalist labour processes and corresponding cultural manifestations.

It might be argued that, far from being economistic, syndicalist movements are best understood as counter-cultural in character, more similar to contemporary new social movements than to movements of the traditional left. Syndicalist themes such as autonomy, anti-hierarchy, and diffusion of power have echoes in sentiments of the new movements. This similarity is reflected not only in the syndicalist emphasis upon novel tactics such as direct action, consumer boycotts, or slowdowns.

It also finds expression in the extreme contempt shown by syndicalists for the dominant radical traditions of its day, exemplified by Marxism and state socialism, and in syndicalist efforts to divorce activists from those traditions [Jennings, 1991]. Judi Bari [1994: 2001] emphasised the similarities in the styles and tactics of labour and ecology against common depictions within radical ecology, as exemplified in the positions held by Bookchin. Towards developing this mutual understanding green syndicalists have tried to engender an appreciation of radical labour histories, especially where workers have exerted themselves through inspiring acts which seem to have surprisingly much in common with present-day eco-activism. Attempts have been made within green syndicalism to articulate labour as part of the ecological ‘we’ through inclusion of radical labour within an ecological genealogy. Within green syndicalist discourses, this assumption of connectedness between historic radical movements, especially those of labour, anarchism and ecology has much significance. In this the place of the IWW is especially suggestive.

The IWW, as opposed to bureaucratic unions, sought the organisation of workers from the bottom up. As Montgomery [1974] notes, IWW strategies rejected large strike funds, negotiations, written contracts and the supposed autonomy of trades. Actions took the form of ‘guerilla tactics’ including sabotage, slowdown, planned inefficiency and passive resistance.

Furthermore, and of special significance for contemporary activists, the Wobblies placed great emphasis upon the nurturing of unity-in-diversity among workers. As Green [1974] notes, the IWW frequently organised in industrial towns marked by deep divisions, especially racial divisions, among the proletariat.

Interestingly, Montgomery [1974] notes that concerns over ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of strikes were not of the utmost importance to strikers. Strikes spoke more to ‘the audacity of the strikers’ pretensions and to their willingness to act in defiance of warnings from experienced union leaders that chance of victory were slim’ [Montgomery, 1974: 512]. This approach to protest could well refer to recent ecological actions. Such rebellious expressions reflect the mythic aspects of resistance, beyond mere pragmatic considerations or strict pursuance of ‘interests’.

Contemporary workers have little, if any, knowledge of historic IWW struggles, even in their own regions and industries. In my view, green syndicalist articulations are important in informing or reminding ecology activists and workers alike that there are radical working-class histories in addition to the histories of compromise; workers are not always willing pawns. ‘Historically, it was the IWW who broke the stranglehold of the timber barons on the loggers and millworkers in the nineteen teens’ [Bari, 1994: 18]. It is just this stranglehold which needs again be broken – this time for nature as well as for workers. ‘Now the companies are back in total control, only this time they’re taking down not only the workers but the Earth as well’ [Bari, 1994: 18].

Workers’ Control: Ecology Enters the Machine

As the ones most often situated at the nexus of ecological damage [Bullard, 1990; Kaufmann and Ditz, 1992] workers in industrial workplaces may be expected to have some insights into immediate and future threats to local and surrounding ecosystems. Such awareness derived from the location of workers at the point of production/destruction may allow workers to provide important, although not central, contributions to ecological resistance.

However, this possibly strategic placement does not mean that any such contributions are inevitable. Those people who suffer most from ecological predations, both at workplaces and in home communities, are also those with the least control over production as presently constituted through ownership entitlements and as sanctioned by the capitalist state [Ecologist, 1993; Faber and O’Connor, 1993; Peet and Watts, 1996]. These relations of power become significant mechanisms in the oppression of not only workers but of non-human nature as well. Without being attentive to this web of power one cannot adequately answer Eckersley’s [1989] pertinent questions concerning why those who are affected most directly and materially by assaults upon local ecosystems are often least active in resistance, both in defending nature and in defending themselves. Thus the questions of workplace democracy and workers’ control have become crucial to green syndicalist theoretics.

‘The IWW stands for worker self-management, direct action and rank and file control’ [Miller, 1993: 56]. For green syndicalism workers’ control becomes an attempt by workers to formulate their own responses to the question ‘what of work?’ Within the IWW, decisions over tactics are left to groups of workers or even individual workers themselves. Worker selfdetermination ‘on the job’ becomes a mechanism by which to contest the power/knowledge nexus of the workplace.

Labour insurgency typically articulates shifting relations within transformations of production and the emergence of new hegemonic practices. Times of economic reorganisation offer wide-ranging opportunities for creating novel or unprecedented forms of confrontation on the parts of workers. The offensives of capital can provide a stimulus to varied articulations of renewed militancy. Such might be the case within the present context of capital strike, de-unionisation, and joblessness characterising cybernetised globalism. Of course the emphasis must always remain on possibility as there is always room for more than one response to emerge. Green syndicalists recognise that ecological crises have only become possible within social relations whose articulation has engendered a weakening of people’s capacities to fight a co-ordinated defence of the planet’s ecological communities.

Bari [1994: 2001] argued that the restriction of participation in decision-making processes within ordered hierarchies, prerequisite to accumulation, has been a crucial impediment to ecological organising And it seems to me that people’s complicity should be measured more by the amount of control they have over the conditions of their lives than by how dirty they get at work. One compromise made by a whitecollar Sierra Club professional can destroy more trees than a logger can cut in a lifetime [Bari, 1994: 105].

The persistent lack of workers’ control allows coercion of workers into the performance of tasks which they might otherwise disdain, or which have consequences of which they are left unaware. Additionally the absence of self-determination results in workers competing with one another over jobs or even the possibility of jobs. Workers are left more susceptible to threats of capital strike or environmental blackmail [Bullard, 1990]. This susceptibility is perhaps the greatest deterrent to labour/ecology alliances. Without job security and workplace power workers cannot provide an effective counterbalance to the power of capital.

Radical ecology, outside of green syndicalism, has failed to appreciate these negative consequences of diminished workers’ control for participation in more explicitly political realms. Only through a development of political confidence can such activism be engaged. Furthermore, the degree of workplace democracy can depend largely upon the influence of supposedly exterior concerns such as impacts upon nature. In recognising the relationship between workplace articulation and political participation green syndicalism poses a challenge to received notions within ecology.

Participation as conceived by green syndicalism cannot come from management. ‘Such awareness has to question unflinching deference to experts, as part of a more general attack on centralized power and managerial prerogatives’ [Guarasci and Peck, 1987: 70]. Direct participation is understood as contributing to worker self-determination, constituted by workers against the veiled offerings of management which form part of ecocapitalism.

Eco-capitalist visions leave the megamachine and its power hierarchies intact and thus offers no alternative. Production remains undemocratic and profitability is the final word on whether or not resources should be used. Thus, eco-capitalism introduces to us the wonders of biodegradable take-out containers and starch-based golf teas [Purchase, 1994].

Green syndicalism emerges, then, as an experiment in more creative conceptions of workplace participation. For Purchase [1994, 1997a, 1997b], productive control organised around face-to-face, voluntary interaction and encouraging self-determination might be employed towards the freeing up of vast quantities of labour from useless, though profitable production, to be used in the playful development of life-affirming activities. Thus a common theme of working-class radicalism becomes an important element of an ecological theoretic. Leftists have long argued that eventually human needs must become the primary consideration of production, replacing profitability and accumulation. Such critiques of production must now go even further, raising questions about the ‘needs’ of ecosystems and non-humans.

Rethinking Unionism

The decreased demand for labour, within cybernetised capital relations, means that corporations are less compelled to deal with mainstream trade unions as under the Keynesian arrangement.3 If unions are to have any influence it can only come through active efforts to disrupt the labour process. These disruptive efforts may include increased militancy within workplace relations. Evidence for a rebellion among workers has been reflected typically in such activities as sabotage, slowdowns and absences.

IWW activists explicitly agitate for ‘deliberate inefficiency’ as a means to encourage the desecration of work relations. For green syndicalists the desired tactics against corporate-sponsored destruction of the environment include such direct, non-bureaucratic forms of action as shop-floor sabotage, boycotts, green bans and the formation of extra-union solidarity outside of the workplace, within workers’ home communities. Of course, strikes, the power to halt production, is unmatched in its capacity to confront corporate greed.

Environmentalists can stop production for a few hours or a few days. There is no more effective counter-force to capital accumulation and the pursuit of profit than the power of workers to stop work to achieve their demands. Ecological protection, as with work conditions, benefits or wages, must be fought for. Where workers are involved this means they must be struck for. This, however, requires that workers develop a position of strength. This, in turn, means organising workers so that they no longer face the prospects of ‘jobs versus environment’ blackmail. In order for this to occur, non-unionised workers must be mobilised. (Otherwise they are mobilised by capital – as scabs.) Recognising this the IWW gives a great deal of attention to organising the traditionally unorganised.

A green syndicalist conception of workers’ organisation rejects the hierarchical, centralised, bureaucratic structures of mainstream unionism. Economistic union organisations and bureaucrats who have worked to convince workers that environmentalists are responsible for job loss point up the need for syndicalist unions organised around ecologically sensitive practices.

Green syndicalists generally reject the perspective of Fosterism or the practice, as advocated by William Z. Foster in the 1910s, of ‘boring from within’ the mainstream unions.4 Examples abound of the difficulties in trying to build ecological perspectives, committees and work within mainstream unions. Laurie Adkin [1998] provides detailed accounts of the obstacles faced by activists in the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), supposedly the most progressive social union in Canada, when attempting to build rank and file environmental committees. Ontario’s Green Work Alliance (GWA) provides another instance in which rank and file workers
were thwarted by union bureaucrats in their efforts to establish green union perspectives. In that case union support for Ontario’s ruling social democratic party (New Democrats) interfered with the GWA criticisms of NDP environmental policies. Recent divisions between the ‘Teamsters and Turtles’ alliance of the Seattle anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) protests, especially over labour support for President Bush’s plan for oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge emphasise the serious obstacles which remain in forging alliances with business unions [Buss, 2001].

This is not to say that green syndicalists refuse to act in solidarity with workers in mainstream unions. Indeed, Local 1 worked in support of workers in Pulp and Paper Workers Local 49 and Judi Bari points out that many actions would have been impossible without inside information provided by workers in that local. Green syndicalists do work with rank and file members of mainstream unions and many are themselves ‘two-carders’, simultaneously members of mainstream and syndicalist unions.

Neither is it true to say that strong environmental policies cannot come from mainstream unions. Mainstream unions can and do at times take up specific policies and practices of syndicalism but the lack overall vision and participatory structures means that such policies and practices are not part of overall strategy and are often vulnerable to leadership control or the limitations of bargaining with employers.

While not a syndicalist union the BLF did adopt a number of policies which are hallmarks of syndicalism, most notably openess, radical democracy and participation. It must be stressed that these structural changes were essential for the development of the BLF’s environmental perspective [Burgmann and Burgmann, 1998]. Job site autonomy was encouraged, officials’ wages were linked to industry wages and officials were not paid during strikes. The union also established a ‘limited tenure of office’ and executive meetings were opened to all members [Burgmann and Burgmann, 1998]. The BLF also showed the expansive vision of working
class solidarity which is a strength of syndicalism. For example, the union banned work at Macquarie University after a gay student was expelled. The BLF also offered strong support for aboriginal land rights and squatters and banned work on the construction of a $1 million maximum security prison block. Unfortunately the BLF was betrayed by the same authoritarian forces which have haunted the syndicalists. Maoists and Stalinists within the National conspired with bosses to impose Federal control over the union, expel leading militants and end the bans.

The Question of Work

The green syndicalist responses might be understood, most interestingly, as characterising a broader revolt against work. ‘The one goal that unites all IWW members is to abolish the wage system’ [Meyers, 1995: 73]. Ecological crises make clear that the capitalist construction of ‘jobs’ and ‘workers’ are incompatible with the preservation of nature. It is, perhaps, then, not entirely paradoxical that green syndicalism should hint at an overcoming of workerness as one possible outcome.

Radical ecology activists have increasingly come to understand jobs, under the guise of work, as perhaps the most basic moment of unfreedom, one which must be overcome in any quest towards liberty. Too often, previously, the common response has been one of turning away from workers and from questions relating to the organisation of working relations. Green syndicalism hints that radical theory can no longer ignore these questions which are posed by the presence of jobs. Indeed it might be said that a return to the problematic of jobs becomes the starting point for a reformulation of radicalism, at least along green lines.

Green syndicalism conceives of the transformation of work as an ecological imperative. What is proposed is a radical alteration of work, both in structure and meaning. Solutions to the problems of work cannot be found merely in the control of existing forms. Rather, current practices of production along with the hierarchy of labour must be overcome.

For theorists of green syndicalism [Kaufmann and Ditz, 1992; Purchase, 1994, 1997a, 1997b], among the prerequisites for ecological change is a reduction in the amount of work being done. Their concern is that much of work, involving massive appropriation of natural elements, is useless. That includes the defence and reproduction of work relations in political (ownership) and economic (circulation) forms. In addition, an even more radical change is perceived as being required to transform the nature of that work which might remain towards ecological ends such as recovery, repair, and reconstruction. Furthermore, the processes of transforming existing work involve those who perform and are most familiar with the tasks under
question. Green syndicalists [Kaufmann and Ditz, 1992; Purchase, 1994) envision work being performed through democratic, participatory means within which work is conceived more as craft or as play.

Production, within a green syndicalist vision [Purchase, 1994, 1997a, 1997b], may include the provision of ecologically sensitive foods, transportation or energy. Work, newly organised along decentralised, local, democratic lines might allow for the introduction of materials and practices with diminished impact upon the bioregion in which each is employed.

Green syndicalist discourses are raised against the undermining influences of work in contemporary conditions of globalism. Far from being irrational responses to serious social transformations, workplace democratisation and workers’ self-determination become ever more reasonable responses to the uncertainty and contingency of emerging conditions of (un)employment.

Green syndicalists emphasise workers’ empowerment and selfemancipation – against pessimistic or cynical responses such as mass retraining which simply reinforce dependence upon elites. They offer but one initiative towards the overcoming of work and a movement towards community-based economics and productive decision-making.

Beyond Leftism and Ecology: Reflections on Green Syndicalist Visions

Green syndicalism highlights certain points of similarity between anarchosyndicalism
and ecology. These include, but are by no means limited to: decentralisation; regionalism; direct action/sabotage; autonomy; and pluralism and diversity. Syndicalists, however, can no longer disregard, as some Marxists [Blackie, 1990; Raskin and Bernow, 1991) are wont to do, the linkages between industrialism, hierarchy, and ecological destruction.

The mass production techniques of industrialism cannot be reconciled with ecological sustenance, regardless of whether bosses or sturdy proletarians control them. To be anti-capitalist does not have to imply being pro-ecology. In this regard the utopians have surely been more insightful. Ending capitalist relations of production, however, remains necessary for a radical transformation of the social since these relations encompass many positions of subordination. However, this is only one aspect of radical politics.

Thus, green syndicalists reject the workerist premises of ‘old-style’ leftists who argue that issues such as ecology are external to questions of production and only serve to distract from the essential task of organising workers, at the point of production, towards emancipation. Within green syndicalist discourses ecological concerns cannot, with any reason, be divorced from questions of production or economics. Rather than being represented as strictly separate discursive universes, nature, production, economics or workplace become understood as endlessly contested topographical features in an always shifting terrain.

The workplace is but one of the sites for extension of social resistance. Given the prominent position of the workplace under capitalism, as a realm of capitalist discipline and hegemony, activists must come to appreciate the significance of locating struggles within everyday workplace relations. Within a green syndicalist perspective workplaces are understood as sites of solidarity, innovation, cultural diversity, and personal interactions expressed in informal networks and through multiple antagonisms. In turn, those social realms which are typically counterpoised to the factory within radical ecology discourses – Bookchin’s ‘community’ – should be recognised as influenced by matters of accumulation, profit and class. The character of either realm is not unaffected by workplace antagonisms.

This ‘steel cage’ appears inescapable only because it remains isolated, practically and conceptually, from a host of important social, cultural, and political-economic dynamics operating inside and out of workplaces proper. Critical to any discussion, work organizations must be seen as series of settings and situations providing choices that are constrained, but not immutably, by the broader fabric of the
society into which they are woven [Guarasci and Peck, 1987: 72].

Green syndicalism calls for the replacement of profit-driven capitalist production with socially necessary production through means which are ecologically sensible [Purchase, 1994]. Production would be organised around human and ecological considerations rather than the rapacious requirements of accumulation and expansion characterising capitalist organisation. Syndicalists suggest that if production and distribution are to be carried out in a dark green manner workers must stop producing for capitalist elites according to the whims of the market. Syndicalists are interested neither in profit nor in growth and their conception of industry
has nothing to do with the consumerism of advanced capitalism. Finally, green syndicalist discourses express a realisation that overcoming ecological devastation depends upon shared responsibilities towards developing convivial ways of living wherein respectful relations, both within our own species and with other species, are nurtured.

In addition, the re-integration of production with consumption, organised in an egalitarian and democratic fashion – such that members of a community contribute what they can to social production – may allow for a break with consumerism. People might consume only that which they’ve had a hand in producing; people might use free time for creative activities rather than tedious, unnecessary production of luxuries; and individual consumption might be regulated by the capacities of individual production, (for example, personal creativity), not from the hysterics of mass advertising.

Syndicalism might be freed thusly from requirements of growth or mass consumption characterising industrialism as ‘social relations’ [Purchase, 1994, 1997a, 1997b; Bari, 2001]. Green syndicalism, as opposed to Marxism or even revolutionary syndicalism, opposes large-scale, centralised, mass-production. Green syndicalism does not hold to a socialist optimism of the liberatory potential of industrialism.
Ecological calls for a complete, immediate break with industrialism, however, contradict radical eco-philosophical emphases upon interconnectedness, mutualism and continuity. Simple calls for a return to nature reveal the lingering fundamentalisms afflicting much ecological discourse. The idea of an immediate return to small, village-centred living as espoused by some deep ecologists and anarchists is not only utopian, it ignores questions concerning the impacts which the toxic remains of industry would continue to inflict upon their surroundings. The spectre of industrialism will still – and must inevitably – haunt efforts at
transformation, especially in decisions concerning the mess that industry has left behind [Purchase, 1994]. How can we disconnect society from nature given the mass interpenetrations of social encroachments upon nature, for example, global warming, or depletion of the ozone layer? Where do you put toxic wastes? What of the abandoned factories? How will decommissioning occur? One cannot just walk away from all of that.

Without romanticising the role played by workers, green syndicalists are aware that workers may offer certain insights into these problems. In responding to this dilemma, green syndicalists [Kaufmann and Ditz, 1992; Purchase, 1994, 1997a, 1997b; Bari, 2001] have tried to ask the crucial question of where those who are currently producers might belong in the multiple tasks of transformation – both cultural as well as ecological. They have argued that radical ecology can no longer leave out producers, they will either be allies or enemies. Green syndicalism, almost alone among radical ecology, suggest that peoples’ identities as producers, rather than representing fixed entities, may actually be articulated against industrialism. The processes of engaging this articulation, wherein workers understand an interest in changing rather than upholding current conditions, present the perplexing task which has as yet foiled ecology.

Dismantling industrial capital, the radical approach to industrialism, would still require the participation of industrial workers provided it is not to be carried out as part of an authoritarian articulation. Any radical articulation, assuming it be democratic, implies the participation of industrial workers in decision-making processes. Of course, the democratic character of any articulation cannot be assumed; the possibility for reaction, to the exclusion of workers [Foreman, 1991; Watson, 1994], is ever-present.

One sees this within ecological fundamentalism or in strengthened corporatist alliances pitting labour/capital against environmentalists, each calling for centralised and bureacratic enforcement of regulations. In the absence of a grass-roots articulation with workers any manner of authoritarian, elite articulation, even ones which include radical ecology [Foreman, 1991; Watson, 1994], might be envisioned.

For their part theorists of green syndicalism envision the association of workers towards the dismantling of the factory system, its work, hierarchies, regimentation [Kaufmann and Ditz, 1992; Purchase, 1994, 1997a, 1997b]. This may involve a literal destruction as factories may be dismantled; or perhaps converted towards ‘soft’ forms of localised production. Likewise, productive activity can be conceived in terms of restoration, including research into a region’s natural history.

Reconstruction might be understood in terms of food and energy provision or recovery monitoring. These are acts in which all members might be active, indeed will need to be active in some regard. These shifting priorities – towards non-industrial relations generally – express the novelty of green syndicalism as both green and as syndicalist.

For green syndicalism it is important that ecology engage with workers in raising the possibilities for resisting, challenging and even abandoning the capitalist megamachine. However, certain industrial workshops and processes may be necessary [Purchase, 1994]. (How would bikes, or windmills be produced, for example?) The failure to develop democratic workers’ associations would then seem to render even the most wellconsidered ecology scenarios untenable. Not engaging such possibilities
restricts radicalism to mere utopia building [Purchase, 1994].

Green syndicalists argue for the construction of ‘place’ around the contours of geographical regions, in opposition to the boundaries of nationstates which show only contempt for ecological boundaries as marked by topography, climate, species distribution or drainage. Affinity with bioregionalist themes is recognised in green syndicalist appeals for a replacement of nation-states with decentralised federations of bioregional communities [Purchase, 1994, 1997a]. For green syndicalism such communities might constitute social relations in an articulation with local ecological requirements to the exclusion the bureaucratic, hierarchical
interference of distant corporatist bodies.

Local community becomes the context of social/ecological identification. Eco-defence, then, should begin at local levels: in the homes, workplaces, and neighbourhoods. Green syndicalist discourses urge that people identify with the ecosystems of their locality and region and work to defend those areas through industrial and agricultural practices which are developed and adapted to specific ecological characteristics. One aspect of a green syndicalist theoretic, thus, involves ecology activists helping workers to educate themselves about regional, community-based ways of living [Bari, 1994; Purchase, 1994, 1997b]. A green syndicalist perspective encourages people to broaden and unite the individual actions, such as saving a park or cleaning up a river, in which they are already involved towards regional efforts of self-determination protecting local ecosystems [Purchase, 1994].

The point here, however, has not been (nor is it for theorists of green syndicalism generally) to draw plans for the green syndicalist future. Specific questions about the status of cities, organisation of labour, means of production, or methods of distribution cannot here be answered. They will be addressed by those involved as the outcome of active practice. Most likely there will be many varieties of experimental living — some are already here, e.g. autonomous zones, squats, co-ops and revolutionary unions. These are perhaps the renewed politics of organising.

Human relations with nature pose crucial and difficult questions for radicalism. Those relations, under capitalism, have taken the form of ‘jobs’ where nature and labour both become commodified. Indeed nature as ‘resources’ and work as ‘jobs’ provide the twin commodity forms which have always been necessary for the expansion of the market [Polanyi, 1944].

Thus capitalist regimes of accumulation, growth and commodification remain crucial concerns for ecological politics. Questions concerning the organising of life are still radical questions, though what might constitute acceptable answers has changed. One might ask: ‘What does work – intervention in nature – mean for ecology?’ Taking ecology seriously means that the realms of work, leisure (work’s accomplice), sustenance, need etc. – what might be called production – must be confronted.

NOTES
1. For interesting accounts of the radicalisation of workers in response to unsatisfying or
degrading workplace experiences see Zimpel [1974] and Sprouse [1992].
2. Bookchin’s criticism of workers’ organisations becomes even more curious given his
attachment to technological solutions to ecological degradation. He remains unclear, for
example, on the matter of who might design, construct, repair or recycle his much desired
eco-technologies [Purchase, 1994]. For a discussion of the technocratic and anthropocentric
dimensions of Bookchin’s writings see Marshall [1993].
3. Montgomery [1974] suggests that workers’ struggles generally belong to two types: control
struggles and wage struggles. Employers spend much energy trying to prevent the
convergence of the two currents. Unions have, since 1945, been preoccupied typically with
wage struggles, while control struggles have been traded for wages and benefits or diverted
through limited participation schemes, as exemplified in recent approaches to management,
or in ‘commitments to quality’. The challenge again confronting organised labour is
precisely to revitalise control struggles. This challenge also faces ‘new movement’ activists
in their attempts to engage with labour.
4. For a discussion of the debates around Fosterism see Bekken [2001]. Recently, Wobblies in
Edmonton, Canada attempted to revive Fosterism within the IWW, a proposal which was
overwhelmingly rejected.
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Comments

woooo
Apr 17 2012 11:33
ites
Jun 19 2013 13:44

Have posted an edited version of this article here:

https://anarchistmemes.wordpress.com/2012/12/09/green-syndicalism/

This is a great article save the extreme verbosity which makes some parts almost totally impenetrable and is very off-putting. The above version has been very heavily edited in places to simplify the writing without changing or diluting the ideas being expressed and thereby hopefully to make it more accessible, since it is a great article on the whole and deserves wide circulation.