The Green Transition Must Be Union-Powered

The Green Transition Must Be Union-Powered

The Green Transition Must Be Union-Powered

A conversation with scholar Matt Huber on climate strategy and class politics.


As the hope for timely legislative action to address climate change has dwindled over the past year, high-profile union victories in coffee shops, warehouses, and outdoor recreation stores have catalyzed a renewed sense of worker power. Instead of seeing the climate fight as siloed from the labor movement, Matthew Huber, a geography professor at Syracuse University, argues that working-class struggle has ecological stakes and that union power can be harnessed to disrupt the production of fossil fuels.

In Climate Change as Class War, Huber urges us to understand the environmental crisis as stemming from the same issues of exploitative production that harm workers. The climate fight, he contends, is not a cultural struggle against those who consume the most carbon—be they rich individuals or wealthy nations—but a class struggle against those who actually produce fossil fuels.

Huber draws on these lessons about the real culprits of environmental catastrophe to formulate a climate strategy rooted in class politics. In the following interview, we talk with Huber about the political damage caused by liberal environmentalism’s “politics of less,” the importance of organizing around energy distribution, and the vital role of union power in the climate movement’s future.

—Sara Van Horn and Cal Turner

Sara Van Horn and Cal Turner: Your book addresses how climate and labor have often been framed as opposing movements—with environmental concerns disconnected from and often antagonistic to working-class struggles. Why has that framing been so pervasive? And where does your book intervene in and reject it?

Matthew Huber: Environmentalism has traditionally framed itself as primarily in opposition to various forms of industrial production or destruction. In the context of a neoliberal, highly unequal economic situation where there’s no welfare state to speak of and the safety net has been eviscerated, I think workers and unions have a tendency to want to cling to whatever jobs and industrial options they have. This creates this hostile antagonism between environmentalists who are trying to block destructive forms of development and unions, or even un-unionized workforces, that are desperate to cling to some kind of livelihood that these industrial developments provide. It’s a zero-sum game.

What I tried to reframe is: How can we think about working-class interests in an environmental sense? If you think about how Marx and others define the working class and the proletariat as fundamentally dispossessed from the land, dispossessed from an ecological guarantee of subsistence, what that creates is a fundamental form of insecurity that the working class faces in meeting their ecological needs as living beings. It’s that proletarian insecurity that leads unions to want to choose jobs over the environment. What I argue is that if we take that working-class insecurity as the basis of an environmental politics, it might include opposition to fossil-fuel development, because for a climate-sane future, we need that, but it’s also going to include a lot of industrial development.

Working-class people’s basic needs overlap precisely with the very sectors we need to decarbonize. We need to transform our energy system, our food system, our housing system. All of these things are working-class needs. But climate policy people assume that transforming those sectors means it’s going to make those things cost more through carbon taxes or through other forms of trying to internalize the cost of emissions into markets. But if we really tried to ground a Green New Deal–type program that’s centered on delivering public goods and material benefits in those domains, like energy and food and housing, it could be a climate politics that people could see benefits from in their everyday lives immediately.

When you look at the climate problem, it’s essentially about electricity. The goal is to clean up the electric sector and then electrify everything. The electricity sector is really interesting, because it’s a quite neutral technological system: Some of it’s zero carbon, some of it’s very dirty, fossil-fuel-based. And it’s one of the more unionized parts of our entire economy. So you have this infrastructure of an already organized union movement in the very sector we need to transform. The problem is, of course, these unions are sometimes conservative, sometimes resistant to the decarbonization agenda. This is part of socialist history, trying to build activism within the unions, to try to build a more militant climate movement in the unions themselves through a rank-and-file strategy or more political education. These electric utility unions need to hear from the climate movement that if they don’t have a long-term strategy for growing their unions through this energy transition, their members and their unions are threatened by a kind of cutthroat, renewable energy, green capitalism that’s run by very anti-union forces. If the electric utility unions want to actually save themselves, they have to start organizing to be in the driver’s seat of this energy transition.

SVH & CT: You also talk about the professional class’s carbon guilt, which involves this preoccupation with carbon footprints and other measures of individual consumption. And you note that these concerns can mirror right-wing austerity politics. Can you talk about how this focus on reduction can be hostile to an already struggling working class? And what political damage is caused by this focus on cost and the “politics of less”?

MH: One thing I say in the book is that if anyone deploys class politics in the climate fight, it’s the right. The Koch brothers argue that the poor pay more of their income towards energy than anything else, so any policy that’s trying to raise the price of energy is going to harm them disproportionately. And so whenever you look at George W. Bush or Donald Trump resisting the Kyoto Protocol or the Paris treaty [or] whatever climate policy, the right is saying, “We don’t want it.” They always say it’s because of economic issues, because of jobs, because of cost of living. And that really matters to people.

A whole set of liberal technocratic policy experts got it in their heads that an elegant policy designed to internalize the cost of emissions into the market and make those costs reflected in the prices of commodities would be a way to allow the market to solve what they’d determined was a market failure. That kind of approach fell right into that right-wing trap, about which they’re able to say, sometimes correctly, “These environmentalists, these climate policy advocates, are trying to make your life cost more, trying to make your life worse.” In the worst scenario, you get a popular revolt to those types of policies, like in France, where the Yellow Vest Movement is literally chanting, “Politicians only want to talk about the end of the world, and we’re concerned about the end of the month.” This very basic feeling that a liberal climate politics is just totally out of touch with people’s day-to-day needs.

The other side, though, is you have this radical anti-consumerism and focus on degrowth, or a “politics of less” that’s really focusing on aggregate reductions in energy use, especially in rich countries, and focusing on the need for scaling down consumption. These ideas have a lot of appeal from a professional-class position where you are relatively comfortable. But the vast majority of people in a neoliberal gilded age have been dealing with austerity and trying to do more with less for decades. They’re seeing wage stagnation, debt, and austerity, and to approach any environmental politics where your main message is reduction, it’s just not a strategy that’s going to necessarily win over people. To build the kind of power to take on the capitalists who control the energy system, we need a much broader-based mass movement that really resonates with the majority of society.

SVH & CT: You give some examples of what this “politics of more,” as you call it, might look like, including the Green New Deal. Where do you see the future of these movements going?

MH: Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush introduced a resolution about public power that called upon this idea that electricity and energy should be a human right. And I really think that kind of frame is powerful, especially when people have to choose between paying their heating and electric bills and putting food on the table. Because the climate problem is so fixated on energy, it really should start with that kind of popular politics of electricity as cheaper and actually giving people better access to it.

Bernie Sanders was hoping that his inspiring presidential campaign would then conjure working-class organization from decades of slumber. That’s not how it works. Typically, you need working-class organizations like parties, but also unions. You need this firmly embedded infrastructure in people’s lives that builds mass support for these ideas before you’re going to win at a much higher electoral level. So it was, like Jane McAlevey [The Nation’s strikes correspondent] would call it, an attempted shortcut to try to catapult to the presidency. It’s amazing how close it came, honestly. But it didn’t work out. Now all we can do is the no-shortcuts thing, which is doing that hard work of organizing in the workplace. What’s heartening to me is you’re actually seeing that start to happen. What happened in Staten Island and Amazon is absolutely amazing.

SVH & CT: You emphasize the strategic importance of working-class struggle at the point of production. And you focus on rank-and-file union campaigns and their direct action tactics like striking as crucial to climate organizing. How and why should the climate movement incorporate more traditional forms of labor organizing into their vision of change?

MH: This is a power struggle. Unfortunately, when you look at the history of capitalism, there’s just been few agents that have been able to demonstrate mass power like labor organizing, because they do the work, and they can withhold their labor and cause a crisis that can force political elites to actually do something about demands. A lot of liberals and a lot of climate politics are like: If we have another march and we convince people of the science, then they’ll come around, right? That’s not how power works.

The classic example is the West Virginia teachers’ strike. That’s not even a point of industrial production. They shut down incredibly strategic sites of social reproduction where, as we’ve all learned in the pandemic, people rely on schools for basic provision of food and childcare. So the West Virginia teachers did this incredibly effective organizing that got all the teachers on board, but they also got all the parents and the community members on board. They were going to shut down the school system, create a crisis, and within a couple of weeks, they won most of their demands. Winning those types of demands through “let’s get the right people elected, let’s lobby the legislature” would have taken decades. And they achieved it in a couple of weeks.

Ultimately, this climate movement does hinge on the industrial sector, the energy sector. Organizing within carbon-intensive unions has to happen. Then you build alliances with the low-carbon union movement to build a broader labor movement approach. It’s not just that the labor movement has the strike weapon. Today, unions represent over 14 million people. They have lots of money and resources and infrastructure and power actually, and that infrastructure can be mobilized towards a more underrated strategy: political education.

I draw on the example of Tony Mazzocchi, who led his union, the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers. He basically launched a mass organizing campaign around toxic chemicals in the workplace. He went around the country, union local to union local, bringing scientists and experts to try to explain to the workers that these chemicals are a danger to your health and your lives and you need to organize to force capital to install safe equipment. He got these workers to flood Congress with letters and calls, he got them to testify in congressional hearings, and he built this mass movement that led to the passage of the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970. I don’t think there were a lot of strikes in that campaign. It was mostly just political education, using the infrastructure of the union institutions and mobilizing it towards building this particular set of policy changes.

We could do something like that today with a campaign that, ultimately, is about maintaining unions’ presence in the energy transition and making sure the new energy developments are going to be unionized. That kind of campaign on a political education level could be really effective, if we could convince the unions to really deploy resources to it.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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