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Catalyzing worker co-ops & the solidarity economy

Working-class environmentalism and climate justice

Before reaching the heart of the matter, two warnings are in order. The first concerns the fact that the ecological transition ‘from above’ suggests a compatibility – more: an elective affinity – between environmental protection and economic growth only at the condition of relegating the labour movement, with its social function of contrasting inequality, to the margins – or, worse, to the role of an actor resisting change in the name of the protection of ecologically unsustainable jobs. The subject of the green economy is the ‘self-entrepreneur’: daring, enlightened, smart. His innovating charge, in fact, springs from an indifference towards the shackles posed by intermediate bodies (unions in the first place) and the time-wasting red tape of institutional mediation, particularly democratic practices. This generates a tendency – second warning – to assume that the cause of labour and that of environmentalism are hopelessly at odds. The underlying idea is that the job blackmail – “Your health or your wage” – is essential to the fate of industry.  

Such narrative has been given a certain historiographic legitimation but, even if the latter is not completely false, it is certainly partial and far from innocent. Dating the first widespread politicisation of the environmental question to the period between the late 1970s and the early 1980s – that is, after the great cycle of struggles of the “Fordist” phase – is in fact an implicit internalisation of the defeat of the so-called Long 1968, an extraordinary season of mobilizations which had pointed to economic democracy as the necessary condition to contrast workplace environmental degradation – including air, soil, and water pollution – in some cases eliminating it completely. 

To avoid any misunderstandings, let us clarify that there is no way around the fact that such defeat happened. It is however legitimate to question its putative inevitability. Furthermore, the constant deterioration of the material bases of the biosphere’s reproduction makes it extremely urgent to look at that historical turn from a new perspective. The marginalisation of the labour movement, in fact, has not come with the eradication of industrial noxiousness. Despite decades of climate negotiations, over the last thirty years, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions has exceeded the total produced between the 18th century and 1990. It is necessary to break free from the fetish of a complicity between capital and the environment to open the space to (re)link environmental and labour movements. This is – in a nutshell – what we need, and it is perfectly exemplified by the Plan for a Public Hub for Sustainable Mobility. Against this background, reinterrogating the conflicts around noxiousness that took place between the 1960s and the 1970s allows to demonstrate that the ecological question became widely politicised thanks to, not in spite of, the labour movement. It was in the wake of harsh and innovative disputes such as those at FIAT’s painting units or Montedison’s chemical plants that the issue of a healthy environment – first in the factory and later in the territories surrounding it – was turned from a technicality into the political stake of trade union and social movement struggles. 

Read the rest at PPPR


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What does the G in GEO stand for?