Greens and unions united – Trade Union power for a green society?

The Guardian – Comment Is Free – 20 February 2008

Last weekend’s Green Party spring conference witnessed a further consolidation of the party’s position as the largest and most progressive alternative to the big three grey parties – all of which are wedded, to varying degrees, to the corporate agenda of big business.

Conference passed resolutions condemning the creeping privatisation of the NHS and calling for the railways to be returned to public ownership. In debate after debate, a recurring theme was the defence of public services and the public accountability of economic institutions.

One of the most encouraging signs of the Green Party’s practical radicalism and alliance-building strategy is its push for closer relations with the trade unions, around issues such as climate change, social justice, environmental protection, consumer rights and sustainable economics. More and more Greens see value in cooperation and solidarity with the unions to achieve a new progressive consensus.

The Green Party Trade Union Group (GPTUG) supports workers rights and is working with union members to advance a green agenda that is social as well as environmental.

The GPTUG is building closer links with the trade union movement. Many unions were part of the Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Conference, which took place earlier this month. Keynote speakers included the general secretaries of the Fire Brigades Union, Public and Commercial Services Union and the National Union of Teachers; plus the deputy general secretaries of the Trades Union Congress and the Communication Workers Union.

The trade unions are often unloved and unfairly maligned. In contrast to the disrespect shown to the unions by New Labour, many of us in the Green Party sees trade unionists as heroes and heroines of social progress.

The unions are some of the most important and effective voluntary associations in the UK. Over the last two centuries, their campaigns have helped secure improvements in the standard of living and quality of life of millions of working class people.

As well as winning improved wages, the union movement pioneered campaigns for the eradication of child labour and sweatshop conditions. It trail-blazed for the introduction of the 40-hour week, minimum wage, holiday pay, pensions and industrial injury compensation. Trade unions also contributed to achievements like equal pay for women and part-time workers, better training and vocational qualifications, and improved health and safety in the workplace.

Despite these monumental achievements, which have made a huge positive contribution to the welfare of the British people, trade unions also have a downside. They tend to be defensive, macho and mostly focussed on bread and butter issues – usually seeking a better deal for their members within the profit-driven, free market economic system, rather than bidding to change the system. Too often, they share the big business and mainstream political agenda of maximising growth, income and spending power; mirroring the materialist, consumerist values of the political elite and corporate giants.

It doesn’t have to be like this. As we have seen from their many successful, valuable social welfare campaigns, unions have immense potential to be a force for progressive social change and public benefit. They can be allies of the green movement, promoting policies that are environmentally friendly and ecologically sustainable.

Way back in the 1970s, the Australian construction unions rallied in solidarity with environmental and community activists to enforce ‘green bans’ on speculative, destructive developments that threatened inner-city working class areas. This altruistic wielding of trade union power demonstrated the potential for organised labour to use its industrial strength to advance a green agenda, for the betterment of all. It was a win-win campaign. Environmental degradation and community break up were averted, and the construction unions won huge public sympathy and support.

We could replicate those tactics today, here in the UK, on a range of issues.

Trade unions have millions of members. With significant weight and influence locally, nationally and globally, the unions could be a major force to challenge environmental degradation and promote sustainable economics.

Collective bargaining does not have to be about wages and conditions only. As part of their collective bargaining agreements, unions could also negotiate green commitments with governments and corporations, to ensure eco audits and eco impact assessments, the ethical investment of pension funds, improved health and safety standards, and a switch to energy saving technologies in the workplace (the industrial sector is one of the biggest carbon dioxide emitters). These green commitments would benefit both workers and consumers. They would be a gain for the whole of society and win trade unions increased public esteem and support.

The profit-maximisation, free market imperatives of international capital threaten the future of life on earth. They put economic growth, materialism, consumerism and money-making before quality of life and human welfare. These are the main drivers of climate chaos, biospheric toxification, resource depletion and species extinction.

Preventing ecological disaster requires constraints on the power of governments and big corporations. Profiteering and free trade need to be subordinated to sustainable policies for the survival of humanity.

This makes a green-union alliance more urgent and relevant than ever before. Many union members already share our green critique of the ever-expanding, profit-oriented, market-driven nature of the globalised economic system. Unions are potential allies for the green movement. We should work with them, in solidarity.

Environmental justice and social justice are interlinked, which gives unions and greens a good reason to work together around the twin emancipation goals of social equity and ecological sustainability. The Green Party is ready and willing. What about the trade unions?

* For more information about the Green Party Trade Union Group (GPTUG), see its website GPTU and blog GPTUblog .