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The environment is a working-class issue

By: 
Bradley Hughes

January 10, 2012

New Social Movements, Class and the Environment

Written by John-Henry Harter

Reviewed by Bradley Hughes

This book begins in the anti-capitalist movement that bloomed after 50,000 people joined the 1999 anti-WTO demonstration in Seattle. One of the placards spotted by the author at the demonstration, “Teamsters and turtles together at last,” illustrates why this was, “a bright spot in the struggle for social justice to mark the end of the twentieth century.”

The author, and everyone with a drop of anti-capitalist blood in their veins, was overjoyed at this display of new found solidarity between the organized working class and the new social movements.

This book tries to answer the question, why was this solidarity so unusual, and why has it been hard to maintain? In particular the book looks at the politics of new social movements in relation to trade unions by way of the history of Greenpeace as a case study.

Harter outlines a few decades of theorizing about new social movements written by academics who dismiss the potential of the working class as an agent for change.

Class

Rather than being removed from class, the base for new social movements are managers and professionals. This managerial professional class has neither the control of society that the ruling class enjoys, nor the possibility of collective action that the working class and unionized professionals have.

The leadership of organizations like Greenpeace is made up of members of this managerial professional class. As a consequence new social movements not only ignore the working class, but actively organize against sections of it.

The bulk of the book examines Greenpeace campaigns against sealing, logging in Clayoquot Sound, and efforts by its own staff to join a union.

In the summer and fall of 1993 over 11,000 protesters joined protests and blockages against logging in Clayoquot Sound, BC. Greenpeace helped to mobilize and publicize this campaign. John-Henry documents how they targeted loggers as the enemy alongside the forest companies. Blockades kept workers unpaid and away from work.

Of course, this allowed industry backed organizations for “fair-use” of the forests to win allegiance from many workers. This also made the false jobs versus the environment dichotomy popular on both sides of the barricades.

Divisions

The halt to logging in the area resulted in a win-win situation for forestry businesses. Greenpeace went on to partner with one of the largest forestry companies to help market their products, and in 1997 the continuing division between workers and environmentalists resulted in the Industrial Wood and Allied Workers of Canada union blockading two Greenpeace ships in Vancouver.

The book details similar tactics and results in other Greenpeace campaigns.

The perceived division between the needs of workers, the 99%, and the need to solve our many environmental crises, only benefits the 1%. We all need to overcome these divisions, and this book can help.

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