Protect People and the Planet: Create a Workers’ Powershift

Note: This is a revised version of an older essay that was never published. With recent news concerning new green government programming and the grim news coming from Chrysler and General Motors, I hope this might broaden the debate a bit beyond what the headlines and pundits will allow. This version was also published today at MRZine.org.

“We hope for better days; it shall rise from the ashes.” – Motto of the City of Detroit (Coined after a citywide fire in 1805)

The green dream is coming closer every day.  Green-collar jobs are becoming more and more of a household term and are moving closer to the center of the conversation about how we should recover from the current economic recession.

It’s a relief to me as a Detroiter.  It gives me hope that our city, long hit by economic hardship, unemployment and poverty, can rise again through programs that will create millions of green jobs.  In particular, more people are calling for a greening of US automakers in an attempt to halt their freefall.  A cleaning up of the auto industry could certainly help lift the city and country out of this virtual downward spiral, but after witnessing an anti-union blitzkrieg that strong-armed workers into reluctantly accepting major concessions[i] one has to wonder, “What will a green auto industry look like?”  Does our vision of a green-collar economy include autoworkers going back to factories making plug-in hybrids on subsistence wages, rolled back healthcare and poor job security?  Or will we make a shift away from the growth-centered reasoning of the dirty energy past?

The competitive logic of the free-market encourages businesses like the Big Three to cut corners and skip the bill for the ecological and social costs of their production.  Corporations are encouraged to keep costs low and profits high through pumping toxins into the air without concern for the health of communities, and forcing cuts in workers’ compensation (called “externalities” by economists).  In other words, when profit is the name of the game, quality of life for workers and communities take a back seat (if they even get a seat in the first place).  So, what will our green future look like?

Creating a future that can protect our livelihood and the planet requires us to make gains right now.  For example, we can put people back to work with good jobs that build the foundation for a the clean-energy revolution, cap carbon emissions and force polluters to pay for ecological damage, and create community-run Green Jobs training centers.  But social justice and sustainability also demand that we look forward toward long-term alternatives to the competitive economics that reward businesses for refusing to take responsibility for the true-costs of ecological damage.

Workers at the cooperatively managed Zanon factory in Argentina vote in their assembly.

Workers at the cooperatively managed Zanon factory in Argentina vote in their assembly.

A green economy has to reject the notion that the profit driven markets, which brought us to this crisis, somehow “know” how to get us out of it.  Instead of letting markets and corporations roll back environmental protections once they decide it costs too much (like they did to autoworkers and clean air regulations in the past), we should challenge the logic of these institutions, pressure them to reform and create democratic and cooperative alternatives.  Worker-run businesses[ii] which employees manage together can ensure that workers’ livelihoods are secure, while democratic planning can set a new standard for social and environmental well-being.

For example, in a cooperative, green auto-factory workers would make decisions democratically in proportion to how they’re affected by the outcomes, and each person’s job would be balanced with equally empowering and difficult work. Instead of having a complex and unjust system of management that places the creative and empowering tasks into the hands of a few professionals, all the workers could enjoy the benefits of creative work.

In this green and participatory economy, everybody would have the right to fair compensation for their work based on the duration, intensity and difficulty of their jobs.  A boss or manager couldn’t decide to take away your healthcare as a worker because the business is no longer “competitive,” since firms produce for social and ecological benefit. Workers would choose their criteria and negotiate their compensation together.

People in each workplace and community could participate in democratic councils of workers and consumers.  Workers’ councils would create annual plans for the amount and type of goods and services they make which are matched to plans for consumption created by community council.  Prices of goods and services can be adjusted in order to reflect the social and environmental costs of production. This way a business couldn’t simply choose to use dirty-energy or dump waste in somebody’s back yard just because it’s “cheaper”. In this way, we can directly hold businesses accountable and ensure that the health of communities and the environment are protected from harmful practices [iii].

Dirty-energy corporations are already trying to water down the definition of a green-collar economy.  For just one example, take a look at coal companies in Michigan who are trying to win over support by saying they’re going to create “green jobs.”  We need to be ever clarifying and refining our vision of a just and sustainable future in order to prevent this kind of cooptation.  We can’t let green jobs we’re fighting so hard for be mutated into something as ludicrous as “clean coal”, or wage-slavery on the PHEV assembly line. We have to hold on to a vision of a future that will protect the planet and the people, and build the alternatives for the better world we want.

[i] See “Auto Workers Told to Take Concessions, Abandon Retirees” by Tiffany Ten Eyck in Labor Notes. < http://labornotes.org/node/1996 >
[ii] For real life examples of democratic cooperative workplaces see “The Cure for Layoffs” by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis < http://www.commondreams.org/view/2009/05/14-13 >
[iii] For more on democratic planning see “Power Shift to Economic Justice and Democracy” by Brian Kelly. < http://itsgettinghotinhere.org/2008/06/21/power-shift-to-economic-justice-and-democracy/ >

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