Alyssa Battistoni: Hi everyone. My name’s Alyssa Battistoni. I do not have slides so you’re just going to have to look at me.
So the the title of my talk I think is about cyborg ecosocialism, which you might be wondering about, and gendered labor. And I wrote a piece actually calling for cyborg socialism in place of ecosocialism a while ago, by which I meant sort of trying to think about how we can be taking both ecology and technology seriously, human and non-human labor and things like that. I was like, let’s call it this. That did not quite catch on although I encourage you to go out there and talk about cyborg socialism. But I’m not going to talk about it too much now. I will sort of try to hint back at that later. But what I mostly going to talk about is labor and the politics of labor.
And this is going to be drawing in arguments that we make in a book that our next presenter Thea Riofrancos and I wrote with Daniel Aldana Cohen and Kate Aronoff called A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. And I’m going to sort of just make a couple of the arguments that we’re trying to make around labor, the politics of labor, what it means for sort of coalitions around the Green New Deal, what the possibilities might be for building such a movement.
So, basically we argue that if we’re going to defeat fossil capital we need to build a low-carbon labor movement. And so I will say a bit more about what I think that means. I think it’ll probably come as no surprise to anyone here that there have been um, tensions between labor and environment since at least the 1970s. And this is a major problem we think for the climate movement and for any sort of movement for a Green New Deal to solve. After all, organized labor has historically played a major role in keeping capital in check, pushing for the expansion of public goods, you know, for various forms of regulations and so on.
And by pitting labor against the environment, I think, the right has been able to bludgeon environmental action, or oppose environmental action, with a threat of lost jobs even as they with the other hand got worker protections and undermined workers’ rights to organize. So, that kind of you know…this X Y Z…you know, environmental policy will kill jobs I think is a pretty disingenuous claim given what the people who make those claims are actually doing to worker rights? But it’s been effective, and particularly because the more effective the anti-worker policies are, the less protected workers are, the more dependent they are on the jobs they have, the more difficult it is to make the case for environmental action. I think this is a vicious cycle that we’ve been seeing that we really need to break out of.
So, we need to both draw on the history of thinking about how the sort of green jobs—and this is obviously the language that has sort of emerged to sort of try to overcome the environment/labor problem—how we can have a commitment to good green jobs to replace extractive industry work but also to expand our thinking about what green jobs are, we need to increase the power of all workers in relation to their bosses by offering alternatives to bad work and strengthening laborers’ right to organize. And we need to be particularly attentive to the ways in which the division of labor is structured along racial and gendered lines. I think the discussion of racial capitalism earlier was really helpful for thinking about how and why labor politics… Well, helpful for thinking about many of the aspects of climate and Green New Deal politics. Absolutely essential to thinking about labor politics.
And we need to think about how we can actually have the labor movement out fighting for the Green New Deal because I do not think we will get one if we don’t have a revitalized labor movement really working for it. So I will go through some of those.
So even though labor and environment have typically been pitted against one another, the labor historian Trish Kahle observes that environmental protections and labor protections have historically risen and fallen together. So we shouldn’t actually think of these as things that come at the expense of one another. Companies that treat their workers badly tend to treat the land and the environment badly too. They are both parts of keeping costs down. And so we looked to the history of labor groups that has sought to strengthen both like Miners for Democracy, which in the late 1960s and early 1970s proposed that miners who lost jobs to regulations on coal mining could be given union work restoring local land and infrastructure.
We also looked to the Blue-Green Alliances of the 70s and 80s, like those led by Tony Mazzocchi of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union. And he argued for winding down industries that harmed workers, environment, society, while also taking steps to protect their livelihood. So you could have something like a GI Bill for atomic workers who would be left unemployed by nuclear disarmament, which you know, people applaud me if it should happen. A superfund for fossil fuel workers, which also should maybe happen. And so on.
So, there have been histories of these kinds of attempts to think through what can we do to make sure that it’s not workers who are paying for the decisions essentially that their bosses have made. But we also know that there’s a lot of work to d, and so I’ll say a little bit about that.
You know, I think as several speakers have referenced, we do need to do a lot to remake everything from how we travel, to where we live. Things like retrofitting existing buildings; retrofitting public housing, as has been part of some recent Green New Deal for Public Housing bills that have been introduced into Congress; constructing units of no-carbon public housing; erecting a smart grid and other kinds of things; the networks of train lines that Kian referenced, things like that, all will take a lot of work and this is of course what the New Deal is famous for, public works projects.
As Billy was suggesting, we probably need to not replicate all of the carbon-intensive projects, so less roads, more train tracks; fewer airports, more bus stations, and so on. But you know, there is a lot to do should we put resources into doing that.
But, I wanna argue that those projects are part of a transitional strategy and not a model for a new economy. So, we can’t just…you know, we can’t just ramp up the production of green technology indefinitely, per Myles’ sort of challenge on the growth question. And Thea I think will also say a bit more about why and sort of where the green technologies come from and whether they’re as green as we think they might be. But we do need to go all out I think for a decade or two to build a world that will last, a world of things that are functional and beautiful, and then we need to actually live in it.
So, I think we need to ask what work does living well within planetary boundaries require? So we argue that it’s critical to think more broadly about green jobs, to think beyond you know, the kind of typical energy and infrastructure—important as those are, to also take into account work that’s oriented towards sustaining and improving life both human and non-human, and low-carbon waste. So, that in particular we think includes things like care work and education work, centering work that provides care for people, communities, and environment. To reference Sophie’s presentation, I think this is actually an important project of overcoming the family as the site of the only access to care and resources. We need access to care that doesn’t rely on getting married to access healthcare or having children who can take care of you when you’re old.
But as Sophie also points out care can also be brutal, including and especially for those who provide it. And so, care work is both the fastest-growing sector in the country, but also are among the worst-paid, least regulated, done overwhelmingly by women, particularly women of color and particularly by immigrant women. So, it’s hard work even if it sounds nice. It’s like we like care and it’s deeply exploited so you know, we need to improve that work, we need to protect people doing that work and organizing around that work as we’re thinking about building the no-carbon economy and adjusting a division of labor that gives women and people of color the worst-paid and lowest-status jobs.
Prioritizing care I want to say also means taking better care of the planet we live on. The historian Nick Estes has recently argued that many indigenous people are currently performing unwaged and unrecognized caregiving work for the Earth. And he argues,
like unwaged caregiving work, land defense and water protection are undervalued but necessary for the continuation of life on a planet teetering on collapse. So we support Red Nation’s call to center multispecies caretaking in a Green New Deal. I think that could involve a lot of things, but including employing people in the work of caring for and restoring ecosystems. I think the CCC is typically the example here. You know, planting trees, revegetating hundreds of thousands of acres of rangeland, soil conservation and so on, and I think we could think about what other kinds of projects could a new CCC do.
We’d also want to think about building care for the Earth into things like agriculture, which I think could also be a way to connect rural areas and farming communities to the Green New Deal. And this of course is also another site of racial capitalism, since farm workers in the US are mostly immigrants and deeply exploited.
And so you know— I’m going to reference Sophie’s presentation again. I’m saying that all reproduction is always already assisted and you know, I think we should think about that as we apply that thinking to our planet. So I think what climate change and other ecological crises make clear is that we can no longer take the reproduction of our world, of sort of a living world, for granted. Reproducing life on Earth will actually require a lot more assistance from us. More human labor and human work, while also recognizing the vital work done by non-human nature, by the ecosystems that make the planet habitable. So, this is sort where I do see something like this is a kind of cyborg political economy that’s mixing…you know, recognizing human and non-human labor, mixing the natural and artificial, and doing that towards the project of letting us all not only survive but thrive.
So, I want to now finish with a few comments on the sort of politics and power I’ve mentioned. And I suggest at the beginning you know, there’s sort of like a few ways that I think we should think about work and labor under a Green New Deal. But as I said we need to have the labor movement on board if we’re going to win anything. And I think that this is where sort of some of the coalition question comes in. And you know, what we argue is that a Green New Deal coalition has to go beyond extractive industry workers to make life better for working people more broadly.
And this isn’t just a matter of principle, it’s also I think a pragmatic question. A labor program that’s only focused on transitioning fossil fuel industry workers to clean energy jobs just isn’t going to bring enough workers into the fight to win. There are around 50,000 coal miners working in the US today. Another 1.4 million oil and gas workers. And those people should all have you know, access to good work and livelihoods and benefits and whatever, after we get rid of their industries.
But to win a Green New Deal we actually do need to have the entirety of the labor movement fighting, and that means bringing into the fight the roughly 18 million healthcare workers, 3.6 million teachers who are already doing low-carbon work. These workers are already part of a labor movement that’s fighting for union jobs in connection to a larger expansion of public goods and services, while also undertaking new kinds of organizing that reach beyond the workplace.
They’re also at the forefront of labor militancy. So, in 2018 the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported twenty major work stoppages in which a total of 485,000 workers went out on strike. And workers in education, healthcare, and social assistance accounted for over 90% of those workers and represented half of all strikes in the past decade.
That is still a ways off from the turmoil that produced the original New Deal. In the 20s there were over 500 strikes a year, even at the low point in 1927. But we think that when political momentum is growing things can change fast.
Recent strikes also show how the labor movement, or labor organizing, can help organize the working class more broadly. So the labor organizer and theorist Jane McAlevey argues that unions win when they do a whole worker organizing, which is organizing that sees workers as connected to broader communities and that organizes those communities alongside them. And so when unions fight and win this way, they win for the whole community, they build the foundation for future fights and future gains.
So the Chicago Teachers Union and United Teachers of Los Angeles have organized in the workplace and the community for over a decade. And this is a model sometimes referred to as bargaining for the common good. So in LA people might remember that teachers went out on strike early this year, in January 2019, and a lot of people in the community went out with them. And they won better contracts, more teachers, more counselors, more nurses, an immigrant defense fund, a commitment to more green spaces and more gardens, and essentially they won a lot of things that we imagine as part of what a Green New Deal could and should be. So we should think I think about more ways that we can be doing that kind of labor/community organizing and not just seeing labor as distinct, separate, and not part of this broader kind of organizing we need to do.
And my final words, I just want to say something about how we can build the kinds of communities that we’re going to need to win. And I think this is something in sort of in…the brief for this panel was around you know, how can we not give into the politics of despair and to honor that sense of despair. And I really think that we can look to the labor movement as well as an example of how to bring joy into the struggle.
So, Tuesday morning I was out on the HGSU UAW picket line. This is the grad student union at Harvard who are on strike right now. And it was just an incredibly wonderful and joyous thing. And I think that you see that often in labor organizing and labor actions. And many other kinds of organizing and actions too. But I think we should be… I’d be interested to hear what the folks from Sunrise think about building that kind of joy and solidarity into the climate movement in a really serious way, both within the sort of self-identified climate movement and our connections to folks in labor. And yeah, so I look forward to talking to everyone about that more too. So, thanks a lot.
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