Environmental justice

Environmental justice: uniting against a common enemy

The late Alan Dalton personified the potential for the left and the environmental movement to work together in a challenging and collaborative way. As a young chemist in the pharmaceutical industry, he became an active union agitator and during his ‘career’ as an activist, up until his untimely death in 2003, he took on the asbestos industry (sued by), the Health and Safety Executive (greylisted by), the Environment Agency (sacked from the board) and asked challenging and uncomfortable questions even to his comrades in the union and environmental movements.

Amongst his last public engagements was as keynote speaker for Friends of the Earth Scotland, talking about his community anti-toxics publication DIRT. One of my earlier memories of Alan was, when I was a Friends of the Earth employee and TGWU member and he was TGWU’s health, safety and environment coordinator. He brought together TGWU members who produced pesticides, applied pesticides, campaigned against pesticides and self-help groups of workers poisoned by pesticides. What, he asked, should TGWU’s policy on pesticides be in order to protect the jobs and the safety of workers at work, at home and in the wider world?

These are some of the hard questions that the left and the environmental movement need to ask themselves and each other. There have been activists working at the red-green interface for decades, but unless we address some of the hard questions we won’t progress. Otherwise, we will link arms when we agree, ignore each other when we don’t, and continue to have the stale jobs-versus-environment argument. And the only beneficiaries of this shallow tactical relationship will be the executives and investors and their class, who are making profits out of us and dumping the risks onto us.

The profit-maximising economy dumps its costs on the workers, communities and environments of least resistance. An environmental justice movement unites these diverse groups and multiplies the resistance. And, the more resistance we can provide, together, the more we can force the economy and its drivers onto a more sustainable path. In short, workers, our communities and our environment, both locally and across the globe, have the same common enemy in the logic that puts profit first, and the class that benefits from it.

In an insightful contribution to the Bright Green blog (‘The fight against fossils: are we beginning to win?’ 12 February 2015), Ric Lander argues there are emerging coalitions of activists throughout civil society on tackling the climate challenge. Unions are not listed amongst his emergent movement. This is not to say unions are doing nothing on climate – we are – but rather that what we are doing seems to be invisible to many environmentalists, who see instead where we side with corporations to defend the fossil industry.

Take INEOS, Grangemouth. Ten years ago, during the G8 summit, environmentalists demonstrated outside Scotland’s biggest oil refinery. There were no union banners there and, indeed, unions disagreed with the protest. Not long after, INEOS was in dispute with its workforce over attempts to cut pensions: no environmentalist banners were seen at the pickets or no high profile ecologists spoke up for the workers. More recently of course, INEOS took on its unions and won by holding Scotland’s carbon economy to ransom; slashed workers’ wages and conditions and victimised union activists. And then, it concentrated on destroying the planet with new fossil sources. Now, at last, an alliance of unions, Friends of the Earth and mobilised communities forced a moratorium on INEOS’s plans for fracking and coalbed methane extraction. It is a partial, temporary and inadequate moratorium, but it’s a start and with continued unity could lead to a ban. Fracking pollutes local communities, risks workers’ safety and damages the climate. INEOS’s owner, Jim Ratcliffe has made clear that his only interest is return on investment. It is his class against the rest of us.

In December 2014, a delegation of Scottish union activists visited Bhopal on 30th anniversary of the worst chemical disaster. It was an important act of solidarity with the Bhopal survivors who continue to struggle against the world’s second largest chemical multinationa,l Dow (which acquired Union Carbide in 2001). The Bhopal struggle has been supported by unions, environmentalists and human rights activists although justice has eluded the survivors as India follows the same neo-liberal path of clearing the way for exploitation by global capital. Following the solidarity visit, the delegates established Trade Union Friends of Bhopal and a programme of support for the survivors. The STUC adopted a resolution linking Bhopal with INEOS and calling for a thorough risk assessment of the Grangemouth complex.

Eurig Scandrett is chair of Friends of the Earth Scotland, convenor of Scottish Friends of Bhopal and an activist in University and College Union. He is a prospective Scottish Parliamentary candidate for the Scottish Green Party. For an obituary of Alan Dalton, see http://www.hazards.org/alandalton/