Green and red in the frame

“Outside party politics new social movements, including environmental, anti-cuts and feminist groups, have not come together sufficiently with the old, defensive organisations of the working class to produce the coalition that might make them an effective political force” (S Hall, The Guardian 2 April 2013)

As the above quote by Stuart Hall illustrates, contemporary social movements and progressive organisations face an on-going problem: they struggle to form effective and inter-movement forms of organisation and collective action. It is widely recognised now that the political left’s main failings are by in large a result of the often fragmented identities of different groups. This in itself should not be cause for concern, as left-wing political theory and action depends upon the mantra of unity in diversity. It can though prevent groups who share a natural affinity with each other from organising coalitions which are both effective and long term, while also limit the ability to develop strategies for deeper and more meaningful co-operation. Some explanation for such divisions I believe can be found through an examination of a well-established approach to coalition forming, that of framing. Framing, in essence, seeks to align values, ideology and activities in order to construct common viewpoints and form a stronger sense of collective identity.

Featured in the last issue of SLR was an excellent article by David Eyre, which offered a useful introduction to the idea of framing. The article provided a concise and tidy description and explanation of framing, although focused very much upon values on a national basis, and efforts to change people’s attitudes. This brief article seeks to build upon this, and offer an example drawn from labour-environmental coalition building. This will involve two distinct discourses which are used to frame such blue-green coalitions, that is the Jobs Vs. The Environment dilemma and Just Transition. Each illustrates that though the creation of frames groups can either be framed as having mutually exclusive or inclusive interests, which on one hand can act as a barrier to potentially prevent effective coalition work, or on the other facilitate co-operation though the creation of a discourse which appeals to the deep seated interests of both environmental organisations and organised labour groups. As Jakopovich (2009) states in his 2009 article Uniting to Win;

“The construction of shared experiences and common or complementary perceptions of interest… is at the heart of more successful and permanent coalition building.”

That past efforts towards co-operation between environmental and labour organisations have often been characterised by conflict and distrust is an unfortunate reality. On the face of it, it’s difficult to understand how two groups who subscribe to many of the same values have such acrimonious relations. Burgman’s (in 2013’s Trade Unions in the Green Economy) evaluation of this is lengthy, but worth quoting in full:

“Capitalist economies are characterised by the underuse of labour resources and overuse of environmental resources. Corporations tend to both reduce labour costs and to use the cheapest production methods possible, regardless of ecological consequence. Thus employment options are restricted at the same time as the planetary environment is degraded.”

Considering this, what has kept such strongly aligned groups from forming enduing coalitions? It is the case that each group has adopted, sometimes unfairly, a particular perception of the other based upon class or ideology, which has in the past has limited the scope for co-operation between such groups, and instead encouraged intergroup conflict. This in turn leads to fragmented identities which have prevented the broader left from creating in-depth coalitions. As the table below illustrates, such factors which inhibit coalition work include the social base of each group, and their perceived interests. This results in values and beliefs which are, on the face of it, conflicted (see table below, adapted from Norton, A Critique of Generative Class Theories of Environmentalism and of the Labour-Environmentalist Relationship, 2003: p.98)

This perceived clash of interests and values is best illustrated by the ‘jobs vs. environment’ dilemma. This argument rests upon the assumption that there is a ‘direct, zero-sum trade off’ between jobs for workers and the protection of the environment. Therefore trade unions have been characterised as productivist and committed to promoting jobs at all costs, including environmentally damaging ones, and treating the natural world instrumentally – that is as a resource to be exploited. In this sense, trade unions are seen as obstacles to environmental protection, a destroyer of nature who are anthropocentrically committed to growth, industry and the interests of capital.

For instance, environmentalists seek to curb industrial growth – normally though environmental regulation – but in doing so pose a threat to the profit interests of global capital. This then impacts upon the jobs and economic interests of the working class, bringing Trade Unions into conflict with environmentalists.

However, a large body of literature exists which challenges this assumption, in particular Brian Obach who argues that contrary to the labour-environmental relations being poor, they are in fact strong and by and large positive relationships. Obach has found that the trade-off between jobs and environmental protection to be a myth, and states that two million traditional blue collar jobs in America are in some way involved with environmental protection, while 64 per cent of American union leaders felt their relationship with environmentalists was either ‘good’ or ‘very good’. Further, the well accepted fact that workers ‘are always the biggest victims of environmental damage’ and take on the greatest burden of environmental harm. This gives workers and labour groups a clear interest in pursuing environmental protection.

This job blackmail frame has in the past been particularly effective in ensuring that labour and green groups are continually alienated from each other, and uses the threat of job losses and economic hardship to divide and rule two movements which, when working in collaboration, have great power to improve the working conditions of workers while also facilitating the movement to a green economy. That such frames are dominant in discussions of coalitions prevent meaningful dialogue between groups, and encourage the idea that such values and interests are mutually exclusive.

This though is not the only frame available; what is required is a re-framing of issues, to emphasise the natural affinity between both labour and environmental groups, based on their equally exploitative relationship to capital. Snow et al (Frame Alignment Processes, Micromobalisation, and Movement Participation, 1986) use the term ‘frame alignment’ and master framing to define the process by which the values, goals and interests of each group become aligned and link together with the activities, beliefs and ideology of the other, to create a collective action frame.

Just Transition is such a collective action frame which aims to reconcile the interest of labour and workers with environmental protection. It would provide a number of safeguards for workers whose jobs may be under threat because of the nature of their work. Jim Young provides the best overview, certainly from a labour perspective, of what Just Transition seeks to provide for workers;

  • Funds being made available to provide an alternative income and benefits until comparable work is found
  • Tuition fees or stipends to pay for new training for alternative jobs
  • Career counselling and aid in job hunting
  • Relocation for those that must move in order to find alternative employment.

That environmental damage most affects those least responsible for it means that Just Transition relates to social justice, in that it commits itself to fairness in ‘addressing the inequities associated with the differential impacts of climate change but also the inequities associated with the social and geographical impacts of climate change policies’ (taken from Snell and Fairbrother, Just Transition and Environmentalism in Australia, 2013). Just Transition then clearly marries the interests of environmentalists, in supporting and facilitating a move towards a more green and responsible society though environmental regulation and legislation while simultaneously off-setting the disproportionate impact workers must bear, and providing alternative good and decent jobs. This framing of fairness is a far cry from the anti-employment sentiments of the jobs vs. the environment discourse, and clearly illustrates the possibility for environmentalists and labour groups to work together, not against each other, in realising their mutual aims. The linking together of employment and environment creates an effective master frame which can appeal to both environmentalist and labour groups, encouraging dialogue, collaboration and the realisation of share interests and collective identity.

Maria-Tome Gil agrees. She states that the very serious financial, social and ecological crises we see and hear about on a day-to-day basis are fundamentally connected; it is no coincidence that as we witness the depletion of environmental resources we are also witnessing alongside this an economic and social catastrophe. As resources become scarcer, increasingly new forms of ‘social exclusion and inequality’ emerge, as the drive of capitalism for greater accumulation meets a physical limit it cannot overcome. It should be clear then that whatever divides labour/trade union groups and environmental movements should pall into insignificance when compared to what unites them. They possess a common enemy in the form of capital and private industry and if united though collective action frames could present a much stronger and united force.

Frames are crucial in understanding what divides groups on the left, and also provide a tool which can be used to overcome such divisions. Using the example of Just Transition, I hope to have illustrated the potential afforded to the left in uniting under effective collective action frames. Discourse framing facilitates the formation of effective inter-movement coalitions, who can share ideas on theory, activism, forms of protest and knowledge. Frames allow us to fully embrace the diversity of our struggles, and direct our protest toward our mutual enemies. As stressed at the People’s Assembly last month:

‘There can be no jobs on a dead planet’