The Putin regime’s war of aggression against Ukraine has demonstrated how dependent Germany and other countries are on the import of fossil fuels. The options and problems presented by the necessary phasing out of the burning of oil, gas, and coal have been catapulted onto the political agenda. This phasing out has been at the heart of debates concerning the climate crisis for many years, but has been approached far too timidly or often shelved altogether.
A related issue is the consequences that a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will have for the socio-ecological structural shift in the ways in which we produce and live. This concerns areas such as food production and mobility as well as the dominant paradigms of housing and urban development and their attendant economic structures. We are also cognizant of the fact that the ecological crisis is not only due to high greenhouse gas emissions, but also the result of an overuse of finite natural resources and ensuing international conflicts.
Ulrich Brand is a professor of international politics at the University of Vienna and a Fellow at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis.
Markus Wissen is a professor of social sciences at the Berlin School of Economics and Law and a Fellow at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis.
Translated by Ryan Eyers and Marc Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
These processes are being contested. In debates around an alternative system of mobility, some call for the world’s fleet of automobiles to be replaced by electrically powered models. Others, arguing that the large-scale construction of electric cars necessary for such a transition would require enormous amounts of resources and energy, and that this would not solve the spatial issues that cities already face, instead champion mobility policies centred around collective and primarily public transport options. In addition, there must also be a reduction in the amount of everyday mobility that is forced on people by the long distances between their homes and workplaces, and by the absence or systematic dismantling of important social infrastructure, especially in rural areas.
At its core, a socio-ecological transition concerns the what and how of production, and thereby also meaningful and adequate employment as well as the challenges faced by employees and the groups that advocate on their behalf. To be sure, environmental issues have long been a focus for unions and other workplace representatives, for example when they concern job security or health and safety. This focus has expanded in recent years, however, and unions are increasingly being confronted with the issue of the environment as one that raises the question of the shape we ought to give to society. They have taken up this challenge through an increasingly proactive structural approach that goes beyond simply the protection of employment.
But these union strategies, frequently the subject of internal conflict, seldom go beyond an environmentally focussed modernization of existing production structures and the workplace conditions linked to these. They are focused, for example, on the more efficient use of resources and energy, technological innovation, and the implementation of appropriate guidelines by governments. In the case of the auto industry, this means measures such as the electrification of drivetrain technology, and less so the restructuring of the transport system as a whole.
A strategic orientation towards environmental modernization poses several dilemmas for unions and other workplace representatives, while at the same time reveals the workforce’s potential to act as agents of restructuring processes based on their technical and organizational knowledge.
Organizational Power, Distribution Issues, and Export Dependency
The first dilemma concerns political organization. The electrification and digitalization of car-based mobility are already putting jobs at risk and threating to devalue qualifications, above all in the supplier sector, insofar as particular suppliers have specialized in the manufacture of components for combustion engines. This is even more true of the environmentally necessary wholesale transition away from the automobile and towards eco-mobility, which will in total comprise fewer transport routes. Although a meaningful mobility transition offers enormous potential for employment in the medium-to-long term, in the short term it may conflict with people’s interest in protecting their jobs.
This presents employees and their representatives with major challenges. In sectors such as the auto or steel industries, wages and union organization levels are high. A large-scale dismantling or transformation of these sectors threatens both secure and well-paid jobs as well as unions’ organizational power. Unions are the offspring of industrial capitalism, which has only afforded economic prosperity to broader sections of the population because of the efforts of strong workplace representation to force capital and at times also the state to redistribute wealth and provide social protections and better working conditions.
Those who have sought to reconcile these competing interests have continued to invoke the economic growth that capitalism necessitates, which did initially increase the opportunities to distribute wealth. Over time and to an increasing extent, however, this has been at the expense of other regions of the globe and the natural foundations of human life. Quantitative economic growth entails the increased use of natural resources and energy.
Many studies have shown that the hope that economic growth can be decoupled from resource use is an illusory one. A union strategy oriented towards “green investment models, green jobs, and green growth” thus falls well short of an appropriate response to ecological constraints. Instead, what we need is degrowth, and thereby a reining in of the accumulation imperative within the societies of the Global North.
This will be accompanied by conflict, as it calls deeply rooted orientations into question, but it also contains opportunities. Instead of primarily striving to protect jobs in sectors such as the auto industry, whose destructive environmental potential fundamentally will not change as a result of either electrification or digitalization, the situation could be framed in a new way: alongside a reduction in working hours, with the goal of cushioning the blow of job cuts in affected sectors, there would need to be a stepping-up of union and collective-bargaining activities in sectors where this has previously not (sufficiently) been the case, such as the care sector, as well as in businesses in the renewable energy sector.
Actions like these would help to ease fears related to such a transformation. In addition, unions would be called on as socio-political actors to use their power to agitate for a mobility transition and the expansion of other infrastructure that on a socio-ecological level is both reasonable and necessary. Finally, systemic socio-ecological change also brings up the question of the generation and transmission of new knowledge and associated skills. Unions have a key role to play in defining the kinds of work for which people seek qualifications.
We see a second dilemma in the fact that in the prevailing debates around structural socio-ecological change, the triad of “state — company management — consumers” tends to dominate when it comes to the question of who the key players are. Work as a central playing field for such a shift and unions as important organizations are given as little attention as questions about the forms that democracy or property ought to take. From a critical perspective, however, environmental issues involve issues of power, justice, and distribution. One upshot of the capitalist logic that underpins the destructive appropriation of nature and humans’ dependence on an ever-expanding economy is the enormous wealth of the top ten percent. What’s more, the rich can better protect themselves from the negative consequences of ecological crisis, in particular those that stem from the climate crisis.
Their power, influence, and lavish and destructive way of life are the first things that need to be radically curtailed. Employees and unions can be particularly active on this front by framing inequality, environmental issues, and questions of power as being intrinsically linked and in need of coordinated action. The necessarily wide-reaching restructuring of our modes of producing and living thus requires employees and unions who are well-organized and sensitive to socio-ecological issues in order that it not be carried out in a manner driven by capital and means of authoritarian policies.
A third dilemma relating to the interests of employees and the requirements of systemic socio-ecological change concerns how it will play out internationally. This is particularly true of a strongly export-oriented country such as Germany. Material wealth is primarily concentrated in countries of the Global North and redistributed there according to prevailing power relations. Under the conditions of the capitalist mode of production, what remains important in relation to redistribution is the ability of countries or regions such as the EU to compete on price, as it is this that enables them to safeguard incomes, creates opportunities to distribute wealth, and makes it possible to allocate resources to public services and environmental policies. Unions often help consolidate this configuration by facilitating an amalgam of corporatism and competition.
But the liberal-capitalist constitution of the global market has led not only to social division, poverty, and outsourced exploitation, but is also hastening environmental ruin. Competition (and competitiveness) at any price is no longer possible. We are thus not at liberty to avoid measures such as strengthened planning or internationally negotiated upper limits for production and consumption. Negotiation procedures concerning adherence to social and environmental limits are sure to come into conflict with capital’s dispositive power over investments and the production apparatus. They will therefore only be successful when progressive forces are capable of persevering in the face of resistance on the part of capital.
Here, too, unions and a renewed internationalism with an eye towards the good life being available to everyone (both here and abroad) will play an important role. The restructuring of the system of production and the concomitant dismantling of certain sectors will lessen the destructive exploitation of resources worldwide.
Environmentally Conscious System Change, Know-How, and Social Reproduction
Many employees and key union players are aware of these connections, dilemmas, and opportunities. Recent studies show that workers in sectors set to be affected by structural change display the readiness to consider wide-reaching transformation strategies. Here we find a legitimate interest in meaningful work is linking up with workers’ concern about the environment and their awareness of being able to make an important contribution to its preservation using their own skills.
This critical perspective creates space for thinking and action through which employees, workplace representatives, and unions can become agents of wide-reaching systemic socio-ecological change, one which offers much in the way of improved quality of life but also in terms of increased power and influence. New alliances are possible, for example between the climate justice movement, employees, and unions, as demonstrated recently in the cooperation seen between Fridays for Future and ver.di in collective bargaining struggles in the public transport sector, or in the support climate justice activists provided to workers at Bosch Munich.
The dilemmas discussed above and the conflicts in which they find expression will not simply be resolved by such actions. But they now appear in a different light: it is no longer primarily socio-ecological restructuring and dismantling that is at the root of problems concerning the future of work. Instead, the causes of these issues can be understood as the continuation of the status quo as shaped by dominant interests, something that structural change seeks to depart from and seeks to overcome.
This status quo is equally destructive to both humanity and nature. It is based on structural inequality, exploitation, and the rule of capital, both within individual societies and on a global scale. Overcoming it requires that we think and act from the perspective of social reproduction. Industrial production and economic activity must be understood and organized in an international context, according to what is most needed to ensure a good life for all: care, care work, and the necessary physical and social infrastructure.
Such perspectives, central to comprehensive structural socio-ecological change, are also increasingly being developed within union and union-adjacent processes of knowledge production, for example in approaches to “sustainable work” or articulations of an “ecology of work”. The increasingly prominent concept of a “just transition” is also of importance here.
Of course, concepts do not constitute strategies and certainly do not guarantee their successful implementation. They can, however, assist in the working through of uncertainties and political dilemmas worthy of being considered and addressed. This can facilitate learning, encourage action under difficult circumstances, and strengthen our positions in upcoming conflicts.