We are facing an imminent global environmental catastrophe. Already the weather is changing, and some areas, often where poor people reside, are being impacted now. The Los Angeles Times had a story recently about an area of
As it is said, even if human beings ceased all polluting activities completely from this moment on, global warming would still progress. But if we do pull back, we may have a chance of delaying the process and may even be able to prevent some of the worst effects. I look at
Where does the labor movement stand on this issue? It is certainly the case that some successful coalitions have been forged between the labor movement and environmentalists. The ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach are an example. The ILWU joined with the NRDC (National Resources Defense Council) and other community groups to insist that the ports institute a number of environmental reforms. The Teamsters are linking the port trucker campaign to pollution issues, and the need to replace old, broken-down vehicles with cleaner, newer, non-polluting tractors to haul containers to and from the ports. These are good things, and should be applauded, but they also seem like minor victories within a much vaster movement in the opposite direction.
The problem is that unions are generally wedded to economic growth and development. The more growth, the bigger the piece of the pie that workers have a chance of winning in collective bargaining agreements. Unions and their members are wedded to a vision that "more is good." Social justice means getting more of the good things of this world. Of course, many of these things are fundamental to a decent life, but a lot of them are superfluous.
Global capitalism has a central value, almost a religion, and that is consumerism. We are flooded with advertising, and encouraged to use items briefly and throw them away. We are taught to want more and more stuff—much more than any person reasonably needs.
The tremendous inequality in our system leads workers and poor people to feel deprived and to want a fairer share of the bounty, which is completely understandable. Of course,
the colossal greed and super-abundance of wealth owned and controlled by the very rich is the underlying evil.
There is much to say about consumerism as a value, which I will save for another time. For now I simply want to throw out the challenge: Can unions develop a sustainable approach to our world? And what would such an approach look like?
Edna Bonacich is an emeritus professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Her major research interest is the study of class and race, with special emphasis on racial divisions in the working class.