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The Labour Movement Crisis, the Climate Crisis, and the Green New Deal

by Mark Evans and Bridget Meehan, originally published in ZNet.

Today, May Day—otherwise known as International Workers’ Day—is a good time to consider the question: What is the future of organised labour? This was the subject of a 2006 book, edited by Craig Phelan. The book has an interesting foreword by trade unionist, Dan Gallin. In it Gallin makes a number of important points. They include:

  1. The labour movement is in crisis.

  2. This crisis is usually attributed to the effects of neoliberal globalisation.

  3. There is some truth to point 2 but these are only “partial truths and partial insights”.

  4. The deeper truth is that the crisis predates the onset of neoliberal globalisation and is the result of a “larger” and “broader” crisis within the labour movement.

Gallin goes on to argue that the root cause of the crisis within organised labour is, in fact, a crisis of “identity and orientation”. As Gallin points out:

“The need of the hour is a serious challenge to global transnational capital and to the world order it has fashioned, but such a challenge cannot be mounted unless the movement recovers a common identity based on an alternative vision of society.”

What is this alternative? As Gallin points out, “historically, this alternative has been socialism”. As he also points out, however, “Socialism is also undergoing a crisis, and that is a crisis of the meaning of socialism”. In response to this crisis Gallin asserts the need for a “common vision”:

“Clearly, we need to re-define socialism so it again becomes recognisable as the politics which are naturally ours, those of the historical labour movement – recognisable and acceptable even by those who have rejected, for good reason, the damaged goods sold under that label.”

However, Gallin warns that we need to rebuild based on a “shared identity” and “shared values”. Organising around the “lowest common denominator” will not work. As he states, “that is what we have today and this movement, as it is, can only lose”. What we need, Gallin argues, is an “alternative explanation of the world, alternative goals for society and a program on how to get there that all can subscribe to”. He continues:

“A new international labour movement, armed with a sense of a broader social mission, can become the core of a global alliance including all other social movements that share the same agenda. Such a movement can change the world. It can again be the liberation movement of humanity it set out to be one hundred and fifty years ago.”

But what might this social mission and shared agenda be? Here we would like to suggest that the Green New Deal fits the bill perfectly. The Green New Deal is typically understood to be a proposed solution to the climate crisis. Some may wonder, therefore, how the Green New Deal relates to the crisis of organised labour. The remainder of this article will attempt to demonstrate that these two crises and the Green New Deal are logically and intimately linked. That logic and intimacy goes something like this:

  • The Green New Deal is the solution to the climate crisis.

  • However, to make the Green New Deal a powerful international campaign, and simultaneously create a just transition, we need to revitalise organised labour.

  • To revitalise organised labour we need, as already argued above, a new social mission.

  • The Green New Deal is that new mission.

According to economist Ann Pettifor, the idea for the Green New Deal can be traced back to 2007 when journalist Thomas L. Friedman wrote an article for the New York Times titled “A Warning from the Garden”. Later that same year British based ex-GreenPeace campaigner, Colin Hines, assembled a group of like minded contacts to formulate a proposal for a Green New Deal. According to Pettifor, that proposal, which was published in 2008, and echoed Friedman’s earlier article, called for “joined up policies to solve the triple crunch of the credit crisis, climate change and high oil prices”. As the authors put it:

“These three overlapping events threaten to develop into a perfect storm, the likes of which has not been seen since the Great Depression. To help prevent this from happening we are proposing a Green New Deal”.

From the very start, then, the Green New Deal was never only about addressing the climate crisis. Rather, it has always been about tackling the existential threat caused by man-made environmental change whilst also dealing with other crucial social issues, all of which have been exacerbated by the combined forces of austerity politics and neoliberal economic globalisation. As Pettifor puts it:

“The Green New Deal demands major system change: both economic and ecological system change. It demands structural (government and inter-governmental) changes, not just behavioural, community or technological changes, in our approach to the financialised, globalised economy and ecosystem”.

Clearly, given the urgency of the current situation, there is a dire need for an historically unprecedented popular movement. Such a movement will need to be based on an international campaign that has both a great slogan and well thought out policies to back it up. It is precisely this depth and broadness of the Green New Deal, as a campaign package, that gives rise to the potential for such a movement. Here is Pettifor again:

“The Green New Deal can mobilise the efforts of millions of people standing up to the threat of earth system breakdown, financial sector failure and globalised economic inequality and insecurity. Beneath its canopy we hope to unite and inspire vast numbers of activists across the world and in turn to trigger state action to subordinate finance to the interests of society and the ecosystem – thereby ensuring a liveable planet for people alive today and for future generations.”

In order to successfully build such a movement, however, it will be necessary to undo any confusion over the perceived contradiction between tackling the climate crisis, on the one hand, and improving general living standards and addressing high unemployment and income inequalities, on the other. In their book on the Global Green New Deal, Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin make this point well:

“A crucial factor in advancing this movement, in the developing countries and elsewhere, will be to demonstrate unambiguously how climate stabalization is fully consistent with expanding decent work opportunities, raising mass living standards, and fighting poverty in all regions of the world. This needs to be recognized as the core proposition under-girding the global Green New Deal. Advancing a viable global Green New Deal should therefore be understood as the means by which “optimism of the will” comes alive in defining the political economy of saving the planet.”

As we can see from the quotes that run through this article, the aspirations of the Green New Deal, as expressed by Pettifor, Chomsky and Pollin are entirely compatible with those expressed by Gallin. In that sense, the Green New Deal is the “common vision” that Gallin is looking for and organised labour needs in order to revitalise. It could, however, be argued that the Green New Deal is not socialism and therefore does not actually meet Gallin’s criteria.

If by socialism we mean a classless economy/society then, strictly speaking, it is true that the Green New Deal is not socialism and the above criticism is valid. There are, however, different ways of looking at this. First of all, we need to understand that there is no single thing that is socialism. As one socialist scholar – Bernard Crick – put it, “there are many varieties of socialism.” For example, there are “variations on Marx’s theme”, the “decentralist, syndicalist and cooperative tradition of socialism that stem from Proudhon and Robert Owen”. There are also the “managerial or mixed economy versions of socialism which emerged from both German revisionists and the British Fabians”. Then there are the “anarchist and communitarian” forms of socialism.

From this broader definition of what can constitute socialism, the Green New Deal may legitimately be considered socialist – perhaps as an example of the managerial or mixed economy versions of socialism – and therefore meet Gallin’s criteria for a common vision for a shared social mission. For those who don’t find this line of reasoning convincing, however, a couple of final points from Chomsky, with reference to the Green New Deal and socialism, are worth serious consideration:

“A good argument can be made that inherent features of capitalism lead inexorably to ruin of the environment, and that ending capitalism must be a high priority of the environmental movement. There’s one fundamental problem with this argument: time scale. Dismantling capitalism is impossible within the time frame necessary for taking urgent action, which requires a major national—indeed international—mobilization if severe crisis is to be averted.”

“Furthermore, the whole discussion is misleading. The two efforts—averting environmental disaster, dismantling capitalism in favour of a more just, free and democratic society—should and can proceed in parallel. And can proceed quite far with mass popular organization.”

In short, we need all trade unionists, world-wide, to come together in solidarity around the Green New Deal as a basis for the revitalisation of international organised labour in order to address the climate crisis and construct an alternative to austerity politics and neoliberal economic globalisation. If organised labour has a future – if any of us have a future – then the Green New Deal is it.


All Gallin quotes are from: Craig Phelan (Ed) The Future of Organised Labour: Global Perspectives. (2006)

All Ann Pettifor quotes are from: The Case for the Green New Deal. (2020)

All Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin quotes are from: Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal. (2020)

All Bernard Crick quotes are from: Socialism. (1987)

Mark Evans is a healthcare worker and trade unionist who lives and works in Birmingham (UK).

Bridget Meehan is a writer and activist based in Ireland who is co-founder of the Northern Mutual bank campaign and member of Collaboration for Change, a grassroots activists’ network promoting collective activism.

They are both members of Real Utopia: Foundation for a Participatory Society.

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