The sustainable food movement has pioneered labor-sustainability collaboration. Image courtesy of Wisely Woven via Flickr

Labor and Sustainability: Together at Last

The sustainable food movement has pioneered labor-sustainability collaboration. Image courtesy of Wisely Woven via Flickr

It has become almost a cliché that unions and environmental activists don’t get along. Environmentalists want environmental protection; unions want jobs. The longstanding assumption that these two goals are contradictory underlies the conflict between the two lobbies.

Judith Gouverneur and Nina Netzer, authors of Chapter 21 in State of the World 2014: Governing for Sustainability, contest this assumption, however. They write that there are “no jobs on a dead planet,” and that, ominously, “38 percent of all workers worldwide are employed in carbon-intensive sectors.” Rallying for better pay, working conditions, and other standard labor requests will do little to avert environmental degradation (and mass worker displacement). Yet a smooth transition to sustainability will not be possible without unions to back up the vast numbers of workers who work in industries which are simply unsustainable. We need unions, but not unions as usual.

A resolution to this paradox has developed in the labor-sustainability collaboration which has helped propel the sustainable food movement to prominence in the last few years. For example, at every “real food” conference I have been to – and these are conferences dealing mostly with sustainability issues – there has been a presentation on labor and the importance of unions. We have even had union representatives speak before. Unions and environmental activists have worked together in pushing the agricultural and food-service sectors towards sustainability, including persuading nearly 30 colleges to transfer large percentages of their food purchases to sustainable sources. Highlighting the mistreatment of farmworkers inherent in mechanized mass agriculture has been as helpful as discussing toxic pesticides. Perhaps nothing shows the success and the depth of the labor-sustainability collaboration like an incident I remember from my first year in the food movement. The national company which provided my college’s dining services refused to work with us on our campaign to serve more local and organic food in our dining halls. Their excuse? We were allegedly a front group for a union!

Dozens of Real Food Challenge student activists at a food sustainability conference. One of the activities was attending a workers' rally. Image courtesy of Real Food Challenge

One reason this symbiosis works so well is that industries with poor working conditions are also often environmentally damaging. This is especially so with mass agriculture. It is really, in fact, the same tendency towards penny-pinching and profit maximization which results both in horrible labor conditions and in environmental harms, such as those resulting from cheap, mono-crop farming. In other words, labor issues and environmental issues are (often) inseparable. When an industry is structurally unsustainable, labor and environmentalists can agree that the only real solution is to fundamentally reshape it. This need not mean fewer jobs, but new jobs. It is an opportunity. In fact, at least in agriculture, more sustainable production methods often  require more, and more skilled, labor. Workers and the environment can both win.

It is encouraging that every year, “real food” or “sustainable food” continues to grow and become more recognized. We thus already have a successful, working model of labor and environmental cooperation, holding together over many years. This cooperation is a milestone in labor-environmental relations. There has previously been some cooperation in opposing “free trade” deals, but in the food movement, there is a largely new understanding that the fates of labor and the environment are linked.

The challenge is to replicate this success in other industries, where it may admittedly be more difficult. For one thing, food must be produced no matter what. There are, however, entire industries which may not survive a transition to sustainability, such as oil refining. Gouverneur and Netzer write that within unions, “[t]he …system-challenging question of sufficiency – how lifestyles and business need to change to end the overuse of goods, resources, and energy – has been largely neglected.” In other words, unions may need to readjust their entire understanding of how an economy runs.

The good news is that is not just theory. We can see it beginning now. More change will be required – of unions and of the economy as a whole – but given decades of operating experience and recent successful work in the sustainability arena, there is no question that unions and and will be part of a sustainable future.

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