Organized workers are pushing their unions to do better on ecological and climate issues. It’s time for the environmental movement to embrace labor organizing too.

One of the biggest roadblocks standing in the way of practical, cooperative solidarity between social movements is the idea of “separate issues.” In recent years people have begun chipping away at this shibboleth, but we still have a ways to go. One significant problem within the problem of the single-issue silo effect is that labor is sometimes mistakenly viewed as just another issue.

Labor is not just an issue. Labor is a power base. Labor organizing can be more effective at winning social gains on a range of “single issues” than weekend demonstrations, conscious consumerism, electioneering or lobbying.

In the US, we are often taught to view voting, lobbying and mass demonstrations as ways to participate in democracy. They all are, of course, but it’s not the full picture. As Jane McAlevey persuasively explains in her extraordinary book, A Collective Bargain, US democracy as we know it today would not exist if not for the labor movement. The organizing and solidarity efforts among US workers that eventually won the 8-hour day and the weekend began right after the American Revolution. Labor solidarity and organizing among women has put a driving force behind demands for gender equality for over 150 years. From the 1910s to the 1940s, a massive swell of labor solidarity and organizing crossed race and gender lines, won the current US Labor Rights laws, and led the country out of the Great Depression. Labor unions went on to participate in the 60s Civil Rights movements.

Untapped Power

A vast majority of people spend most of their waking hours at work. In addition, a significant chunk of the population are parents. Modes of activism that demand a lot of time outside the home and workplace are inaccessible to most workers, and almost completely inaccessible to working parents unless there is reliable childcare for the event, which there almost never is.

Right off the bat, it should be clear that campaigns which revolve around frequent street mobilizations, volunteering to contact voters, or any other tiring and unpaid activity is mostly inaccessible to vast swaths of the public. Conscious consumerism is also mostly inaccessible due to cost.

Some might reply that we can generate change without really involving the majority of working people. This may be true to some extent, but change generated without mass participation from working people is unlikely to benefit us significantly.

The best, yet too often under-utilized, way of building a social movement that is inclusive of all working people is labor organizing. In labor organizing, some of the worker’s “free time” still must be spent on the effort, but usually not a ton. When done right, labor organizing is the most empowering form of social activism for working people, because it lets us take back some control over our lives and influence the public sphere at the same time.

Worker Victories are Public Victories

Labor organizing can (and must) create change on specific issues beyond immediate labor conditions. Social issues as we know them are produced by the economy, and the economy is operated by workers, but run by bosses. When workers take back control from bosses, we can create change on the social issues that our work is perpetuating. This is a bit abstract, so let’s look at some examples.

In California, union nurses fought for and won safe patient-to-staff ratios. This has saved lives during the Covid19 pandemic and is something that should exist everywhere. This victory is an example of political lobbying being much more effective because it was backed up by labor organizing. California nurses are now fighting for a modern, single-payer health system in that state.

In the 1970s in Sydney, Australia, construction workers enacted “green bans” on construction projects that would have destroyed important historic or ecological sites. This was a very forward-looking and inspiring effort that it would be amazing to see replicated in the current day.

Teachers have also won significant gains for their students, their communities and themselves through effective labor organizing and strikes. West Virginia teachers set an example in 2018 by going on strike and refusing to return to work until all state workers (not just teachers!) were given a 5% raise. Teachers around the country followed their example. Corporate-aligned media often tries to portray teacher unions as bad for students, but in reality the working conditions of teachers and students are being undermined by the same administrators, so it makes sense to unite.

Richmond IWW members striking at the West Virginia Teachers’ strike in 2019

Green Workplace Action Ideas

It’s not always obvious how one’s workplace could be doing better on environmental issues, but here are some starting places for common work settings. We cannot expect bosses to choose the right thing over profit. That is not how capitalism works. Putting greener workplace policies into place will take lots of organizing, not just convincing people it’s a good idea. With that said, here are some changes that can and should be made in common work settings.

  • Retail: Does your store sell especially harmful pesticides like Roundup or Neonicotinoids? You can learn about the severe harm these products cause to other species (and our own) and inform customers and coworkers on this harm in order to lessen sales and use of these products. Once you are really organized, you can stop restocking these products altogether and force management to stop buying them.
  • Food: What does your workplace do with extra food at the end of the day? Throw it in the trash, probably. You can organize to get your bosses to give the food to local composting projects instead. This may not sound like much but it’s actually really helpful and important. If your solidarity is really strong, and depending on where you are, you could also get your workplace to buy more of its food ingredients locally, which can cut down on emissions from transporting food long distances.
  • Office: Do you work for a company or institution that uses the internet a lot? You can organize to get your workplace switch its computers’ default search engine to Ecosia, which helps plant trees in a climate-smart and community-empowering way with its ad revenue. This should be a pretty easy demand to win since it costs nothing. Once you win that, you could aim for making sure your workplace buys only Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper. If you work in one of those buildings that keeps its lights on all night for no reason, that would be another good thing to address.


Social issues are not separate. Those separations exist only in our heads as a way to categorize things. If we let those categories get in the way of doing what we can for a better future, the categorization is doing more harm than good. Many of the greatest social accomplishments of the last 150 years were made by organized workers leveraging the power of their collective labor. Building back the power of organized labor will be essential for combating the climate and extinction crises we are now in.

How to organize in the workplace is an important skill for all of us to learn. More on that in future articles, but here are some starting places:

If you already find yourself advocating for you and your coworkers, and/or for more socially-conscious policies at work, you should fill out the form on the IWW’s website and be sure to follow up in order to get top-notch organizing assistance. Once you and your coworkers are united in solidarity, you’ll have the power to take real action for the environment and for one another.

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