Active Corrosion: Building Working-class Opposition to Pipelines
Two Toronto Members, Two Kitchener-Waterloo Members
Pipelines transport approximately 95% of Canada’s crude oil and natural gas, and are crucial to the viability of the petroleum industry. New pipeline construction is essential to the distribution of oil to other markets and in the profitability of an increased rate of oil extraction. This makes pipelines a linchpin in the struggle against climate change, not because of the act of construction or the transport of oil itself, but because of the increase in oil extraction that will occur throughout Canada if they are built. As the petroleum industry makes considerations about their growth, they trouble only one thing: can they build more pipelines? The industry’s predicted expansion is entirely dependent on whether or not pipeline projects will go forward, a process called “market diversification”. In The Decade Ahead: Labour Market Outlook to 2022 for Canada’s Oil and Gas Industry, a report put out jointly by the Canadian government and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, a lack of community support is identified as the main impediment to pipeline construction. They seek to engage community stakeholders and strengthen their “relationships with Aboriginal communities,” as this is “key to the sustainable growth of this sector.” Of course, increased profitability and not environmental stability is the “sustainability” desired here.
In 2016 construction is slated to begin on the Energy East Pipeline: 4600 km of new and converted pipeline stretching from Hardisty, Alberta to Saint John, New Brunswick moving 1.1 million barrels of oil daily. Workers are being trained to complete this work by their union, United Association, with financial support from TransCanada and the Energy East Pipeline Project team. Training facilities are located in Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Sarnia, Montreal, Miramichi, and Dartmouth. The challenge faced by capital is to “gain the social license to expand and operate.” Our challenge is to shut them down.
Despite global capitalism’s complex market structure, resource industries have key strategic vulnerabilities. While it’s possible to offshore manufacturing plants, the same is not true for mines or oil patches. Mainstream economic and political academics (fulfilling the intellectual needs of capitalism) understand this strategic vulnerability and the study of geopolitics is founded on it. An often-unrecognized facet of this reality is that the point of production is not the only weak point. The success of port blockades, as well as the strikes of truck drivers, longshoremen, baggage handlers and pilots, and railway workers prove that global capitalism’s supposed strength—the replaceability of any source for parts, materials, resources, or commodities flowing down the chain—also introduces serious weakness. Obstructing the transportation of goods could be as effective as shutting down production at the source.
Unlike the tar sands, Energy East and other projects are still mostly unrealized and require a significant investment of labour hours and capital to make fact. In particular, the sort of labour required for pipeline construction is fairly specific and draws on small, readily-employed and well-paid labour pools. Hindering the supply of labour to pipeline projects is, therefore, one of the potentially more effective, yet largely untested methods of opposing pipelines and by extension the entire tar sands megaproject.
The past decade has given rise to a number of environmental struggles centred around the alarming growth of Canadian oil and gas production and the construction of pipelines essential to the industry’s heady and environmentally unacceptable goal of tripling tar sands production by 2030. Waged at local, regional, and national levels, these often intertwining struggles have varied in orientation and effectiveness. While anti-pipeline organizing at large has certainly led to pressure on policymakers to delay approval of these projects, political will at the highest levels of Canadian governance is firmly in support of their eventual construction. An environmental assessment here, a slap-on-the-wrist fine there, perhaps. But flat out denial of all tar sands pipeline projects remains impossible under the existing political framework, notwithstanding which party is in office.
Many activists and organizers have rightly determined that targeting pipeline construction is a key strategy to prevent the expansion of the tar sands industries. Much attention has deservedly been focused on First Nations situated directly on pipeline routes, who have made clear their principled and vigorous refusal to allow pipeline construction on their lands. Additionally, anti-pipeline activists have pointed out how pipeline resistance is a way for people to fight the tar sands in their own localities, protect shared water and soil commons, and join the overarching movement against climate change.
The tar sands are as much the oil fields of Athabasca, as they are its geographically expansive distribution network of critical infrastructure. Critical infrastructure that is susceptible to blockage and interruption. In this case the flow of capital is likely more viable than targeting the point of production. Unlike Enbridge’s Line 9, Energy East will require a significant amount of pipeline construction or conversion in Ontario and Quebec. To help legitimize their project, TransCanada seeks to recruit local workers to build the pipeline, which fits well with their pioneer-esque, nation-building propaganda. If completed, Energy East will be the largest pipeline on the continent. It is being pushed by Canadian politicians and sits only a few rubber stamps away from being approved.
The growing prominence of anti-pipeline activism draws together the more radical remnants of Canada’s environmental movement as well as a growing network of Indigenous solidarity activists. Anti-pipeline activism has become a hip and radical alternative to tired liberal environmentalist consumer campaigns and the vague rhetoric of “Native rights” in favour of at least moral support for Indigenous land claims and land defense. At the same time and as discussed above, it does offer the promise of strategic intervention against the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and the Canadian state’s wholesale support and underwriting of this effort. Further, it has become a radical imperative to oppose pipelines given the current state of the climate crisis.
Unfortunately, the efforts of anti-pipeline activists have so far largely resulted in failure, having done little to nothing to stop or even meaningfully delay pipeline development. While awareness of the issue is at an all time high, the projects are continuing largely unrestrained. Believing that the building of working-class self-organization is a crucial component in the fight against capitalism, and therefore the ecological destruction and injustice it necessarily creates, we identify and analyse the shortcomings of existing anti-pipeline activism. Further, we then outline a possible alternative strategy for confronting environmentally destructive industries in Ontario.
We propose that to have a successful ecological movement revolutionaries need to reorient our strategy and focus on building well-rounded locally-based organizations of the working class that have the power to contest destructive policies brought on by capitalists and the state. In other words, it is our view that environmental activism on its own is a non-starter that will fail unless interwoven within a broader emancipatory, revolutionary politics.
I. Towards Meaningful Solidarity and Joint Struggle
The extraction economy at the heart of the Canadian colonial state simultaneously robs Indigenous people of their traditional territories and the resources within them while ensuring the most severe health and environmental impacts are visited first and foremost on Indigenous communities. Indigenous territorial claims and way of life are an impediment to the Canadian ruling class’s accumulation of wealth; outright resistance by Indigenous communities is a powerful external threat to the ongoing stability of the entire economic system of Canada. That being said, the economic system of Canada is still capitalism, and capitalism thrives on instability - to a point. Capitalism is a system that survives on crisis; the question is always only whether this is the final crisis. Instability that doesn’t produce destruction breeds innovation within capitalism, and innovation often gives rise to further consolidation and new eras of stability. Simply put, it is often the case that what hasn’t killed capitalism has made it stronger. If the counter-forces to the Canadian ruling class are not sufficient, the working class loses more than its chains. Revolutionary support of Indigenous struggles is not only a moral imperative but a class imperative.
Non-Indigenous members of the working class, especially in southern Ontario, must explore alternatives to the now-common patterns of behaviour in “Indigenous solidarity activism.” For instance, the commonly expressed desire (less frequently acted upon) to join Indigenous blockades, contribute money or basic labour to supporting a geographically distant community whose struggles they are largely unfamiliar with, or most commonly, joining solidarity marches alongside “outraged” NDP members and other assorted liberals, which amount to lobbying and government pressure tactics with a radical veneer.
Instead we argue that anarchists and radical environmental organizers need to build organizations in their own neighborhoods that are able to construct their own blockades. If the climate crisis and the genocide of Indigenous people in Canada is as dire as we all claim (spoiler: it is), we must all act to subvert, repurpose, or render defunct all capitalist and state infrastructure that contributes to the Canadian colonial project.
The best way for non-indigenous members of the working class to support Indigenous struggles isn’t to peel potatoes at a barricade or send out tweets in solidarity. It’s to build resistance within the non-Indigenous working class rooted in our own communities; resistance that is firmly grounded, widespread, and capable of contributing to bringing the national economy to a halt.
We can’t abandon Indigenous people in remote areas as the only concrete sites of resistance to environmentally harmful projects like the tar sands and its attendant pipelines. No one can dispute the legitimacy of land defenders like those at the Unist’ot’en blockade, and we fully support their efforts to stop pipeline intrusion on their territory. However, the best form for that support to take is for those of us living in the urbanized south of Canada to build up our capacity to make our own blockades throughout this economy. We’re proposing multiple fronts, not a siege mentality.
II. The Lay of the Land
In researching the position of leftist groups for this article, we were greeted with a bevy of environmental solutions for both a capitalist and a post-capitalist world. We are told to replace furnaces with solar panels; close factories and provide those workers with jobs of equivalent pay and content; voluntarily “simplify” our lives while dismantling capitalism; and nationalize the pipelines, to name a few. These remedies betray a significant focus on consumption, and arguments over guilt, innocence, or absolution through our lifestyles with little time spent discussing production and how to address workers’ participation in environmental destruction. There are the assertions of Earth First!-types, as expressed by the organization’s co-founder Dave Foreman that it is “the bumpkin proletariat so celebrated in Wobbly lore who holds the most violent and destructive attitudes towards the natural world (and toward those who would defend it).” In contrast, there is the commitment of the Wobblies’, otherwise known as the Industrial Workers of the World, Environmental Unionism Caucus to strategize about, “how to organize workers in resource extraction industries with a high impacts [sic] on the environment”, which lacks a broader vision of addressing industries which cannot exist in their current form or at all, if we are to prevent crisis.
Both of these sides, however crudely expressed here, left us wanting for their lack of specificity, clarity, and dynamism. In discussions about the culpability of workers in environmental destruction or crisis, we found ourselves sliding between the two dichotomous tropes existing in their purest forms within primitivist and workerist tendencies: they are the evil or noble workers, class traitors or economic draftees. Aside from the obvious oversimplification, these views shed light on a particularly troubling environmentalist orientation to workers that denies their agency.
Inherent to the solutions put forward by environmentalists, both reformist and revolutionary, is that on the job, working-class people will remain powerless. While it is explained, for instance, that the factory should be closed and the workers should be given another job or that a post-capitalist environmentally-friendly world has already been figured out right down to your new biogas toilet, there are no illusions of collective decision-making. The glut of knowledge and skill in the hands and minds of working-class people throughout the world will remain unacknowledged. It is, at best, a liberal framework of action where your only input is your purchasing power or the ability of your physical presence at a rally to bolster another’s lobbying efforts. It is, at worst, an authoritarian and technocratic vision that leaves the position of the worker unchanged as an interchangeable cog in the overall system of society.
Both environmentalism in its current form and the climate change-denialist counter-narrative to it depend on the supposed gullibility of working-class people. The working class are presented with disprovable narratives from both capital and environmentalists: either everything is under control or it is the end of the world—again. The limited traction of Chicken Little cries-to-action that involve nothing more than a signed petition or a march through New York to appeal to the United Nations’ sensibilities belies the liberal environmentalists’ assumption that the regular working-class person doesn’t care about the environment. We don’t care about our air, our water, our climate or our future. Ordinary people are portrayed as either stupid (“It’s too abstract”) or weak (“they love their cars”) and refuge is taken in misanthropy: even if the masses don’t do something about the Earth, the environmental activists can. For this article, we will choose a different starting point: people are not as naïve as environmentalists would have us believe. Perhaps people object to being pawns for a useless and self-aggrandizing movement. As we engage with the politics of ecological struggle, we must move away from disempowerment and the false dichotomy of the economic draftee or the class traitor, and move towards analysis rooted in reality.
The picture is a compelling one: with few options for survival, poor young men from the East Coast take jobs out west to support their families. No other viable future open to them, tossed up on the seas of global economic and ecological forces, they land on Alberta’s tarry shores. We have sad news for the workerists looking for the guilt-free worker: this sad tale does not appear to be based in fact. In other words, there is no economic draft in Canada and the Canadian working class are not eternal victims. People who work on the tar sands or the pipeline are primarily doing so because it is a way to make more money and they see no reason not to. Those who make high wages on pipelines or oil fields would be making high wages elsewhere as well.
The recruitment of new, inexperienced hires to work on pipelines is near non-existent. When one author of this article enquired about getting a job on the Energy East Pipeline they were informed that only certified journeymen who have completed their five-year apprenticeship are able to apply for, let alone get, a job. This anecdote provides some insight regarding who is actually eligible to participate in the construction of the pipeline. The skill and experience that qualifies one for this job does the same for many other, also well-compensated positions.
The Energy East Pipeline is expected to employ over 1,000 people per year for planning and building the Pipeline during its construction phase. After construction, it predicts 900 permanent jobs for maintenance. Predominantly male, these workers currently make above the provincial average. Concerned regarding the aging of their existing workforce, marching imminently towards retirement, TransCanada has been investing in schools and training centres to guarantee the availability of replacements. Whether or not individual pipefitters work on pipelines, they are highly employable and will have good jobs. As our demographic study shows, they don’t have much to lose by refusing to work on tar sands pipelines as they will be easily employed in another sector in the same trade. Luckily for us, organizing among workers to encourage refusal to build pipelines does not imply a choice on their part between working to expand the tar sands or unemployment.
In Canada, the petroleum and other resource industries are highly concerned with increasing aging-out of skilled workers in crucial trades, such as welding. This scarcity has given welders and other tradespeople an advantage in the labour market, helping to preserve their craft unions and inflating their wages. Research done by the Petroleum and Mining Industry Human Resources Councils of Canada indicates that while average wages at the Athabasca Tar Sands are relatively high, this represents a handful of highly paid certified tradespeople who are overwhelmingly outnumbered by much lower-waged workers including truck drivers and machine operators, occupations which are paid only slightly above the provincial and national averages.
This disparity highlights a serious demographic difference between the two groups; for example, while no occupation at the tar sands even remotely approaches gender parity, the “unskilled” occupations do have a greater proportion of women than the “skilled” ones. The proportion of Indigenous people working in these “unskilled” occupations is far above the Canadian national average; the proportion of immigrants is much lower. These trends are reflected in the “skilled” trades as well, but these trades conform with national averages to a greater degree. It could be hypothesized that a greater proportion of the “unskilled” workforce is local, and reflective of the demographics of the area, with 10% of the population of Fort McMurray being Indigenous, and with many reserves in the surrounding area; however, this has not been demonstrated.
Extraction industries are committing large amounts of resources to recruitment and training for younger trades workers, and in some cases are specifically targeting Indigenous people for recruitment. This paves the way for a potential wave of recruitment into these industries of a more diverse group of young Canadian workers, especially as employment prospects for other forms of post-secondary training and education seem to decline.
In order that we could premise our ideas on reality, instead of a politically-convenient “just so” story, we researched the population demographics of tar sands workers, as well as those involved in pipeline construction and maintenance. The main community in Wood Buffalo, Alberta is the city of Fort McMurray. It is dominated by the petrochemical industry and, as of 2012, out of a population of just over 100,000, around 40,000 are non-permanent residents. In 2001, its total population was only just above 40,000, so in ten years its population has close to tripled. A direct result of the continued expansion of the Athabasca tar sands, we infer that much of the new local population is economically connected to the tar sands projects and have few social ties to the area. The population is approximately 80% white, 10% Aboriginal (an almost even split between Métis and First Nations), and 10% “other” (with South Asians as the only non-Aboriginal racial minority with over a thousand people). Almost 85% of residents identified English as their first language, while only 3% identified French as theirs. Only a few other minority languages break 1%, but these notably include Cree, Spanish, and Arabic.
Demographic research found an obvious split between “skilled” and “unskilled” workers. Workers with “skills” included pipefitters and millwrights with a trade school education. Workers without “skills”—machine operators and truck drivers for instance—with only their bodies and time to offer for sale, were much more numerous, more likely to be female, and unlikely to have anything above a high school diploma, if that. Compared to the Canadian average, Indigenous people are over-represented and immigrants are underrepresented, particularly in the “unskilled” sectors. As for wages, skilled workers make above the Albertan average, while somewhat surprisingly the unskilled workers’ wages are comparable to the Albertan average wage.
III. Organize the Recruits
When organizing workers in environmentally harmful industries is proposed, the name of Judi Bari is necessarily bandied around. Aside from holding some questionable beliefs about femininity, communion with the Earth, and the scientific method, Bari was a dedicated organizer who seems to have been on the right track. She proposed that environmentalists work with the lumber workers and tried to agitate them against their employers. She argued that the largest threat to the jobs of the lumber workers’ was not environmentalists, but their employers, who would necessarily lay off workers when the clearcut was complete. Most significantly, she argued for community-based struggle over the nomadic nature of Earth First!. Generally we are friendly to all of this. In hindsight however, the issue was not that she was wrong but that she and others had arguably waited until too late in to the struggle for the redwood to lay the groundwork that was necessary for victory. Her arguments were unclear, her strategy was not well-formulated and her organizing was not able to came to fruition before she was singled out and targeted for repression.
In February 2015, US oil workers went on strike for the first time since 1982. This strike included over 5,000 United Steelworkers members who walked out of a chemical plant, a cogeneration complex and eleven refineries, together accounting for 13% of the United States’ fuel refinement capacity. This strike has been framed by “green” groups and unionists as a prime opportunity to engage the state, and oil refinery workers, with an environmental agenda. Statements made by from those doing picket-line support have identified this as a chance to engage in “green syndicalism.” Though they are not inherently wrong about the possibly catalytic nature of strikes, and the importance they can play in consolidating struggle from a pre-existing movement, providing picket-line support in this context shows a lack of insight regarding the state of their own movement. This opportunistic, magpie-like approach to organizing, which brings to mind “ambulance chasing,” is reactive rather than strategic, and gives few opportunities for the critical work of building long-term organizational structures.
The disappointing truth is that the groundwork has not been laid to take advantage of this opportunity. Long-term organizing cannot be faked and without this foundation, picket-line support for these workers is not just a well-intentioned, harmless or pointless demonstration of abstract solidarity; it is politically questionable. In essence, it involves well-meaning outsiders entering into a conflict between the workers and their bosses with their own agenda—an agenda that the workers have no immediate reason to support—and that they are not prepared to discuss and decide upon. In this strike, environmentalist support, if it has any effect, only serves to make environmentally harmful jobs more appealing without successfully directing the conversation towards the utility of the job itself. All too often the Left will place itself in these “no-win” situations by organizing too little and too late, such as by trying to organize communities around imminent pipeline projects, giving an impossibly narrow window in which to organize successfully, and no time to build power. A contrast would be revolutionaries organizing communities before imminent threats appear, which would prepare working-class communities for larger battles over regionalized environmental destruction and pollution.
A principled environmentalist approach to workers in these industries is not for them to make the industry more “sustainable,” but to organize for its abolition, or at least something more substantial than better PR. To work towards this challenging goal, there must be broad support from organized neighbourhoods, as well as a cultural shift caused by organizing in recruitment halls, colleges, universities, and all other appropriate spaces, such that the workers at the point of production are the last pin to drop. Thus, though we would agree that moments like this are crucial points for intervention, revolutionaries’ lack of preparation makes it just another missed opportunity.
The workers who are essential to fossil fuel production are predominantly skilled trades people. They have gone through years of schooling, training and apprenticeships to get to a point where they are of use to companies like TransCanada. Though these fossil fuel projects are advertised as something that will benefit many through the creation of jobs, they hire relatively small numbers of highly specialized workers. Organizing against recruitment or participating in counter-recruitment is a relatively untested idea in the arena of environmental struggle, possibly because, as we previously pointed out, the environmental movement has tended to demonize these workers rather than work with them. What we know is that these skilled workers spend a lot of time in schools and training facilities: engineers in universities and plumbers, pipefitters and welders in colleges and trade schools. This is a potentially opportune time for intervention. There is a relatively long period of time in which to engage with them and for them to switch trajectories and to acquire employment elsewhere. In making this decision, workers will not likely find themselves unemployed, but nevertheless a lot is being asked of them—certainly more than the environmentalists are asking of themselves. How is it that we propose to reach these workers? Surely picketing or flyering sites of recruitment or education is not enough.
While we refute the fallacy of identifying employment in these industries as being tantamount to an economic draft, the ways in which these industries secure employees does share qualities with the ways in which the military recruits. They function through partnerships with educational institutions, including high schools, colleges, trade schools and union halls. Though these locations are physically available to us, whether or not we see these spaces as politically available to us is up for debate. The question is whether we can position ourselves, as leftists, within educational institutions outside of humanities and social science programs. Do we have the ability to put forward an environmentalism that caters to trade schools and not graduate-level environmental studies?
For guidance, we look to the only substantial examples of counter-recruitment we could find: military counter-recruitment in the United States. Military counter-recruitment in the early to mid 2000s predominantly took the form of lobbying municipal levels of government to mandate that equal access be given to counter or anti-recruitment in high schools or colleges. This tactic was taken because it is federally mandated that the military have access to these educational spaces. In fact, No Child Left Behind legislation mandates that student tests, which apparently identify students who are of use or likely to join the armed forces, be shared with recruitment agencies. Anti-recruitment entails anti-war organizers or former military going into schools and making the pitch that the armed forces are lying. They provide a more accurate view of what war is like while identifying the misdeeds of recruiters.
The relative absence of counter-recruitment or recruit organizing in comparison to the prevalence of anti-war mobilizations can likely be blamed on similar tropes as those assigned to the worker in the environmentally-harmful job: either they are murderous traitors to the working class or pitiful destitute small town boys who have been hoodwinked into being cannon fodder for imperialism. The existence of these tropes in either context is largely irrelevant at low points of conflict; they are not apparently a problem, as they are only rhetorical in nature. However, at times of heightened imperialist aggression or the expansion of resource extraction or transport, they become detrimental to our ability to wage struggles and something that must be overcome. This was the case with a noteworthy experiment in anti-war organizing: Vietnam War coffeehouses and GI newspapers.
The Vietnam War coffeehouses began in 1967 as civilian-run off-base spaces of counterculture. Initially designed with a semi-bohemian culture in mind and with the goal of turning new recruits before they became effective killing machines, coffeehouse organizers soon discovered problems with their plan. The hippie-esque aesthetic of the spaces, though designed to attract the most organizable, tended to attract instead GIs who were becoming interested in the dope scene, and not necessarily in organizing. Second, their strategy of focusing on new recruits ignored the realities of those they were trying to organize with: basic training involved high levels of isolation, including from other GIs. Further, it was experience in service itself that tended to produce dissent. The flexible nature of the project, however, did allow these civilian leftists to adapt the project to the needs of the GIs on the bases near them.
A critical point in the coffeehouse projects was when they abandoned their orientation to cultural alienation and consciously set out to do direct political organizing. Only then did coffeehouses become an off-base meeting point for GIs; it was their anti-brass atmosphere, not bohemian culture that kept GIs around long enough to read anti-war papers and to be introduced to leftist ideas. Many had been so shaken by their experiences fighting overseas that they actively sought a new framework for understanding the world. The most common next-step for action in these spaces was the creation of GI newspapers, frequently produced with the support of civilian leftists. Hundreds of GIs worked to create these papers, thousands more distributed them on-base and tens of thousands read their content. Despite the conflicts occurring overseas and on-base, the war continued and people sought out a way to achieve higher levels of struggle. This began to take the form of base wide actions that led to significant consequences for the GIs involved. With the general failure of off-base actions, struggle then turned to localized unit-based organizing in their barracks.
The forms of GI organizing discussed here were predominantly run by and directed at white working-class GIs despite the high percentage of working-class Black and Latino men who served. Radicalized white GIs focused on the near non-stop production of agitational propaganda in order to reach their not-yet-radicalized fellow white GIs. To contrast, racialized GIs were more likely to take part in direct confrontations, work refusals, and fighting back against riot controls because they were generally more politically developed. Thus, they were more likely to participate in collective actions occurring around them without requiring remedial agitational propaganda. This racial dynamic of resistance and politicization within the American Armed Forces should come as no surprise as it existed within a context of colonized and racialized working-class people within the United States already joining the fray of uprisings and rebellions taking place across the world. The movements of struggle Stateside had already done much to prepare racialized GIs for resistance within and against the American Armed Forces. What those resistance movements also imbued in them was a healthy understanding of the violent and dangerous role white Americans can play in suppressing movements of class struggle. It took little more than an indication that the edifice of class collaboration between white GIs and the American ruling class was unstable for racialized GIs to join the fight in earnest. This is not in any way to imply that radicalized white GIs lead the way for GI resistance in the Vietnam war. Racialized GIs were essentially waiting for their white comrades to get their shit together so that the full force of white supremacist countermeasures to resistance wouldn’t have all of them shot in the back.
The lessons we draw from these organizing experiences are that, with assistance, vet and GI newspapers led to political development. Those that were successful and interesting were such because they endeavoured to engage, intervene, and assist organizing with GIs as actual people. The civilians involved examined and familiarized themselves with whom they were actually organizing. This all took place within a context of broad, global resistance to the US’ actions in southeast Asia. When they began their struggle, the context was vaguely similar to that of environmental struggle today. There was not unanimity over Vietnam, as there is not over climate change or the importance of ecology-based struggle. At the same time, outside of capital, there is seemingly not broad support for oil companies, just tacit acceptance.
Within the broader struggles against the Vietnam War, there was a willingness on the part of organizers to go beyond the usual tropes. This is required in environmentalism as well. As it stands, environmental activists have something to say to politicians, to consumers and even to corporations but they seemingly have nothing to say to the people who are employed in these industries. It is a glaring hole in environmental strategy that betrays a bourgeois understanding; again the worker lacks agency. Though environmental activists are happy to state that they would rather use workers for installing solar panels than processing fossil fuels, they are unwilling to engage the worker in those decisions.
An understanding of the uneven political development of GIs in Vietnam along predominantly racial demarcations is not an insignificant matter to our considerations of pipeline resistance. The context in which Canada’s extractive economy – and resistance to it – operates is that of colonialism. Anti-colonial resistance is a centuries old tradition of Indigenous life. The matter before non-Indigenous revolutionaries is not one of supporting Indigenous political development and struggle but of catching the non-Indigenous working class up on that development and waging its own struggle against the Canadian ruling class. The non-Indigenous working class poses more of a threat to Indigenous land defenders than it does to the ruling class in clashes between the two. This is true whether we are talking about the oil fields of Athabasca, pipeline routes of northern Ontario and Quebec or the streets of Caledonia. This truth today should not be left to stand tomorrow by any non-Indigenous revolutionary. The task before non-Indigenous revolutionaries is to bring the non-Indigenous working class into direct conflict with the Canadian ruling class and into solidarity with the Indigenous communities that continue their struggle against our mutual class enemies.
We don’t claim to have a quick solution to a problematic orientation that has developed for decades within the Left but here is our starting point: the place where workers most strongly feel the effects of environmental destruction is in their neighbourhoods. Impacts may manifest as tailing ponds, skyrocketing heating bills, water shut-off plans like those in Detroit and now Baltimore, or water restrictions to which industry is exempt, as in California. These are issues against which the working class can and must organize. Our goal then is that workers become environmental organizers in their own right so that this understanding can be carried over into their workplaces.
IV. Organize the Neighbourhood
A favoured strategy of the environmental movement has been “building awareness,” particularly within the sphere of reform. The concept of awareness would make sense if ignorance was the problem and not informed reaction. To “build awareness,” the first step entails visibility and supposed “presence” rather than action, and reaction is characterized as being based in ignorance rather than genuinely contradictory interests. This does not distinguish between the opposed interests of the classes and, moreover, is not conscious of how capitalism creates unequal degrees of environmentally-caused suffering (whether through intense disasters or slow decline), such as the virtual inevitability of localized pollution having a greater effect on working-class communities.
There is no environmental struggle with greater stakes than climate change, yet environmentalists have proven unable to motivate significant numbers of ordinary workers in North America to take effective action. This fault lies both with the attitudes toward the workers, and the attitudes toward organization and action. The failure of “building awareness” is arguably a contributing factor to the environmentalist turn to “green capitalism” and an explicit orientation toward venture capital, demonstrated by the appearance of schools of thought such as the “Bright Greens.” Implicit in this is a rejection of the working class (whose labour power causes polluting industry to function) as a political actor rather than a consumptive economic one.
The reality is, however, that ecological disaster is not just possible, but inevitable, for the Canadian working class, a working class which is intensely subjected to propaganda which denies global warming or argues in favour of “green jobs” and weak reforms rather than serious change; it is a working class which will be spectacularly unprepared both to understand and to materially endure disaster when it comes. What is needed, then, is a different kind of “awareness” based around neighbourhood organization and the idea that workers can band together to improve their situation. Environmentalism, then, is simply good sense.
It also calls for a new kind of action, rarely tried in the environmental movement: genuine collective action from organized neighbourhoods which have informed themselves and made a collective decision to intervene in a situation, rather than informal activist cells or dictates from large NGOs. Rather than abstract talk about a “new social movement” (echoing the New Left obsession with national campaigns and single-issue movements) or affinity groups, this would represent autonomy and communitarianism, not a “social movement” guided by the velvet-gloved fist of NGOs where those who object to the set narrative are jeered at by well-trained media commentators.
Nearly every left-liberal journalist’s, academic’s, or activist’s prescription for what to do about climate change hinges on an ill-defined hope for a social movement capable of effectively confronting the combined powers of state and industry. The loudest voices in this milieu, from Chris Hedges to Naomi Klein, have made variations of the claim that “only social movements can save us now.” Certainly, there’s a kernel of truth here; it’s impossible to conceive of a way out of this mess that does not rely on mass movements to a certain extent. At the same time, this follows the usual liberal pattern of an ideological or moral battle for hearts and minds of policymakers and the “general public,” rather than acknowledging the total lack of interest capitalists have in solving the problems they have caused. Additionally, the populist appeal to “the public” to do something about climate change seems to always follow the dead-end narratives of elections, lobbying, and “citizen action,” rather than the broader fight waged by truly emancipatory politics; neither will a mass movement capable of actually implementing the “alternatives” these writers are so fond of hinting at just sprout up from nowhere.
On the other side of the coin, anarchists more sympathetic to insurgency will advocate for small groups of people to monkey-wrench ecologically harmful industry. These clandestine affinity group proponents may argue that only a few committed people are required to damage a pipeline project enough to stop it. This tactical short-sightedness goes beyond the fact that actions such as these can trigger broad sentiment supporting the state pushing back against “violent” anarchists and anti-pipeline struggles, generally. It’s also simply not true. A primary industrial infrastructure project that crosses a gargantuan area of land with multiple international financial stakeholders would not be waylaid by the “propaganda of the deed” of rootless environmental radical playing asymmetrical warrior. This is not a debate about “true anarchist principles” or about whether you can blow up a social relationship. This is simply about tactical efficacy. It is far more effective for revolutionaries and environmental radicals to build organizations that can give working-class people agency in determining their lives. The building of these organizations is done through immediate struggle – which could include opposition to pipeline construction – while not losing sight of the long game. When these organizations unite with others of similar intention to wage struggles together, we will have something worthy of being referred to as a “movement.” While it is imperative for current financial interests in the Canadian fossil fuel industry that pipelines be built, it doesn’t mean the clock is ticking on the defeat of the working class and that at hour of pipeline completion the fight is lost. This frantic, apocalyptic thinking clouds the mind and makes us prone to self-involved lashing out and not the self-sacrificing and deliberate organizing our class’ situation requires.
Where would these movements come from? Any workplace struggle that has a chance of succeeding relies upon deep support from the communities where the workers live. On the other hand, community struggles often falter when they are unable to exert any real pressure on the powerful entities harming their common interests. Clearly, any successful approach to organizing in neighbourhoods directly or indirectly threatened must recognize and root its politics in the interwoven nature between workplaces and their surrounding communities.
Obviously, neighbourhoods which are presently situated along pipeline routes or near dangerous resource development projects are those with the most apparent material interest in opposing these developments. However, these groups cannot bear the weight of such a difficult struggle alone. Far too much solidarity activism in support of Indigenous communities and blockades rests on passive support from afar. While this moral support is all well and good, it does little to support these communities and their struggles. At the same time, while these neighbourhoods may have use for bodies on the line when their situation reaches a crisis point, it doesn’t do that much good for urban activists to travel up north and sit on the sidelines. What we propose as a strategic imperative to this type of solidarity work involves a much longer, more arduous approach rooted in the neighbourhoods where we presently live and work. This is difficult, but a worthwhile and necessary foundation for building towards a revolutionary situation in Canada, however unlikely it may seem. In other words, we are talking about organizing to win.
An important first step is to move away from the reactive stance most of the Left is currently mired in. Individuals and groups who are seriously committed to revolution as well as environmentalism should avail themselves of the multiple proactive strategies of organizing in their neighbourhoods which could provide a strong basis for future environmental action, as opposed to the normal leftist approach of crisis mobilization. Engaging in environmental organizing as an aspect or result of building these stronger communities and organizations means making the same case to workers for taking action on the environment as for taking action against landlords or bosses—that it is in their collective material interest. This appeal must also be interwoven with a broader plan towards social and economic empowerment.
What does an organized neighbourhood look like, and how do we differentiate mobilization from organization? Common activist modes of behaviour involve primarily one-sided conversations, a battle of ideas, and “converting” people to a particular way of thinking, then, if successful, to get them to sign onto your specific issue or cause. We would contrast this mobilization pattern with an organizing pattern, which we centre on the establishment of democratic spaces to make decisions and take collective action. Effective decision-making and action strengthen the organization and neighbourhood and, ultimately, the neighbourhood organization is more capable of enforcing its decisions and building its power. Environmental activism tends to skip these steps, steps which we believe are prerequisites to effectively contending with environmental issues, and which also contextualize environmentalism within a broader struggle toward revolution, rather than treating it as a standalone set of ideas in the style of the New Left. It also provides an opportunity for environmentalism to contribute to a popular understanding of, and opposition to, capitalism, and to build that understanding among the people who are uniquely positioned to end capitalism: the working class as a class.
When we write about neighbourhood organization, we don’t mean independent and isolated neighbourhoods or a sort of socialism-in-one-neighborhood. We envision federated neighborhoods that work together on issues that could span large geographical areas. We aim to build neighborhood organizations that are independent and directly democratic. A starting point that could build common struggles between neighborhoods would be ecological issues, and they could further work together in struggles against, for example, police violence.
Moreover, it is our imperative to build environmentally-conscious working-class power in southern Ontario, both because this is where we stand and because to do otherwise would mean leaving small, remote communities to fight these battles on their own, against the might of Canadian and global capital. There are few other effective ways for us to engage in environmental struggle outside of merely acting as allies or riding someone else’s bandwagon. The current pattern of environmental struggle largely follows the pattern of high-profile, high-energy, high-risk blockades and protest sites. These function as focal points for both the state and the activist Left, which flock to them. This activist attention is dubiously helpful at best. At any rate, these blockades indicate decisive action taken by strong communities. Yet, even these communities cannot stand against capital on their own. What is needed is connected struggles, both rural and urban, which are more difficult to suppress and which build a true sense of common cause against a common foe.
Many members of Common Cause, and certainly the members of this writing group, began to explore revolutionary politics because of our interest in environmental defense. A few of us even joined this organization because of our immense dissatisfaction with the environmentally-focused organizing that we had struggled to make potent for years. One thing that we learned was that, while participating in environmental organizing, we must ensure that we have not developed the same orientation to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous working-class people as the oil companies. Working-class people are not stakeholders from whom we must gain enough tacit support that we can achieve our predetermined goals.
Given the stakes of unmitigated and irreversible climate change, and the power of state and capital to firmly oppose efforts to improve our collective lot, the only strategic way forward lies in organizing among the working class. What is urgently needed is a wholesale effort to build working-class organizations that are capable of presenting concrete opposition to these projects. We have tried to outline here a viable and enactable vision of environmental struggle which is rooted in working-class organizing. This must necessarily be a vision founded in practicality and the need to launch the most effective attacks possible, rather than relying on moralistic arguments.
Throughout this article, we’ve tried to make the case that the current state of anti-pipeline and environmentalist politics is at an impasse, and that in order to seriously change the situation in Canada, activists struggling on this terrain must pivot towards organizing among the working class at a local level. For all the talk of “Chicken Littles” in this article, it is right to be genuinely concerned about the disturbing emissions trajectory the world is on and the unprecedented scale of human misery and environmental collapse that will follow. Moreover, the chasm between the emissions cuts that science tells us are needed and the rapacious growth of state-abetted fossil fuel industries shows us that the entire rotten edifice of the global economy is at odds with a liveable future for all. However, it is patently clear that with its current strategy and composition, the overall movement against the tar sands and for climate justice in Canada is bound to fail.
We wish to see the recomposition of a bold and capable working class in Canada with a clear understanding of its general interests regarding the environment and the trashing of the commons as a function of capitalism. We wish to see communities capable of standing up to pipeline companies and their allies in government, confident that their resistance will be echoed throughout the country. We wish to see Indigenous blockades strengthened and supported not only in words, but in strong, disruptive action throughout the economy.
But wishes don’t amount to much. And though we spilled a lot of ink trying to think of some ways forward, the fact is most of the organizing we discussed is theoretical and untried. Further, it promises to be a fraught and difficult process. That said, if you consider yourself a revolutionary, isn’t this approach more palatable than writing your objections to the National Energy Board, clicking “like” on the Unist’ot’en Action Camp page, or milling around with a bunch of liberals carrying a sad, inflatable pipeline?
There is still time to start the challenging work of organizing. While times will no doubt be harder in the future due to climate change, there is no sign of a coming apocalypse, especially for those of us in southern Ontario. Pipelines are intimately tied to the structure of the Canadian economy and the expansion of the tar sands but if we lose the battle against Energy East that does not mean that we should give up. Capitalism will find new ways to grow and we will find ourselves participating in new struggles. Powerful working-class organizations are part of a long-term strategy to win real and revolutionary gains, and will take years of hard work. However, with 2015 set to be another record-breaking year in the crescendo towards runaway climate change, and a number of Indigenous struggles like the Unist’oten blockade set to come to a head, there’s no time like the present.