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Democratizing the Economy From the Ground Up

Another front on which trade unions could create momentum for a socioecological transformation is making the fight for worker participation rights part of a bottom-up process to democratize the economy. According to Klaus Dörre, professor of work, industrial, and economic sociology at

Demonstrators in Vancouver, Canada, on Defend Our Climate Day, November 2013.

Friedrich Schiller University in Germany, a socioecological transformation cannot be accomplished without public control of key social sectors such as energy and finance, which would liberate these sectors from the imperative of growth. Such debates might help call attention to the social and political relevance of employee empowerment and show that the lack of structures for worker participation in workplace decision making in the emerging “green sector” is ultimately unsustainable. Starting there, trade unions could reveal how their core business—the fight for workers' rights—can contribute to democratic empowerment as a key element of a sustainable reorganization of societies.

Formulating concrete workplace-, industry or sector-wide transformation plans with worker involvement would allow trade unions to build political pressure for reform and allow workers to play a critical role in decisions about the strategic direction of enterprises and the organization of work processes. Lars Henriksson, a Swedish autoworker and political activist, suggests that unions aim not to preserve unsustainable industries in the name of employment, but rather to engage workers in the development of sustainable conversion strategies. Faced with railroad privatization in 2009, for example, union representatives, environmentalists, researchers, and citizens' groups from different European countries developed RailEurope2025, a plan for a sustainable transport system. Specific goals range from a call for the expansion of bicycle infrastructure and public transport in cities to the conversion of rail systems to renewable energy sources.

As this initiative shows, moving away from an oversimplified “jobs versus environment” debate enables broad social coalitions that could shift workers from being victims of change driven by unaccountable forces to being drivers of change, allowing them to take the wheel and steer. At the heart of this lies the return to solidarity and worker participation as common guiding principles. Henriksson writes: “When faced with plant closure or layoffs, unions often respond with demands for replacement jobs, severance packages or retraining. There is nothing wrong with these but they are individual solutions that more or less accept the dissolution of the workers' collective. All union strength comes from keeping the collective united.… Demanding the industry should be converted and drawing up conversion plans is a possible way of defending not only our jobs, but the world as well.”


In modern societies, work is at the center of the relationship between nature and society. It structures social relations and influences the lives of each individual. Achieving sustainable ways of living is therefore inextricably linked to the way we decide to organize work in the future. So far, there is little sign of the fundamental sociocultural change that a radical reorganization of work would require. Moreover, it remains unclear who could be—or might be willing to be—the drivers of such change.

In this situation, trade unions face a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, they have to define measures that effectively protect workers from becoming victims of the necessary, yet strongly economy-driven, change processes already under way. At the same time, they have to find ways to step out of the defensive strategy of reacting to policies that are decided elsewhere and instead become the drivers of socioecological innovation. This, however, will not proceed without friction, and requires a convincing guiding concept with the potential to mobilize and build new alliances.

This can be achieved only if trade unions redefine their role in the transformation process and renew their claim of being an emancipatory social reform movement, stressing the fact that their mandate to represent workers' interests is not confined to the workplace but extends to society at large. Whether unions will succeed in redefining their role in the process of implementing the concept of sustainability is “not only a measure of how politically relevant trade unionism will be to the challenges of life in a carbonconstrained, climate-changed world, but also how politicized it becomes as it challenges not just capitalism but also itself as part of the struggle for a 'just transition.'”

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