Defend green jobs! Smash ungreen jobs!

Environmentalists are defending jobs at the ‘good’ Vestas wind-turbine factory while ignoring the sacking of workers at ‘evil’ Thomas Cook.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Currently the dictionary defines double standards as ‘a set of principles permitting greater opportunity or liberty to one than to another’.

If any dictionary in the future wanted to illustrate or illuminate that definition, it could do worse than point to environmentalists’ sudden interest in the politics of industrial strife. In Ireland and Britain over the past couple of weeks there have been two dramatic and principled occupations of workplaces by workers threatened with redundancy, yet where one has been widely promoted in the media by green-leaning commentators, the other has been ignored, meaning that its organisers could be hassled, arrested and charged by the cops with little controversy.

Environmentalists have used their not inconsiderable clout in public debate to turn the occupation of the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight into a cause célèbre. When the owners of Vestas announced in July that they were moving abroad, thus making 600 people on the Isle of Wight redundant, 25 Vestas workers occupied the factory and many more protested outside in solidarity. They are effusively supported by greens, who have never much cared about workplace politics in the past. Climate change activists have set up camp outside Vestas; they’ve erected banners saying: ‘Save Vestas, Save Jobs, Save the Planet.’ One commentator says no one should underestimate ‘the importance of the occupation’, which has ‘strengthened the alliance between workers and environmentalists’. Another even compares the Vestas workers – who might ‘save the planet’ – to those earlier generations of Brits who took on ‘Germany’s industrial war machine’ (1).

Meanwhile, another workers’ occupation has been ignored. There has been no environmentalist solidarity, no endless publication of op-eds about its ‘importance’. On Friday last week, the staff of the Dublin outlet of the travel agents Thomas Cook were told that their shop was closing with immediate effect, after the workers and their union had the temerity to organise a public protest against the threat of redundancy. In defence of their jobs, 28 Thomas Cook employees occupied the shop on Grafton Street. But after drumming up little sympathy in mainstream Irish and British media and political circles – but managing to win backing from everyday shoppers and passers-by – the workers were arrested in a dawn raid on Tuesday. Gardai smashed their way into Thomas Cook at 5am, took the arm-linked workers out one by one, and drove them to court where they were charged with contempt for ignoring an earlier judgement telling them to leave the shop (2).

Two recession-related occupations, carried out by risk-taking workers willing to put their liberty on the line to defend their own and each others’ jobs, yet only one is championed as ‘important’ by the environmentalist lobby. Why? It isn’t because the Thomas Cook protest is taking place in Ireland rather than in the British, but equally far-flung, territory of the Isle of Wight; numerous Irish protests have been supported in Britian in recent years. More fundamentally it is because, where the Vestas workers are seen as ‘clean’ and thus worthy of support, the Thomas Cook workers are seen as ‘dirty’ and thus eminently ignorable; where, in the hyperbolic, fact-lite view of green activists, the Vestas workers are ‘saving the planet’ by building wind turbines, the likes of the Thomas Cook workers are ‘destroying the planet’ by facilitating unnecessary cheap-flight holidays abroad for undesirable people who have little regard for foreign cultures and plant-life. These double standards illustrate the coercive element in the widespread demand for ‘green jobs’ as a solution to the recession: a new workers’ divide is being created, in which only those with ‘green jobs’ will be accorded respect and support while those with ‘ungreen jobs’ will be left out in the cold.

Environmentalists’ sudden interest in workers’ rights when the Vestas dispute unfolded was always unconvincing. Normally greens implicitly campaign for people to be thrown out of work. Their demonisation of ‘dirty industries’ has helped to make the workers in those industries vulnerable to redundancy by cynical companies and corporations that frequently dress up downsizing and cost-cutting as an environmentalist measure. In recent years greens have demanded the closure of the Drax power station in North Yorkshire (‘Drax the Destroyer’, they call it), which as well as providing electricity to millions of homes also directly employs 700 people. Greens want Kingsnorth power station in Kent closed down, too, and have protested against the construction of ‘Kingsnorth 2’. Kingsnorth employs around 240 workers and Kingsnorth 2 would provide jobs for 3,000 construction workers. Most loudly, greens have demanded the scrapping of plans for a Third Runway at Heathrow – a project that would create a whopping 65,000 jobs (3).

None of those workers matters, however, because they are ‘dirty’ workers, whose livelihoods are ‘destroying the planet’. It is striking that in their defence of the Vestas occupiers, environmentalists simultaneously denounced the government for continuing to invest in airport expansion and the creation of power-station jobs. The sentiment was: ‘How can you claim to be creating a low-carbon economy when you create unclean jobs in airports but will not subsidise clean jobs in wind-turbine construction?’

This is not about defending workers’ rights in principle and making a universal argument for providing everyone with gainful employment and a high wage; it isn’t even about making a calculated judgement about which industries are productive, and thus should remain open, and which industries are unproductive, and thus might be closed. Instead it is about creating a new moral divide, based on shrill language about Nazi-style threats to the future of our planet, between worthy workers and unworthy workers, between the green and the ungreen, between the good and the bad. Indeed, as one green-leaning writer said in support of the Vestas dispute, this is ‘not just about action to save jobs at a time when unemployment is continuing to rise steeply… Rather it is about the necessity to save jobs which are critical to the wider good for society.’ (4) In short, it is not jobs per se that matter; it is not people’s ability to earn a living and provide for themselves and their families that is important; it is only ‘good’ jobs that should be defended, which are seen as being ‘good’, not on the basis of people’s needs or even industrial productivity, but on the basis of very influential environmentalists’ massively overblown fear of the future in which individuals building wind turbines are seen as ‘saving the planet’ while individuals booking holidays for people are considered the devil incarnate.

Indeed, it is not at all surprising that environmentalists are ignoring the Thomas Cook workers. In smashing into the Thomas Cook shop and taking the workers out so that they can officially be made redundant, the Irish police are only doing what environmentalists themselves have tried to do in recent years. The youthful aristocrats of Plane Stupid – who have cheered the ‘industrial disobedience and workers’ solidarity’ at Vestas (5) – have tried on numerous occasions to shut down Thomas Cook outlets. They have put bicycle locks on the front doors of Thomas Cook shops, alongside posters saying ‘CLOSED for a total rethink’, and have argued that the likes of Thomas Cook workers are helping to destroy the planet by facilitating ‘stag and hen nights [in] Eastern European destinations chosen not for their architecture or culture but because people can fly there for 99p and get loaded for a tenner’ (6). Greens want the state to subsidise ‘green jobs’ at Vestas, while the police action in Dublin can be seen as the logical armed-wing conclusion to greens’ desire to destroy ‘ungreen jobs’ elsewhere.

This creation of a bullshit, pernicious moral divide between good and bad workers is the worst response possible to a recession that is making millions of people unemployed. Neither the Vestas workers nor the Thomas Cook workers should be sacked.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

(1) 88 months and counting, Andrew Simms, Comment is Free, 1 August 2009

(2) Sit-in remains after court order, BBC News, 2 August 2009

(3) Third Runway could create 65,000 jobs, Metro, 12 January 2009

(4) Striking workers learn to think green, Gregor Call, Comment is Free, 22 July 2009

(5) Support occupation of Vestas wind turbine factory, Plane Stupid, 21 July 2009

(6) Plane speaking, Plane Stupid, 1 October 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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