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This paper is based on research with environmentally engaged trade unionists in India. It follows their trajectories into the trade union and explores their environmental engagements. A short presentation of the history of Indian trade unionism, aims to understand its ‘multi-unionism’. Analysing three exemplary life-histories of unionists, their motivations to engage in unions and their relationships to workers and to poor people, three models of perceiving the labour-nature relationship are offered: the container model, nature as a mediator of survival, and the nature-labour alliance. I show that the way in which unionists perceive the labour-nature relationship is shaped by their practices and influences their environmental policies. Furthermore, trade unions who seek alliances with other social movements on equal terms, develop a more comprehensive perception of the labour-nature relationship and thereby the development of more wide-ranging environmental policies. I conclude suggesting that the conditions enabling a more comprehensive perception of the labour-nature relationship could become possible if workers along the value chain could collaborate to learn from each other about their working conditions and the natures they transform. Key words: Environmental Labour Studies, The Labour-Nature Relationship, Worker Environmentalism. India. Article is open access and can be downloaded at DOI
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Trade union perceptions of the labour - nature
Nora Räthzel
To cite this article: Nora Räthzel (2021): Trade union perceptions of the labour - nature
relationship, Environmental Sociology, DOI: 10.1080/23251042.2021.1897766
To link to this article:
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Informa
UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis
Published online: 25 Mar 2021.
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Trade union perceptions of the labour - nature relationship
Nora Räthzel
Department of Sociology, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden
This paper is based on research with environmentally engaged trade unionists in India. It
follows their trajectories into the trade union and explores their environmental engage-
ments. A short presentation of the history of Indian trade unionism, aims to understand
its ‘multi-unionism’. Analysing three exemplary life-histories of unionists, their motivations
to engage in unions and their relationships to workers and to poor people, three models
of perceiving the labour-nature relationship are oered: the container model, nature as
a mediator of survival, and the nature-labour alliance. I show that the way in which
unionists perceive the labour-nature relationship is shaped by their practices and inu-
ences their environmental policies. Furthermore, trade unions who seek alliances with
other social movements on equal terms, develop a more comprehensive perception of the
labour-nature relationship and thereby the development of more wide-ranging environ-
mental policies. I conclude suggesting that the conditions enabling a more comprehen-
sive perception of the labour-nature relationship could become possible if workers along
the value chain could collaborate to learn from each other about their working conditions
and the natures they transform.
Received 19 March 2020
Accepted 24 February 2021
Environmental Labour
Studies; labour-Nature
Alliance; worker
environmentalism; social
movement unionism
The question I ask in this paper is how environmentally
engaged unionists perceive the labour-nature relation-
ship and how this might inuence their environmental
policies. The reason this is a relevant question has to
do with the fact that the destruction of the life support
system of the earth through production processes (cli-
mate crisis, loss of biodiversity, acidication of oceans,
soil degradation, water scarcity, etc.) are not experi-
enced as direct eects of a specic production process.
While the eects of the climate crisis are now also
increasingly experienced in countries of the Global
North, they cannot easily be related to specic produc-
tion processes -or to the climate crisis in general.
Unions have traditionally fought against health and
safety threats at the workplace and its surrounding
communities. In order to design eective environmen-
tal policies towards the global threats of environmen-
tal destruction the labour-nature relationship needs to
be understood in a way that transcends everyday work
experiences. Therefore, the question how unionists
perceive this relationship is relevant for the formula-
tion of environmental union policies.
Especially since the Paris agreement (2015), which
in its preamble stated that a solution of the climate
crisis needs to include a ‘just transition’ for workers,
this concept has shifted into the centre of trade union
policies and academic debates. The latter discuss just
transition in terms of its breadth and depth (Stevis,
Uzzell, and Räthzel 2018), its proactive or reactive
(Stevis and Felli 2015), protective, or transformative
(Sweeney and Treat 2018) character.
Trade union action develops through exogenous
processes like the destruction of the environment itself
or political pressures as well as endogenous processes
like pressures from their members, the ways in which
decisions are taken, their organisational structures, the
history of their creation. A range of such processes and
conditions of environmental union policies – or the lack
of them – have been analysed. They include the eco-
nomic sector in which unions operate, the societal, poli-
tical and economic pressures they experience, the
histories, which dene their political ambitions (Felli
2014; Farnhill 2016; Snell and Fairbrother 2010; Vachon
and Brecher 2016; Morena, Krause, and Stevis 2020).
What has not been researched is whether, given the
globalisation of environmental destruction, unionists’
perceptions of the labour-nature relationship inuence
just transition policies.
In the following section I will present a theoretical
framework to analyse perceptions of the labour-nature
relationship. This will be followed by a description of
our research project, an analysis of our material dis-
cussing three models of perceiving the labour-nature
relationship and a conclusion summarising the way in
which dierent perceptions emerge and what we can
learn from this for environmental labour policies.
CONTACT Nora Räthzel
This paper is based on a research project financed by the Swedish Research Council. I am indebted to David Uzzell, co-leader of the project, for inspiring
discussions and comments. I thank the two anonymous reviewers for their comments.
© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License (
nc-nd/4.0/), which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or
built upon in any way.
The inextricable Society-Nature,
Labour-Nature Relationship
The crisis of human and extra human life, indicated by
the climate crisis, the loss of biodiversity, the acidica-
tion of oceans, the dwindling of water supplies can act
as a reminder that nature is not something out there,
but, as Moore aptly puts it, ‘Humans simultaneously
create and destroy environments (as do all species),
and our relations are therefore simultaneously – if dif-
ferentially through time and across space – being cre-
ated and destroyed with and by the rest of nature.’
(Moore 2015, 152). Like Moore a number of authors
have sought to overcome the binary between humans
and nature, speaking about ‘social nature’ (Castree and
Braun 2001) or natureculture (Haraway 2008). These
concepts do not account for the labour-nature relation-
ship. We nd this in Marx’ denition of labour as: ‘ . . . in
the rst place, a process in which both, the human
and nature participate, and in which human
beings of their own accord start, regulate, and control
the material re-actions between themselves and nature.
(. . .) By thus acting on the external world and changing
it, they at the same time change their own nature.’
(Marx 1998). Since nature is at the same time the oppo-
site of and part of ‘human’s own forces’ and since both,
internal and external nature transform each other in the
process, the opposition between human nature and
external nature is transcended. It is through the labour
process that the internal nature of humans, and the
external nature are inextricably connected.
This insight and experience has been all but lost in
the course of industrialisation. This does not mean that
unions are not and have not been unparalleled defen-
ders of their members’ health and safety at the work-
place and within their communities (Rector 2014; Barca
and Leonardi 2018; Pellow 2007). In their beginnings
unions have also been active defending nature as
a place of enjoyment and recreation (Räthzel and
Uzzell 2013). Through struggles against health hazards
of production and defending nature as a place of
recreation nature becomes labour’s ‘Other’. It is either
the threatened object of production or the healing
place beyond the realm of work. The globalisation of
environmental destruction poses the question of the
labour-nature relationship urgently. To stop the
destructive processes of production it is necessary to
see that every production process consists of trans-
formed nature. With nature perceived to be outside
of work, there develops the dilemma of having to
protect either work or nature (Räthzel and Uzzell
2011). The spatial disconnection and the asynchronism
between extracting materials from nature, creating the
means of production and the eect of these processes
on the societal relations with nature, requires a holistic
perspective of the labour nature-relationship that
transcends its perception as the object of production
or the place of recreation. Such a holistic perspective
can serve as a basis for the development of transfor-
mative environmental policies – that is the hypothesis.
This is why we analysed our data for the way in which
union environmentalists perceived the labour-nature
The Research Project and its Methodology
This paper is based on a research project that investi-
gated the role of individuals in transforming organisa-
tions, using trade unions and their environmental
policies as a case in point. To understand why and
how unionists became environmentally engaged we
conducted 120 life-history interviews in Brazil, India,
South Africa, Spain, Sweden, and the UK. In order to
conduct an in-depth analysis accounting for the socio-
historical contexts of life-stories we need to present
each country separately.
The usage of life-histories
Life history interviews enable us to see the social,
economic and historical inuences on individuals
over their lifespan. Interviews are a co-construction
between the interviewer and the interviewee
(Holstein and Gubrium 2003). This does not mean
that life-stories are inventions but rather that dierent
aspects of a respondent’s life will be told dierently in
dierent contexts. Life-histories provide the opportu-
nity to learn something about the ways in which peo-
ple experience themselves as actors and act upon what
they see as limitations, success or failure.
Data Collection
Since the people we interviewed where public
personalities and used to give interviews the pro-
ject was exempt from applying for formal ethical
approval from the Swedish Ethical Committee
(Etikprövningsmyndigheten). We followed the ethi-
cal regulations for research in Sweden by explain-
ing the aims of the project to the interviewees in
written form. The document also stated that the
interviewee could end the interview at any time
and only needed to answer the questions they
wanted to. It was agreed that every eort would
be made to keep the interviewee anonymous. Only
project members and the transcriber would read
the interviews, which is why our data cannot be
Interviewees were asked to relate their life story
beginning from the date of their birth and including
the familial, spatial and political contexts in which they
grew up. They were also asked about their way into the
trade union movement and their environmental
engagement. We conducted 30 informative and life-
history interviews with trade unionists, representatives
of small-scale sherfolk and environmentalists.
lasted between 1½ – 3 hours, were recorded with the
interviewees’ agreement and transcribed. 30 inter-
views do not seem many given the size of the country
and the number of its unions. However, we made sure
to include not only the main national unions but also
associations organising informal and small indepen-
dent workers. The interviewees were leading members
of their respective organisations and therefore repre-
sent a signicant perspective within them.
Data Analysis
To nd the ways in which our interviewees perceived
the labour-nature relationship I selected all the
instances in which unionists talked about nature or
the environment using the MAXQDA system. On the
basis of the coded utterances and using the concept of
the labour-nature relationship discussed above
I constructed ‘models’ representing the degree to
which nature is seen as an integral part of the labour
process. I then went back to the interviews to under-
stand how the life-histories of unionists, their practices
and worldviews might have inuenced their
I found predominantly three perceptions of the
labour-nature relationship in our Indian material: the
environment as container, as a mediator of life, and
a holistic view which I call, in reference to Bloch (1973),
the nature-labour alliance. Each of the unionists
I discuss represents one of these perceptions and can
therefore be regarded as exemplary (Flyvbjerg 2006).
Case studies are often misunderstood because they are
not a basis for statistical generalisations. As Flyvbjerg
argued, they aim to understand the complexities and
multifaceted details of real-life situations: ‘ . . . for the
development of a nuanced view of reality, including
the view that human behavior cannot be meaningfully
understood as simply the rule governed acts found at
the lowest levels of the learning process and in much
theory.’ (ibid. pp 223) Case studies can give us an
insight into the range of human capabilities (Portelli
1997). By understanding people’s potentials and the
conditions under which they develop we can imagine
how desirable practices could be generalised, re-
created under dierent conditions. Thus, we shift the
question of whether a certain practice occurs generally
to the question whether and under which conditions it
might become generalisable.
Three Perceptions of the Labour-Nature
I begin with a summary of labour relations in India to
understand the individual histories of our protagonists.
I then present and discuss the three perceptions of the
labour-nature relationship explaining how they began
to take notice of environmental and ecological issues.
Labour and Industrial Relations in India
One specicity of the industrial relations in India is the
proportion of workers in informal employment which
was 83% in 2009/2010. This includes informal employ-
ment in the informal as well as in the formal sector
(ILO, 2018). Traditional trade unions organise mostly
workers in the formal sector, though some have tried
to reach out to informally employed workers during
the past 10 years (Agarwala 2013).
The industrial working class in India emerged after
1919 as a result of an industrial development which
was hampered because of India’s colonial history.
Goods produced by artisans and craftsmen in India
were exported to Britain with high prots. However,
the industrial development in Britain destroyed hand-
craft industries in India, which became a market for
machine-made imported goods and an exporter of raw
materials. Millions of artisans and craftsmen were left
jobless due to the inux of cheap industrial goods. The
destruction of the handicrafts was not paralleled by
jobs in industries. Artisans were forced to move to the
villages, becoming mostly landless labourers.
In the 1830s British rulers began the construction of
railways reducing India to a supplier of raw materials
and a market for British goods. Some auxiliary proces-
sing industries were developed. Because of the agri-
cultural crisis, peasants and handicraftsmen were
forced to migrate back to the cities as suppliers of
cheap labour for those industries. Under British rule
the plantation industry was developed (tea, coee and
jute industries) and by 1860–1870, these industries
began to grow. Every eort was made not to allow
any independent development of Indian industry.
Therefore, the trade union movement in India only
took shape after the rst world war.
Another reason for the delayed formation of trade
unions was the lack of cohesiveness among the work-
ers who were divided by religion, caste, and region.
Social reformers and political leaders became involved
in developing an industrial culture that proved essen-
tial for the development of trade unions. It was
through the Swadeshi (indigenous goods) Movement,
part of the Indian independent movement and the
largest pre-Gandhian movement in India, that the
working class was rst brought together. Its major
strategy was to boycott British products to raise the
demands for goods produced in India (Trivedi 2003).
The rst recorded move towards a trade union was
made by N.M. Lokhanday in 1890 organising ‘The
Bombay Mill Hands Association’. It brought public
attention to the grievances of the textile workers aim-
ing to modify the Factories Act of 1881 for the benet
of the workers. Similar associations were formed
elsewhere, mostly led by social reformers (Raveendran,
The immediate post World War I period (1918–1922)
saw the birth of a national Indian Trade Union
Movement favoured by expectations of a new social
order, industrial and economic unrest, the Russian
revolution in 1917, the formation of the International
Labour Organisation (ILO) in 1919 and the Swaraj (self-
determination, self-rule) Movement between 1920–22.
The number of industrial workers increased from
959,000 in 1914 to over 1,300,000 in 1920
(Chattopadhyay, 1995). British run textile mills in
Bombay made enormous prots (Dutt, 1949) while
prices went up and wages lagged behind and the
workload increased. This led to strikes in dierent
parts of India, where workers demanded higher
wages and a reduction of working hours. Nation-
wide strikes of textile workers, workers in the dock
areas, railways and other areas of transportation took
place (Chattopadhyay, 1995). Inspired by their suc-
cess, some strike committees became trade unions.
The rst organized trade union in India, ‘The Madras
Labour Union’ was formed by B.P.Wadia in 1918 (Rao,
The ILO came into existence with the Peace Treaty
of Versailles in 1919, recognising that peace was only
possible if it was based on social justice. It aimed to
regulate working time and labour supply, prevent
unemployment, provide a living wage and social pro-
tection for workers, children, young persons and
women. (
tory/lang–en/index.htm). It has inuenced India’s
labour movement, labour legislation and labour policy
(Raveendran, 1992) supporting the trade union move-
ment by providing training, literature and resources.
When the rst ILO conference was held in 1919 in
Washington, there was no central association of
Indian trade unions and hence the government nomi-
nated a delegate without consulting any trade unions.
Unionists saw this as an aront and organised
a conference of representatives of 64 trade unions
(claiming a membership of 1,408,500) in Bombay
where the All India Trade Union Congress under the
chairmanship of Lala Lajpat Rai (AITUC, 1973) was
Rai’s presidential address emphasized the need for
class consciousness, for international proletarian
brotherhood and for a place of nationalism in the
class outlook, thus connection the trade union move-
ment to the national liberation movement (Dange,
1973). Mahatma Gandhi’s involvement in the trade
union movement, which began with a strike in
Ahmedabad in 1918, (Nanda 2004) inspired many
young trade union leaders.
AITUC secured the representation of Indian workers
at the ILO conference of Geneva in 1920. It provided
a centre of coordination and representation for the
trade unions scattered over India and mobilized labour
for the Swaraj movement. Prominent Indian National
Congress leaders became activists within AITUC.
However, conicts between unionists supporting
national liberation and communist and socialist union-
ists led to subsequent splits and mergers during the
thirties and forties. The result was that multi-unionism
came to characterize the Indian trade union move-
ment, splitting it along party lines until today. The
main national unions are AITUC, aliated to the
Communist Party of India, Indian National Trade
Union Congress (INTUC), aliated to the Indian
National Congress Party, the Bharatiya Mazdoor
Sangh (BMS, Indian Labour Union), aliated to the
right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party
(BJP, Indian People’s Party), currently in power, the
Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), aliated to the
Indian Communist Party (Marxists), the Hindu Mazdoor
Sabha (HMS, Hindi Workers’ Assembly) dening itself
as socialist. There are twelve recognised national trade
unions in India. Not all of them are aliated to political
parties. Examples are the Association of Self Employed
Women (SEWA), and the New Trade Union Initiative
(NTUI), a small union intent on bringing workers of the
formal and informal sectors together. The landscape of
Indian trade unionism is further complicated by the
fact that there are countless unions which operate on
factory level only. Multi Unionism weakens the trade
union movement by creating inter- and intra-union
rivalries, deteriorating the eectiveness of collective
bargaining (Raveendran, 1992).
A substantial number of workers in Indian Industries
are women who have historically been involved in trade
union activism (Chattopadhyay, 1995). Women in
mines, textiles, sheries, bedi, tobacco, tanneries, and
construction are not only paid much less compared to
their male counterparts, but they face serious health
hazards which remain unaddressed. In sheries they
stand 10–12 hours at a stretch in water without gloves
or shoes. Women working in mines have no protection
from dust and often suer from tuberculosis. There is
a huge neglect of issues concerning women and health
in trade unions and the lack of women’s leadership at
the national level is testimony to the lack of gender
parity in the trade union movement. Therefore, we
nd new unions, which specically address the needs
of women workers, like the union of construction work-
ers, which is one of our cases below.
As Indian political parties fail to address basic issues
of employment, living wages, food security etc., trade
unions feel often unable to address environmental
issues. Some unionists we interviewed argued they
could not deal with climate change because of the
more urgent issues of poverty, others considered cli-
mate change to be an invention of the West aimed at
hampering economic development of countries in the
Global South.
The three unionists I present here belong to unions
which are politically independent and have developed
environmental policies: Manoj from the New Trade
Union Initiative, Gini from the construction workers
union: Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam, and
Pedru from the Kerala Independent Fish Workers
Federation, Thiruvananthapuram. Due to the promise
of anonymity we cannot detail these persons’ positions
in the unions. All names are pseudonyms.
Entries into Environmental Practices
In a rst step I present the ways in which the environ-
ment became a relevant concern in the life histories of
our interviewees. I then explicate the perceptions of
the labour-nature relationship that are implicit in their
accounts, creating three models of this relationship.
I will be talking about the environment as opposed
to nature because that is the language used by our
interviewees. Under this term unionists speak about
water pollution, health risks at work, deteriorating nat-
ural conditions, and other forms of environmental
degradation. Seldomly do they talk explicitly about
the climate crisis.
Manoj, New Trade Union Initiative
Asked about the beginning of his engagement for
environmental issues, Manoj answers:
By the late 80s or early 90s, if you had the kind of
political roots that I had, you would reject the environ-
ment (. . .) Whether it is the big dam or the small dam,
the nuclear plants (. . .) or the small battles against the
large hydro-projects, I was, if you wanted to say it, on the
wrong side.
The last ten years, the left-wing scientists started to
unbundle and educate us. We need to pay tribute to
them rather than the generation of unipolar environ-
mentalists. (. . .) I think that is really what inspired me to
begin addressing these issues. (. . .) I think the environ-
mentalists need to win us over by convincing us and not
steamroll on us.
Knowledge about ecological issues has not led Manoj
to aim for an understanding with environmental
movements. Learning about ecological issues theore-
tically it was also through theoretical reections that
Manoj decided to enter the trade union movement:
What took me to the trade union was really the collapse
(. . .) of the Soviet Union. So, if I look at dening
moments, I grew up in the nationalist India, the failure
of the left, the shadow of the emergency. What I learned
from the collapse of the Soviet Union was that we need
to rebuild the left. (. . .) Lenin’s metaphor that trade
unions are the school of learning politics is what told
me that what I ought to be doing is not becoming
a political economist but to work with the trade unions.
So, I nished my degree and came back [from studies in
the UK and Europe] and that is how I got into trade
Manoj sees the trade unions as an instrument for
creating a larger movement that will transform society.
His interpretation of what constitutes the rebuilding of
the left is based on an understanding of the working
class as a central change agent. Immersing himself in
trade union practices, he began to experience the
importance of environmental degradation for workers:
Just getting into urban areas, getting into working class
shanty towns and also addressing their questions . . .
from original shop oor struggles I cut my teeth origin-
ally in the old factory sector dealing with issues of
industrial waste, safety and hazardous issues, then deal-
ing with the informal sector.
Manoj remains within the realm of workers’ issues at
the workplace level and as a consequence, his views
are shaped by the ‘job vs. environment’ dilemma.
But if you present it as a black and white (. . .), ‘the plant
has to be shut’, then obviously there’s going to be resis-
tance and then, you can interpret that resistance in the
most negative, obstructive, obdurate way as if workers
are just obstructionist, only interested in their livelihood.
Yes, they’re interested in their livelihood. They are also
parenting the next generation! We are protecting the
environment for whom? For the next generation. And
for coming generations. These people (. . .) beget the next
generation. Are we going to leave the next generation
hungry? So, then we have people with low mental capa-
cities because their parents were starved and have
a wonderful environment (. . .) we’re talking poppycock
Manoj is turning one of the main arguments of
environmentalists around, namely that the climate
has to be protected for the next generations,
arguing that the next generations will suer if the
environment is protected. Researching the chain of
causes for safety and hazardous issues, Manoj could
have arrived at understanding the larger picture
connection nature, people and work. So why does
he think that caring for the environment would
leave people hungry? This conict that Manoj is
presenting is the central conict still haunting the
labour movement globally, particularly in poor
countries like India. No campaigns for climate jobs
or predictions that ‘green’ jobs will outnumber the
jobs being lost by environmental measures have so
far convinced a signicant number of workers that
the climate crisis should take pride of place on their
. . . many of them [people, with whom he prepared for
a COP meeting] were rooted in rural areas and they
would say to us that they felt that the transformation
must begin and (. . .) they would say we need to address
the water issue. Now, a construction worker in Delhi city,
who probably travels 20 or 25 kilometres to a site, gets
water for an hour in the morning and an hour in the
evening (. . .) and has to ll up for the rest of the day . . .
You’re not going (. . .) to convince him or her to worry
about what’s happening to the water resources in the
Manoj identies with the urban workers he represents.
In a conict with them and other workers he chooses
to associate himself with them as opposed to seeking
solidarity with the related water issues of country and
urban workers. We call Manoj’s perception of the
labour-nature relationship which also guides many
environmental unionists in the global North the con-
tainer model.
The Container Model
I arrive at the ‘container model’ explicating the labour –
nature relationship implicit in Manoj’s account. The
environment is seen as a container within which labour
is situated. There are no intrinsic relationships between
the container and its content. If workers would care for
the container, this perception suggests, they will lose
sight of their own needs and damage themselves.
Manoj transfers this image of labour being indepen-
dent from nature to the relationship between urban
and rural, reproducing a policy that pitches urban
against rural workers Figure 1.
Gini, Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam
Asked about how her interest in environmental issues
arose, Gini replies:
In the 90’s (. . .) there were a number of issues relating to
pollution (. . .) to water ways (. . .) because at one level we
got involved with the shermen issues, then it’s very closely
connected with the ecological question (. . .) you can’t
ignore it. (. . .) even with the construction workers, even
from the beginning, 79 −80, I got actively involved in
occupational health issues. Just one kind of environmental
Gini began to work with environmental issues when
they became relevant to the people whom she was
helping to organize. In retrospect, she denes their
health issues as a ‘kind of environmental issue’. At the
time they belonged to the context of working condi-
tions. Other environmental issues become part of
Gini’s work through the needs of organisations her
union connects with.
We branched out in many ways. The women’s move-
ments were also there, and we could involve the women
in the slum issues, (. . .) unorganized workers from var-
ious categories were brought together and then the slum
issues were basically causing riots and then certain
environmental issues, the water issues (. . .) cropped up.
Drinking water, waterways all these issues were brought
up in the 80’s to 90’s. That was another parallel activity
that we did. And then we founded another union for
other unorganized workers: contract labour and many
other categories of workers.
Things ‘cropped up’ or ‘were brought up’, is Gini’s
expression to explain how her work began to include
environmental issues. It was less a conscious decision,
or the result of theoretical insights, but derived from
the needs of workers. Wherever people voiced their
needs, they were included into the union’s struggles:
In 84, we moved from the slum dwellers to the shermen,
because that was the time the slums were getting demol-
ished. They removed the catamarans from the beach, in
the name of beautication. (. . .) there are a lot of sher
settlements (. . .) they keep their shing equipment on the
beach. But all that was wiped out because the govern-
ment probably wanted a ve-star hotel to be put on the
Marina, so there was a huge agitation by the shermen.
We were part of the agitation, and there was ring, 5
people were killed. (. . .) we (. . .) combined the slum issues
with the sh workers, so we had joint rallies. But that was
a very important experience, which helped me to under-
stand the sher people’s issues, which are (. . .) connected
with the ecological issues.
Our research with European unionists (see references)
showed that while some created alliances with envir-
onmentalists, they would rarely take actively part in
other struggles or see it as their task to found new
unions. Yet, it is the broadening of alliances and strug-
gles that opened Gini’s eyes for environmental issues.
An involvement of unions beyond the immediate
interests of their members has been discussed as social
movement unionism. It is dened by its internal democ-
racy, its inclusion of members into the decision making
process, alliances with other community organisations
and a concern for broader societal issues (Moody
1997). It is hoped that social movement unionism
could become a strategy for union renewal overcom-
ing the blows that neoliberalism, precarious labour
and the shift of jobs from sectors with high trade
union representation to sectors in which they played
a more marginal role (Fairbrother and Yates 2003).
Figure 1. Container model.
There has also been criticism of how trade unions
reached out to other social movements: ‘labour
approaches social movements as “others” with whom
to ally politically, rather than recognizing them as often
representing (. . .) parts of the working class’ (Gindin
2015: 112; Tait, Tzintzun, and Recorded Books 2016). In
Gini’s account the social movements she brings
together are seen as equal and strengthening each
other: we found that the workers had so many things
to share.
It is not only this belief that guides Gini’s practices
but also the peculiarity of her union, organising infor-
mal workers, 30% of them being woman, which facil-
itates broader alliances: since the employers of
informal workers keep changing, they address their
demands predominantly to the state and this joins
dierent groups together.
Whether the union aims to secure decent wages
and working conditions, or whether they ally with
slum dwellers or sh workers, in all these struggles
the demands are directed towards the regional or
central state:
. . . Indian informal workers are using their power as
voters to demand state responsibility for their social
consumption or reproductive needs (such as education,
housing, and health care). They have operationalized
this strategy through tripartite welfare boards that are
implemented at the state level. In contrast to traditional
labor struggles, informal workers’ movements today
include the mass of illiterate men and women and
employees in public and private enterprises. They orga-
nize by neighborhoods, register as NGOs and trade
unions, and use nonviolent tactics (Agarwala 2013, 67).
Bringing dierent movements together means bring-
ing a greater mass of people together, whose voting
power attracts political parties. These alliances provide
also a learning space for all to understand how their
respective needs are connected. For informal workers,
there are no pre-given denitions of workers’ interests.
This is also in part because, as in the case of Gini’s
union, women constitute a signicant part of informal
Informal workers are also addressing issues arising from
the intersection of class and gender. Women workers
have long fought to expose the interdependence
between reproductive and productive work, as well as
between the private and public spheres. Informal work,
which has until recently been considered ‘feminine,’ sits
at these very intersections. (Agarwala 2013, 16)
This inclusive approach can also be understood as
originating in Gini’s individual trajectory. Her mother
was a surgeon and her father, she says, a ‘freedom
ghter’ in the independence movement, rst as
Marxist, later becoming a Gandhian. Gini doesn’t recall
being interested when her father took her meetings.
She preferred science and studied physics. After she
had completed her M.Sc. and registered for a PhD, an
event inuenced her trajectory:
That was the time Jaya Prakash Narayana
came to the
university, so there was a big meeting on the campus. JP
came and addressed the students. He can inspire the
students in a big way. (. . .) He would call upon us to go
to the villages and factories and slums and work with the
people. That I think, somewhere, it had made an impact
on me, which I didn’t realise at that time.
Gini eventually left university and started to work in
the slums, then became a teacher, took part in organis-
ing a women’s organisation of teachers, and through
a research on construction workers became involved in
founding the union of construction workers. The his-
torically signicant engagement of middle-class indivi-
duals for ‘the poor’, which included founding and
joining unions, is reected in our material, where
unionists explained their engagement as their wish to
‘help the disadvantaged’. In Gini’s account workers,
slum dwellers, and sh workers, initiated their cam-
paigns and Gini’s union connected them.
Environmental issues enter into the union agenda
through existing struggles and thereby dene workers’
interests. Gini’s life trajectory led her to become an
activist in support of ‘the people’ an engagement
which has to be understood against the structure of
the Indian workforce, where the vast majority is com-
posed of informal workers, who do not t into the
conventional denition of the working class as it has
been developed in industrialised countries.
Having become and activist to support ‘the people’,
engaging in the women’s movement, in the slums, and
founding a trade union are for Gini elements of
a broader struggle. I called her perception of the
labour-nature relationship, nature as a mediator of
Nature as a Mediator of Survival
For Gini nature becomes a mediator of survival, since
waterways and sea wealth are fundamental conditions
for the survival of the people whose interests are
included in the union’s struggle. This perception is
developed through practices that connect a range of
social groups as opposed to pitching them against
each other as in Manoj’s case Figure 2.
Pedru Fisherfolk organisation
Pedru’s father was a sher and his mother sold sh. He
and his parents decided that he should not step into
their footsteps, but study. He studied engineering but
came back to his village and became one of the leaders
of the sherfolk association. Asked why he came back
he answers: I don’t know. Because (. . .) from my child-
hood on I needed to help others. (. . .) Some inuence
from the Bible. Pedru leads the sherfolk organisation,
with which Gini cooperates. For him, the sh workers’
struggles are by denition struggles for the environ-
ment. He relates how his trade union fought against
a law that allowed big shing companies to use the
method of ‘trawling’ by which large nets are used to
swipe the seabed. This has mainly two environmentally
damaging eects: the by-catch, catching sh that can
either not be marketed or is protected, and the
destruction of the seabed killing the breading sh:
we need to ght against (. . .) trawling. This is the protec-
tion of (. . .) the environment, this is the protection of the
sh level.
(. . .) we need to realize, what is the environment? What is
our earth? What is our surrounding? (. . .). We need to
protect the sh wealth, that is the food chain. We need to
protect the environment, that is our livelihood. (. . .) that
is why we are collaborating with other organisations, we
need to protect the tribals, the Adivasis. We need to
protect the forests, otherwise you will not get rain timely
and then you will not get sea wealth. (. . .) So, this is the
chain, we are part of this environment.
Pedru answers shortly, when it comes to questions
about his life, but it becomes clear that he, like Gini,
is driven by a wish to help the poor. The poor of whom
he used to be a part. From talking about himself, he
quickly comes back to his passion, the relationship
between people and the environment, a vision in
which he sees all living things connected, Adivasis,
forests, sh and sherfolk. Adivasis are tribal people
in India, who live predominantly in forests and whose
livelihoods have been severely threatened by defores-
tation and plantation. Thus, protecting Adivasis implies
protecting the forests and through them the climate
that secures the wealth of the sea. The workers he
represents are directly immersed in the societal rela-
tions with nature. The sh wealth they depend on is
threatened by large-scale industrialised shing on the
one hand and by environmental destruction like cli-
mate change, on the other. To develop eective stra-
tegies, they need to start from a comprehensive
understanding of humans as part of nature. Pedru
draws a complex picture of connections between
spaces and peoples. He situates the sherfolk within
the environment together with other working people,
the Adivasis. He describes an alliance between workers
and the nature that sustains them and which they in
turn need to sustain through the way in which they
The model that results from this understanding can
be called: the nature – labour alliance in reference to
Bloch’s concept Figure 3.
How do dierent Perceptions of the
Labour-Nature Relationship develop?
All three unionists were equally informed about cli-
mate change and environmental degradation. Yet,
their perceptions of the nature-labour relationship dif-
fered decisively. My thesis is that their perceptions
were not primarily informed by their theoretical knowl-
edge but by their practices as organisers of workers in
dierent contexts. Manoj’s perception is shaped by the
experiences he has made as a trade union representa-
tive in the context of urban factory workers. In strug-
gling to protect workers’ jobs he experiences the
environmental argument as a weapon used by
employers: . . . employers today use the environment to
run down jobs, to shut plants. (. . .) this is not for the
environment. This is to maximize prots. Nature as it
presents itself to workers in a capitalist production
process, belongs to the employer, it comes into the
production process as raw material and transformed
into tools and machines. Not only does it belong to the
employer in the sense that workers have no control
over the way in which it enters the production process,
it can also present itself as a threat to workers’ health
as dangerous substances or unsafe machines. This is
exacerbated by the use of the environment as ‘job
blackmail’ (Barca and Leonardi 2018). From the stand-
point of workers, who are not directly immersed in
natural processes through their work, nature is not
their, but their employers’ alley. In spite of the knowl-
edge he acquired through scientists, it is therefore
dicult for Manoj to develop trade union policies
that connect environmental and labour concerns. In
that sense the antagonism that existed and largely
continues to exist between labour and environmental
groups can be seen as an embodiment of the antago-
nist relationship into which workers are positioned in
relation to nature through the appropriation of nature
by Capital. This antagonism is described in Manoj’s
Figure 2. Nature as a mediator of survival.
image of a demented population living in a beautiful
environment as if, read the other way around, the
destruction of that environment was a necessary con-
dition for the ourishing of workers and their children.
In reproducing that antagonism, Manoj unconsciously
legitimates the appropriation of nature by Capital.
Gini’s engagement for the poor includes listening to
and supporting them in their struggles for survival as
workers and as citizens. When these struggles emerge
from the way in which environmental destruction
threatens people’s lives, Gini acts as an organic intel-
lectual (Gramsci 1999), taking up their issues and inves-
tigating the chain of causes that need to be addressed
to alleviate the plights of workers, women, and slum
dwellers. Connecting dierent struggles overcomes
the narrowness of a trade union focus on industrial
labour, as well as the narrowness of environmental
movements neglecting workers’ needs for
a livelihood. Resulting from these struggles is
a perception of the labour-nature relationship as
instrumental. Nature becomes a necessary mediator
of human life that needs to be harnessed for human
In Pedru’s perception nature is also an indispensa-
ble condition for human life. However, he also recog-
nises the ways in which humans cannot only use
nature to nurture them but need to nurture nature as
they themselves are part of it. This includes a vision of
how work needs to be undertaken in a way that allows
nature to produce and re-produce itself so that
humans, as part of nature can produce and re-
produce themselves as well. It is this holistic percep-
tion of what we can call the labour-nature alliance that
includes for Pedru the need to work together with
other people, whose way of living and working con-
tributes to protecting the labour-nature relationship.
Pedru’s perception does not only emerge from the
character of the sherfolks’ labour, which immerses
them in nature’s reproduction processes. It is also the
societal character of their work from which his percep-
tions derive. They are small-scale shers, working as
artisans, not as employees in an industrialised shing
process. They own and control their means of produc-
tion and their workplaces are simultaneously their liv-
ing places. They can be seen as examples of what Ariel
Salleh calls meta-industrial workers, ‘sustaining matter/
energy exchanges in nature’ (Salleh 2009, 7).
The Role of Individual Trajectories
While I have shown that the daily practices of struggle
within which our protagonists are engaged inform
their perceptions of the labour-nature relationship,
their individual trajectories also played a role in shap-
ing them.
It is notable that both Gini and Pedru describe their
motivation for engaging in workers’ organisations as
‘wanting to help people’. A feature that we did not
nd in the accounts of unionists in other countries,
where most of our interviewees came from inside the
trade union or had been employed by unions due to
their qualications. Gini’s and Pedru’s motivation to
help the poor may have allowed them to develop
a less divisive, more inclusive concept of workers. In
contrast, Manoj’s motivation to recreate the left based
on a specic interpretation of the urban working class
as the avantgarde makes it dicult for him to see
other working people as members of that class
Figure 3. The labour-nature alliance.
whose interests could be brought together. Along
with this specic interpretation of the working-class
goes a narrower interpretation of workers’ interests,
which excludes nature. He follows a specic tradition
within the left, which Marx challenged in his critique
of the Socialist Gotha Programme: Labor is not the
source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source
of use values (. . .) as labor, which itself is only the
manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power
(Marx 1875)
The critique that Pedru launches against the inter-
national discussions about the climate crisis could also
be directed towards trade unions restricting their
struggles to specic kinds of workers:
(. . .) the shermen or Adivasis and other locals, the farm-
ers, are not represented. (. . .) These are the rst aected
people. (. . .) But they are not represented in the climate
change discussion. (. . .) But nobody, even NGOs, will
allow them to discuss, allow them to attend these
Conclusions for Environmental Trade Union
Three models of perceiving the labour-nature relation-
ship were found which could be explained as emer-
ging from the political practices of their protagonists
and the individual trajectories which led them to
become organisers of workers. The container model,
nature as a mediator of survival, and the labour-nature
alliance model were embedded in dierent environ-
mental strategies. Manoj was locked into his task of
representing urban industrial workers without perceiv-
ing that their interests included the protection of nat-
ure as the condition for their work. Consequently, he
resorted to the ‘jobs vs. environment’ perception and
did not create alliances between urban and rural work-
ers, arguing that water issues of rural workers are not
related to water issues of urban workers. Gini, who
learned about the importance of nature as
a mediator of survival through connecting the strug-
gles of workers, slum dwellers and sherfolks, broa-
dened the issues of her trade union to include the
protection of nature as part of workers’ lives. Pedru’s
holistic perception of the labour-nature alliance led
him to extend his environmental concerns beyond
the immediate interests of the sherfolks his organisa-
tions represented. His perception can be explained as
deriving from the practices of shers in control of their
working conditions and directly immersed in the
development of natural processes. All protagonists
have made their choices regarding the struggles they
engage in. However, once they have decided, the
aordances of the societal structures and their prac-
tices create more or less possibilities to transform their
Coming back to the uses of case studies as possibi-
lities to reect how practices might become generali-
sable, the question arises how unionists who are not
directly engaged in broader workers’ alliances or
immersed in working processes closely related to nat-
ure could develop a labour-nature perception that
transcends immediate workplace experiences.
Learning by Doing
John Dewey formulated the educational principle
learning by doing: ‘knowing has to do with reorganiz-
ing activity, instead of being isolated from all activity’
(2000: 216). In a dierent context, Salleh (2009:6 f)
speaks of a feminist perspective as emerging from
praxis, as ‘action learning’. While our case studies
show the strength of praxis as a source of ‘action
learning’ in Gini’s case, they also show its limitations
in Manoj’s case. Not action as such enables a more
comprehensive learning process, it depends on the
kind of action one is engaged in. Unions working
together with other unions and workers along the
supply change down to extraction processes could
create learning possibilities about the labour-nature
relationship but also about their unequal yet con-
nected working conditions. In another project about
workers in one transnational corporation in countries
of the Global South and North we learned that know-
ing about each other’s lives and working conditions
motivated workers of the Global North to support their
colleagues in the South in their struggles for living
wage. Organising forms of global collaborations
among unions and with other organisations could be
a way to develop a perception of the labour-nature
alliance as a point of departure to overcome the ‘jobs
vs. environment’ dilemma.
1. The English translation distorts the German original,
using the word ‘man’ where Marx speaks of ‘Mensch’.
In German ‘Mann’ (man) and ‘Mensch’ (human being)
are two dierent words.
2. Publications analysing other themes and countries
include: (Räthzel, Cock, and Uzzell 2018; Räthzel et al.
2015; Uzzell and Räthzel 2019)
3. Interviews were conducted by myself with CITU,
IdustriAll, Delhi, INTUC, Delhi, BMS, Delhi, AITUC,
Delhi. Thanks to Rob Johnston from IndustriAll and
its oce in Delhi for facilitating these interviews. The
Indian research team interviewed: The National
Alliance for People’s movements, NTUI, AITUC, INTUC
West Bengal, BMS, INTUC People’s training and
Research Centre, Jyoti Karmachari Mandal, Direct
Initiative for Social and Health Issues, Ramkrishna
Vivekananda Charitable Trust, Kerala Independent
Fish Workers Federation, Agricultural Labour
Organisation, Self Employed Women Association
(SEWA), Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangam.
4. Jaya Prakash Narayana is a liberal politician, engaged
in furthering India’s democratisation.
5. The most inuential academic endeavour making the-
oretical sense of Indian’s diverse groups of dispos-
sessed resisting colonial and postcolonial rule has
been the Subaltern Studies, whose historians bor-
rowed the term from Gramsci. He dened the subal-
tern as those excluded from societies’ institutions
having no legitimate voice within them. (Guha 1997)
Mitra Payoshni, Nilajan Pande, and Piya Chakraborty con-
ducted the interviews used in this paper and provided pen
portraits of the interviewees. Nilanjan Pande wrote a paper
on the history of trade unions in India, which is the basis of
the respective section. After the end of the project, they
moved on to other jobs and therefore could not contribute
to the analyses presented here.
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the author.
This work was supported by Vetenskapsrådet (Swedish
Research Council) [DNR: 2010-1990].
Notes on contributor
Nora Räthzel is Professor em. at the University of Umeå,
Sweden. Her main research areas are environmental labour
studies, trade unions and the environment, working condi-
tions in transnational corporations and gender and ethnic
relations in the everyday. Latest publications
include: Räthzel, N.; Uzzell, D.The future of work denes the
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This special issue is a contribution to environmental labour studies, which aims to investigate the practices and theories that integrate labour and nature, by focusing on labour environmentalism. While nature is privately appropriated and exploited by Capital, workers’ organizations tend to construct nature as labour’s other, a place to enjoy or a place to be protected from destruction at best. In the following introductory article to this special issue, we present our view of what environmental labour studies are investigating and might investigate in the future and the place of labour environmentalism within this broader agenda. We also suggest an analytical framework to evaluate the depth, breadth, and level of the agency of the variations of labour environmentalism. We suggest that environmental labour studies can be a way of studying not only the intersections between social and environmental justice, climate change and working conditions but can also contribute to building a bridge between environmental theory and practice.
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We present the life histories of two environmentally engaged unionists in South Africa, who were decisive for formulating the environmental programmes of their respective trade unions. Their experiences of participating in the resistance against apartheid in universities and factories taught them the necessity to connect different struggles and equipped them with the knowledge and ability to connect the fight for workers’ rights with the fight against environmental degradation. Both activists experienced the difficulty of integrating ‘the environment’ politically and practically into a trade union agenda. The labour movement has traditionally experienced nature as a place outside of work to be enjoyed for recreation. While nature constitutes an indispensable condition for labour, it has been privately appropriated by Capital. For environmental policies to form an integral part of union agendas, nature needs to be wrestled away from its appropriation by Capital and understood as an inseparable ally of labour.
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This article examines five common misunderstandings about case-study research: (1) Theoretical knowledge is more valuable than practical knowledge; (2) One cannot generalize from a single case, therefore the single case study cannot contribute to scientific development; (3) The case study is most useful for generating hypotheses, while other methods are more suitable for hypotheses testing and theory building; (4) The case study contains a bias toward verification; and (5) It is often difficult to summarize specific case studies. The article explains and corrects these misunderstandings one by one and concludes with the Kuhnian insight that a scientific discipline without a large number of thoroughly executed case studies is a discipline without systematic production of exemplars, and that a discipline without exemplars is an ineffective one. Social science may be strengthened by the execution of more good case studies.
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This study examines the relationship between unionization and environmental attitudes and behaviors in two national surveys. We begin by comparing the responses of union versus nonunion respondents to sixteen environmental questions in the General Social Survey for various years between 1993 and 2010. Overall, union members are, on average, slightly more likely than the general population to display pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors—having moderately greater mean values for ten of the sixteen pro-environmental items and displaying no difference on the remaining six items. Next, we look at three environmental questions in the American National Election Studies in various years between 1980 and 2012 and find union members on average to be more likely to support environmentalism than the general population for all three items. Finally, we conduct a robustness check by reducing the sample to just employed workers for each of the surveys and find the results to be substantively similar to those for the general population. This study contributes to the ongoing “jobs vs. the environment” debate as well as discussions about the ability of the labor and environmental movements to work together as a broad-based progressive movement for social change.
This paper argues that Environmental Labour Studies may benefit from incorporating the perspective of environmental justice. We offer a theorization of working-class ecology as the place where working-class communities live and work, being typically affected by environmental injustice, and of working-class environmentalism as those forms of activism that link labour and environmental struggles around the primacy of reproduction. The paper’s theoretical section draws on a social ethnography of working-class ecology in the case of Taranto, a mono-industrial town in southern Italy, which is experiencing a severe environmental and public-health crisis. We show how environmental justice activism since the early 2000s has allowed the re-framing of union politics along new ways of politicizing the local economy. We conclude by offering a conceptual topology of working-class ecology, which situates different labour organizations (confederal, social/community, and rank-and-file unions) according to their positioning in respect to environmental justice.
p> A survey of 22 UK unions’ environmental activism suggests that it is generally unrelated to either membership trends or unions’ financial health, although large, multi-sector unions are generally the most active. Adequate resourcing, discussion of environmental matters at senior levels of the union and positive relations with external environmental organisations are all associated with environmental activism. Although the agenda appears popular with members and encounters little resistance from employers few unions currently evidence serious or regular engagement and it is largely confined to large and/or public sector workplaces where the union is already well-established. Limited adoption may be attributable to a combination of the absence of supportive legislation and public funding, the agenda’s inability to generate an attractive ‘product’ for members, and already crowded local agendas. However, most unions anticipate their environmental agenda expanding in the future. Key Words : unions; environment; labour-environment relationship; employee relations; union renewal</p
This volume presents twenty-nine essays that encompass the author's reflections on various facets of Mahatma Gandhi's life and thought. These essays were products of research which started on that fateful winter evening of 30 January 1948 and were written on different occasions, and with varied themes, length, and depth. They were designed to respond to the interest of the particular audience for which they were written. The essays explore Gandhi's fight for Indian freedom in South Africa and evaluate the influence of the South African movement in his political career in India. They also mention several attempts made in his life, and describe his relationship with various issues and personalities including racialism, Pan-Islamism, Swami Vivekananda, and Charles Andrews. The reception of Gandhi's ideas, his accomplishments, and his legacies are also examined in these essays.