The history of Scottish working-class environmentalism
Scottish Oral History Centre, University of Strathclyde &
University of Adelaide, Australia
Nicholas Herriot is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Adelaide, Australia. His thesis examines linkages between the environmental and labour movements in Australia since the 1970s. Nicholas has also written on student radicalism and is an active participant in anti-nuclear and climate justice campaigns in South Australia.
For my EARTH Scholarship exchange, I undertook three months of research at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Extending themes emerging from my PhD thesis on Australian labour-environmentalism, this project set out to explore the often fraught relationship between workers and environmentalists in recent Scottish history. I spent time in the archives and recording interviews with activists involved at the intersection of the trade union and environmental movements. Although the importance of mutual solidarity to achieve a just transition was foregrounded by the protests surrounding COP26 in Glasgow, my project shed light on the longer-term entanglements between Scotland’s labour and environment movements. Archival investigations and oral histories illustrate some underexamined cases of working-class environmentalism, from the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s to past campaigns against environmental injustice. It is hoped that greater understanding of these histories will help activists and scholars alike to find greater understanding of these histories will help activists and scholars alike to find greater common ground in future.
Can workers and environmentalists unite as allies? Events during COP26, in Glasgow during 2021, demonstrated a seemingly unlikely convergence between striking workers and climate activists. Many environmental protesters joined picket lines and when Greta Thunberg extended an invitation to Glasgow’s cleansing workers to join a youth climate strike, the two groups marched together in unity. Unions highlighted the environmental dimensions of campaigns for better pay and services, advocating for an adequate waste management system as a prerequisite to achieving greener communities. There was a shared recognition among activists from both movements that, in Thunberg’s words, “climate justice also means social justice”.1
Glasgow city cleansing workers join the Fridays for Future climate strike during COP26, 2021. Image: IndustriALL Global Union.
Despite this show of solidarity, the labour and environmental movements are often seen as antagonists. Many environmentalists have accused unions of blind faith in industrial development, regardless of ecological consequences. In his seminal 1972 work, The Politics of Environment, Scottish scientist Malcolm Slesser accused the workers’ movement of enthusiasm for unbridled economic expansion, guided by the doctrine of “live now, pay later”. 2 On the other hand, many workers have dismissed environmentalists as “an assembly of middle-class crazies out of touch with the facts of working life”.3
In both Scotland, the location of my three-month research project, and Australia, my home country, labour-environmental tensions remain a significant contemporary challenge. The perceived ‘jobs versus environment’ conflict continues to constrain activism in the era of climate change. A catalyst for this project was my motivation to address the climate crisis by highlighting a history of labour-environmental encounters. Based at the University of Strathclyde, I set out with a broad aim of exploring histories of working-class environmentalism in Scotland from the 1970s to the present. Is hostility between workers and environmentalists inevitable? Or has it been possible to find common ground?
My research cautions against both a dismissive attitude to the workers’ movement as an ecological actor and an inflexible dichotomy between workers and environmentalists. I sought to give attention to a longer, more complex and, I believe, more interesting, history of entanglements. I found that the labour-environmental alliances at COP26 were not as novel as they might appear. Workers, their unions and their communities have long campaigned for environmental improvements, particularly health and safety at work. In Scotland, the 1970s and 1980s were formative decades in which a new environmental movement against nuclear power contributed to a ‘greening’ of the Scottish labour movement. This process evolved through the 1990s and early 2000s with campaigns against environmental injustice and has been accelerated by climate and just transition activism.
Labour-environmentalism has become an important concern among activists and researchers. Mutual solidarities between movements have been supported by new research embodied in the field of environmental labour studies. Many acknowledge that conventional narratives of the environmental movement as predominantly middle class neglect contributions by working people. Scholar-activist Karen Bell urges an expansive view of environmental protest capable of recognising actions by workers and their communities. Working-class environmentalism, Bell argues, has often been erased from what is considered as environmentalism.4 Yet, despite a growing body of theory, we still know remarkably little about labour-environmental histories in Scotland and elsewhere. As a historian, I am interested in uncovering such hidden stories of grassroots political action.
I spent my time in Glasgow immersed in archives and recording interviews with activists. Scotland’s archives include significant labour and social movement collections. This is valuable given that leaflets, posters and other materials generated through activism are usually ephemeral. The records of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, particularly debates and motions at its annual conferences, are held at Glasgow Caledonian University and offer a window into evolving environmental sensibilities within the workers’ movement. Archival excavations are enriched by oral history. Interviews are essential for constructing a better picture of how Scottish activists have navigated labour-environmental challenges. I recorded five interviews with a diverse cohort of activists. The recordings of these will be archived at the University of Strathclyde as a resource for other researchers and the public.
My analysis of union archives suggests that environmentalism was a dirty word for many labour movement leaders during the mid to late 1970s. The Scottish Trades Union Congress enthusiastically supported nuclear development. Margaret Hinds, a representative of workers at the Dounreay nuclear facility, thundered:
Just imagine the joys of living free from pollution as the environmentalists would like us to do. We could be living in a town council semi-detached cave and running around in sheepskin liberty-bodices. I don’t know about you lot, but I don’t think I would look good in that … Comrades. We are here to find ways to improve the standard of living of the working people and there is no way we can do this without energy.5
Hinds’ dismissal of environmentalism was representative of large sections of the labour movement at the time. At a first glance, the implicit opposition between conservationists and workers seeking improved living standards would appear to confirm the views of theorists who portray the labour movement as obsessed with growth, materialism and ignorant of ecological concerns. Is this not the left’s “muscularly dismissive approach to environmentalism” as described in one history of Scottish
Advertisement from Scottish Trades Union Congress 84th Annual Report, 1981, 690.
If we take a closer look at the archives and oral histories, however, we begin to see that this caricature offers only a partial picture of labour-environmental relations. In 1978, a mineworkers’ representative rose to the rostrum during a union debate about nuclear power. Workers, he said, “should be conspicuous at demonstrations across the country. The environmentalists need your support, and it’s time you were turning out!”.7
Here, in the archives, I had stumbled across an explicit argument for working-class environmentalism. This labour-environmental alliance was, to some extent, realised. The anti-nuclear movement heralded attempts by activists to marry concerns as diverse as workers’ health and safety, restrictions on union rights in the industry, the environmental hazards of radioactive waste and the inseparability of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. This laid a basis for common concern with sections of the workers’ movement.
Exploring anti-nuclear publications, I came across an image of a demonstration in Edinburgh from the late 1970s. It shows some of the 7000 trade unionists and environmentalists marching together under the anti-nuclear banner. In some ways, this protest might be viewed as a high-water mark of unity between the two movements.
From Scottish Campaign Against the Atomic Menace South West Bulletin no. 4 (October/November 1979): 3.
Interviews, however, remind us that connections between the organised labour and an emerging environmental movement were not often straightforward. Pete Roche, a long-term anti-nuclear activist, recalled to me how Mick McGahey, a prominent Communist and mineworkers’ leader, was booed off the stage at the Edinburgh demonstration after articulating an ambiguous position on nuclear. “He upset us all by saying he was fine with nuclear power as long as there were copper-bottom guarantees about safety,” Pete explained. The encounter was emblematic of differences of class, culture and politics that were not automatically overcome, but were beginning to be challenged in some spaces provided by anti-nuclear protest. Pete suggested that McGahey’s poor reception may have contributed to his advocacy for a greater openness to anti-nuclear environmentalism within the Communist Party.
My archival and oral history explorations uncovered other examples of working-class environmentalism during this time, from manufacturing workers in Glasgow refusing work on the Trident nuclear weapons program, to alternative plans for ‘jobs conversion’, demonstrating that radical sections of the movements were uniting around ideas of environmentally and socially useful production under workers’ control. These are fascinating and little-known labour-environmental intersections with resonance today.
From Torness Nuclear Power Station: From Folly to Fiasco (Edinburgh: Scottish Campaign to Resist the Atomic Menace, 1983)
Ultimately, the anti-nuclear movement contributed towards a greening of the Scottish labour movement. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster eroded unions’ confidence in the capacity of technology to overcome environmental challenges like pollution. In the words of one Scottish trade unionist, Chernobyl “permanently altered our way of thinking”.8 Environmentalism was increasingly viewed as a plank in the raft of class politics. A speech by F. Feechan of Dundee Trades Council at the STUC congress in 1989 illustrated that shift. “Environmental issues,” Feechan explained, had come the fore of public consciousness and constituted “a central issue, not a side issue” for the workers’ movement.9
Over time, new concerns emerged and presented new possibilities for labour-environmentalism. From the mid-1990s, a wave of environmental justice campaigns arose as working-class communities battled issues such as pollution, opencast mining and new motorways. Particularly notable was the landmark campaign waged by residents of Greengairs against the dumping of contaminated soil in a local landfill. This was, in the words of one trade union activist I interviewed, Scotland’s “Warren County moment”, referring to a seminal 1982 campaign against contaminated soil in North Carolina. Unfortunately, these struggles remain largely undocumented.
Although participants in environmental justice campaigns often didn’t self-identify as environmentalists, their activism helped to shed the middle-class veneer of environmentalism and further embedded social justice within an environmental agenda. They challenge the notion of workers versus environmentalists by showing examples of workers and their communities acting as environmentalists.
More recently, climate activism has opened further sites from which labour-environmental links are being made. A Just Transition Partnership between unions and environmental groups was established in 2016. According to Matthew Crighton, founder of the Partnership, both this formal connection and climate activism more broadly have facilitated a mutual “learning” between movements. This cross-fertilisation, while limited, has led to a greater appreciation among activists of the inseparable need for economic and environmental change.
My research has attempted to better understand a longer history of engagement between Scotland’s labour and environment movements. Although the importance of labour-environmental alliances has increased through contemporary climate campaigning, parts of the story could be said to begin with the anti-nuclear movement and the partial incorporation of environmental concerns into the labour movement’s agenda. For activists, this history demonstrates that it has been possible to challenge, if not always overcome, the old choice of economy or environment. It is possible to note areas of common interest, such as the intersection of environmental concerns with workers’ health and safety. I would encourage other researchers to question a caricature of the labour movement as universally beholden to productivism and indifferent to its consequences.
The archives and oral histories offer complex reflections on unresolved challenges. Unions have increasingly embraced the discourse of a just transition yet seem little closer to putting it into practice than past plans for jobs conversion. Although many are developing more proactive environmental stances, unions remain divided on issues like nuclear power and decarbonisation. Perhaps most fundamentally, we might ask, will labour-environmentalism mean just upholding jobs within the dominant relations of production or a more expansive process of replacing extractive capitalism?
My project was a brief and exploratory deep dive into the past, not a comprehensive history. I benefited greatly from discussions from activists and experts such as Ewan Gibbs (University of Glasgow) and Arthur McIvor (University of Strathclyde), as well as the archival teams at Glasgow Caledonian University and Glasgow Women’s Library. Historians will benefit from exploring successful, unsuccessful and ambiguous labour-environmental relationships from Scotland’s past in greater detail. My hope is that a greater understanding of these issues will help activists and scholars find greater common ground in future.
1. Daniel Harkins, “Greta Thunberg invites striking workers to join her at Glasgow protest,” Evening Standard, 25 October 2021.
2. Malcolm Slesser, The Politics of Environment: A Guide to Scottish Thought and Action (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1972), 119.
3. Socialist Environment and Resources Association, Eco-socialism in a Nutshell (London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, 1980), 5.
4. Karen Bell, Working-Class Environmentalism: An Agenda for a Just and Fair Transition to Sustainability (London: Palgrave, 2019).
5. Scottish Trades Union Congress 82nd Annual Report, 1979, 509.
6. Kevin Dunion, Troublemakers: The Struggle for Environmental Justice (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), 12.
7. Scottish Trades Union Congress 81st Annual Report, 1978, 577.
8. Scottish Trades Union Congress 90th Annual Report, 1987, 230.
9. Scottish Trades Union Congress 92nd Annual Report, 1989, 263.