Organized labor is currently faced with the most consequential question of its life: are oil and gas commodities that workers have a right to burn for their own material benefit; or should they be left in the ground?
As an ecosocialist, the answer is clear: no more burning fossil fuels. Organized labor is in the unique position to both disrupt the deep systems that perpetuate dependence on fossil fuels and the products that run on them, while also ensuring production pivots towards the greater public good over individual personal luxury.
One system ripe for disruption is car dependence. Car-centric living requires millions of gallons of fossil fuels be burned into the air, every day, just so people can participate in society. It is a structural problem that requires a large-scale, organized solution that is clear-eyed on both the source and the results of car dependency.
The existing pattern of development in the US in our urban, suburban and peri-urban spaces reflects an intentional plan by petro-capitalists and the state to center life around the automobile. The Federal Housing Administration subsidized low-density suburban development from the 1930s through the post-war years. Ex-urban homeownership, largely enjoyed exclusively by white families, boosted demand for automobiles, consumer durables, and energy consumption, thereby absorbing overproduction from some of the biggest industries of the time: the oil and automotive industries.1 Indeed, the self-reinforcing and self-reproducing system of sprawl, cars, and gas make this system difficult to disrupt on a systemic level when the petro-capitalists are still many regions’ top employers and tax payers.
Today, car-centric systems seem fair and normal. Yet Americans collectively owe $1.37 trillion in auto loan debt — 10 times that of medical debt — to collectively burn about 350 millions gallons of finished motor gasoline into the air per day,2 dwarfing China in terms of both per capita and total gasoline use.3 Unlike in other sectors such as energy production, global emissions in road transportation are projected to grow, and grow fast.
Make no mistake: it’s the system of automobility as a whole that is unsustainable, not individual use and consumption. Even advances in efficiency, including electrification (electric vehicles) will be wiped out by more widespread adoption especially as auto manufacturers open up markets in the global south.
Historically, there have been organized efforts to build towards structural solutions that start at the point of production from inside the auto industry itself. While those efforts were not explicitly in the name of ecosocialism as we understand it today, our country’s rich labor history as it unfolded in auto plants should not be glossed over. Automotive manufacturing employed one out of six Americans in the height of Motor City,4 and about 5% of all workers globally today. Communist and socialist-led organizing in auto plants played a crucial role in organizing industrial shops. Beyond the shop floor, affordable cars were even crucial in the labor struggles of Southern smallholders and tenant farmers: those who were able to purchase vehicles were no longer beholden to a single plantation commissary and could purchase supplies at much lower prices in the nearby urban centers.5
But take a moment to think about those who were unable to purchase vehicles. They didn’t necessarily benefit from their peers’ new automotive freedom. The core relationship between capitalist and worker is not challenged via consumer products (and more cars won’t get us out of the cycle of too many cars). And spare a thought for Detroit today. Without worker control fully realized, and with capital fleeing out of cities and to the global south during neoliberalization, US auto production has been on the decline since the ’90s.6
Organized labor can change the paradigm through direct, organized, and militant action by demanding both a shift in production towards more buses, trains, rail and bicycles, and also work and social lives that are decoupled from individualized, resource and fuel-intensive consumer products.
First, manufacturers and auto workers must push for shifting production to socially responsible goods, ideally through direct control of the means of production. There is precedent for this approach: The Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), a 1960s radical group of Black anti-war and anti-imperialist Marxist auto workers had no interest in making cars to turn the Big Three automakers a profit: “DRUM wanted workers to have all the pie and to produce goods only for social needs.”7 While their vision was never realized, they had an unprecedented foresight into the destructive role the auto and gas industries would have in colonization and fascism , nevermind climate change. The manufacture of buses, trains, light rail, and even bicycles provides jobs across all skill sets; these public goods move many more people using far fewer resources and energy, without burdening individuals with the debts and risks that come with personal cars.
Second, organized labor across all industries can reduce our country’s massive fuel use not through austerity or taxes, but by fighting for more flexible work schedules that reduce the need for so much driving to begin with. The National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), a trade association representing gas station convenience stores and filling stations, says they have repeatedly found people drive less when gas prices are high enough to become a financial hardship.8 Anyone who has ever had to dig through their couch for coins to pay for a few more drops of gas can attest to these findings. High gas prices mean less driving, thus less greenhouse gasses and particulate matter, but at the cost of contraining social and economic activity, especially by the poor: they mostly just stay home.
NACS also found that people drive more not when prices are low, but when they have more work, family, and social responsibilities. Reversing the atomization and alienation of modern life has been a core goal of communist organizers and thinkers for a century. Winning more freedom from individual responsibilities gives workers and their families the freedom to forgo those responsibilities only a personal car can conveniently shepherd: commuting alone many miles to work, picking up/dropping off dependents on their varied schedules, moving personal goods, and otherwise running themselves ragged in traffic. These benefits are universal, even in areas where public transportation does not (yet) exist, and especially for those people — about 20% of Americans and 80% of people worldwide — who do not drive a car for structural, legal, personal, financial, or medical reasons.
The core goal of communist organizing is that we can and must control our own futures. For ecosocialists, that future is decarbonized, decoupled from burning excess energy just to arrive at work, school, or care. Gasoline has a precarious journey into our cars. Its source material, crude oil, spills out of—and into—the jungles of Ecuador, the shores of the Gulf, the deltas of Africa’s rivers, and the tundras of Alaska and Russia. And when it’s mercifully unspilled, when it’s not poisoning rivers and destroying fisheries people depend on for food and water, when it’s not killing babies in the womb, when it safely and soundly makes its way to its final destination — a gas station in Anytown, USA — we pay the privilege of $3-$4 a gallon to burn it into the air on our way to sell our wages.
Transportation has been the largest consumer of petroleum products in the USA for at least 100 years.9 It’s about time organized labor says enough.
— Nicole is a member of NYC DSA Ecosocialist Working Group
- Mattioli, Giulio et al, “The political economy of car dependence: A systems of provision approach,” Energy Research & Social Science, no. 66 (2020), doi:10.1016/j.erss.2020.101486
- “How much gasoline does the United States consume?”, U.S. Energy Information Administration, September 07, 2021, https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=23&t=10
- Wang, Shirley and Mengpin Ge, “Everything You Need to Know About the Fastest-Growing Source of Global Emissions: Transport,” World Resources Institute, October 16, 2019. https://www.wri.org/insights/everything-you-need-know-about-fastest-growing-source-global-emissions-transport
- Georgakas, Dan and Marvin Surkin. Detroit: I Do Mind Dying. South End Press, 1998. 30.
- Kelley, Robin. Hammer & Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression. UNC Press, 1990. 37.
- “U.S. domestic auto production from 1994 to 2020,” Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/184171/us-passenger-car-production-since-1994/
- Georgakas and Surkin, Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, 44.
- “The Relationship Between Gas Prices and Demand”, NACS, March 20, 2020, https://www.convenience.org/Media/Daily/2020/Mar/20/3-The-Relationship-Between-Gas-Prices-Demand_Fuels
- “In the United States, most petroleum is consumed in transportation,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, August 02, 2019 https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=40752