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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

 

VOLUME 6 (1999)

Coalitions Across the Class Divide: Lessons from the Labor, Peace, and Environmental Movements, by Fred Rose. Ithaca: Cornell University Press (2000), xi, 253 pp.

 

Reviewed by Vincent Lyon-Callo, Department of Anthropology Western Michigan University.

Large, organized, public demonstrations recently confronted meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle, the World Bank in Washington, and the Organization of American States in Ottawa. Thousands of activists used the meetings as a platform for articulating critiques of neoliberal social policies, environmental degradation, and rising global inequities. They also used the meetings as a possible springboard for building progressive, international collaborative efforts between environmental, labor, and peace organizations. Receiving less attention, but important nonetheless, similar collaborations are currently being negotiated every day in communities across the United States in "living wage", Jobs with Justice, and environmental justice campaigns.
As indicated by these recent collaborative efforts, it appears that progressives are increasingly aware that they need to work together to have any hope to challenge emergent free trade policies and stem the tide of increasing corporate control of the social and the environment. That is precisely the thesis of Fred Rose's Coalitions Across the Class Divide. As Rose argues, "the major crises that each movement faces are inherent in the emergent free trade regime. Global corporate mobility has shifted the balance of power away from workers and unions. National sovereignty over environmental regulations is being ceded to international trade tribunals" (112). He suggests that the primary political challenge for progressives today is to foster a more inclusive politics to effectively resist the increasing corporate and elite control over the political, economic, and environmental landscape of the nation.

However, Rose does much more in this timely and important new book than simply call for collaborative efforts between labor and environmental movements. As Rose points out, significant barriers continue to foster possible divisions between peace, labor, and environmental activists despite the recent nascent efforts. He analyzes both the potentiality of such coalitions and the complex set of barriers serving as obstacles to be overcome. Rose argues that one of the major barriers to effective collaborative resistance occurs when labor and environmental movements remain entrenched in "identity" or "interest group" politics, thus creating a political choice between jobs or a healthy environment. He suggests that within the framework of the United States, political and economic elites need to craft alliances with other social groups to advance their goals. This is made much easier when environmental, labor, and peace movements see their agendas as being in conflict with one another. Rose thus suggests that "powerful interests are served by pitting citizens and their legitimate issues against each other" (8) in such ways. He discusses how this occurs by examining recent struggles in the forest of the Pacific Northwest as well as economic restructuring and military conversion efforts in Maine, Washington, and Minnesota.

Through his ethnographic case studies, Rose suggests that a primary barrier to effective collaborative resistance is that single interest group movements (such as labor, peace, environmental, racial justice, feminist, and so forth) tend to attract members who are very similar in terms of class, race, educational level, and other indicators of social background. Very often these organizations spend much time wondering where the "other" people are, but with little ability to diversify their organizations. The homogeneity of these organizations serves as a barrier to effectively work with other groups. Although Rose briefly mentions that issues such as the racial make-up of a groups membership might also be important, he focuses his analysis on how class defines and divides peace, labor, and environmental movements.

Through surveys of the membership of groups he studied, Rose determined that labor unions were mainly working class organizations while peace and environmental organizations consisted of members of the middle class. For example, the Washington Environmental Council, an umbrella organization of over ninety local environmental groups as well as state and local chapters of national organizations, was the main environmental organization he examined. He found the average member of this organization to be white, highly educated, employed as a professional and about 50 years old (65). Likewise, he suggests that employees in the timber industries in Washington and Oregon and those working for military contractors in Maine, Minnesota, and Washington were working class while those involved in peace organizations, such as SANE/Freeze in Washington, were middle class. He then argues that the practices, goals, and articulations of these different organizations (and the particular people making them up) are determined through their particular "class cultures".

Rose says that "working and middle-class members interpret politics and think about change differently as a result of their class-based experiences. These differences are evident in the models of organizing advanced by different-class movements. Working class people tend to approach social change through organizing around perceived immediate interests of their members, while middle-class movements tend to see change as a process of education and value change" (17). He suggests that unionized, working class workers see themselves engaged in an economic and political struggle between two sides with very different sets of interests, but middle class activists see themselves as engaged in moral or ethical struggles addressing universal goods.
Furthermore, he contends that middle class organizations and activists view social change as possible only through in consciousness and that is a product of education. "The environmental, peace, and feminist movements have generally sought to teach people new values, raise their consciousness, and alter their attitudes about how they live and relate to others·This assumes that people share similar values, but that some fail to act on them due to lack of information, avoidance, fear, ignorance of alternatives or some other reason" (19).

Additionally, he found a difference between working-class and middle-class activists in terms of what type of knowledge they valued. The more formally educated middle class peace and environmental activist placed their trust in scientific studies and book learning while the timber workers placed more trust in their individual experiences. "A logger's sense of nature is highly experiential, and members of this trade generally value direct experience as the basis for knowledge and the standard for truth" (63). As a result of these different ways of knowing "the truth" about the situation, Rose found environmentalists characterizing unions and timber workers as "misguided, ignorant of the science of forest ecosystems, shortsighted, unsophisticated and simplistic in their concerns, and destroyers of nature" (47). Furthermore, it was understood as inevitable that the logging industry in the region would be short lived. For those reasons, loggers should have been allies with environmentalists if only they properly understood the conditions of their industry instead of allowing themselves to be fooled into allying with industry. On the other hand, timber workers characterized environmentalists as outsiders who did not really understand either the forest or the industry. Rose argued that workers did not trust the scientific studies of these "outsiders" over their own experiences. This was exacerbated when many environmental organizations seemingly refused to accept that many timber communities would be devastated by new restrictions of logging and instead placed the blame solely on industry practices. To those living and working in those communities, the economic costs were apparent.

Finally, Rose found that union members and middle-class activists have conflicting ways of communicating, holding meetings, and running their organizations. He found that workers in the timber industry and those working for military contractors became frustrated with the middle class activists focus on process and perhaps trying to reach consensus on issues. This was seen as a waste of time and energy and as a distraction from actually accomplishing anything. "Working-class participants often find that peace and environmental organizations are not attuned to the immediate needs that motivate their activism, nor are they organized to achieve short-term goals" (58). Conversely, he found middle-class activists disenchanted with the lack of a democratic process with unions as well as their formality and hierarchy.

Thus, Rose argues, "because of these class-based cultural differences, working and middle class movements have difficulty perceiving their common interests and working together. The middle class is prone to see the working class as rigid, self-interested, narrow, uninformed, parochial, and conflict oriented. The working class tends to perceive the middle class as moralistic, intellectual, more talk than action, lacking common sense, and na•ve about power" (73). What he proposes as a remedy are "bridge builders"; people who can be "bilingual in terms of class culture". Drawing upon examples from the military conversion efforts in Minnesota, Maine, and Washington, he argues that the most successful coalitions between labor and peace organizations were ones where a key movement leader was able to speak "across the class divide" and find a common language. If labor, peace, and environmental organizations hope to effectively challenge corporate elite control over the environment and economy, Rose argues that many more such bridge building efforts are needed. His analysis, which outlines some of the barriers needed to be bridged, may serve as a useful entry point for those continuing such efforts.

While Rose's analysis certainly provides some provocative thoughts for progressive activists to consider, it falls short of it's potential in a number of ways. Rose raises several quite important points throughout the text that he fails to adequately explore. For example, he briefly touches upon some historical and cultural dynamics which helped produce differences between the labor conditions in the timber industry in Washington versus Oregon. I'm left wondering why he did not also include any historical discussion of the development of the timber industry in California or British Columbia in this section, but, nonetheless, the cultural and historical background he does provide offers a tantalizing glimpse into what might help to understand today's conditions. Yet, he fails to take the analysis any further than a very rough history and fails to link his analysis here to any of his conclusions elsewhere in the text.

Additionally, his arguments would be much more compelling if he substantiated his assertions with ethnographic data. The many points that Rose makes concerning working class versus middle class organizations are almost never supported with any data. Instead, the reader is left to take him at his word that somehow his findings support these assertions. Although I was very sympathetic to his argument, I still found myself wondering throughout the text where the data were to support his claims.

Rose briefly discusses his methodology in the last chapter of the book. He states that the book was based upon ethnographic research and telephone interviews within three organizations (the Puget Sound Metal Trades Council, Washington State SANE/Freeze, and the Washington Environmental Council) over a ten-month period in 1991 and 1992. This was supplemented by five "case studies" consisting of participant observation and over 200 interviews with those involved in military conversion efforts in Washington, Minnesota, and Maine. He states that he attended meetings, observed the functioning of daily office routines, reviewed documents of past meetings, examined newsletters, and conducted 271 telephone surveys of members of the three Washington organizations (221). Yet, nowhere in the book do we actually find out exactly what he witnessed during this research. He provides the conclusions without any rich ethnographic detail to demonstrate how these alleged working class or middle class organizations functioned in practice. I would have found his arguments much more compelling if he had integrated some of the data from his observations and participation in these efforts into his analysis.

Furthermore, the text lacks ethnographic focus and specificity. I am especially troubled that he seemingly did not actually do very much ethnographic research on the particular case he discusses most thoroughly, the timber conflicts in the Pacific Northwest. How does Rose know so much about all timber workers if, according to his chapter on methods, he did not include them in any of his interviews or ethnographic studies? Likewise, it appears that he bases his analysis of the environmental activists involved in this struggle solely upon his research with the Washington Environmental Council. That group may in fact consist primarily of middle class professionals, but the reader is left to wonder if that is truly representative of most environmental activists. For example, how do the various activists identifying themselves as members of !Earth First compare to those on the Washington Environmental Council? I'm left wondering if there are any environmentalists who grew up in timber communities or timber workers who found some of the diverse arguments put forth by environmentalist compelling at all. It is just such complexity that in-depth, long-term ethnographic work has the potential to provide, but is missing from this text. Instead we are left with almost with generalized caricatures of "timber workers" and "environmentalists".

Even more troubling, however, is that much of his analysis is predicated upon reified understandings of "the working class" and "the middle class". Nowhere does he clearly define how he defines these classificatory schemes; instead class is presented as naturalized. It would be much more useful if he helped us to understand the various discursive conditions operating within these communities as well as the subject making processes that help to produce "working class" or "middle class" subjectivities within particular settings.

On a related note, Rose fails to account for the possibility of multi-positioned subjects. He does acknowledge that there is more than class that needs to be considered. "While this analysis focuses on social class, the processes described here are broadly applicable to bridge building across divisions of race, ethnicity, and geography as well. Class is not the only cleavage that divides people" (9). Yet, he writes as if "class culture" is the sole determining factor in the cases he examines and predicates his arguments upon an analysis suggesting that people's class positions determine their ability to act and what practices they engage in. His argument would be strengthened if he considered how class identity intersects with age, race, geographic location, family history, education, gender or religion. For example, how does his argument hold for the vast majority of working people in the United States who are not in labor unions? Or, for the many highly educated, middle class professionals who are in labor unions, especially public sector unions?
Despite these caveats and misgivings, this book explores an important and timely problem. Rose does offer a starting point for considering barriers to, and the possibilities of, effective collaborative movements among progressive activists. In that light, it is an important book that would be useful reading for anyone interested in strengthening such alliances.