Teamsters and turtles

The rise of the planetariat


“During the Seattle WTO protests in 1999, the phrase ‘Turtles & Teamsters, Together At Last’ jumped from protest sign to guiding philosophy. It symbolically described hundreds of thousands of Sierra Club activists (who dressed as sea turtles) and union members who marched to demand that human and environmental concerns be included in discussions of global free trade regimes. ‘Turtles & Teamsters’ also put a name to the increasingly common alliances between environmentalists and labor unions, which were no longer willing to accept that protecting the environment and jobs were mutually exclusive conditions.” — Jay McKinnon,

Turtles and teamsters, together at last. Ten years after the anti-globalization movement shut down the World Trade Organization negotiations, that slogan, and the vision it embodied of trade unionists and environmentalists joining forces to halt neoliberal globalization in its tracks, continues to inspire activists in both camps. In the midst of the current global recession and a steadily worsening environmental situation, there are hopeful signs that, rather than retreating to their respective corners, trade unionists and environmentalists, particularly in the United States, are working more closely than ever to advance their common struggles.

The Blue Green Alliance, for example, was formed in 2006 by the United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club, and now speaks for 8 million Americans when it lobbies for “good jobs, a clean environment and a green economy.” Environmental groups have thrown their support behind the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to unionize, while unions are actively organizing in support of the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill, considered the most important piece of U.S. environmental legislation in years.

These signs of cross-movement solidarity are badly needed on both sides. Ten years after sea turtles and teamsters danced in the streets of Seattle, workers of all nations continue to be pitted against one another in a race-to-the-bottom scramble for jobs, and evidence continues to accumulate that humans are rapidly damaging the planet’s very ability to support life. As Robin Tennant-Wood argues in this issue, addressing the economic and environmental crises requires that we put our economies at the service of our communities and the environment, rather than the other way around.

Global problems require global solutions. If trade unionists and environmentalists in the Global North can make common cause with those, particularly those in the Global South, who bear the brunt of capitalism’s excesses, including slum dwellers, migrant workers, climate refugees, indigenous peoples, farmers and others, then we may witness in the coming years the formation of a global revolutionary subject capable of seizing the means of production and putting them to work for the planet, rather than against it.

Call it the planetariat: the proletarian revolutionary class of the 21st century, defined by its suffering at the hands of global capitalism and its demands for the basic necessities of life: food, water, shelter, health, work with dignity and a life in harmony with others and with the environment. It could be the planet’s last best hope. Whether it’s expressing itself in the efforts of American trade unionists to pass a climate change bill, in environmentalists lobbying for green-collar jobs, in First Nations blockades of mining and timber operations, in the food riots that rocked the cities of the Global South last year, in the self-organizing efforts of slum dwellers uncounted by any government or in farmers’ efforts to wrest control of the food system from transnational corporations, this nascent revolutionary subject, the planetariat, has already begun to plant the seeds of a new world in the cracked thoroughfares of the old.

Let us learn to recognize these seedlings when we see them, and nurture them towards maturity.

Dave Oswald Mitchell is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher. He co-edited the book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution (OR Books, 2012) and edited Briarpatch Magazine from 2005 to 2010.

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