Do Environmentalists Need a Union?

One of the best mottos that has ever been written was this one for RSPB:

For Birds

For People


Elegant, poetic, bordering on rhetorical genius, it was the perfect description of the charity and its work. It was, as far as mottos go, beautiful. It suggested symbiosis between man and beast, to the advantage of everyone and everything. It was a utopian vision.

By contrast the RSPB’s current motto, ‘Giving Nature A Home’, is a turd. It is officious, desultory and patronising. It doesn’t make sense (nature doesn’t live in a home, people do.) While it does describe the updated remit of the charity, the motto lacks passion, soul and integrity. It smacks of, dare I say it, management consultancy. It reduces the RSPB to nothing more than a ‘service provider’.

It is not a motto. It is a corporate business statement.

The confused, corporate, advertorial tone of this new motto highlights the eternal problem that has dogged environmental conservation: protecting the environment rarely makes you money. All too often, the people who bear the burden of this problem are the conservation workers, the volunteers and the students.

People don’t go into conservation to make money, which means that the sector is entirely populated by passionate, dedicated individuals. I am yet to meet an environmental worker that I didn’t like. I am also yet to meet a rich environmentalist. People flock to the sector for two reasons: a love of the natural world and a desire to protect it and improve it.

Canada's Union of Environment Workers

Canada’s Union of Environment Workers

But it is damnably difficult to make a living in the sector. The average worker, if they are lucky enough, talented enough and have sacrificed enough to have a job, finds it hard to settle, cannot afford a mortgage and has little in the way of long term job security.

Worse, a lack of long term jobs coupled with an exponential increase in unpaid internships and volunteering positions has created an under-represented underclass of highly skilled, passionate workers  who in some cases are having to perform several years worth of free labour before getting a paid job.

All is not well, then, in the workforce, and a sick workforce cannot do an effective job. Anyone who works in conservation will recognise these symptoms:

  • 100+ skilled workers for every entry-level post.
  • A general presumption that because one enjoys one’s work one should take a paycut.
  • A huge proportion of work coming from short term, grant-funded initiatives which provide neither long term environmental benefits nor stability for workers.
  • Scandalously low wages for skilled, degree level and even Phd level jobs.
  • An over-reliance on voluntary work.
  • An over-reliance on short-term contracts.
  • Chronic under-investment in facilities and materiel.
  • Ecological consultants working 60+ hours a week.
  • Under-representation of working class and BAME workers.

The current job climate is a buyer’s market; that is, there are more workers than there are jobs. There are benefits to this. Labour is cheap, meaning that more environmental work can be done. The workforce is highly skilled – it is certain that any new post-holder will be more than competent in their work. However, low-paying charities are losing talented workers to different industries and the private sector. There is a chronic lack of continuity in staffing. A lack of diversity in the sector can only lead to stagnation of ideas and the promotion of vested interests.

There are several reasons why this has happened:

  • Interest in environmentalism and the number of people wanting to work in the sector is expanding faster than the sector  itself. This means that there are more people wanting to do the work than there previously was. A profit-driven education sector has increased its offering of exciting, expensive courses in environmental subjects.
  • A lack of money. Government budgets have been slashed year on year for a generation.
  • Employers have been stung by a loss of income while seeing an increased demand for their work. This has led to a huge increase in volunteering positions at the same time as a decrease in paid positions. Those in work have seen pay freezes and cuts.

So why isn’t there a union? An environmentalists’ union is not a new idea. There are a couple of small unions across the pond, in both Canada and the USA. Over here there are some organisations that look out for worker’s rights. The RSPB has its own union, but that is small comfort to anyone who does not work for the RSPB. Public sector workers have their own unions. The BOU, British Ornithologist’s Union, exists to promote excellence in ornithology rather than worker’s rights, whilst the CIEEM supports provides professional ecologist accreditation, but not much beyond that. The IUCN is a union for organisations rather than for workers.

The simple fact of the matter is that conservationists have been far too busy doing the vital task of saving our natural world to bother with such trifles as personal comfort and working conditions. But a lot of conservationists I know, who are in work and out of it, are angry, and poor, and getting poorer.

There are several areas where a union could prove to be an effective, strong voice to stand alongside employers to protect workers’ right and create real change in the sector. These include:

  • Working with charities and environmental employers to provide sustainable, fair working conditions.
  • Fighting to ensure that training opportunities do not favour the rich.
  • Fighting to provide more sustainable jobs in the sector.
  • Fighting against the exploitation of volunteer labour.
  • Fighting to secure more rigorous environmental controls for businesses, and help to promote ‘green capitalism’ business models.
  • Fighting alongside NGOs for a pro-active government environmental policy that captures the untapped potential of natural capital and green energy industries.

A union’s primary function is to protect the rights of workers, but a strong environmentalist’s union would improve the lot of both employees and employers, help to create a sustainable sector that attracts the brightest and best, and ultimately supports the efforts of workers who are trying to look after our precious natural assets.

The motto of this new union?

For Nature

For People


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Andy Painting

Writer, I guess.

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