Cleaning up the mess

What does alleged cheating at both the world’s largest car-maker and the largest electronics manufacturer tell us about state regulation and the role of labour?

The growing scandal around emissions testing in the motor industry brings to mind both the inherent danger of the state and capital working hand in glove as well as the opportunity afforded to an approach to a more equitable employment relations that places environmental protection centre stage.



There are three fundamental relationships implicated in this scandal: between capital and the state; between labour and environmental movement, and; between all three of the above and wider society.

Capital and the state

In case you missed the news, the allegations are that VW developed in-car software to cheat emissions testing. This meant that the cars ‘knew’ when they were under test conditions and would therefore give results suggesting much higher fuel efficiency levels than was the case. Initially this was diesel VW cars in the US but has subsequently ‘gone global’ with newspaper reports implicating Jeep, Nissan and Fiat amongst others as violating regulations by a magnitude of more than 10 times. A less prominent story has been that “some Samsung TVs in Europe appear to use less energy during official testing conditions than they do during real-world use, raising questions about whether they are set up to game energy efficiency tests.”

The emergent scandal implicates the state though as much as it does those individuals and corporations that have broken the law. This is because it highlights the dysfunctional configuration of the relationship between the two under current institutional frameworks (and indeed ideological orthodoxy). In the cases of these implicated global industries the state is over-run, if there even is the ambition to hold the largest companies accountable. There are several reasons for this which vary around the world.

Firstly there is the distinction between the regulator and the regulated. As we saw in the case of the interminable financial crisis, industry-leaders are routinely co-opted by regulators to contribute to designing the rules of the game. In the case of diesel emissions the testing procedures are done in a very specific way (details here) which, unbelievably, does not include taking the car for a drive. If it did, the cheat wouldn’t have been possible.

Secondly, there is the spatial restriction of what we loosely refer to as ‘the state’. Most of this regulation takes place within national boundaries (the EU being a notable exception) which raises the issue of power relations, as well as the companies’ status as ‘too big to fail’. For scale, if Samsung and VW were countries (assuming revenues as GDP) they would be 38th and 55th richest in the world respectively.

Labour and the environment

The ‘green agenda’ remains a key part of trade union renewal strategies. This though ebbs and flows, manifesting in many ways. Notably, in VW and Samsung, we see (allegedly) similar outcomes regarding environmental protections achieved by opposing approaches to the inclusion of organised labour in the decision-making process.

Many unions have in recent years increasingly introduced environmental concerns to their agenda. This can be either in the form of inclusion of green issues in the established bargaining mechanisms, including works councils, or the establishment of new roles. In the UK, for example, ‘Green Reps’ have been established as part of a broader strategy to chop up representation into smaller and less confrontational roles – the idea being that this can help unions renew by attracting a broader demographic of activist than might be drawn in by the responsibilities (perceived or real) of the traditional adversarial shop steward.

The growing realisation that union renewal and environment protection can complement one another by increasing the mobilisation capacity of both movements is finally being pursued with unprecedented vigour. The People’s Climate March that took place around the world last year was supported by unions around the world. They have also been (willingly) pushed together on many other issues including trade deal protests – as covered by this blog previously. Indeed, as this scandal develops expect the relationship to become more interesting.

Wider society

How does this impact on the wider public? The problem in assessing the complex of relationships implicated in this scandal is the multi-faceted role that real people occupy. As consumers, as workers, as voters – and in this particular case even in a species sense. Children and grandchildren must live (or survive) with any degrading environmental outcomes.

Remember that, according to the European Commission, road transport is responsible for a fifth of Europe’s CO2 emissions. If it turns out that vehicles are indeed polluting at many times greater rates than previously thought the potential consequences are clear and dire.

The important thing here is not to miss an opportunity. The diverse range of actors who stand to lose out big from this scandal in itself provides an opportunity to raise the big fundamental questions that underpin neoliberalism and most certainly underpin how this mess has come about.

Should the state be positioning itself so close to business when its role includes to regulate? Or to flip that, should the state be responsible for regulation, particularly if it is so close to business? How can unions be positive contributors to debates around environmental protection? Here the realpolitik of industrial relations must take a backseat to a broader positive green agenda. Is saving some members’ jobs really worth the environmental damage?

The answers to these questions are of course important. But arguably more so is the opportunity for labour to ask them, in an era of management prerogative and when a degree of deference to large companies has been seen as essential in attracting investment, jobs and so on. Such an uncritical position is no longer tenable.

Actions: Comments (3)


# Paul Stewart
23 October 2015 10:19
An excellent contribution setting out the lines of critique of the enabling/capital enriching neoliberal state. Some really good alternatives offered and in terms of unions and their entrapment today.
# Ben
23 October 2015 17:27
Thanks Paul!
# Ben
17 November 2015 07:45

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