New York City and key national unions like the Service Employees International Union and Communication Workers of America are stepping up to support the People’s Climate March in NYC September 21, in a broad coalition. But some green radicals from labor groups say unions need to create their own climate protection strategy that democratizes the energy sector.
September 12, 2014
There is a grinding nature to labor solidarity. Having never been active in a union before, I never experienced it until becoming the National Writers Union rep to organizing meetings for the Sept 21 Climate March happening in New York City right before a UN summit. Now I’m feeling it. It’s not enough to get your union on board; has your president signed a statement? It’s not enough to get your local; how about your international? And of course, words are cheap, so how many members are you mobilizing, and how are you doing it? Everyone in the room knows that grunt work feeds whatever power labor has. Astonishing for people who haven’t been watching the labor movement in the last few years, New York’s unions are digging deep to support the march that calls on world leaders to take action to avert catastrophic climate change.
Will unions be part of the problem or part of the solution? The International Trade Union Federation endorsed the march, as has the Canadian Labour Congress and the Connecticut and Vermont labor federations. But in New York, local and state unions are the ones stepping up – including some of the building trades, which, on a national level, help block the AFL-CIO from showing any climate leadership.
Larry Moskowitz, the march’s organizer for unions, exhorted us in the first meetings: “Every union that endorses – what is your turnout plan? What materials do you need? Can you set up an internal committee to mobilize? How do we get in the ranks?”
And then the question: Who’s not in the room yet?
The nurses union was there, its reps eloquently discussing the impact of the massive storm Sandy and environmental hazards on those they care for. To enlist their members, NYS Nurses Association began holding lunch and dinnertime sessions in hospitals about climate change and health. The healthcare workers of the service workers (SEIU 1199), a 200,000-strong union including many immigrants and African Americans, were there. JJ Johnson, its retired spokesman, said at one gathering sponsored by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, a network of 30 unions from 15 countries, “Climate protection is consistent with everything else that we do [as health workers].” And not just because of the devastation of the massive storm Sandy, which laid waste to New York in October 2012. “We have members from all over Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia. There is a growing encroachment of the sea going into agricultural land that would be rendered totally useless for farming. In places like Haiti, where pollution and silt are going out to sea, fisherman have to go out further and further to fish. So the climate issue resonates very strongly.”
Some building trade unions were already primed by Obama’s “green jobs” rhetoric and money to see retrofitting as in their interest. Even before Obama, the Blue-Green Alliance launched by United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club eight years ago promoted good green jobs and emission cuts, broadening the conversation in the union movement.
Blue and Green Ties
In New York City, recent lobbying for a “climate jobs” policy in New York City has intensified blue and green ties. The Alliance for a Just Rebuilding is a labor-community coalition trying to keep the heat on various levels of government to support those whose housing was wrecked in some way by the storm, whether from wind, water or mold, and to ensure that rebuilding happens using union jobs so workers aren’t exploited. Taking the lead is the local Jobs with Justice affiliate ALIGN-NY, which itself started as the affiliate of the Apollo Alliance (now part of the Blue-Green Alliance) which brought green groups together with unions to work toward cleaner energy. Local teamsters began working with environmentalists to campaign for recycling in the commercial waste stream and now endorse the climate march.
When issuing the call for the march in Rolling Stone, 350.org founder Bill McKibben even crafted a simple slogan to unite the two movements on a single banner: “Climate/Jobs: Two Crises, One Solution.” The unions put something like that slogan on their flyer promoting the march at the Labor Day parade.
The Blue-Green Alliance (BGA) endorsed the march, as did leading BGA members CWA, ATU and SEIU. But the Steelworkers, among other union affiliates, didn’t. The BGA endorsement is admittedly an advance over its silence on fracking and the XL Pipeline – the BGA lost credibility among many labor environmentalists by not navigating those fights. But is that enough?
Unions like the Laborers, Steelworkers and Pipefitters are caught in the short-run game of defending members’ jobs in dirty industries. As one environmentalist in the labor movement pointed out, the Steelworkers represent the chemical workers producing the toxic brew used to frack natural gas and can’t get beyond the politics of the old energy regime. I’ve heard Steelworkers President Leo Gerard rightly chide environmentalists for not discussing the imperative to employ those displaced if the fossil fuel industry is shut so that carbon discharges stabilize at a livable level. We all need to be committed to a “just transition” that doesn’t leave people behind. Well, Gerard’s green allies earned the right to chide him back.
Green radicals in the labor movement, like Dr. Sean Sweeney of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy and Joe Uehlein of the Labor Network for Sustainability, are calling the question on this old politics. As Sweeney, who also codirect’s Cornell’s Global Labor Program, put it, it’s time to get beyond the call for “green jobs” and what he calls “a light green agenda.” Uehlein asks union leaders like Gerard if mainstream proposals don’t deal with the economic hit workers will take in any transition, what does labor’s climate protection strategy look like? It’s time for labor to have one. With SEIU 1199, SEIU 32B/32J, IBEW Local 3 and the NYS Nurses Association, TUED is holding an open meeting after the march for all unionists and allies to try to seize the moment for a deeper discussion along these lines to accelerate the momentum created by the expanding coalition.
Like the rest of the country, says Sweeney, a lot of unions “don’t recognize the science. The ones that do are unclear about what the changes mean, the enormity of it. I don’t blame them. The politicians don’t talk about it,” he said. “But if we take the science seriously, as we should, then nothing less than an FDR-type intervention is necessary.” And the transformation must happen fast, within the next 20 or 30 years.
What is Energy Democracy?
What does it mean to build a transportation system not powered by fossil fuels? How do we shift the country, really the world, to sustainable energy? What does the “energy democracy” Chris Erikson talked about actually look like? “We believe . . . that unions should be advocating public ownership, social ownership of energy,” says Sweeney. “There’s no other way to do it in my opinion.”
Any deep economic shift protecting people and the planet needs all hands on deck, and that includes union leaders and their members. We know we can’t let union leaders fall back on flowery speeches to hide inaction, as too often happens. It’s up to us to make sure we don’t run out of time.