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How Unions Can Bridge the Gap Between Climate and Labor Movements

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While U.S. union den¬≠si¬≠ty hit an all-time low in 2019, the non¬≠prof¬≠it sec¬≠tor appears to be one area where work¬≠ers are union¬≠iz¬≠ing. The Non¬≠prof¬≠it Pro¬≠fes¬≠sion¬≠al Employ¬≠ees Union (NPEU) brought sev¬≠en new work¬≠places into their union dur¬≠ing a 16-day peri¬≠od in April, includ¬≠ing the envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tion Friends of the Earth. And while there is no offi¬≠cial data on non¬≠prof¬≠it unions yet (many of them are fair¬≠ly new), cli¬≠mate jus¬≠tice orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tions are some of the many work¬≠places that have scram¬≠bled to union¬≠ize both pri¬≠or to and dur¬≠ing the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic for the same rea¬≠sons as oth¬≠er work¬≠ers: pay, ben¬≠e¬≠fits and job security. 

Cli¬≠mate activists have often been denounced by trade union¬≠ists who believe they are out to destroy work¬≠ers‚Äô well-pay¬≠ing jobs. There‚Äôs an old joke that goes,¬†‚ÄúAre you an envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal¬≠ist, or do you work for a¬†liv¬≠ing?‚ÄĚ But what hap¬≠pens to the often fraught rela¬≠tion¬≠ship between unions and envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tions when green staffers become union mem¬≠bers¬†too?

Unions‚Äô pri¬≠ma¬≠ry pur¬≠pose is to give work¬≠ers the abil¬≠i¬≠ty to col¬≠lec¬≠tive¬≠ly bar¬≠gain around work¬≠ing con¬≠di¬≠tions‚ÄĒso it‚Äôs not hard to under¬≠stand why many work¬≠ers would want to be union mem¬≠bers. In fact, labor unions cur¬≠rent¬≠ly have a¬†65% approval rat¬≠ing. As the econ¬≠o¬≠my is in sham¬≠bles, labor‚Äôs sup¬≠port has been¬†steadi¬≠ly increas¬≠ing, per¬≠haps because mil¬≠lions have been laid off, many of whom lost their health insur¬≠ance and received no sev¬≠er¬≠ance. Non¬≠prof¬≠its, which can be financed through a¬†mix of fed¬≠er¬≠al and state fund¬≠ing, pri¬≠vate grants and indi¬≠vid¬≠ual dona¬≠tions, are also in a¬†Covid-induced pre¬≠car¬≠i¬≠ous sit¬≠u¬≠a¬≠tion. Work¬≠ers who may have felt that their jobs were pre¬≠vi¬≠ous¬≠ly secure thanks to an air of pres¬≠tige have seen col¬≠leagues fur¬≠loughed or laid off‚ÄĒor have wit¬≠nessed lead¬≠er¬≠ship make big changes in their orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tions with¬≠out involv¬≠ing¬†staff.¬†

Char¬≠lie Jiang, a¬†cli¬≠mate cam¬≠paign¬≠er at Green¬≠peace USA, an envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal non¬≠prof¬≠it, told¬†In These Times¬†that staff there¬†‚Äúhave been orga¬≠niz¬≠ing for quite some time, and the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic strength¬≠ened our resolve. We‚Äôre fight¬≠ing for more clear and con¬≠sis¬≠tent poli¬≠cies and more orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tion¬≠al trans¬≠paren¬≠cy.‚ÄĚ The Green¬≠peace USA Work¬≠ers Union, affil¬≠i¬≠at¬≠ed with Pro¬≠gres¬≠sive Work¬≠ers Union (PWU), was vol¬≠un¬≠tar¬≠i¬≠ly rec¬≠og¬≠nized in August. Jiang said that union mem¬≠bers¬†‚Äúare look¬≠ing ahead to meet¬≠ing man¬≠age¬≠ment with good faith at the bar¬≠gain¬≠ing table‚Ķ We formed a¬†union to fight for fair and bet¬≠ter work¬≠ing con¬≠di¬≠tions, and for a¬†cul¬≠ture root¬≠ed in¬†justice.‚ÄĚ

Unions do far more than allow work¬≠ers to col¬≠lec¬≠tive¬≠ly bar¬≠gain. They give peo¬≠ple the abil¬≠i¬≠ty to prac¬≠tice democ¬≠ra¬≠cy in the work¬≠place, they have the pow¬≠er to change our polit¬≠i¬≠cal sys¬≠tem, and they chal¬≠lenge cor¬≠po¬≠rate prof¬≠it and pow¬≠er‚ÄĒmak¬≠ing them poten¬≠tial allies for envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tions that do the same. Groups like Green¬≠peace, the Sier¬≠ra Club and¬†350.org often fight big cor¬≠po¬≠ra¬≠tions over their dan¬≠ger¬≠ous dis¬≠pos¬≠al of chem¬≠i¬≠cal waste, fos¬≠sil fuel emis¬≠sions, fac¬≠to¬≠ry farm¬≠ing and more. Work¬≠ers for these cor¬≠po¬≠ra¬≠tions are the ones who han¬≠dle tox¬≠ic waste, breathe dirty air and process chick¬≠en at poul¬≠try¬†plants.¬†

Envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal groups and work¬≠er orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tions are aligned on many issues, and some do work close¬≠ly togeth¬≠er. Accord¬≠ing to Rebec¬≠ca Wolf, a¬†senior orga¬≠niz¬≠er on the fac¬≠to¬≠ry farm team at Food and Water Watch and a¬†mem¬≠ber of NPEU,¬†‚ÄúOur true focus is cor¬≠po¬≠rate con¬≠trol. Union¬≠iz¬≠ing work¬≠ers inher¬≠ent¬≠ly beats back against cor¬≠po¬≠rate con¬≠trol and con¬≠trol of the food sys¬≠tem. I¬†see envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tions all the time in cor¬≠po¬≠rate part¬≠ner¬≠ships, and we have a¬†hard line against¬†that.‚Ä̬†

While unions are fund¬≠ed only by mem¬≠bers‚Äô dues mon¬≠ey, many envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tions take mon¬≠ey from cor¬≠po¬≠rate donors‚ÄĒsome of which face off against unions in their own work¬≠places. This dynam¬≠ic can cre¬≠ate ten¬≠sion between staff and lead¬≠er¬≠ship at envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tions, which may have dif¬≠fer¬≠ent¬†priorities.

Elon Musk, bil¬≠lion¬≠aire CEO of Tes¬≠la, anony¬≠mous¬≠ly donat¬≠ed over $6¬†mil¬≠lion to the Sier¬≠ra Club. But¬†in the sum¬≠mer of¬†2018, after com¬≠ing under fire for a $40,000¬†dona¬≠tion to a¬†Repub¬≠li¬≠can-allied group, Musk asked Sier¬≠ra Club exec¬≠u¬≠tive direc¬≠tor Michael Brune for pub¬≠lic sup¬≠port. A¬†stew¬≠ard at PWU who asked to remain anony¬≠mous for fear of retal¬≠i¬≠a¬≠tion told¬†In These Times¬†that¬†‚ÄúPWU kicked that tough dis¬≠cus¬≠sion off. [We] help them stay ground¬≠ed on work¬≠er issues.‚ÄĚ While Brune ini¬≠tial¬≠ly shared words of sup¬≠port for Musk on¬†his per¬≠son¬≠al Twit¬≠ter account, lat¬≠er that year, the Sier¬≠ra Club¬†released a¬†state¬≠ment¬†in sup¬≠port of work¬≠ers orga¬≠niz¬≠ing at Tes¬≠la‚ÄĒsome¬≠thing union mem¬≠bers believe can be attrib¬≠uted, at least in part, to the union. The anony¬≠mous stew¬≠ard told¬†In These Times,¬†‚ÄúIt‚Äôs impor¬≠tant for unions that rep¬≠re¬≠sent work¬≠ers at pro¬≠gres¬≠sive orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tions to hold those orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tions account¬≠able.‚ÄĚ With¬≠out a¬†union, it may have been more dif¬≠fi¬≠cult for Sier¬≠ra Club staff to push back against lead¬≠ers and ensure that they pub¬≠licly sup¬≠port¬≠ed Tes¬≠la work¬≠ers instead of their CEO, that stew¬≠ard¬†underscores.¬†

And while unions are able to win impres¬≠sive gains around wages, ben¬≠e¬≠fits and a¬†voice at work, their true pow¬≠er lies in their abil¬≠i¬≠ty to shut down the econ¬≠o¬≠my if nec¬≠es¬≠sary. On the whole, work¬≠ers at non¬≠prof¬≠its and oth¬≠er pro¬≠gres¬≠sive orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tions are not nec¬≠es¬≠sar¬≠i¬≠ly in a¬†strate¬≠gic posi¬≠tion to exert lever¬≠age to secure the biggest wins for the cli¬≠mate‚ÄĒtheir going on strike would not have a¬†sig¬≠nif¬≠i¬≠cant impact on the broad¬≠er econ¬≠o¬≠my. Work¬≠ers in logis¬≠tics, health¬≠care and edu¬≠ca¬≠tion have far more pow¬≠er to throw a¬†wrench in how our econ¬≠o¬≠my and soci¬≠ety func¬≠tions. And build¬≠ing trades work¬≠ers, who are like¬≠ly to have more work if leg¬≠is¬≠la¬≠tion like the Green New Deal is passed, could be very influ¬≠en¬≠tial in cli¬≠mate pol¬≠i¬≠cy. Their unions are large and pow¬≠er¬≠ful, and their mem¬≠bers are con¬≠struc¬≠tion work¬≠ers and elec¬≠tri¬≠cians, whose work will be direct¬≠ly impact¬≠ed by both cli¬≠mate change and cli¬≠mate leg¬≠is¬≠la¬≠tion. While build¬≠ing trades work¬≠ers tend to be more con¬≠ser¬≠v¬≠a¬≠tive, the poten¬≠tial for more work and larg¬≠er mem¬≠ber¬≠ship rolls could make them the decid¬≠ing fac¬≠tor in the pas¬≠sage of a¬†Green New¬†Deal.

But envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal staffers‚Äô iden¬≠ti¬≠ty with the broad¬≠er labor move¬≠ment and the sol¬≠i¬≠dar¬≠i¬≠ty that can be strate¬≠gi¬≠cal¬≠ly expressed‚ÄĒsuch as in the case of the Sier¬≠ra Club and Tes¬≠la work¬≠ers orga¬≠niz¬≠ing‚ÄĒcould forge more ties between the work¬≠ers‚Äô move¬≠ment and the envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal move¬≠ment as more of these work¬≠ers orga¬≠nize at their work¬≠places. It‚Äôs also unde¬≠ni¬≠able that the expe¬≠ri¬≠ence of act¬≠ing col¬≠lec¬≠tive¬≠ly with cowork¬≠ers can deep¬≠en polit¬≠i¬≠cal con¬≠scious¬≠ness, no mat¬≠ter one‚Äôs work¬≠place or pri¬≠or polit¬≠i¬≠cal¬†commitments.

Wolf, who was on her union‚Äôs orga¬≠niz¬≠ing com¬≠mit¬≠tee, told¬†In These Times¬†that¬†‚Äúeven though we work to make people‚Äôs lives bet¬≠ter every day at work, col¬≠lec¬≠tive action is the expe¬≠ri¬≠ence you need to tru¬≠ly under¬≠stand pow¬≠er-build¬≠ing. Form¬≠ing a¬†union takes all the messy and good bits of expe¬≠ri¬≠ence, val¬≠ues, and polit¬≠i¬≠cal con¬≠scious¬≠ness and brings them togeth¬≠er in a¬†patch¬≠work that moves every¬≠one¬†along.‚ÄĚ

But a¬†fac¬≠tor that may dimin¬≠ish the influ¬≠ence of these envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal staff unions is the unions they are tied to. NPEU is affil¬≠i¬≠at¬≠ed with the Inter¬≠na¬≠tion¬≠al Fed¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tion of Pro¬≠fes¬≠sion¬≠al and Tech¬≠ni¬≠cal Engi¬≠neers (IFPTE), which is a¬†mem¬≠ber of the AFL-CIO, the largest labor fed¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tion in the coun¬≠try. In con¬≠trast, NPEU is a¬†fair¬≠ly small union, with¬†‚Äúrough¬≠ly¬†250¬†to¬†300¬†dues-pay¬≠ing mem¬≠bers, about¬†500¬†work¬≠ing on their first con¬≠tract, and hun¬≠dreds more that are in the process of orga¬≠niz¬≠ing,‚ÄĚ accord¬≠ing to Katie Bar¬≠rows, vice pres¬≠i¬≠dent of com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ca¬≠tions for the¬†union.

In con¬≠trast, PWU, which also orga¬≠nizes envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal non¬≠prof¬≠its, is an inde¬≠pen¬≠dent union, which means it‚Äôs not affil¬≠i¬≠at¬≠ed with any oth¬≠er union or any labor fed¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tion. (PWU‚Äôs bar¬≠gain¬≠ing units include staffers at Sier¬≠ra Club,¬†350.org, Green¬≠peace USA and the Union of Con¬≠cerned Sci¬≠en¬≠tists.) Accord¬≠ing to the anony¬≠mous Sier¬≠ra Club stew¬≠ard, this inde¬≠pen¬≠dence from the AFL-CIO has actu¬≠al¬≠ly helped the union: PWU is free to run its own pro¬≠gram, which focus¬≠es on anti-racism and social jus¬≠tice. He told¬†In These Times¬†that¬†‚Äúthe mem¬≠bers of PWU are first-time union mem¬≠bers. They nev¬≠er knew what was pos¬≠si¬≠ble in a¬†union, so there are no lim¬≠i¬≠ta¬≠tions. Our pow¬≠er is in the involve¬≠ment of our mem¬≠bers and their¬†creativity.‚ÄĚ

How¬≠ev¬≠er, there are ben¬≠e¬≠fits to being part of a¬†larg¬≠er fed¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tion. Only AFL-CIO affil¬≠i¬≠ates are able to shape the federation‚Äôs strat¬≠e¬≠gy and elect its lead¬≠ers, which means that PWU won‚Äôt have a¬†say in whether the AFL-CIO ever sup¬≠ports the Green New Deal. Bar¬≠rows believes that¬†‚Äúif envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal pro¬≠fes¬≠sion¬≠als orga¬≠nize, they‚Äôll be a¬†grow¬≠ing part of the labor move¬≠ment, and they‚Äôll have a¬†voice in deci¬≠sions, espe¬≠cial¬≠ly if they‚Äôre in the AFL. Hav¬≠ing envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal work¬≠ers orga¬≠nize will be help¬≠ful to bridg¬≠ing that gap, and to unit¬≠ing labor and envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal¬†groups.‚ÄĚ

While envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal staffers have formed unions for the same rea¬≠sons most work¬≠ers do, their unions may be a¬†tool for some¬≠thing greater. The anony¬≠mous stew¬≠ard told¬†In These Times,¬†‚ÄúOur mem¬≠bers are at the inter¬≠sec¬≠tion of labor and envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal work. They work on behalf of envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal caus¬≠es, but they‚Äôre work¬≠ers as well. They‚Äôre try¬≠ing to weave their beliefs about the impor¬≠tance of work¬≠ers into cli¬≠mate leg¬≠is¬≠la¬≠tion and con¬≠ver¬≠sa¬≠tions with politi¬≠cians and union lead¬≠ers.‚ÄĚ The stew¬≠ard point¬≠ed to a¬†pro-union video that PWU mem¬≠bers made in col¬≠lab¬≠o¬≠ra¬≠tion with the Sier¬≠ra Club about the¬†2018¬†Janus v. AFSCME¬†Supreme Court deci¬≠sion, which made it ille¬≠gal for pub¬≠lic sec¬≠tor unions to col¬≠lect fees from non-mem¬≠bers. He also told¬†In These Times¬†that the Sier¬≠ra Club and union also worked togeth¬≠er to release a¬†state¬≠ment¬†about the deci¬≠sion, which quotes exec¬≠u¬≠tive direc¬≠tor Brune as say¬≠ing,¬†‚ÄúToday‚Äôs deci¬≠sion does the bid¬≠ding of the very same cor¬≠po¬≠ra¬≠tions that have pol¬≠lut¬≠ed our com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ties, but we will march¬†on.‚Ä̬†

While it is unde­ni­able that the rift between labor and envi­ron­men­tal orga­niz­ing runs deep, the staff at cli­mate orga­ni­za­tions join­ing the ranks of the labor move­ment could help bridge the divide between these two crit­i­cal move­ments. As Wolf at Food and Water Watch told In These Times, “We can always be doing bet­ter, and while greens in gen­er­al are doing bet­ter, we need to be much more pub­lic about our con­nec­tion to labor, and a broad­er con­nec­tion to and with all social movements.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 9, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.


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