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Climate Activists Can’t Afford to Ignore Labor. A Shuttered Refinery in Philly Shows Why.

In the early morning hours of June 21, 2019, a catastrophic explosion tore through the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) oil refinery in the southwest section of Philadelphia. The training and quick thinking of refinery workers, members of United Steelworkers Local 10-1, averted certain disaster and saved millions of lives. One month later, on July 21, PES declared bankruptcy—their second in as many years—and began to close down the refinery in the following months, laying off almost 2,000 people with no meaningful severance. According to workers who spoke with In These Times, the refinery stopped running crude oil in early August, although there are fewer than 100 workers who were kept on as caretakers for the waste water and steam generating units.

The fire on June 21 and the mass layoffs that followed impacted more than just the physical site of the refinery and the workers who made it run. It also ignited a debate throughout the city about what would become of the refinery site, which has been in operation for more than 150 years. On the one hand, the explosion underscored the dangers the refinery posed to the community immediately surrounding it, and the city as a whole. On the other, the subsequent closure of the refinery meant that workers were suddenly out of work, with no plan from PES or city officials of how to put them back to work.

This debate, while focused on Philadelphia, reflects much larger questions roiling supporters of a Green New Deal: how to ensure a just transition for fossil fuel workers who lose their jobs, and how to build bonds between unions looking out for their members, and climate organizers trying to stop fossil fuel extraction. Interviews with community organizers trying to curb the refinery’s toxic pollution, and workers laid off from the refinery, indicate that the answers are not easy, but require listening to workers, many of whom are already thinking about climate change—and forced, right now, to deal with the hardships of losing their jobs. In the words of Jim, a former worker who requested only his first name be used due to fear of retaliation, “Fossil fuels need to be phased out aggressively. That being said, I’m in the industry. You can’t just allow the people in that industry to become like the coal miners, just floundering.”

A toxic polluter

Such questions have been the focus of ongoing organizing by community members who have long been concerned about the health impacts the refinery has on the soil, water and air. The refinery is in the 19145 zip code, which has one of the highest rates of hospitalization for asthma in the city, along with one of the highest cancer mortality rates, in a city that has the “highest cancer rate of any large city in the United States,” according to the National Cancer Institute.

The connection between illnesses and the refinery is not lost on community members, nor on Philly Thrive, an organization founded in 2015 to “win a just transition of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery, the largest and oldest oil refinery on the East Coast.” The organization knocked on doors around the refinery and embarked on a “listening project” in order to better understand the experiences of neighbors, most of whom are Black and low-income. Alexa Ross, co-founder of Philly Thrive, says that the organization exists outside of the “non-profit, white, middle class” environmental movement, and is currently focused solely on its “Right to Breathe” campaign, which is organizing around health and safety over profit, no fossil fuel expansion, and a green economy for all.

After hearing countless horror stories from neighbors about asthma, bronchitis, cancer and early deaths, Philly Thrive was unable to ignore the urgency of the crisis. Ross told In These Times that “you can compare the refinery to the next 100 sources of pollution all together, and the refinery is still the majority of toxic emissions.” The refinery was the number one source of air pollution in Philadelphia, responsible for 9% of the city’s fine particle emissions and 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Department of Public Health. It was also the single largest emitter of toxic pollutants, including known carcinogens, representing nearly 57% of such emissions in 2016.

A lack of trust

And although Philly Thrive also lists a commitment to a “just transition to clean energy and living wage green jobs” on its website, it also publicly acknowledges that “it has been very difficult to carve out substantial time in our organizing” to build relationships with workers at the refinery. Ross says Thrive was “told by our connections to USW that they wanted nothing to do with us if we were anti-fossil fuel. We’re one of the only environmental groups that hasn’t been invited to the table with labor, because we don’t think we can afford to say anything besides that we need to transition from fossil fuels now. So we’ve been denied access to the labor movement and USW in particular.”

This lack of trust between community members and refinery workers has been painful for both groups, and the challenges they’ve encountered connecting these two distinct, but ultimately connected, struggles have been difficult to transcend. Philly Thrive says that at public meetings about the future of the refinery, “fear, anger and grief have found likely targets in each other instead of the companies and executives responsible for the refinery.”

One former refinery worker even took to Twitter shortly after the explosion to slam Philly Thrive. Jim Savage, former President of USW Local 10-1, the union that represented workers at the refinery, wrote that “hypocritical opportunists ran to microphones, with fires still burning out of control, calling for the immediate shutdown of the refinery with an ‘oh, by the way, take care of the workers by doing x, y, and z.’ Workers that they didn’t bother to speak with first. A week later, they’re still doing it and still no conversation with the workers. Obviously, they prefer the flowery words of solidarity without any actual effort to create solidarity.”

Jim, the refinery worker mentioned earlier, says that workers saw Philly Thrive “as advocating for a total shutdown, no industrial use, which to people who work there is very scary. We talked about some transition with some relief for the workers and this wouldn’t fit that bill.” When pressed about what a transition with relief for workers would look like, he said that “it would include medical [insurance] while we are laid off with schooling or training included… A severance would have helped. This is just me though. A lot of workers wouldn’t agree but I think a substantial amount would. Some won’t be happy with anything less than their refinery jobs back.”

And it’s not hard to understand why. The PES refinery provided around 1,100 full-time jobs and as many as 850 contracted positions to workers largely in the Philadelphia area. Most of the workers I spoke with only had high school degrees, and ended up making at least $100,000 per year, often closer to $150,000 or $200,000 with overtime and bonuses, thanks to their strong union and the dangerous nature of their work.

B.N., who requested only his initials be used due to fear of retaliation, worked at the refinery since 2006 and is now a facilities manager at a university, making about half the money he previously made. He says “it’s much safer, but I do miss the money, and it’s very hard to go backwards.” He says that for his old coworkers, the job search is “brutal,” with people getting offered jobs that pay $17 an hour. Some haven’t found anything at all and are still relying on unemployment. Others have moved to Texas, Arkansas, or Louisiana, chasing refinery jobs on the Gulf Coast, leaving their families behind.

When faced with the option of either keeping well-paying jobs or putting what may feel like blind faith into hypothetical plans for a transition of the site in the spirit of the Green New Deal, it’s not hard to understand why refinery workers have fought to keep the refinery open—especially when they are not included in the discussions around what a transition could or should look like. The challenges facing community members and workers in Philadelphia over the future of the former PES refinery site are not unique, but rather, indicative of a wider gap that must be bridged in order to eventually win a Green New Deal.

The labor movement and climate movement have often been painted as unlikely allies, locked in a natural and consistent conflict. Although some unions have begun to embrace the need to move away from fossil fuels and seriously confront climate change, many unions have dug their heels in and reaffirmed their commitment to extractive industries, such as Laborers’ International Union of North AmericaInternational Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and United Mine Workers of America. The AFL-CIO infamously came out in support of building oil pipelines in the face of massive protests by Indigenous communities in the Dakotas.

While there’s a lot of talk of a “just transition” away from fossil fuels—both in Philadelphia around the refinery, and beyond—we don’t have any examples in this country to model this transition after yet. It makes sense that a union whose members work in the fossil fuel industry would see its interests as tied to the fate of that industry, especially given the tendency of many unions to see their role as fighting solely for the interests of their members, divorced from the interests of the working class as a whole.

A common enemy

It’s clear that a basis for a higher level of solidarity must be found to overcome this division. One potential way to do this is to identify a common enemy, one who is responsible for both exploiting and endangering the safety of the workers in these often dangerous industries, and for the devastation these industries have on the surrounding communities. This common enemy is, of course, the boss, who is often aided by tax breaks and political support from local and state governments.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania provided PES with $25 million for refinery equipment upgrades and rail car infrastructure in 2012, along with numerous other tax incentives and write-offs. PES was also granted protection by the state for liability related to historical environmental contamination at the site, or contamination resulting from Sunoco’s (the previous owner) operations. Following the June 21 explosion and subsequent bankruptcy filing, PES executives were paid $4.59 million in retention bonuses. In a November 22nd filing with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, PES requested to create an additional bonus pool to payout executives, ranging from $2.5 million to $20 million if the sale of the refinery generates $1 billion in net proceeds. Philadelphia Energy Industries, created by former PES chief executive Phil Rinaldi and S.G. Preston, a biofuels company, have put in a bid to purchase the refinery in order to reopen it. Rinaldi left PES in 2017, but other executives with whom he had worked closely for years were the ones who closed the refinery, filed for bankruptcy, and received massive payouts for themselves. And in the aftermath of the devastation caused to the lives of refinery workers and the surrounding community, Rinaldi has cynically emerged as a key figure calling to restart operations at the shuttered refinery site.

Even though USW Local 10-1 President Ryan O’Callaghan has publicly bashed the executives for their lavish payouts, he also said, “The idea of retraining us for jobs that don’t exist is not the answer. The idea to put a solar panel farm on the site is not the answer. The answer is to restart the refinery now.” So even though union members were sold out by the owners of PES—who took giant payouts while leaving them with nothing—the union is indirectly allying with them to work to re-open the refinery.

But is it really about the refinery, or is it about good jobs? B.N. said that “If it was a solar or a wind farm, and they were paying what the refinery paid, [the workers] would be there in a second. It’s about the money. They’re not defending the industry—they’re defending their job and their paycheck. If they could make the same money working for Greenpeace, they would do it.” When the only option is to either defend the fossil fuel industry or have a poorly paying, insecure job, the vast majority of workers are going to defend the industry—no matter their personal beliefs about climate change.

On January 17, the site will be put to auction, with multiple companies lining up to re-open the refinery. Residents and community groups like Philly Thrive don’t have a seat at the table in discussions about the refinery’s future, but USW does because it is a creditor in the refinery’s bankruptcy case. What would it be like if the union chose to partner with Philly Thrive instead of with the 1%, and signed on to their demands of health and safety over profit, no fossil fuel expansion, and a green economy for all? The union could stand with community members and commit to shutting down the refinery, for both the safety of the workers, the surrounding community, and our hope for any kind of fossil fuel-free future—but only if there is a plan for severance pay and health insurance for workers, along with training and job placements at either the old refinery site or elsewhere.

The people most affected by climate change will be in the working class, whether they’re members of USW Local 10-1, members of another union, or not union members at all. The Phil Rinaldis of the world, by contrast, will be much more insulated from climate catastrophe. This is a pressing challenge to both the labor and climate movement, given the particular urgency for drastic action to address the impacts of climate change before it’s too late. How can the labor movement move towards acting in the interests of their members, yes, but increasingly in the interests of workers as a whole? And how can the climate movement engage labor to help make the Green New Deal a more concrete program that workers can believe in? In order to fully confront the complexities of how to actually have a just transition away from fossil fuels, workers in those industries need to be at the front of those conversations.

As B.N. puts it, “We’ve done a lot of great things in this country. We can transition. Look at World War II, GM stopped making cars for commercial production—they started devoting all of their efforts to the war. We can do big things in this country.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on January 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

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

Cities Aren’t Waiting for a Federal Green New Deal

In 1992, recognizing that not all countries had contributed equally to the climate crisis, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change codified the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” This framework insists that developed countries “take the lead in combating climate change” by transitioning to clean energy more rapidly, in order to allow time for developing nations to catch up to the same standard of living.

But it’s not just countries that are disproportionately liable for decades of emissions. One hundred cities account for nearly a fifth of our global carbon footprint. Three of the top 10 are in the United States: New York (3), Los Angeles (5), and Chicago (8)—these cities alone make up nearly 10% of U.S. emissions.

This may seem counterintuitive. Dense cities, after all, are more energy efficient and data suggests that per capita emissions actually decrease with urban population growth. But after analyzing the carbon footprints of over 13,000 cities around the world, one study found that combined high population and high income made cities disproportionately high emitters.

Within wealthy cities, high-consumption lifestyles drive emissions, and those lifestyles are shaped by the architecture of our urban environment. Everything from the shape of the city and the length of commutes to bike- and pedestrian-friendliness, robustness of public transportation (and/or highway) infrastructure, and the physical buildings themselves drive emissions. Rather than simply insisting people change their lifestyles to tackle the climate crisis, we need to insist on changing the cities that shape those lifestyles. And—with the federal government unlikely to pass a Green New Deal until at least 2021—a number of cities are starting to do just that.

Just ahead of Earth Day, the New York City Council passed a historic package of climate legislation that many have called a Green New Deal for New York City. At the center of the Climate Mobilization Act is a bill that mandates buildings over 25,000 square feet reduce emissions 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. Behind the scenes, grassroots organizers had been forming a diverse coalition that united low-income communities of color with predominantly white climate activists over a period of several years. “In the end we won because of the coalition building and campaign work that we did,” says Pete Sikora, Climate & Inequality Campaigns Director for New York Communities for Change.

Buildings account for nearly 70% of carbon emissions in New York City, which has the largest carbon footprint of any urban area in the country. The city plans on implementing the policy through the creation of a new Office of Building Energy and Emissions Performance which would set performance standards, monitor building energy use and emissions, and determine penalties for buildings that fail to comply.

“There is no way to address the [energy] grid or the radical change needed to reach massive pollution cuts without prioritizing energy efficiency,” Sikora says. The goal is to reduce energy use to such a degree that large buildings, which often rely on fossil fueled-powered boilers and gas for heat and cooking, could be fully powered by the electric grid.

The importance of addressing buildings in general cannot be overstated. Globally, building operations, materials and construction account for nearly 40% of energy use. According to Architecture 2030, the global building stock will double by 2060. “This,” they say, “is the equivalent of adding an entire New York City every month for 40 years.”

While the federal government can set national emissions targets and provide federal funds to cities, much will be left to local governments to monitor and enforce energy efficiency standards—a task too big for the federal government to handle alone.

In July, Berkeley, Calif., became the first city in the United States to ban natural gas use in new buildings. Thirteen other cities across California followed shortly after, enacting new building codes that either require or encourage new construction to be run completely on electricity. In Philadelphia, organizers are pressuring the city council to pass similar legislation. This marks a significant first step towards long-term, government-enforced emissions standards. These progressive cities across the country are beginning to establish what will hopefully become a new normal.

Even with fossil fuel use eliminated within buildings, though, electricity is still only as clean as the grid that supplies it. In New York state, a grassroots organizing coalition successfully pushed for a recent state law requiring the grid to be 70% powered by renewable energy by 2030 and emissions-free by 2050. And around the country, local progressive groups are hard at work trying to put electric utilities under public ownership. The Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has been waging a fierce campaign, in collaboration with some of the city’s six socialist city council members, to bring their main electric utility company, ComEd, under municipal control. Similar DSA campaigns to take back the grid have appeared in New York City; Boston; New Haven, Conn.; East Bay, Calif.; and Providence, R.I.

“Our main campaign is energy democracy and we see that as a key aspect of winning a Green New Deal” say Sydney Ghazarian, who serves on the steering committee of DSA’s National Ecosocialist Working Group, which she helped found in 2017. (Full disclosure: This author is a member of DSA, though not involved with the ecosocialist working group.)

She and a few other members, Ghazarian says, “realized that [the climate crisis] was going to be the ultimate contradiction of capitalism” and would “require massive restructuring so socialists needed to be on the forefront of this issue.” The first priority for the Ecosocialist Working Group was infrastructure to implement municipal-level climate campaigns in local DSA chapters.
“We can’t wait until 2021 to start,” Ghazarian says. “What we can do is actually make real changes at the city level and the local level to start [the transition].” While supporting candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is pushing for a national Green New Deal, DSA chapters have also been on the ground organizing a working-class base of supporters by engaging with people where they are: overwhelmingly, in cities.

There is an additional political advantage to organizing at the city-level: dense urban areas, to a great degree, are more inclined to vote blue than their rural counterparts. And enough large cities, accounting for much of the country’s population, taking serious climate action can put pressure on the federal government to pass decisive legislation.
Over 1,200 cities around the world have already declared a state of “climate emergency,” Oxford Dictionary’s 2019 word of the year. It’s a necessary first step and one national governments have been disinclined to take. “We have to shift into emergency mode,” says Laura Berry, research and publications director at The Climate Mobilization (TCM), which has helped lead this movement through their Climate Emergency Declaration campaign.

The goal of the organization is to catalyze a World War II-scale mobilization to reverse the climate crisis. In 2016, Bernie Sanders embraced TCM’s demand, and helped introduced it to the Democratic Party platform. But when Trump won the election, the organization shifted its focus to the local level. With Republicans holding the White House, Senate and a majority of state legislatures, cities are proving the best option for short-term change.

The organization has laid out a template for local government to declare a state of emergency with the hopes of “building upward.”  “Federal and international negotiations have been incredibly ineffective in addressing the crisis that we are facing,” Berry says. “We see local governments as playing a really important role in advocating and pushing for stronger action at the state and national level.”

Nothing can substitute the need for international cooperation or a federal Green New Deal. But without municipal efforts to cooperate and enforce climate legislation, many of these policies, to borrow a pun from Sikora, will just be blowing a lot of hot air.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on December 17, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Indigo Olivier is an editorial intern at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter: @IndigoOlivier.

How Supporters of the Green New Deal Are Showing Up for Workers

Image result for Elizabeth King is an independent journalist in Chicago.Calls for a “just transition” have become central to a robust and revitalized environmental movement in the United States aimed at preventing climate catastrophe. The idea behind a just transition is that, as our economy shifts away from dependence on fossil fuels, the workers in the fossil fuel and related industries should be treated with dignity and respect, and guaranteed good union jobs.

The principle of a just transition was included in the Green New Deal, a resolution put forward by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). The Green New Deal calls for “a just transition for all communities and workers.” While the Green New Deal has garnered some criticism from Indigenous scholars and the Left, it is the most progressive policy option to garner some support among Democrats in Congress, and is also popular among environmentalists, including progressive youth climate organizers. Demands for a Green New Deal and just transition echoed throughout the U.S. contingent of the latest student climate strike marches, which took place in more than 150 countries with approximately 4 million participants worldwide

But there is still more to be done to build the alliances between the environmental and labor movements. Some unions have expressed skepticism and even outright opposition to the Green New Deal, citing concerns that a just transition will not deliver on promises to workers, leaving them abandoned. But pockets of labor and and climate movements have been joining forces to push a shared agenda and build relationships. Trade union members, including members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1 in Chicago, joined student climate strikers for their day of marches in September.

Labor advocates also called on the climate movement solidarity with the United Autoworkers (UAW) strike over working conditions and compensation at General Motors (GM). The strike lasted 40 days total, ending in October. One such call came from writer and labor organizer Jane McAlvey, who wrote for The Nation in September that “there’s no strategic opportunity bigger or more important for the economy or the earth than setting up a worker-environmentalist alliance and a worker-friendly transition from gas-powered vehicles to electric.”

Members of the climate movement also made calls for solidarity with striking UAW members, urging environmental activists to show support at the picket lines and to publicly back the work stoppage.

In late September, 46 environmental and other progressive groups—including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace USA, Oil Change International and several branches of 350.org—sent a letter to the CEO of GM, Mary Barra, expressing support for the UAW strike.

The letter highlights that the climate crisis cannot be solved without a commitment to protecting workers’ rights. “Corporate greed is the ultimate cause of our combined economic and environmental crises,” the letter states. “As environmentalists, we support the United Autoworkers in their fight for good, family-sustaining jobs. Climate change and other environmental problems cannot be solved without investing in workers and supporting strong union contracts.”

In an interview with In These Times, Lukas Ross, senior policy analyst for Friends of the Earth, says that the organization took part in creating the letter in response to a call for support for the UAW strike, and worked with the UAW to make sure the environmentalists were sending a message that aligns with the strike goals.

Ross also underscores the necessity of prioritizing the labor movement in climate solutions, because “the reality we have is that rich corporations are trying to divide us by framing this as ‘climate versus jobs,’ but this [framework] only benefits the bosses [and has been] used to stop progress for as long as labor and climate organizing have existed.”

Youth climate organizers have also been answering the call for solidarity with the labor movement, bringing some young environmentalists out to labor picket lines for some of the first times in their lives. Nicholas Jansen, the Michigan director for the Sunrise Movement, a youth climate action organization, says that he went out to support striking UAW workers on the picket line, an activity he’d only previously taken part in when his mother, a teacher, was on strike when he was younger. Jansen says that “feeling the energy and solidarity was really incredible,” and that he was inspired by UAW workers’ “fight for better conditions.”

Zoe Cina-Sklar, partnerships manager for the Sunrise Movement, says that in addition to encouraging members to show support for the UAW strike, the organization is also collaborating with SEIU 32BJ on campaigning for the Green New Deal. SEIU and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA were early supporters of the Green New Deal, and later United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America became the first industrial union in the U.S. to endorse the resolution.

Others who have been involved in the fight for a just transition for many years are encouraged to see so many young people advocating for labor and environmental rights. Rosalinda Guillen, a longtime leader in the rural justice and farmworker labor movements with Community to Community (C2C), an anti-capitalist, anti-colonial feminist organization focusing on food justice in Washington state, says she’s “really excited that young people are getting involved and pushing [against climate change]. There’s a lot of lack of education in the schools for youth about the systems that are driving the climate crisis,” but young people are beginning to learn about the causes of climate change.

C2C, a member organization of the Climate Justice Alliance, works closely with a farmworkers union called Familia Unida por La Justicia, which educates and organizes its members around “what a Just Transition could be from a farmworker perspective,” Guillen says. She adds, “Some of the members of the union and other unions are leading the way to a just transition by supporting farmworkers in owning their own farms and having worker-owned cooperatives that are producing agricultural products in the way that we believe they should be produced,” which is to say sustainably and environmentally friendly.

The solidarity-building has also entailed labor unions reaching out and creating bonds with climate groups. As In These Times reported in early November, teachers’ unions around the country have been working toward putting the power of their unions behind the student climate protests. Numerous labor unions also turned out in the streets for the global student climate strike in September.

As concepts like a just transition and the ideals encapsulated in the Green New Deal gain traction among progressives, labor union and climate organizers are coordinating around their shared goals. Cina-Sklar of the Sunrise Movement says that climate organizers have “a lot to learn from that history of labor organizing.” With the popularity and broad support for the student climate strike, including from labor unions, she says that she has a “renewed sense of hope that we’re going to be changing our system and challenging the powers that be, so that we have leaders that are actually standing with communities and not only standing with their bottom line.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on December 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Elizabeth King is an independent journalist in Chicago.

Our Climate Choice: Thrive, or Barely Survive?

Have you ever wondered why so many hundreds of thousands of kids around the world are suddenly passionate climate advocates? The flip answer is that they looked out their windows. The more rigorous answer can be found in the 2019 Lancet Countdown, just released, which offers an annual snapshot of how climate disruption is affecting our health.

According to the report, a global collaboration between 35 leading academic institutions and United Nations agencies:

“The life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by climate change. Without accelerated intervention, this new era will come to define the health of people at every stage of their lives.”

Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, 2019

The Lancet Countdown captures the existential terror of climate-savvy children in a series of 41 scientific indicators that are largely heading in the wrong direction.

One of the new elements in this year’s Lancet Countdown is an examination of food security. Despite my familiarity with the climate crisis, Figure 8 of the report was a shock. Globally, the crop yield potential of winter and spring wheat, soybeans, corn, and rice have fallen off a cliff since 1960. (You can explore the data in more detail yourself here, on The Lancet’s new visualization platform.) Declines in staple crops are particularly harmful to children under the age of 5, who can carry the cognitive and physical burdens of undernutrition for their entire lives.

Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, 2019

The Lancet Countdown also finds that climate change is exposing increasing numbers of people to deadly heatwaves, unhealthy wildfire smoke, and infectious illnesses like dengue fever and diarrheal disease. In 2018, for example, the equivalent of 220 million people worldwide suffered through one heat wave each—far surpassing the previous record of 209 million heat wave exposures in 2015.

Extreme heat is rough on young children, who rely on caregivers to keep them safe from dehydration, heat-related illnesses, and even severe burns on hot playgrounds. Heat also affects children when their parents lose work hours due to heat stress: According to the U.S. policy brief for this year’s Lancet Countdown, American workers lost nearly 1.1 billion work hours due to extreme heat from 2000 to 2018. In July 2018 alone, extreme heat led to the loss of 15 to 20 percent of possible daylight work hours for construction and other heavy labor in the southern United States. Lower wages paired with the sky-high medical costs of heat-related illnesses can spell disaster for low-income families who already struggle to make ends meet.

These health impacts of climate change are showing up with just 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of average global warming since the late 1800s. Without decisive, immediate action to slash the pollution causing climate change, children born today could experience the unthinkable consequences of 3 to 4 degrees Celsius (5.4 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) of average global warming by the time they’re in their eighties.

But here’s the thing: Even with ambitious action to cut emissions, today’s children will face a worsening array of climate-related health hazards through their lifetimes. That’s why it’s critical for governments and healthcare providers to swiftly identify local climate vulnerabilities and take preventative steps to reduce current and future harms. Thankfully, there are signs of progress. In the United States, for instance, two-thirds of 136 U.S. city governments surveyed in 2018 had a climate risk assessment completed or underway.

Humans are tough, smart, and have managed to survive as a species through all manner of disasters both natural and of our own making. But simply surviving in a dramatically-altered climate sounds … awful, at best. To thrive in our climate-disrupted world—and to help our youngest members of society reach their full potential as productive, healthy, happy adults—we need to speed down a climate-friendly path instead of dithering at our current crossroad.

This article was originally published at NRDC on November 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Juanita Constible works with partners to advocate for strong federal and state action to cut carbon pollution and protect communities from the health effects of climate change. Prior to joining NRDC, Constible oversaw the science and solutions department at the Climate Reality Project and later served as an adviser to the Climate Action Campaign. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from the University of Victoria in Canada, and a climate change and health certificate from the Yale School of Public Health. Constible is based in NRDC’s Washington, D.C., office.

Inequality And The Iron Law of Decaying Public Services

Fires are raging everywhere in California these days, and firefighters are having enormous trouble keeping up. Chronically understaffed local fire departments simply don’t have the resources to handle act one of what climate change has in store for us.

California’s wealthy aren’t particularly worrying about that lack of resources — because they have more than enough of their own. They can afford to shell out up to $25,000 per day for one of the private firefighting services that are popping up in California wherever the rich call home.

In a deeply unequal America, none of this should surprise us. Public services almost always take it on the chin in societies where wealth starts furiously concentrating. Why should inequality have this impact? A little incendiary parable — on tennis — might help us understand.

Imagine yourself in a comfortable suburban county. Every corner of the county has a pleasant public park, and most every park sports a tennis court or two. All comers can volley away on these free public courts, and every once in a while, on especially beautiful Saturday mornings, the courts can get a bit crowded. Players may even have to wait for court time.

But some local racket enthusiasts, the county’s wealthiest racket enthusiasts, never have to wait to play tennis. These players have had private tennis courts installed on their own ample grounds. They play whenever they want.

Installing a private court, of course, can run many thousands of dollars. In our imaginary suburban county, only a handful of local families — maybe one family in a thousand — have the sort of wealth necessary to afford a private court. Local contractors understand this market reality. Few of them bother offering private tennis court-making services. Private courts remain costly and rare.

But what if wealth in our tennis-loving county suddenly starts to concentrate? What if ten families in a thousand could suddenly afford to think about installing a home tennis court? At this point, contractors might start to take notice. More of them might start hawking court-construction services. Prices for private tennis courts would soon start sinking. A wider circle of affluent households would now be able to afford them.

Those affluent who choose to take the private plunge would, naturally enough, no longer frequent the county’s public courts. They would do all their volleying at home and invite their friends to join them. Eventually, noticeably fewer people are frequenting the public courts.

Local parks officials, in response, start devoting fewer dollars to court upkeep. The courts start deteriorating. Tennis buffs of modest means, disturbed by these shabbier courts, start looking for alternative places to play. A clever entrepreneur notes this burgeoning new market for quality tennis facilities and opens an enclosed tennis bubble. Tennis buffs of modest means quickly begin reserving court time in the new bubble. For a fee, of course.

Back in the public parks, ever fewer people are now playing tennis. Parks officials start ignoring downed nets. Why bother keeping nets up, after all, when hardly anyone is knocking balls over them anymore? The public courts soon start going to seed. They become eyesores.

The commons in our imaginary county — the public space with access and services for all — has, in effect, been downsized.

Where wealth concentrates, our commons will always downsize. At some point, in every community becoming more unequal, affluent people will come to feel they’ll be better off going life alone, on their own nickel — better off installing their own private courts, better off sending their kids to private schools, better off living in a privately guarded gated development.

The greater the numbers of affluent who forsake the commons, the greater the danger the commons will face. The affluent, in more equal communities, may grumble about paying taxes for public services they do not use. But grumbling will usually remain all they can do. In communities where wealth is concentrating, by contrast, the affluent have the clout and the numbers to go beyond grumbling. They mobilize politically to slash budgets and roll taxes back. And they succeed, because fewer people, in an unequal community, have a stake in the public services that taxes support.

With every such “success,” with every budget cutback, with every resulting deterioration in public services, the constituencies for maintaining quality public services shrink. Those who can afford to make the shift to private services, to reserve time in private tennis bubbles, do so.

With fewer people using public services, more budget cutbacks become inevitable. Services deteriorate still further. People of distinctly modest means now find themselves depending on private services, even if they really can’t quite afford them. Deteriorating public services leave them no choice.

This dynamic unfolds so predictably whenever wealth concentrates that one economist, the University of Chicago’s Sam Peltzman, has even formulated a “law” to account for it. Growing income equality, holds Peltzman’s Law, “stimulates growth of government.” Growing inequality has the exact opposite effect. In societies becoming more unequal, taxpayers are less likely to support spending that enhances a society’s stock of public goods and services.

“If wealth and income are unequally distributed, the ‘winners,’ so to speak, will want to maintain their advantage,” explain historians Carolyn Webber and Aaron Wildavsky. But “if substantial equality already exists, then citizens will want still more of it.”

Over recent decades, government spending in the United States has followed Peltzman’s Law as assuredly as if Congress had enacted it. Spending for public goods and services increased in times of growing equality, in the 1950s and 1960s, and fell significantly in the 1980s and 1990s, when gaps in income and wealth started rapidly growing wider.

In California, America’s middle class heaven after World War II, $1 of every $100 Californians earned in the 1950s went for the commons, for building schools, roads, water systems, and other public goods and services. By 1997, California had become the nation’s most unequal state. In that year, of every $100 Californians earned, only seven cents went for public services. The result: a massive deterioration of the California commons, from schools to roads.

In the late 1990s, notes the American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson, three-quarters of the teachers hired by the Los Angeles school district, “lacked teaching credentials.” Freeways in the area remained “among the most clogged in the country.”

Americans, by century’s end, could see the same sort of disinvestment in public goods and services throughout the United States, and this disinvestment has continued. Unfortunately and dangerously, so has climate change, another product of our deeply unequal nation and world. The predictable end result: Middle-class homes burn while private fire services save the mansions of the awesomely affluent.

Tennis, anyone?

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on November 7, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: A veteran labor journalist, Sam Pizzigati has written widely on economic inequality, in articles, books, and online, for both popular and scholarly readers. Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. Follow him at @Too_Much_Online.

The Climate Strikers Walked Out of School. Next, Let’s Walk Off the Job.

Image result for Sydney Ghazarian"This September, the world erupted when over 7 million people?—?young and old—poured into the streets for the Global Climate Strike. The mass action, which made a Green New Deal a top demand, was sparked in the lead-up to Sweden’s 2018 general election, when teen activist Greta Thunberg began ditching school to protest Sweden’s inaction on climate change. Greta, who was already inspiring more student strikes through social media, catalyzed the Fridays for Future movement when she decided to continue striking on Fridays after the general election. Over the past year, young leaders?—particularly youth of color—have been on the forefront of building Friday Climate Strikes into a worldwide student civil disobedience movement, taking aim at the political failure to address the climate emergency.

The logic of the Climate Strike movement was summated by Greta at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2019. “Some say that we should not engage in activism, instead we should leave everything to our politicians and just vote for change instead,” she said. “But what do we do when there is no political will? What do we do when the politics needed are nowhere in sight?”

In other words, Climate Strikes are happening for the same reason labor strikes often happen: Negotiations have broken down. CEOs profiting from the exploitation of workers and the Earth are unwilling to cede to demands that would improve the lives of those affected by their practices. And politicians are unwilling to put the good of ordinary people first.

Like labor strikes, climate strikes are premised on the principle that organizers won’t get what they want just by asking: They have to create the political will for their demands by causing disruption that is impossible to ignore. The use of this tactic signals a shift away from the evidently floundering strategies of online petitions and  behind-the-scenes talks with key decision-makers.

However, labor strikes are more likely than student strikes to be successful for a key reason: Workers are strategically positioned to leverage their collective power because labor strikes halt production and therefore profit-making by employers, which forces their bosses to cede to their demands or lose out. Unlike student strikes, worker strikes cause direct economic impact, which affects what key decision-makers care about most: profit-making and economic conditions that are favorable for re-election. The pathway to victory for Climate Strikers is building an international movement of people acting in their capacity as workers to disrupt the economy significantly enough that politicians are forced to cave to the demand for a Green New Deal.

The challenge is to turn the powerful movement for climate strikes into a movement capable of organizing actual workers’ strikes.

Building towards labor strikes

Teachers have been on the forefront of the recent strike wave, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) may have advanced the movement further when its members passed a resolution stating “that the MTA delegation to the 2019 NEA [National Education Association] Representative Assembly propose a national teachers strike in support of the Green New Deal.” Unfortunately, NEA delegates voted down the proposal—but that doesn’t mean it’s the end.

One possible route forward comes from Francisco Cendejas, a long-time labor organizer who helped start National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). He suggests that unions could resolve to strike for a Green New Deal if a number of other national unions agreed to do so as well. The simple explanation for this “strike pact” approach is that there is safety in numbers, but the reasoning goes deeper. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and U.S. labor laws overtly favor employers over workers—and place strict parameters around striking. This imbalance has created a mountain of legal barriers preventing an entire union from going on strike—especially for a Green New Deal or other demands for the common good.

However, there are no illegal strikes, just unsuccessful ones. We make them “legal” by winning our demands. West Virginia teachers did this when they launched a successful wildcat strike last year. If many large unions with high-stakes disruptive power can agree to strike in solidarity with each other and their communities, we could have the power to win.

If you belong to a union, you can start organizing support for Climate Strikes and a Green New Deal by introducing a local union resolution in support of each. Passing this resolution will further align the Labor and Climate Movements, and could move your union toward endorsing progressive climate candidates, collectively bargaining for green contract provisions, and showing up to climate actions. Once you pass a resolution in your local union, you can move toward passing a similar resolution at higher levels, like city and county labor councils.

Getting your union to support a Green New Deal or Climate Strikes will not necessarily be straightforward. Unions have different politics, different structures for member participation, and some have been hostile toward the Green New Deal. Additionally, many unions have settled for operating in accordance to a “service model,” meaning they aim to satisfy their members’ demands through handling grievances, lobbying and securing benefits rather than direct pressure on their employers—which diminishes the power a union could have against threats to working class interests. Turning Climate Strikes into a winning strategy will require turning unions into a fighting force. For lessons in how to achieve this, we can examine the successful tactics of Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) within the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

Towards social justice unionism

When CORE members were elected as CTU leaders in 2010, they forfeited CTU’s service model for a social movement unionism approach, which they first demonstrated in a 2012 strike that centered on the improvement of public education and forming alliances with parents and students. The union’s dedication to bargaining for the common good was on full display during its recent strike, in which union members won a contract securing support staff for homeless students, a declaration of Chicago schools as sanctuary spaces, a cap on class sizes, and a nurse and social worker for every school.

CORE’s continued militancy and success has spread to teachers’ unions around the country through UCORE, including MTA—the union that passedthe resolution to propose a general strike for a Green New Deal. If workers organize their unions to follow CORE’s approach of rank-and-file democracy, community alliances, and using bargaining power to win demands for the common good, they could build labor support for a Green New Deal and even align unions around a “Climate Strike Pact.”

If you are not part of a union, you can gain inspiration from the 2006 “Day Without an Immigrant” mass strike. Immigrants and solidarity strikers were able to participate due to the protection of “concerted activity” included in the National Labor Relations Act. Legal protection of concerted activity allows union and non-union workers to act collectively to improve the terms and conditions of their work, which is something a Green New Deal could do. With less than 12% of U.S. workers belonging to a union, this protection holds particular importance. However, some employers might still try to fire workers for participating, which means we would need to mobilize workers and the broader community around protests, public shaming and boycotts targeting the offending employers until they cave and rehire the workers.

The bottom line is this: Climate Strikes can win a Green New Deal by building community and Labor alliances around demands for the common good. We can leverage our power as workers through high-impact, disruptive labor strikes that halt the economy’s gears until politicians can no longer ignore us, and are forced to cede to demands that will save the world.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on November 5, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sydney Ghazarian started the National Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Ecosocialist Working Group and is a member of its current Steering Committee. She is also a climate organizer and an advisory board member for The Trouble. You can follow her on Twitter @SydneyAzari

With the Help of Teachers Unions, the Climate Strikes Could Be Moving Into Phase 2

Image result for rachel m. cohen"As young people across the country join the global movement to mobilize school strikes to demand climate action, one group is starting to think more seriously about how to best support those efforts: their teachers.

Educators, like those in the California Federation of Teachers and the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), are beginning to leverage their power both as teachers and union members to push the bounds of climate activism.

Kurt Ostrow, a high school English teacher in Fall River, Mass., has helped lead his union to the forefront of the climate movement over the last few years.

“Climate to me has always been the major crisis that needs to be addressed, and even though in the classroom I really try to prioritize it, it just doesn’t feel always enough,” he says. “So I have been trying to use the leverage that we have a as union of 110,000 people to support the movement.”

In his first year of teaching five years ago, Ostrow went as a delegate to MTA’s annual meeting, where the union’s social justice caucus—Educators for a Democratic Union—sought a teacher to introduce a resolution (known as a “New Business Item”) recommending the divestment of state pension plans from coal. Ostrow’s college friends had been leaders in the campus divestment movement, and he had always participated in their actions as an ally, so he was happy to volunteer to introduce it.

“We lost a quorum, so we weren’t able to take a vote on it, but the next year we did it again and it passed,” he said. “That was really how I first dipped my toes in.”

When the youth climate strikes took off last year, Ostrow, who now serves on the board of his statewide union, began thinking harder about how teachers could help them. At its March board meeting, he decided to introduce a resolution that the MTA would support the youth climate strike scheduled for March 15. It passed unanimously.

At the union’s next annual meeting, held in May two months later, leaders of the social justice caucus deliberated over what environmental resolutions they should introduce to best support the Green New Deal.

“I knew we could put forward a resolution that said MTA supports the Green New Deal, and I think that would have passed easily, but I really wanted to create a decision point, like a ‘which side are you on’ moment that would really force teachers to confront their own conscience,” he told In These Times. “So I decided to go radical, and I put forward a New Business Item calling for the MTA to propose a national teachers strike in support of the Green New Deal.”

It’s illegal for teachers to strike in Massachusetts, and following Ostrow’s impassioned speech at the conference, there was some heated debate. In the end, though, it passed.

Ostrow was pleasantly surprised. “I’m a member of the Sunrise Movement, and my dream is to try and coordinate our efforts with Sunrise’s long-term vision of striking for a Green New Deal,” he said. “So I was just trying to plant the seeds in members’ brains, but to be honest I hadn’t done any organizing around it. I wasn’t calling other locals and saying, ‘hey there will be this NBI and will you support it?’”

At the National Education Association’s (NEA) annual meeting in July, an MTA delegate introduced a resolution for the national union to also call for striking in support of the Green New Deal. It failed, with too many members nervous about the legality of such a move.

The next month, two high school students who were organizing for the September 20 global youth climate strike came out to the MTA’s August board meeting and asked the union to pass something backing their efforts.

The union did, and also upped its engagement in the weeks leading up to September 20.

“For the March strike, we just endorsed it, issued a press statement, and Max Page [the union’s vice president] spoke at a rally,” said Ostrow. “There wasn’t a lot of coordinated effort.”

Leading up to this strike, explained MTA’s president Merrie Najimy, the union did more outreach, and organized a statewide conference call with members to discuss how to get involved. “Our legal department wrote an advisory where the gist was to say you have this right to participate, and as an organizer you can push your principal, your superintendent, to make this a field trip day,” she said. “You have the right to take a personal day.”

On the day of the strike, Ostrow took his students down to a climate rally as part of a class field trip. He knows he was fortunate: In New York City, the school district, despite saying students could receive excused absences for participating in the climate strike, issued an order that barred teachers from going. The city’s education department decided that any employee participation, including class field trips or even staging walkouts on school property, would violate rules of ensuring a “politically neutral learning environment.”

The MTA’s work has continued since the strike. Last month at its latest board meeting, the union officially endorsed the Green New Deal, and a new member-driven climate crisis team is holding its first meeting in November. “Our goal will be to figure out how we can push the MTA to take more and more radical actions in support of the Green New Deal,” Ostrow said. One possible tactic is taking collective sick days. “If you can take off to take care of your kids, well the fact is Mother Earth is sick,” he said.

MTA is not the first teacher union to endorse the Green New Deal. In March, the 120,000-member California Federation of Teachers passed a resolution in support of it, and was actually the first statewide labor organization in the country to adopt a climate justice agenda in 2016. That agenda includes support for fossil fuel divestment, for enacting climate legislation, and for educating members and students about the crisis.

Looking nationally

So far the national teacher unions have been more guarded.

AFT president Randi Weingarten marched with union members in New York City during the September 20 strike, but the statement she issued did not commit her labor organization to any real political action beyond educating children about the issues. “If we can help students learn about the science of climate change, help them understand free speech and citizen advocacy as part of civic education, and encourage their belief in themselves, we’ve done our job in helping the next generation secure their future,” Weingarten said.

Lily Eskelsen García, president of the NEA, has taken a similar approach. In a statement provided to In These Times, García said, “Educators around the nation are proud that their students are leading on climate change because they know it is an urgent threat. We teach our kids to be leaders in the classroom and their communities, so it is inspiring to watch them speaking up to demand action on the climate crisis from elected leaders.”

The NEA provides educators with resources to teach about climate change, and while delegates voted down the proposed resolution for a national strike at its most recent annual meeting, delegates did pass two less controversial measures—to encourage locals to compost, and to recommend schools incorporate the causes, effects, and solutions to climate change in their science curriculums.

Najimy, the MTA president, is more optimistic about growing activism from teacher unions. She pointed to a new working group on climate justice that’s forming with the national Bargaining for the Common Good network, a coalition of labor and grassroots organizations dedicated to leveraging union contracts for social justice. “When we go back to the bargaining table, we can use our power in labor to negotiate new ways of acting for the climate,” she said.

College faculty, like their K-12 counterparts, are also starting to organize in support of their students.

Leading up to September’s climate strike, a small group of professors organized an open letter calling on fellow educators to cancel classes and strike. Almost 830 people signed it. Two of the organizers, Jonathan Isham, an economics and environmental policy professor at Middlebury, and Lee Smithey, a peace and conflict studies professor at Swarthmore, co-authored Guardian op-ed in late August urging the same thing. “We risk losing credibility with an entire generation of students if we cannot take action in support of the defining cause of their generation,” they wrote.

Isham works at Middlebury with environmental activist Bill McKibben, and he taught McKibben’s seven 350.org co-founders back when they were college students. In an interview, Isham said he understands it can be easier in some ways for college faculty to take off compared to public school teachers. He praised his university’s HR department for being supportive of faculty who wanted to cancel classes for the strike, as professors were given the option to take a personal day off. Isham doesn’t even teach on Fridays, so it was especially easy for him to participate in Middlebury’s rally that day.

“I think the number-one thing educators can do is educate, and share what we know about the climate crisis and climate instability with our students,” he said. “That is our primary job, but I like to say the classroom has porous walls, and I think it’s important to also get out in the world and stand up as a citizen.”

This article was originally published by In These Times on November 4, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rachel M. Cohen is a journalist based in Washington D.C. Follow her on Twitter @rmc031

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