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The Climate Crisis Is Coming for Undocumented Farmworkers First

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Maurizio Guerrero -

Facing deadly heat waves and few protections, undocumented agricultural workers are being pushed to their limit.

In July 2020, Claudia Durán felt compelled to complete her shift harvesting blueberries in the fields of Allegan County, Mich., before driving to the local hospital’s emergency room to be treated for dehydration, where she arrived dizzy, with an acute headache and chest pain. That same month, at least three of her coworkers also ended their shifts in emergency rooms to be treated for dehydration, she says. Durán and her coworkers get paid by the hour, 50 cents for every pound of fruit they pick, and they cannot afford to miss work time and lose income. That is why Durán, who is undocumented, rations her water intake throughout the day?—?to avoid going too often to the restroom, which is far removed from the harvesting fields.

“I have asked for medicines for the headache, and he [the supervisor] says, ?‘No, nothing is happening, nothing is wrong,’ and does not give you medicine,” said Durán, who in 2004 emigrated from poverty and violence in the state of Zacatecas in Mexico. For fear of retaliation, she declined to provide her employer’s name. ?“Until the workday is over, if you feel very unwell, then you go to the emergency room,” said Durán, who is 35 years old and has four children to support. 

During the last several years, Durán says she has been treated at the emergency room around twice a summer for dehydration, with July 2020 marking her last visit. Toiling under difficult heat conditions, she and her coworkers have been forced to gamble with their health: Chronic dehydration can cause kidney damage.

The effects of the climate crisis on the more than 1 million agricultural workers in the United States, already severe, have been worsened by profit-driven employers. The increasingly severe heat waves ravaging the country damage some crops, so to protect the market value of their produce, the agricultural industry is accelerating the harvesting season?—?and in many instances forcing longer shifts on workers. 

With no access to shade and for wages often below the poverty level line, agricultural laborers are being pressured to harvest at a higher pace than in previous years, according to workers and advocates who spoke to In These Times. This work is increasingly done in temperatures that soar above 100 degrees and, with growing frequency, in the midst of wildfire smoke. 

Undocumented immigrants, often too intimidated to denounce mistreatment for fear of losing their jobs or being placed in deportation proceedings, are generally the most seriously abused and exploited. Between 50% and 75% of all farmworkers in the United States are undocumented. Meanwhile, 99% of farmworkers do not belong to a union. Without the support of organized labor or federal regulations that protect agricultural workers from heat and smoke, undocumented laborers are left to the mercy of employers in the midst of the climate crisis. 

At the peak of the heat season, when the fruit is ripening, Durán’s employer implements longer shifts, she said. This season, she says, ?“we were already asked to work more than 12 hours a day.” She starts working at seven o’clock in the morning. ?“They want us working until eight at night, and Sundays too,” she added in a phone interview in Spanish at nine o’clock at night, just after she arrived from work. In the background, one of her small children could be heard asking questions in English and Spanish, eager for attention. 

“All those hours, you are under the sun because you don’t even have a shade to eat your lunch,” Durán explained. 

Dangerous heat

This kind of abuse can be fatal. On June 26, 38-year-old Sebastian Francisco Perez, a Guatemalan, died while working on a tree farm in St. Paul, Ore., at the height of the hottest June in U.S. recorded history. Scorching temperatures are bringing new dangers to a job that was already dangerous. According to a 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, from 1992 to 2006, 68 crop workers died from heat stroke, representing a rate nearly 20 times greater than for other U.S. civilian workers. Most of the deaths were of adults aged 20 to 54 years, a population not typically at high risk for heat illnesses. Those tallies, advocates agree, are gross underestimates: They exclude workers on small farms, and heat deaths wrongly recorded as heart attacks or strokes unrelated to the workplace. 

The impact of extreme heat on farmworkers’ health has also been downplayed, according to the Food and Environment Reporting Network. Apart from kidney problem, heat stress has been linked to adverse mental health outcomes and increased risk for traumatic injuries for agricultural laborers, who mostly work without commonplace benefits like sick leave, paid vacation or health insurance. At least 33% of farmworkers’ families are not even paid a wage above the poverty line —the annual income for farmworkers’ families usually does not exceed $24,500, according to data from 2015?–?2016. This stark economic reality undoubtedly increases pressure on farmworkers to endure exploitive and dangerous heat conditions.

Whatever the current impact of the increased temperature on agricultural workers, the costs are expected to rise sharply in the coming years. According to a 2020 study led by the Stanford University professor Michelle Tigchelaar, the number of unsafe days in crop-growing U.S. counties will jump from 21 per season to 39 per season by 2055, and without mitigation would triple by the end of the century. 

While heat waves continue to break records across the country, resulting in dozens of deaths throughout the Pacific Northwest this year alone, many agricultural workers remain unprotected by regulations and reluctant to denounce abuse for fear of being deported. And unions face significant barriers to organizing this workforce. This past June, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a California law, in place for more than four decades, that allowed union organizers to enter farms to speak to workers during nonworking hours for a set number of days each year. By a 6?–?3 vote along ideological lines, the court ruled that the law amounted to an illegal taking of private property, setting a chilling precedent against union organizers.

“[Agricultural workers] are human buffers protecting the middle class and white-collar America from the effects of climate change,” said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns of United Farm Workers, one of the largest unions for farmworkers in the country. Those most affected, she said, are the poorest and most vulnerable?—?undocumented immigrants who are often coming from Indigenous communities in Mexico and Guatemala. 

A 2018 study conducted by researchers at the CDC found that non?U.S. citizens had three times the risk of dying from heat related-illness compared to citizens, and that the risk was higher among those younger and of Latino ethnicity?—?the vast majority of the U.S. agricultural workforce. 

Protecting companies, not workers

Congress has been slow to act to protect farmworkers. Last March, progressive members of the House and the Senate introduced versions of the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act of 2021, named for a worker who died in California in 2004. The day of his death, after harvesting grapes for 10 hours straight at 105 degrees, Valdivia fainted, and instead of calling an ambulance, his employer asked the worker’s son to drive his father home. 

The bills in Congress require employers to institute paid breaks for their workers in shaded areas and make water available. They also stipulate emergency response procedures and heat-stress training in a language that workers understand. It is not clear, though, when the bills will be scheduled for a vote. 

At the beginning of the year, California had laws similar to the Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act. Oregon approved earlier this summer its own emergency protections, while Washington updated its own rules. Minneapolis mandates employers to provide training for its workers to avoid heat stress. But overall, advocates say, more protections are needed on a nationwide level.

The agricultural industry has largely responded to the heat waves by protecting its business, not workers. Advocates have detected nocturnal harvests of cherries and blueberries in Oregon and Washington?—?done with headlamps and imposed by employers to minimize the damage to the fruits caused by the intense heat.

“Just in the past four days alone, I have talked to farmworkers in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Arizona who are working either very early or nocturnal harvests this summer as a result of the heat,” said Strater. Nocturnal harvests increase the number of children working in the fields because there is no child care available when shifts start at two o’clock in the morning, she said. ?“So we are seeing more 9, 10 and 11-year-olds working in these really dangerous workplaces.”

The increasingly hot summers also mean agricultural workers toil while breathing the smoke from the progressively intense wildfires spreading throughout the U.S. West Coast. Only California has protective regulations for smoke in place.

Despite the massive wildfires of the season?—?Bootleg, one of the largest in Oregon’s history, had razed more than 400,000 acres by early August?—?the Oregonian agricultural industry is resisting common-sense protection for workers against the dangerous particles caused by the ’ smoke, said Ira Cuello Martínez, climate policy associate of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste or PCUN, the largest Latino union in Oregon. 

Advocates are pushing for employers in Oregon to provide farmworkers with respirators once the Air Quality Index (AQI) hits 151 —a level considered ?“unhealthy” by the Environmental Protection Agency. However, the state’s agricultural industry has voiced resistance to the required usage of respirators at levels below California’s, which mandates employers to provide respirators after the index reaches 500, even though at 301 the air quality is already ?“hazardous” by federal standards. At levels beyond 300, Cuello Martínez added, ?“I don’t think anyone should be outside.” 

However, even in an environment that could potentially cause long-term health problems to workers, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not have the authority to suspend outside work. 

Under these circumstances, agricultural laborers, especially those who are undocumented, say they will continue to be pushed by the industry to ensure the country’s residents have food on their tables amid the climate crisis. 

“The supervisor does not regard workers as anything of importance,” Durán said. ?“He already told us that we have to work more hours, and every day.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 4, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Maurizio Guerrero is a journalist based in New York City. He covers migration, social justice movements and Latin America.


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Billionaires Can Have the Cosmos—We Only Want the Earth

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Luis Feliz Leon (@Lfelizleon) | Twitter

Fleeing is what the rich do best. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz fled Texas last winter, abandoning millions to freezing temperatures. But some have tired of the Earth altogether.

Billionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson are fleeing to space on rockets with stratospheric price tags.

Branson was the first to venture forth July 11, in a gambit to launch a commercial space tourism industry—as if we didn’t have enough trouble with the carbon emissions from excess tourism.

That’s what it means to be ultra-rich—to squander oodles of untaxed cash and rake in public subsidies on boyhood fantasies of “space hotels, amusement parks, yachts, and colonies,” as Bezos put it in high school.

But the billionaires playing space cowboys aren’t like the rest of us. They’re on the other side of the fault line of an accelerating climate catastrophe caused by greenhouse emissions.

Workers who plow fields, erect scaffolding, haul garbage, lay track, and stuff mail are not going to escape onboard a winged rocket. We are going to have to fight to survive on Earth.

EXTREME HEAT

From 1992 to 2017 in the U.S., heat stress killed 815 workers and injured 70,000; every year, 65,000 people visit the emergency room for heat stress.

In June, an extreme heat wave hit the Pacific Northwest. With no federal heat standards in place, the United Farmworkers called on Washington’s governor to issue protections for thousands of vulnerable farmworkers.

Washington and Oregon adopted emergency heat standards for outdoor workers, guaranteeing cool drinking water and shade breaks (Oregon’s stronger rules cover indoor workers too)—but not before Guatemalan-born farmworker Sebastian Francisco Perez, 38, died moving irrigation lines in a 104-degree field in Marion County, Oregon.

Proposed heat-stress legislation in Congress, the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, doesn’t go far enough, especially in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that bans union organizers from approaching farmworkers in the fields.

Telecom workers, canvassers, and even librarians are among the union members who are fighting for contractual protection from heat and smoke.

In Maine, unions are teaming up with housing advocates, environmental groups, and indigenous people to push climate bills that will recognize tribal sovereignty, build energy-efficient affordable housing, and create green jobs in low-income areas.

WE WANT THE EARTH

But these are modest efforts compared to the scale of the challenge. All told, the scalding heat wave in the Pacific Northwest killed 800 people. Blistering heat melted power cables and buckled roads in normally temperate Seattle and Portland.

In New York, scorching sun gave way to floods. Viral videos showed subway riders wading through train stations waist-deep in sewage and runoff. A massive flood also hit Detroit, turning thousands of Labor Notes books to pulp.

Meanwhile the Southwest is parched; the people of Colorado are preparing for wildfires. Already the Canadian village of Lytton, British Columbia, combusted after setting an all-time heat record of 121 degrees.

European Union researchers released more evidence in July that planetary heating’s pace far outstrips the climate’s ability to adjust, noting that human-caused climate change is “abrupt and irreversible.”

But it’s never about more information; it’s about power. Alaska, for instance, is installing a cooling system to keep the permafrost frozen and prevent a section of the Trans-Alaska pipeline from crashing and spewing oil everywhere.

In other words, rather than solve the problem by removing the pipeline, the owners have geoengineered a way to keep exacerbating the very conditions that are melting the ice.

Newly leaked audio of an Exxon lobbyist reveals how sneakily the world’s biggest fossil fuel corporations have fought to stymie legislative solutions and sow doubts about the science behind climate action.

It’s up to workers to jump-start a mass movement to save life itself. If we leave it up to the oil barons and space cowboys, they will chase the last dollar till they annihilate us all.

Bezos and his space-trotting pals can have the cosmos. We only want the Earth.

This post originally appeared at Labor Notes on July 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Luis Leon is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.


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We Have a Jobs Crisis and an Environmental Crisis. The Answer to Both Is a Civilian Climate Corps.

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free enterprise | Today's Workplace

From Bernie Sanders and AOC to the Sunrise Movement, progressives are working to establish an updated version of a New Deal program to meet the challenges of economic and climate upheaval. Its time has come.

The Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure deal embraced by President Joe Biden appears to be a dud. Instead of taxing the rich to modernize America’s roads, water systems and other infrastructure, it promotes various forms of privatization. A summary released in late June about how new construction will be financed includes so-called ?“public-private partnerships,” which are essentially high-interest loans to state and local governments that deliver massive returns for Wall Street banks, private equity investors and multinational financial firms. Also listed is a fringe policy idea called ?“asset recycling,” which would incentivize states and cities to outright sell off public assets. Back in 2009, Chicago leased out its parking meters to investors as far away as Abu Dhabi for at least $1 billion under value, which has forced residents to pick up the tab ever since. Asset recycling is that type of scheme on steroids. 

If Biden is committed to tackling both climate change and inequality?—?which he says he is—then encouraging privatization is counterproductive. Privatizing infrastructure makes adapting to a warming climate harder—because it gives decision making power to corporations and investors. It raises fees and rates for residents—because those corporations and investors need to make a profit. And it creates a race to the bottom on worker wages—because contracted out workers are less likely to be members of a union.

But all is not lost. Biden has a chance to deliver for working people and a healthy climate if he listens to progressives when it comes to a promising proposal that could potentially create millions of good-paying, green public jobs: The Civilian Climate Corps (CCC).

The CCC would be a government jobs program that puts people to work directly combatting the climate crisis. First envisioned by the youth-led Sunrise Movement, the program would aim to ?“conserve and restore public lands and waters, bolster community resilience, increase reforestation, increase carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protect biodiversity, improve access to recreation, and address the changing climate.”

Its impact could be considerable, especially if the final product echoes a proposal released in April by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D?N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D?Mass.). Their proposed CCC would create 1.5 million jobs that would pay at least $15 per hour, provide full healthcare coverage, and offer support beyond the workplace, like housing and educational grants.

The good news is that, even though Biden’s bipartisan deal doesn’t include money for the CCC, the president actually already established the program in a January executive order, and his original American Jobs Plan called for $10 billion in funding for it. The bad news is that the proposed funding was only a fraction of what’s needed. Biden’s proposal would only create up to 20,000 jobs a year—nowhere near the overall need.

That’s why progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I?Vt.) and Ocasio-Cortez, alongside groups like Sunrise and the National Wildlife Federation, are pushing for a much bigger and broader infrastructure investment than the bipartisan deal, to include substantial funding for the CCC.

One avenue will be to pressure Biden to keep his word when it comes to public jobs. In late June, the president signed an executive order directing the the federal government to encourage diversity and inclusion among its workforce. If a CCC becomes a reality, it must avoid the mistakes made by its predecessor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which was established in 1933.

The first corps accomplished plenty. Over nine years, it employed some 3 million young men to fight forest fires, build more than 100,000 miles of roads and trails, construct 318,000 dams, connect telephone lines across mountain passes, plant 3 billion trees, and much more. But it suffered the same affliction as many New Deal-era programs by mostly shutting out Black Americans. 

While the bill authorizing the program stipulated that ?“no discrimination shall be made on account of race, color, or creed,” Black workers were separated into different camps and often given more difficult, less prestigious work. They also experienced resistance when climbing the ranks within the Civilian Conservation Corps’ administrative hierarchy. Women weren’t allowed to join at all, instead offered opportunities with Eleanor Roosevelt’s ?“She-She-She” camps, which were widely scorned and only benefited some 8,500 people.

That’s why a new CCC must aim to target communities most harmed by the intersecting Covid-19, climate and unemployment crises. As In These Times’ editors wrote back in April, ?“The new Civilian Climate Corps must center Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous communities, which have been disproportionately affected by environmental injustice (and Covid-19).”

Public employment has long offered stable jobs to people of color, particularly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Black Americans gained 28 percent of new federal government jobs in the 1960s, while only making up 10 percent of the U.S. population. By the 1980s and 1990s, Black public employees were twice as likely as their private sector counterparts to receive promotions into white collar managerial positions and technical jobs. For both men and women, the median wage earned by Black employees is significantly higher in the public sector than in other industries.

For now, with the Senate still debating the paltry bipartisan infrastructure deal, it appears that funding for the CCC will have to find its way into a future budget reconciliation package, which wouldn’t require Republican votes to pass. ?“I want to enlist a new generation of climate conservation and resilience workers like FDR did with the American work plan for preserving our landscape with the Civilian Conservation Corps,” Biden said in a July 7 speech in Illinois. He made clear that the CCC, as well as other policies like two free years of community college, aren’t going to be in the bipartisan deal. ?“In Washington, they call it a reconciliation bill,” he said of the plan for enacting other major parts of his agenda.

Sanders is currently crafting language for such a bill, and plans to include increased funding for the CCC (reportedly $50 billion on top of Biden’s original proposal). Making such an investment a reality will likely require climate organizers and advocates to keep the pressure on lawmakers in Washington so they don’t renege on their promises on the environment. 

People need jobs. We need to modernize our infrastructure to combat climate change. The federal government is the only institution with enough coordination and resources to kill those two birds with one stone. A well-funded CCC is the clear path forward. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 13, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Jeremy Mohler is a Washington D.C.-based political writer with In the Public Interest and a meditation teacher.


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Historic heat wave highlights the need for farmworker protections

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Wage theft is a huge problem that requires a creative solution, this week  in the war on workers | Today's Workplace

Summer heat is a danger for farmworkers every year, with heat deaths happening steadily. But with climate change and heat waves like the one that hit the Pacific Northwest in recent weeks becoming more frequent, the need for legal protections for farmworkers is becoming more urgent. At least one worker died during that heat wave.

California farmworkers have a right to shade when the temperature reaches 80 degrees (though enforcement remains an issue), and farmworkers are winning legislative victories in the states, including Colorado recently and Washington state, gaining minimum wage and overtime protections. But nationally, farmworkers lack protections and enforcement, and heat is an annual danger. The Pacific Northwest’s record-shattering June heat wave drew renewed attention to that—even as some coverage of agriculture in the heat wave talked entirely about the danger to crops and never even mentioned workers.

The workers picking cherries and blueberries in temperatures over 100 degrees included children as young as 12 and adults in their 70s, with some employers not even supplying water, let alone shade.

“There’s no shade where I work,” a cherry picker in Yakima County, Washington, told Motherboard. “A lot of people who don’t feel well keep working so as not to lose money for lunch or rent. People endure a lot to finish. They give more than they are able to.” Elizabeth Strater, strategic campaigns director for the United Farm Workers of America, told Motherboard’s Lauren Kaori Gurley that “There is a perverse incentive to work as fast as you can not to hydrate to the extent that you’d need bathroom breaks,” because so many workers are paid piece rates.

Workers also often work in heavy clothes to protect themselves from chemicals used on crops, as they do unbelievably grueling, skilled work in dangerous heat. This is already a workplace safety issue that demands national policymaking—and it’s only going to get worse thanks to climate change.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos on July, 5 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Laura Clawson has been a Daily Kos contributing editor since December 2006 and a full-time staff since 2011, currently acting as assistant managing editor.


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The Heat Wave Shows Climate Change Is a Workers’ Rights Issue

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Mindy Isser - In These Times

The workers laboring outside in this extraordinary heat are on the front lines of the climate crisis.

The end of June saw temperatures soar all around the United States, with historic heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest and excessive heat advisories, watches and warnings elsewhere. The heat is not just uncomfortable, it’s deadly, buckling roads and melting bridges, with temperatures climbing over 120 degrees in Death Valley, California and British Columbia.

While the 100 million computer workers in this country are more likely to be able to work safely indoors, other urgent and necessary work must continue outdoors, no matter the severity of the weather. The entirety of the working class is (or will be) affected by climate change, but it’s farm workers, letter carriers, construction workers, sanitation workers and other outdoor workers who are unable to escape to air conditioning, and are on the front lines of the environmental crisis. This clarifies the fight against climate change as one not just for environmentalists: Rising temperatures are a workplace safety issue. Relatedly, there is growing awareness among climate activists that workers’ rights and the future of the climate are inextricably linked. Continuing to connect these two existential issues is our best shot at a livable world in which we can all work safely and with dignity.

Between 1992 and 2017, at least 815 workers in the U.S. were killed and more than 70,000 were injured from heat stress injuries. It’s likely that the true number of workers hurt or killed due to extreme heat is much higher than reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Many workers who labor outside?—?particularly agricultural workers and construction workers?—?are undocumented or otherwise vulnerable and precarious, and may not know to report illnesses to OSHA. And of course, their employers are likely to misclassify a heat-related death. As temperatures continue to rise year after year, we can guess that the number of heat stress injuries and deaths will rise too.

On June 29, the United Farm Workers (UFW) slammed reports of heat-wave-related illnesses and deaths as ?“entirely preventable,” called on Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to protect farm workers by issuing emergency heat standards. (At least 63 people have died in Washington and Oregon since the heatwave began.) Even in perfect weather, farm workers do physically demanding labor for very low wages and no benefits. And according to Centers for Disease Control data from 2008, farmworkers already were perishing from heat at a rate of 20 times other civilian workers. Now temperatures have climbed to well over 100 degrees in the Pacific Northwest, and a farmworker in Oregon was killed by the heat on June 26. UFW rightly calls heat protections for workers ?“a matter of life and death.” 

And while farm workers may be among those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, they are not the only workers organizing for safety in our changing environment. After a member of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) died after installing phone service for a customer in 100 degree heat in 2011, the union began negotiating over heat stress workplace standards. An International Union of Painters and Allied Trades local that represents political, nonprofit and campaign workers in the Pacific Northwest fought for heat and smoke safety to protect canvassers in their most recent collective bargaining agreement, which was signed in January 2021 after successive smoky summers due to multiple wildfires.

Even those who work primarily inside have started organizing around these issues. Library workers in New York City bargained for a clause in their 2015 to 2020 contract entitled ?“operation of the library in the event of extreme temperatures,” requiring a temperature and humidity indicator on each level of the buildings, and compensatory time for staff who continue working in weather above 85 degrees and 44 percent humidity. 

As buildings get older with no federal investment to retrofit them, and as summers get hotter and hotter, there will be more pressure on electrical grids, potentially resulting in power outages. We can expect that even computer workers will be expected to work without air conditioning and in dangerous conditions. Amazon, run by the richest man in the world, forced warehouse workers in Washington to work in near-90-degree heat, because the company wasn’t equipped to deal with the current heat wave. (This is not the first time Amazon has allowed their workers to suffer in the heat—multiple workers have collapsed from heat-related causes.)

Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to require OSHA to create and enforce standards to protect workers in extreme temperatures. (Currently OSHA has no specific standards around working in high-heat environments.) The legislation, entitled the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act, is named for a 53-year-old farmworker who died after picking grapes for 10 hours straight in 105 degree heat in 2004. The act will require OSHA to establish measures like paid breaks in cool areas, access to water, limitations on time in the heat, and emergency response for illnesses caused by the heat. It will also ask that employers provide training for employees on how to recognize the potential risk factors of working in extreme heat, and ways to respond to symptoms if and when they arise.

While this legislation is important and timely, most workers in this country lack the true ability to safely advocate for themselves in the workplace. Thanks to our backwards labor laws, union density hovers around 11% nationwide, even though unions’ approval ratings are in the clear majority. If workers want to be in charge of their own health and safety, it’s imperative that we pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which will allow workers the ability to unionize without fear of retaliation. (Disclosure: This author has been involved in organizing to pass the PRO Act.) Unionized workplaces are safer than non-union workplaces: They are 30% more likely to face an inspection for a health and safety violation, because union members are more likely to know their rights and have the ability to fight for them. (Unionized workplaces are also much more likely to have health and safety committees, which exist for the sole purpose of ensuring the workplace is safe.) And of course, unions are why we even have OSHA, thanks to the leadership of beloved and dearly remembered labor leader Tony Mazzocchi.

Environmentalists, long seen as either opposed to workers or just apathetic to their plight, have begun to realize that without a strong working-class movement, there’s no real hope of fighting climate change. And with Biden’s deeply disappointing infrastructure legislation, we’re going to need a base of millions to push for a much more aggressive plan to fight climate change. That’s why the Green New Deal Campaign Committee of the Democratic Socialists of America went all in on pushing for the passage of the PRO Act. Unions don’t just protect members’ health and safety in the workplace, they have the ability to turn regular people into political actors with the skills and tools to fight for a dignified life both on and off the job. As workers feel the growing effects of climate change at work and at home, they’ll need to fight their employers for health and safety protections, and they’ll also need to go to battle with the politicians and fossil fuel executives who have allowed temperatures to rise so drastically.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on July 1, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Why Climate Plans Must Include Farmers of Color

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Hadassah Patterson on Muck Rack

Proposed legislation would give farms resources to fight climate change. Will farmers of color get equal access?

Marvin Frink looks out at his Black Angus cattle farm as the sun is coming up and ponders what’s on the horizon. He and his wife Tanisha started Briarwood Cattle Farm in Raeford, N.C. 10 years ago after Marvin was honorably discharged from the Army, where he served for 15 years, including on a Patriot missile crew. He recovered from service-related injuries and post-traumatic stress issues, and the Frinks purchased their first cattle in 2015 with a grant from the Farmer Veteran Coalition. Now their farm grows beef, pork and chicken available for delivery across the state.

Last year, the Frinks planned to purchase land to expand their cattle operation and incorporate regenerative grazing, a practice that involves frequently rotating grazing animals from pasture to pasture. Marvin Frink knows from his work that overgrazing the same land can be detrimental to the farm and the larger environment. “Regenerative grazing takes bad soil farmers can’t use and turns it back into reusable and sustainable land by having the cattle massage the soil and fertilize it,” he explains.

Regenerative grazing keeps the land and the animals healthy, prevents soil depletion, sequesters carbon, and cuts down on chemical inputs and greenhouse gas emissions. That’s important, because agriculture directly contributes 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and the food system as a whole is responsible for as much as 57% of global emissions.

To implement regenerative grazing, the Frinks needed access to more land and applied for loans to buy it. But they were denied a loan, twice. 

“Our credit wasn’t bad, and we had our cattle and farm (value) that superseded the loan,” says Marvin. “We were told we didn’t have enough equity yet.”

Like many farmers of color, the Frinks struggle to get access to farmable land. According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, Black-owned farmland has shrunk from 15 million acres in 1920 to 4.7 million acres today—only .5% of all farmland in the United States. Unethical rural lenders, biased auction practices and exorbitant tax valuations have eaten into lands owned by farmers of color. Farmers of color also lack access to the capital needed to buy land and equipment, and timely resources for sustainability – such as severe weather insurance processing. This lack of access, and a history of outright discrimination at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), has left many farmers of color without the resources they need to make their operations more sustainable or to mitigate the effects of climate change on their land.

Existing carbon markets, which pay farmers for environmental contributions, offer a revenue opportunity for farmers of color to harmonize cultural, financial, and sustainability goals. But to participate fully, these farmers need to know these opportunities exist, which is too often not the case, and be empowered to participate equally. If farmers of color are struggling to maintain day to day operations, higher-level concerns such as rebates and credits can sometimes fall by the wayside. Right now, some farmers may even have to pay for third-party help to navigate certifications for carbon markets. For this reason, outreach programming is essential to plans that aim to ensure equal access to resources for farmers of color.

Marvin Frink hopes the Biden administration and Congress will address these problems. To start, he wants to see better access to resources for farmers of color and more equity so they can purchase land and equipment.

The Biden administration has made agriculture central to its campaign against climate change and Biden himself has said he envisions U.S. farmers being the first in the world to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. Meanwhile, Congress is debating a range of climate change legislation that would set clean energy standards and provide farmers the funding and tools to reduce emissions and engage with carbon markets for credit of their good work. But some senators are concerned the bills won’t help farmers of all backgrounds participate equally.

Among the over 100 proposed measures pertaining to the environment is the Growing Climate Solutions Act, reintroduced on April 20 by Sen. Mike Braun (R-I.N.), Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-M.I.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). The act offers a certification program for farmers, and would empower them to participate in carbon capture and soil improvement practices with provisions like technical assistance. It also provides a credit market rewarding “climate-smart practices” for producers. The U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry advanced the bill to the Senate floor with broad bipartisan support from at least 49 senators and over 80 commercial and environmental organizations.

However, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-G.A.) questioned whether the legislation adequately addresses the needs of farmers of color, who were hit particularly hard as the pandemic squeezed small farms and rattled agricultural markets. During a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing about the proposed legislation, Warnock put it this way: “Many of these farmers of color and their communities were disproportionately impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, with less than .1% of the nearly $26 billion allocated for USDA Covid relief ending up in their pockets. As we work to address climate change and generate new revenue streams for our farmers, we must include farmers of color and their communities in these conversations. It is a matter of equity and justice. They cannot be left behind. They cannot be an afterthought.”

Asked about Warnock’s concerns, Stabenow spokesperson Patrick Delaney said, “the bill provides resources for smaller and medium-sized farmers to help them scale up the good work they’re doing and make sense of carbon markets.” Following Warnock’s comments, he said, “we made important improvements to ensure the new program, as well as the voluntary markets it supports, will address the unique needs of limited resource, historically underserved, and socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers, and foresters.” 

The Growing Climate Solutions Act will be considered by the full Senate once added to the calendar. 

In February, Warnock himself introduced the Emergency Relief for Farmers of Color Act, which was referred to the Senate Agriculture Committee, where it remains. The bill would require the Secretary of Agriculture to provide assistance for socially disadvantaged farmers, ranchers and other groups.

Another upcoming piece of climate and farming legislation is the bicameral Agriculture Resilience Act, authored by Rep. Chellie Marie Pingree (D-M.E.) and introduced with 16 of her House colleagues. It was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). The bill focuses on giving farmers tools to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. It also includes specific provisions, such as reserving 30% of land conservation funds for new and socially disadvantaged farmers, including farmers of color.

“Congress must ensure any resources provided to U.S. agriculture to fight climate change are accessible to farmers of color, particularly given past treatment by USDA,” Pingree told Rural America In These Times. “In the Agriculture Resilience Act, I propose policies to ensure farmers of color can benefit from these initiatives and are offered priority or lower matching requirements for grants and other incentives to adopt climate-smart farming practices.” 

The bill also specifies that the plan should improve public health, resilience, and environmental impact in communities of color and tribal areas. The Agriculture Resilience Act was referred to the House Agriculture Committee.

This focus on racial equity in climate change legislation comes as USDA is grappling with a history of discrimination that has steadily decreased the numbers of Black farmers and robbed them of family farms for generations. Congress and the Biden administration took a step to address this history by setting aside $4 billion of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan for debt relief for farmers of color, and an additional $1 billion to improve land access and retention.

Asked what USDA, which oversees the distribution of funds and informational programming, is doing to ensure equitable access, USDA Communications Director Matt Herrick said the debt relief in the American Rescue Plan offered immediate aid to farmers of color, to help them to sustain regular operations. Herrick also said that the new leadership at USDA is revising the agency’s approach to ensure more equitable access to all funding and programs, including creating the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights (OASCR). The agencies recently established an independent Racial Equity Commission to examine USDA programs and services for accountability within the department, and to empower socially disadvantaged producers to take full advantage of programs. 

USDA is “committed to follow through with actions led from the top by the Secretary [Tom Vilsack], the Senior Advisor for Racial Equity [Dewayne Goldmon], and OASCR,” Herrick said. “We see the upcoming Farm Bill [in 2023] as a perfect opportunity to work with Congress to address structural barriers found in the statutes that authorize critical USDA programs and activities.”

The Frinks are determined to see their farm grow sustainably, and have specific goals to get there. “I’m in need of $50,000 now to purchase land,” said Marvin Frink. But they’re willing to learn more about incentive programs. When asked what makes them so determined, he stated, “creating generational wealth and leaving a legacy standing on God’s faith.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 29, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Hadassah Patterson has written for news outlets for over a decade, with seven years contributing for local online news and 15 years of commercial copywriting experience. She currently covers politics, business, social justice, culture, food and wellness.


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A Debate Over Carbon Capture in the Infrastructure Bill Could Test the Labor-Climate Alliance

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In late March, President Joe Biden unveiled a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, the American Jobs Plan, that his administration hopes to move forward this year. The plan would make major investments in improving physical infrastructure such as roads, schools and bridges while also creating good-paying jobs, expanding collective bargaining rights and funding long-term care services under Medicaid. 

The president’s plan also endorsed another proposal that a group of bipartisan lawmakers hope makes it into a final bill: expanding carbon-capture utilization and storage (CCUS) in the United States. The SCALE Act, introduced in mid-March by eleven senators and six House representatives, represents the country’s first comprehensive CO2 infrastructure and jobs bill. In describing the president’s infrastructure plan, the White House said it ?“will support large-scale sequestration efforts” that are ?“in line with the bipartisan SCALE Act.” 

The legislation, which would authorize $4.9 billion in spending over five years, would create programs to transport and store carbon underground. Its provisions include establishing low-interest loan programs modeled off of federal highway development programs, increasing EPA funding for permitting carbon storage wells, and providing grants to states to create their own permitting programs. Advocates point to countries such as Canada, Norway and Australia where elected officials have made similar investments in carbon storage infrastructure. 

The SCALE Act is notable both for the support it has, and hasn’t, received. Its early endorsers include a half-dozen industrial labor unions, centrist climate groups like the National Wildlife Federation, and energy companies like GE Gas Power and Calpine. Fossil fuel industry support for carbon-capture has historically been a top reason why progressive climate groups, meanwhile, remain skeptical of the idea, wary of subsidizing anything that amounts to corporate giveaways to some of the world’s worst polluters. While carbon-capture has long been a flashpoint in Democratic climate politics, most critics of the policy have stayed quiet on the SCALE Act for now.

Modeling released in December by the Princeton Net-Zero America Project found that construction of nearly 12,000 miles of pipelines capable of storing 65 million tons of COper year would be needed by 2030 for the United States to reach net-zero emissions by 2050?—?a stated goal of the Biden administration. The Clean Air Task Force, a climate advocacy group, says the SCALE Act programs are ?“consistent” with the quantity and timeline of infrastructure deployment needed to meet those goals.

To date, nearly all U.S. carbon-capture projects are situated near existing CO2pipelines and Lee Beck, the CCUS policy innovation director at the Clean Air Task Force, says the SCALE Act’s goal would be to capture emissions from multiple sources and then transport the COfor storage elsewhere, as is currently being carried out through Canada’s Alberta Carbon Trunk Line System and Norway’s Northern Lights Project.

Supporters point to a number of recent scientific analyses that make the case for greater investment in carbon-capture. In February, the National Academies of Sciences released a report on decarbonizing the U.S. energy system which recommends that, over next decade, officials should focus on increasing deployment of carbon-capture technologies by a factor of ten while investing in permanent CO2 storage infrastructure. In 2020, the International Energy Agency warned that it would be ?“virtually impossible” to reach net-zero emissions without carbon capture technology, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said carbon capture is likely necessary to meet global climate targets. Supporters note that renewable energy sources like wind and solar are not viable alternatives for reducing carbon emissions in the industrial sector, which account for 32 percent of the United States’ energy use and nearly a quarter of its direct greenhouse gas emissions. 

President Biden’s campaign climate plan called for accelerating development of carbon-capture and he included Brad Markell, the executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council, on his Department of Energy transition team. Markell endorsed the SCALE Act in March and said it ?“will be crucial to meeting President Biden’s goals of reaching net-zero emissions in the power sector by 2035 and economywide by 2050.”

In addition to Biden’s support, the Congressional politics bode well for SCALE Act advocates. Introduced by Sens. Chris Coons (D?Del.) and Bill Cassidy (R?LA) in the Senate, the bill would first go through the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, where Joe Manchin (D?W.V.), a co-sponsor of the bill, serves as chair. The House version of the bill was introduced by Reps. Marc Veasey (D?TX) and David McKinley (R?W.V.) and the chamber passed several carbon-capture bills last year. In March, Democratic governors of Pennsylvania and Louisiana (Tom Wolf and John Bel Edwards) joined the Republican governors of Oklahoma and Wyoming (Kevin Stitt and Mark Gordon), in writing a letter to Congress urging the passage of the SCALE Act in any future infrastructure package.

In an email, Sen. Coons told In These Times that he ?“appreciates [Energy] Secretary Granholm’s public statements in support of CCUS, including CCUS transport infrastructure, and am encouraged by my conversations with the Biden administration over the last several months.” 

Perhaps the biggest asset working in the SCALE Act’s favor is the support of organized labor. Biden has faced heat in the media in recent weeks over whether he can truly deliver an ambitious climate agenda while supporting unions. The SCALE Act has endorsements from labor groups including the Utility Workers Union of America, IBEW and North America’s Building Trades Unions. And the BlueGreen Alliance?—?a coalition of labor and environmental groups?—?supports CCUS, though has not yet taken a position on the bill. One analysis commissioned through the Decarb America Research Initiative estimated that the SCALE Act would generate roughly 13,000 jobsannually over the 5?year period, though many unions are excited by the prospect of simply maintaining existing jobs.

“We see carbon-capture technology as a way to retain jobs in industries that are core sectors of our union,” said Anna Fendley, the director of Regulatory and State Policy for the United Steelworkers. ?“It feels like the conversation around reducing emissions in the U.S. has been so focused on the power sector for so long and now a lot of groups and advocates are learning more about the industrial sector.” 

A false solution?

Carbon-capture opponents have described the policy as one of several ?“false solutions” to the climate crisis. Though many of these activists typically say that we can’t afford not to invest in fighting climate change, on matters of CCUS, they argue the technologies are too expensive, too under-developed, and will detract from other important investments that government needs to make in order to transform the economy. At worst, critics fear investments in carbon-capture could prolong overall dependence on fossil fuels. 

Last September, the House of Representatives passed a clean energy package, but after a coalition of progressive climate groups?—?including Sunrise Movement, Friends of the Earth, and the Climate Justice Alliance—protestedthe bill’s inclusion of pro-carbon capture provisions, 18 Democrats, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D?N.Y.), Rashida Tlaib (D?Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D?Minn.), and Ayanna Pressley (D?Mass.), voted against it. In These Times reached out to a number of climate groups that have opposed carbon-capture infrastructure in the past, including Sunrise Movement, Friends of the Earth, and the Labor Network for Sustainability. Most have not spoken publicly on the SCALE Act to date and declined to comment for this story. 

Limited organizational capacity for rapid legislative analysis is one possible factor for the silence. Joe Uehlein, president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, said their group had not heard about the SCALE Act prior to In These Times’ inquiry. While noting they are ?“not in the CCUS camp,” Uehlein said the group hasn’t yet decided how it plans to respond to the bill. The Sierra Club declined the Charleston Gazette-Mail?’s request for comment on the SCALE Act. 

Some left-wing organizations, like Sunrise Movement and Evergreen Action, have previously acknowledged that industrial carbon capture could be acceptable, and others have expressed more interest in direct air capture, a method that sucks COout of the atmosphere. 

Basav Sen, the Climate Justice Project Director at the Institute for Policy Studies and the co-chair of the Energy Democracy Working Group at the Climate Justice Alliance, told In These Times that rather than protesting individual pieces of carbon-capture legislation?—??“which would make it a game of whack-a-mole”?—?environmental justice groups in his coalition are focused on educating members of Congress and their staff on why they should avoid such ?“false solutions” altogether. He added that putting new demands on the electrical grid through CCUS, direct air capture, and even industrial production of steel and cement at current levels was misguided at this stage of the transition away from fossil fuel energy.

Sen also criticized carbon-capture advocates for citing the 2018 IPCC report as evidence that CCUS is needed, as opposed to reforestation which the IPCC also explored. Reforestation, or replanting an area with tress, is another way to remove COfrom the air. Research suggests this solution can also offer significant short-term emissions reductions, but a 2019 IPCC report also warned that planting large-scale forests for carbon-removal efforts could lead to increased food insecurity and other environmental issues.

Beck, of the Clean Air Task Force, argued that it would be irresponsible to take any decarbonization options off the table in 2021, and emphasized that building out COinfrastructure would not help keep aging or non-economical facilities online. Shannon Heyck-Williams of the National Wildlife Federation agreed that ?“when it comes to coal power generation, there really is no future for coal power in America and carbon-capture doesn’t change that.”

But Beck and Heyck-Williams also maintained that, since there are so many existing natural gas facilities in the United States, it does makes sense to try and capture the carbon coming out of those plants?—?at least for now. ?“It would be faster to retrofit some of these facilities than expect they will be all phased out in the next decade in the current climate policy environment,” argued Beck.

SCALE Act supporters know they’ll have to tread carefully with language around COpipelines, given the years of dedicated activism in the climate movement against new oil and gas pipelines. Advocates of CCUS prefer to focus on phrases like ?“COinfrastructure” and ?“carbon management,” which they hope will steer the conversation away from flashpoints like Keystone XL. Beck notes that carbon infrastructure includes not just pipelines but also shipping, rail and barge. ?“COpipelines are very different in terms of size and safety,” added Jessie Stolark, the public policy and members relations manager for the Carbon Capture Coalition. ?“But to be completely honest, I do think we have an uphill battle in terms of reassuring people and conveying that kind of information.”

Whether progressive climate groups will choose to rally opposition to a congressional infrastructure bill that includes the SCALE Act?—?like they did for the clean energy package in 2020?—?remains unclear. It will undoubtedly be tougher to pressure lawmakers to vote against a package that includes so many other key priorities. For now, rather than take aim at Biden’s new infrastructure plan for its support for carbon-capture, progressive climate groups have stuck to criticizing the package for committing too little spending on climate change mitigation efforts overall, with some advocates calling for a minimum of $10 trillion in spending over the next decade.

“It’s up to us to ensure that this proposal is strengthened, becomes law and that it is the first of many pieces of legislation that will address the many crises facing our generation,” said Deirdre Shelly of the Sunrise Movement. 

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on April 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Rachel M. Cohen is a journalist based in Washington D.C. 


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How Unions Can Bridge the Gap Between Climate and Labor Movements

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While U.S. union den­si­ty hit an all-time low in 2019, the non­prof­it sec­tor appears to be one area where work­ers are union­iz­ing. The Non­prof­it Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Union (NPEU) brought sev­en new work­places into their union dur­ing a 16-day peri­od in April, includ­ing the envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion Friends of the Earth. And while there is no offi­cial data on non­prof­it unions yet (many of them are fair­ly new), cli­mate jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions are some of the many work­places that have scram­bled to union­ize both pri­or to and dur­ing the pan­dem­ic for the same rea­sons as oth­er work­ers: pay, ben­e­fits and job security. 

Cli­mate activists have often been denounced by trade union­ists who believe they are out to destroy work­ers’ well-pay­ing jobs. There’s an old joke that goes, “Are you an envi­ron­men­tal­ist, or do you work for a liv­ing?” But what hap­pens to the often fraught rela­tion­ship between unions and envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions when green staffers become union mem­bers too?

Unions’ pri­ma­ry pur­pose is to give work­ers the abil­i­ty to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain around work­ing con­di­tions—so it’s not hard to under­stand why many work­ers would want to be union mem­bers. In fact, labor unions cur­rent­ly have a 65% approval rat­ing. As the econ­o­my is in sham­bles, labor’s sup­port has been steadi­ly increas­ing, per­haps because mil­lions have been laid off, many of whom lost their health insur­ance and received no sev­er­ance. Non­prof­its, which can be financed through a mix of fed­er­al and state fund­ing, pri­vate grants and indi­vid­ual dona­tions, are also in a Covid-induced pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion. Work­ers who may have felt that their jobs were pre­vi­ous­ly secure thanks to an air of pres­tige have seen col­leagues fur­loughed or laid off—or have wit­nessed lead­er­ship make big changes in their orga­ni­za­tions with­out involv­ing staff. 

Char­lie Jiang, a cli­mate cam­paign­er at Green­peace USA, an envi­ron­men­tal non­prof­it, told In These Times that staff there “have been orga­niz­ing for quite some time, and the pan­dem­ic strength­ened our resolve. We’re fight­ing for more clear and con­sis­tent poli­cies and more orga­ni­za­tion­al trans­paren­cy.” The Green­peace USA Work­ers Union, affil­i­at­ed with Pro­gres­sive Work­ers Union (PWU), was vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nized in August. Jiang said that union mem­bers “are look­ing ahead to meet­ing man­age­ment with good faith at the bar­gain­ing table… We formed a union to fight for fair and bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions, and for a cul­ture root­ed in justice.”

Unions do far more than allow work­ers to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain. They give peo­ple the abil­i­ty to prac­tice democ­ra­cy in the work­place, they have the pow­er to change our polit­i­cal sys­tem, and they chal­lenge cor­po­rate prof­it and pow­er—mak­ing them poten­tial allies for envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions that do the same. Groups like Green­peace, the Sier­ra Club and 350.org often fight big cor­po­ra­tions over their dan­ger­ous dis­pos­al of chem­i­cal waste, fos­sil fuel emis­sions, fac­to­ry farm­ing and more. Work­ers for these cor­po­ra­tions are the ones who han­dle tox­ic waste, breathe dirty air and process chick­en at poul­try plants. 

Envi­ron­men­tal groups and work­er orga­ni­za­tions are aligned on many issues, and some do work close­ly togeth­er. Accord­ing to Rebec­ca Wolf, a senior orga­niz­er on the fac­to­ry farm team at Food and Water Watch and a mem­ber of NPEU, “Our true focus is cor­po­rate con­trol. Union­iz­ing work­ers inher­ent­ly beats back against cor­po­rate con­trol and con­trol of the food sys­tem. I see envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions all the time in cor­po­rate part­ner­ships, and we have a hard line against that.” 

While unions are fund­ed only by mem­bers’ dues mon­ey, many envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions take mon­ey from cor­po­rate donors—some of which face off against unions in their own work­places. This dynam­ic can cre­ate ten­sion between staff and lead­er­ship at envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, which may have dif­fer­ent priorities.

Elon Musk, bil­lion­aire CEO of Tes­la, anony­mous­ly donat­ed over $6 mil­lion to the Sier­ra Club. But in the sum­mer of 2018, after com­ing under fire for a $40,000 dona­tion to a Repub­li­can-allied group, Musk asked Sier­ra Club exec­u­tive direc­tor Michael Brune for pub­lic sup­port. A stew­ard at PWU who asked to remain anony­mous for fear of retal­i­a­tion told In These Times that “PWU kicked that tough dis­cus­sion off. [We] help them stay ground­ed on work­er issues.” While Brune ini­tial­ly shared words of sup­port for Musk on his per­son­al Twit­ter account, lat­er that year, the Sier­ra Club released a state­ment in sup­port of work­ers orga­niz­ing at Tes­la—some­thing union mem­bers believe can be attrib­uted, at least in part, to the union. The anony­mous stew­ard told In These Times, “It’s impor­tant for unions that rep­re­sent work­ers at pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions to hold those orga­ni­za­tions account­able.” With­out a union, it may have been more dif­fi­cult for Sier­ra Club staff to push back against lead­ers and ensure that they pub­licly sup­port­ed Tes­la work­ers instead of their CEO, that stew­ard underscores. 

And while unions are able to win impres­sive gains around wages, ben­e­fits and a voice at work, their true pow­er lies in their abil­i­ty to shut down the econ­o­my if nec­es­sary. On the whole, work­ers at non­prof­its and oth­er pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions are not nec­es­sar­i­ly in a strate­gic posi­tion to exert lever­age to secure the biggest wins for the cli­mate—their going on strike would not have a sig­nif­i­cant impact on the broad­er econ­o­my. Work­ers in logis­tics, health­care and edu­ca­tion have far more pow­er to throw a wrench in how our econ­o­my and soci­ety func­tions. And build­ing trades work­ers, who are like­ly to have more work if leg­is­la­tion like the Green New Deal is passed, could be very influ­en­tial in cli­mate pol­i­cy. Their unions are large and pow­er­ful, and their mem­bers are con­struc­tion work­ers and elec­tri­cians, whose work will be direct­ly impact­ed by both cli­mate change and cli­mate leg­is­la­tion. While build­ing trades work­ers tend to be more con­ser­v­a­tive, the poten­tial for more work and larg­er mem­ber­ship rolls could make them the decid­ing fac­tor in the pas­sage of a Green New Deal.

But envi­ron­men­tal staffers’ iden­ti­ty with the broad­er labor move­ment and the sol­i­dar­i­ty that can be strate­gi­cal­ly expressed—such as in the case of the Sier­ra Club and Tes­la work­ers orga­niz­ing—could forge more ties between the work­ers’ move­ment and the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment as more of these work­ers orga­nize at their work­places. It’s also unde­ni­able that the expe­ri­ence of act­ing col­lec­tive­ly with cowork­ers can deep­en polit­i­cal con­scious­ness, no mat­ter one’s work­place or pri­or polit­i­cal commitments.

Wolf, who was on her union’s orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, told In These Times that “even though we work to make people’s lives bet­ter every day at work, col­lec­tive action is the expe­ri­ence you need to tru­ly under­stand pow­er-build­ing. Form­ing a union takes all the messy and good bits of expe­ri­ence, val­ues, and polit­i­cal con­scious­ness and brings them togeth­er in a patch­work that moves every­one along.”

But a fac­tor that may dimin­ish the influ­ence of these envi­ron­men­tal staff unions is the unions they are tied to. NPEU is affil­i­at­ed with the Inter­na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion of Pro­fes­sion­al and Tech­ni­cal Engi­neers (IFPTE), which is a mem­ber of the AFL-CIO, the largest labor fed­er­a­tion in the coun­try. In con­trast, NPEU is a fair­ly small union, with “rough­ly 250 to 300 dues-pay­ing mem­bers, about 500 work­ing on their first con­tract, and hun­dreds more that are in the process of orga­niz­ing,” accord­ing to Katie Bar­rows, vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the union.

In con­trast, PWU, which also orga­nizes envi­ron­men­tal non­prof­its, is an inde­pen­dent union, which means it’s not affil­i­at­ed with any oth­er union or any labor fed­er­a­tion. (PWU’s bar­gain­ing units include staffers at Sier­ra Club, 350.org, Green­peace USA and the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists.) Accord­ing to the anony­mous Sier­ra Club stew­ard, this inde­pen­dence from the AFL-CIO has actu­al­ly helped the union: PWU is free to run its own pro­gram, which focus­es on anti-racism and social jus­tice. He told In These Times that “the mem­bers of PWU are first-time union mem­bers. They nev­er knew what was pos­si­ble in a union, so there are no lim­i­ta­tions. Our pow­er is in the involve­ment of our mem­bers and their creativity.”

How­ev­er, there are ben­e­fits to being part of a larg­er fed­er­a­tion. Only AFL-CIO affil­i­ates are able to shape the federation’s strat­e­gy and elect its lead­ers, which means that PWU won’t have a say in whether the AFL-CIO ever sup­ports the Green New Deal. Bar­rows believes that “if envi­ron­men­tal pro­fes­sion­als orga­nize, they’ll be a grow­ing part of the labor move­ment, and they’ll have a voice in deci­sions, espe­cial­ly if they’re in the AFL. Hav­ing envi­ron­men­tal work­ers orga­nize will be help­ful to bridg­ing that gap, and to unit­ing labor and envi­ron­men­tal groups.”

While envi­ron­men­tal staffers have formed unions for the same rea­sons most work­ers do, their unions may be a tool for some­thing greater. The anony­mous stew­ard told In These Times, “Our mem­bers are at the inter­sec­tion of labor and envi­ron­men­tal work. They work on behalf of envi­ron­men­tal caus­es, but they’re work­ers as well. They’re try­ing to weave their beliefs about the impor­tance of work­ers into cli­mate leg­is­la­tion and con­ver­sa­tions with politi­cians and union lead­ers.” The stew­ard point­ed to a pro-union video that PWU mem­bers made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Sier­ra Club about the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court deci­sion, which made it ille­gal for pub­lic sec­tor unions to col­lect fees from non-mem­bers. He also told In These Times that the Sier­ra Club and union also worked togeth­er to release a state­ment about the deci­sion, which quotes exec­u­tive direc­tor Brune as say­ing, “Today’s deci­sion does the bid­ding of the very same cor­po­ra­tions that have pol­lut­ed our com­mu­ni­ties, but we will march on.” 

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

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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.

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Cities Aren’t Waiting for a Federal Green New Deal

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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.

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