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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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What a Just Transition Would Actually Mean for Workers

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just tran•si•tion

noun

1. A frame­work to address the liveli­hoods and needs of the work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties most impact­ed by the switch to renew­able ener­gy

“We want [a plan to] mobi­lize the econ­o­my in a way that tran­si­tions us off of fos­sil fuels in 11 years, but also pro­tects every sin­gle work­er [and] their abil­i­ty to have a job and health­care.” —Nicole Karsch, Sun­rise Move­ment Organizer

Where does this idea come from? 

The super­fi­cial con­flict between sav­ing the plan­et and sav­ing the econ­o­my has long dogged envi­ron­men­tal­ists, but the “way out,” accord­ing to U.S. labor leader Tony Maz­zoc­chi back in 1993, is to “make pro­vi­sion for the work­ers who lose their jobs in the wake of the country’s dras­ti­cal­ly need­ed envi­ron­men­tal cleanup.” Maz­zoc­chi, once vice pres­i­dent of the Oil, Chem­i­cal and Atom­ic Work­ers Inter­na­tion­al Union (lat­er absorbed into the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers), was respond­ing to chem­i­cal plant clo­sures and then-new Super­fund envi­ron­men­tal cleanup pro­grams. If there can be Super­fund for tox­ic dirt, the think­ing went, there should be one for work­ers. That vision of labor and envi­ron­men­tal­ists work­ing togeth­er is at the cen­ter of a “just transition.” 

Is a just tran­si­tion part of the Green New Deal? 

It should be! While Alexan­dria Ocasio-Cortez’s land­mark 2019 res­o­lu­tion includ­ed such mea­sures as a fed­er­al jobs guar­an­tee, it did not specif­i­cal­ly address fos­sil-fuel work­ers, leav­ing it open to crit­i­cism by union lead­ers. Bernie Sanders’ ver­sion, released lat­er that year, includ­ed up to five years of income replace­ment and free edu­ca­tion for dis­placed work­ers. Cli­mate groups, includ­ing the Sun­rise Move­ment, also advo­cate income guar­an­tees. These pro­vi­sions, mod­eled after the GI Bill, are an impor­tant step toward win­ning sup­port from labor. 

Giv­en how 2020 has gone so far, what are the odds we’ll get any­where near this? 

It may not sur­prise you that, for all his talk about coal coun­try, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has not weighed in on what a just tran­si­tion would look like. The new Joe Biden cli­mate plan, more aggres­sive than his pri­ma­ry plat­form, at least leaves the con­ver­sa­tion open with the poten­tial to cre­ate mil­lions of new cli­mate jobs. States, too, can take action. Col­orado passed a ground­break­ing just tran­si­tion law in 2019 that guar­an­tees ben­e­fits and grants for for­mer coal work­ers and coal-depen­dent com­mu­ni­ties. It’s hard to imag­ine repli­cat­ing this vic­to­ry giv­en state bud­gets dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, but the pan­dem­ic also empha­sizes the impor­tance of a just tran­si­tion?—?as oil demand plum­mets and thou­sands of refin­ery work­ers may face immi­nent lay­offs nation­wide. The tran­si­tion is hap­pen­ing regard­less. The ques­tion is whether work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties will be left behind.

This is part of “The Big Idea,” a month­ly series offer­ing brief intro­duc­tions to pro­gres­sive the­o­ries, poli­cies, tools and strate­gies that can help us envi­sion a world beyond cap­i­tal­ism. For recent In These Times cov­er­age of a Just Tran­si­tion in action, see, “The Just Tran­si­tion for Coal Work­ers Can Start Now. Col­orado Is Show­ing How,” “Cli­mate Activists Can’t Afford to Ignore Labor. A Shut­tered Refin­ery in Philly Shows Why” and “This Cri­sis Can Be a Gate­way to Cli­mate Action. These Activists Are Show­ing How.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on September 25, 2020. Reprinted with permission.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Only Bernie’s Green New Deal Answers Greta’s Call for Action

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Image result for christopher d. cookIn a bit of reverse parenting, the young climate strikers are teaching the rest of us an embarrassingly obvious lesson in moral clarity and courage. Mobilizing more than 7 million people across 185 countries September 20–27—with about 1,000 actions in the United States alone—youth struck a thunderous blow against adults’ insane intransigence regarding our climate meltdown.

Students have been striking for our climate future since at least 2015, but September’s actions were by far the largest, featuring huge marches, civil disobedience (activists shut down the “Wall Street West” financial center in San Francisco on September 25), and truthtelling before the United Nations—significantly ratcheting up awareness and pressure.

The question following this profound inspiration is: What next?

As the global climate strike’s website warns, it “simply won’t be enough if it stops this week and people just go home.” To reverse today’s climate madness, we must connect the strikes and protests with politics and policy.

Here, too, young folks are showing us the way, with strike organizers demanding an end to all fossil fuel extraction, a rapid transition to 100 percent clean energy and support for the victims of climate chaos, which is “mainly caused by rich people and mostly suffered by the poor.”

But the adults still hold the levers of political and economic power (for now). In 2018, carbon emissions rose to an all-time high, and the adults still aren’t acting. As Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg observed in her scathing speech before the UN Climate Summit, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”

Even the UN summit leaders who claim to support Thunberg’s message are dithering as the world burns. “There’s a big dissonance between every leader saying to Greta ‘we hear you’ and the commitments they are putting onto the table,” Isabel Cavelier, a former climate negotiator for Colombia, told the Guardian. “China said absolutely nothing new, India mentioned commitments made in the past, the U.S., Canada and Australia aren’t here.”

In the United States, while a climate denier sits in the Oval Office, the Democrats are fumbling away our future in their own fog of delay and denial. In 2018, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sidelined the Green New Deal while forming a relatively toothless climate committee. This summer, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) refused to hold a climate debate to put a spotlight on candidates’ climate plans

These moves reveal a mainstream Democratic Party that is in deep denial about the danger of its cuddly relationship with capitalism and corporate power, two chief drivers of climate disaster. As Mother Jones reported, in 2018 oil and gas companies gave $198,000 to the nine Democrats sitting on Pelosi’s climate committee. The DNC had briefly banned accepting donations from the fossil fuel industry that year, until DNC Chair Tom Perez reversed the policy.

To meet this moment, we must create a new politics, economics and culture—a new system of producing and consuming far less—that makes climate repair and justice the central driving force of our actions. Climate change is not “another issue,” but the issue that defines the others.

Only one major U.S. politician has put forth a serious, urgent and comprehensive Green New Deal proposal: Sen. Bernie Sanders. Investing $16 trillion over 10 years (nearly five times what fellow presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren calls for), Sanders’ plan stands out for creating millions of jobs for displaced fossil fuel workers; pushing for publicly owned power companies; dramatically increasing financial support to decarbonize the Global South; and zeroing all emissions from electricity and transportation by 2030—all of it on a faster timeline than his rivals.

If we are to celebrate Greta and the climate-striking youth, we must embrace Sanders’ sweeping Green New Deal. Otherwise, what are we rallying and marching and striking for?

Mainstream media and hand-wringing liberals fret over the price tag, but the alternative would cost more. As Sanders’ website states, “Economists estimate that if we do not take action, we will lose $34.5 trillion in economic activity by the end of the century. And the benefits are enormous: by taking bold and decisive action, we will save $2.9 trillion over 10 years.”

We cannot afford inaction: Pay big now, or pay far more in dollars and lives soon. Regardless of who you like for president, radical and immediate climate action must be job number one.

How do we turn the climate strikes into concrete success? The vital array of direct action and street-heat movements, along with climate policy pressure groups, must continue to coalesce, put tangible pressure on politicians and force immediate policy change, starting with the Green New Deal. The climate chaos bill has come due, and it’s time to pay it down and forward.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on October 7, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author:Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. His writing has appeared in Harper’sThe AtlanticThe Nation, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. You can reach him at http://www.christopherdcook.com/.

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“Hardhats vs. Hippies”: How the Media Misrepresents the Debate Over the Green New Deal

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A recent Politico article about the Green New Deal resolution put forward in February by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) features many grumblings from blue-collar union members about the potential economic disruption and the loss of jobs—even though the resolution calls for union rights and a federal jobs guarantee for workers. The article opens with Robbie Hunter, the president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, which represents 450,000 construction workers and apprentices, who is leading a union-led advocacy campaign called #BlueCollarRevolution. A drastic shift away from oil industry jobs in California, Hunter contends, could “export our jobs, while doing nothing for the end game, which is the environmental.”

The Green New Deal resolution calls for an economy-wide mobilization to achieve a national transition to a zero-carbon future within a decade. The proposal has sparked a vibrant conversation in Congress and throughout the country, resonating with grassroots environmental groups and challenging lawmakers to start talking seriously about decarbonization. Yet despite massive public support, the resolution was predictably stymied in Congress, and has faced skepticism within the Democratic Party and labor movement. Nor has the resolution been greeted with universal praise by the Democratic Party or labor unions. But while some unions express reluctance to hop on the green bandwagon, there’s more to the story than “environmentalists versus blue-collar workers.” Organized labor does not speak with a single voice on climate policy, though the whole movement has deep stakes in the politics of decarbonization, as working-class people’s lives and livelihoods  are most vulnerable to climate change.

Jessica Levinson, a law professor who serves on the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, warns in the Politico piece that the Green New Deal “really divides the Democrats on a fault line, which is more of the elites against the working class Democrats who are concerned about losing their jobs.” The article suggests that 2020 presidential hopefuls should be wary of alienating the working-class base—a segment that lost many voters to Trump in 2016, particularly white, working-class voters—by pushing too hard for the Green New Deal.

So a policy agenda intended to address an existential crisis for the world’s environment is framed within the familiar dichotomy between burly blue-collar construction men and tree-hugging liberal elites. It’s a classic American trope that hearkens back to the faux populism of Nixon’s “hardhat” marches against “hippies” during the Vietnam War. Nevermind the fact that the labor movement today is driven by workers in the service industries, women, people of color and immigrants. The media regularly flattens the labor movement into a one-dimensional depiction of a Fordist industrial laborer, frozen in time.

The supposed blue-collar backlash campaign comes in the wake of signs of internecine friction between national labor leaders and pro-green lawmakers. In March, Cecil Roberts, the international president of the United Mine Workers of America, and Lonnie Stephenson, the international president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, wrote to Congress on behalf of the energy committee of the AFL-CIO, arguing that the Green New Deal was “far too short on specific solutions that speak to the jobs of our members,” and “ma[de] promises that are not achievable or realistic.” Around the same time, AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka—who briefly sat on Trump’s “business advisory council”alongside multinational CEOs before resigning in embarrassment—told reporters that although he acknowledged the urgency of tackling the impending climate crisis, lawmakers should not “leave segments of the economy behind.”

The Politico article follows a number of reports of labor groups chafing at the sweeping goals of the federal Green New Deal resolution, as well as the “Green New Deal Los Angeles,” lamenting the lack of detail about how fossil-fuel dependent industries and workers will be affected. The friction over the resolution does speak to an understandable wariness of the plan’s soaring ambitions. The expansive targets, along with a lack of concrete plans on how to achieve its benchmarks, have stirred fears of unrealistic expectations, and workers have reasonable concerns about whether promises of green jobs will really materialize. With so much at stake, organized labor has a reasonable interest in safeguarding members from potential economic turbulence.

But contrary to Politico‘s depiction, skeptics hardly amount to massive working-class opposition to the Green New Deal. The media coverage centers on labor’s fear that workers won’t be provided a fair share of the deal’s achievements. The same question of social equity can be applied to any number of progressive policy proposals that the 2020 presidential candidates have touted, such as Medicare for All or a federal jobs guarantee.

More importantly, though building-trades workers may fit Trump’s image of working-class America, they are not representative of labor or the working class as a whole when it comes to green issues. The future of labor will be helmed by service workers, women, immigrants and people of color. Accordingly, the Green New Deal or other strong climate change policies have won endorsements from SEIULos Angeles County Federation of Labor and National Nurses United, along with various locals like New York State Nurses Association and American Federation of Teachers – Oregon. A survey released by Data for Progress this month found that “union membership is one of the factors most highly correlated with support for Green New Deal policies as well as the Green New Deal framework as a whole.”

Backing the Green New Deal is a way to extend union support for working people beyond wages and benefits, because the Green New Deal is a social contract to form the foundation of a sustainable economy. From a practical standpoint, as a dwindling labor movement strives to remain relevant to the working masses, there simply is no bigger bread-and-butter issue than our land, air, water and health. Globally, affluent countries with higher union representation tend to have lower greenhouse gas emissions than less unionized countries.

Working-class migrant communities and communities of color may have a first-hand understanding of how climate volatility affects their work—be they an immigrant nurse whose hometown in the Philippines is facing intensifying typhoons, or a Los Angeles teacher whose students miss school when dirty local air leaves them struggling to breathe. As part of a global proletariat, their struggles reflect the even longer-term challenge of climate justice: seeding a carbon-free future for the global economy. The struggle for climate justice extends beyond the Green New Deal resolution; the ultimate goal is to link the entire world in a compact to decarbonize and to refocus development and industry on sustainability and social equity, rather than profit.

It is shortsighted for the media to present labor’s skepticism toward the Green New Deal as akin to the far-right’s climate skepticism. Globally, a consensus is crystallizing on the left: There is no future in which workers are not on the frontline of climate-driven social transformation, either as survivors, or as agents of change.

Putting the concept of climate justice into practice requires braiding environmental and labor agendas into a unified “just transition”—a comprehensive set of social welfare protections for the workers and communities most impacted by climate policy. As Sara Nelson,  president of the Association of Flight Attendants, has pointed out, “Labor has never seen an actual ‘just transition.’” To engage labor with the Green New Deal, Nelson told In These Times last month, policymakers and activists must “make labor central to the discussion, including labor rights, labor protections and labor expertise. … Let’s recognize and engage the infrastructure and experience of the labor movement to make this work.”

By listening to workers, we’d perhaps discover that even the #BlueCollarRevolution might be surprisingly amenable to a climate justice agenda. Robbie Hunter himself wrote in March about a green project he could get behind: He urged the state to invest in building clean mass transit, pointing out that, “Having built most of California’s utility-scale solar and wind generation, we who work in the building and construction trades think it’s time to get real about our ambitious climate goals.”

Despite the media’s insistence that environmentalism remains the province of the privileged, blue collars and green priorities may overlap more than they know. All we need to do is treat Green New Deal like any other labor contract: get everyone around the table and start talking.

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 18, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.


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Building a Green Economy Means Bringing Workers in with a Commitment to Good Green Jobs

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Laura ClawsonOne of the weapons the right uses to try to block better policies on energy and the environment is the specter of job loss: regulations or clean energy or the boogeyman of the day will close businesses and put people out of work. In fact, clean energy and environmental regulations could create jobs. But Republicans exploit a legitimate fear on the part of workers, because while jobs could and should be created by improved environmental policies, there would be inevitable reshuffling, jobs shifted around from one industry to another. The people who know their jobs would be on the line have a reasonable fear that they wouldn’t immediately get new jobs, or that the new, clean energy jobs wouldn’t be as good as the ones they lost.

“Reasonable fear” doesn’t mean “reason not to act,” though. For the health of the environment, of people, of the economy, we have to take action to address climate change and more. How, though, do we do that in a way that addresses the legitimate concerns of working people? That’s both a political and a policy problem—workers have to be convinced, and the policy has to follow through and ensure that the shift to a clean energy economy is not taken as an opportunity to drive down wages and working conditions for the average worker.

This effort, of course, will take place over the well-funded resistance of the 1 percent, seeking to divide us—to make workers desperate for jobs at any cost and to convince them that climate change is less of a threat to their lives than the people who seek to avert its damage; to make environmentalists see workers, not polluting corporations, as their opponent in this battle.

That’s the needle AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka had to thread this week in his address to the UN investor summit on climate risk. Trumka made clear the urgency he and others in the labor movement see in addressing climate change, and doing so comprehensively rather than relying on small fixes:

And to those who say climate risk is a far off problem, I can tell you that I have hunted the same woods in Western Pennsylvania my entire life and climate change is happening now—I see it in the summer droughts that kill the trees, the warm winter nights when flowers bloom in January, the snows that fall less frequently and melt more quickly.

Even so, some will ask, why should investors or working people focus on climate risk when we have so many economic problems across the world? The labor movement has a clear answer: Addressing climate risk is not a distraction from solving our economic problems. My friends, addressing climate risk means retooling our world—it means that every factory and power plant, every home and office, every rail line and highway, every vehicle, locomotive and plane, every school and hospital, must be modernized, upgraded, renovated or replaced with something cleaner, more efficient, less wasteful.

But to do that, he argued, workers have to be included in the dialogue about what to do and how to do it:

Too often, we have failed to consider who bears the cost of change and ensure that change is managed fairly and respectfully. And when we do that, no matter how important the reasons might seem, we sacrifice the chance to build the power to move forward. The only way for our democracy to act is for those who care about climate change to engage with the people whose livelihoods are tied up with carbon emissions. All of us—investors, companies, workers, environmental activists, governments—need to be part of this dialogue. Any other approach to addressing climate risk is not just fundamentally unfair, it simply won’t work in our democracy.

Remember that Trumka was a coal miner, and then the president of the United Mine Workers. The question of what happens to people who work with coal is a very direct and personal one for him. And while developing technologies that use less energy and investing in solar and wind and other forms of cleaner energy will create jobs in the long term:

So why, in an economy without an effective safety net, would the good men and women of my hometown and a thousand places like it surrender their whole lives and sit by while others try to force them to bear the cost of change.
The truth is that in many places – and not just places where coal is mined – there is fear that the “green economy” will turn into another version of the radical inequality that now haunts our society—another economy that works for the 1% and not for the 99%. […]

So how can all Americans sit down together and develop trust? I think it begins with a commitment—a challenging and difficult commitment—that we are going to measure our approach not by how well it fits the needs of the well-positioned. We must ask ourselves, “How well does this pathway serve the least, the hardest to reach, the most likely to be left behind?” Places like West Virginia and the Ohio Valley must come first, not last.

How can this happen? Let’s think about the new EPA emissions rules for power plants. All of the unions of the AFL-CIO want to see coal fired power plants retrofitted immediately to cut back on mercury and sulfur emissions—those retrofits create good jobs, save lives. We oppose anyone who would take away the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to keep our air and water clean. But power plant and mine workers want to know that if their employers commit to doing the retrofits, they will get the time to complete them. Surely through dialogue common ground can be found between workers who want the retrofit jobs and clean air and public health advocates.

This is a question the environmental movement has to grapple with. There are good jobs to be created in conservation, in clean energy, in doing things the right way for the planet. But that has to be a priority, not a talking point. As opposed as I am to Keystone XL, as much as I think it’s short-sighted and destructive, it’s distressing to hear opponents of the project dismiss thousands of construction jobs as merely temporary—basically all construction jobs are temporary. The unions that support the project because it will provide jobs for their members must engage seriously with research indicating that Keystone will provide far fewer jobs (PDF) than TransCanada is claiming. But building a LEED building is a temporary construction job. Retrofitting a home is a temporary construction job.

That environmentally bad jobs aren’t all they’re cracked up to be isn’t a helpful thing to say to unemployed construction workers unless you have concrete policies that are going to create better ones, or at least a strong commitment to fight for them, and a reason for the people who stand to lose “gray” jobs to believe that they will get a fair share of the green jobs created. Such jobs are possible. As we all know, it’s not even hard to identify how it could be done—there are members of the Steelworkers working on wind turbines; investments in public transit would create construction jobs as well as longer-term jobs driving trains and buses; on and on, the possibilities for good green jobs exist. But when you advocate for good environmental policy, the political bargain to get it done can’t involve shorting the workers involved. The costs cut to get that last vote in Congress can’t be the cost of workers’ health insurance and retirement. You can’t squeeze more building retrofits out of a block of funding by halving the pay rate of those (again, temporary) jobs.

There have been strong efforts on the part of both movements, environmental and labor, to address this. Environmental organizations and unions have joined in the BlueGreen Alliance to address exactly this; some environmental organizations supported the Employee Free Choice Act; unions and environmental groups have joined on campaigns to clean up port trucking; Trumka’s speech lists a number of investments that unions and their pension funds have made in job-creating green projects. These alliances are promising, but they must be built into the DNA of both movements. Not just leaders but the majority of rank and file activists have to believe in the partnership and its intertwined goals, no matter how hard the 1 percent tries to divide us.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on January 15, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.


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What’s Green, White and Blue? American Jobs

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Leo GerardRed, as in furiously red, defined the day last fall when a consortium of companies announced it wanted $450 million in U.S. stimulus money to build a wind farm in Texas, creating 2,000 jobs in China and 300 in America.

Now, nine months later, things have cooled down and turned around. In a deal with the United Steelworkers (USW), two Chinese companies have agreed to build as much of the wind turbines as possible in America, using American-made steel, and creating perhaps 1,000 American jobs.

The deal is a result of white collar Chinese executives negotiating with blue collar union officers to create green collar jobs in the U.S. The agreement defies stereotypes about unions as constantly combative, excessively expensive and environmentally challenged. The USW has a track record of engaging with enlightened CEOs for mutual benefit.  It has a long green history. And it has worked to return off-shored jobs to the U.S.

The USW, like the Democrats in the House and Senate with their Make It in America program, is devoted to preserving and creating family-supporting, prosperity-generating manufacturing jobs in America. And if they’re green, all the better.

Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross has first-hand experience negotiating with unions, including the USW, to sustain U.S. manufacturing. He describes it positively. Here he is on PBS’ Charlie Rose on Aug. 2:

“I have found the leaders of big industrial unions, the steelworkers, the auto workers, they understand dynamics of industry at least as well as the senior management of the companies.”

Ross talked to Rose about dealing with the USW during the time when he was buying  LTV Steel:

“We worked out a contract that took 32 job classifications down to five, changed work rules to make it more flexible and most important of all, we put in a blue collar bonus system. . .We became the most efficient steel company in America. We were making steel with less than one man hour per ton. The Chinese at the time were using six man hours per ton. We were actually exporting some steel to China.”

Ross accomplished that while paying among the highest wages for manufacturing workers in America.

The USW approached the Chinese companies that planned the $1.5 billion Texas wind farm, A-Power Energy Generation Systems Ltd. and Shenyang Power Group, the same way it did Ross. The meetings occurred with the help of U.S. Renewable Energy Group, a private equity firm that facilitates international financing and investment in renewable energy projects. Jinxiang Lu, chairman and chief executive of Shenyang Power, said talking to the union enabled him to see its “vision for win-win relationships between manufacturers and workers.”

For the USW, this deal means the Chinese firms will initially buy approximately 50,000 tons of steel manufactured in unionized American mills to fabricate towers and rebar for the 615 megawatt wind farm in Texas, will employ Americans at a wind turbine assembly plant to be built in Nevada, and will employ more American workers in green jobs at plants constructing the blades, towers and thousands of other wind turbine parts.

For the Chinese companies, the USW, the largest manufacturing union in America, will use its long list of industry contacts to help construct an American supply chain essential to amass the approximately 8,000 components in a wind turbine. The idea is to collaboratively create a solid manufacturing, assembly, component sourcing, and distribution system so that this team – the Chinese companies, U.S. Renewable Energy Group and the USW — will build many more wind farms after the first in Texas.

Additional wind farms mean more renewable energy freeing the U.S. from reliance on foreign oil. As U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, says, there’s no point in replacing imported foreign oil with imported wind turbines. For energy and economic independence, green manufacturing capacity and green jobs must be in the U.S.

This deal does that. And there’s nothing unusual about foreign companies employing Americans. Many Americans, including USW members, already work in factories owned by many different foreign national companies, including German, Russian, Japanese, Mexican, and Brazilian, with names like Bridgestone-Firestone, Arcelor-Mittal, Rio Tinto, Grupo Mexico, Svenska Cellulosa AB (SCA) and Severstal.

In at least one other case, action by the USW forced the hand of a Chinese company to move jobs to the U.S. Tianjin Pipe, the world’s largest manufacturer of steel pipe, said it could not export profitably to the United States if tariffs rose above 20 percent. This was after the USW and seven steel manufacturers filed a petition with U.S. trade agencies in April of 2009 accusing China of illegally dumping and subsidizing the type of pipe used in the oil and gas industry. The union won that case this past April, and the U.S. Commerce Department imposed import duties ranging from 30 to 100 percent to give the domestic industry relief from the unfair trade practices. To continue selling in the U.S., Tianjin Pipe had no choice but to build an American pipe mill. Construction is expected to begin in Texas this fall on the $1 billion plant to employ 600 by 2010.

Although the USW is cooperating with A-Power and Shenyang Power, it will not back off its trade cases involving exported Chinese steel, pipe, tires, paper and other manufactured products. The stakes for U.S. jobs are just too high.

Back in 1990, when green was not as trendy, the USW recognized that the environment would be among the most important issues of the era and issued the report, “Our Children’s World.”  Since then, it has steadily promoted green — became a founding member of the BlueGreen Alliance and Apollo Alliance, which promote renewable energy and renewable energy jobs.

Good, green American manufacturing jobs. Establishing American energy independence. It is win-win. And it’s getting a green light now.

About The Author: Leo Gerard is the United Steelworkers International President. Under his leadership, the USW joined with Unite -the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland – to create Workers Uniting, the first global union. He has also helped pass legislation, including the landmark Canadian Westray Bill, making corporations criminally liable when they kill or seriously injure their employees or members of the public.


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Labor Dept. Announces $100 Million in Green Jobs Training Grants

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Big news out of the Labor Department today — they awarded $100 million in grants to programs training workers for the green jobs of the future:

Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis today announced nearly $100 million in green jobs training grants, as authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act). The grants will support job training programs to help dislocated workers and others, including veterans, women, African Americans and Latinos, find jobs in expanding green industries and related occupations. Approximately $28 million of the total funds will support projects in communities impacted by auto industry restructuring.

Through the Energy Training Partnership Grants being administered by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, 25 projects ranging from approximately $1.4 to $5 million each will receive grants. These grants are built on strategic partnerships — requiring labor and business to work together.

The grants announced today are part of a $500 million program created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — a.k.a. “the stimulus.”

For details about the individual programs awarded grants, click on over to the Labor Department’s announcement page.

UPDATE (Jan. 7): It’s not really clear from the list of grantees that DOL posted on their site, so I want to point out that training programs led by CtW-affiliated unions are prominent among those that received grants yesterday. For example, New York’s Shortman Fund (which was awarded a $2.8 million grant) is operated by SEIU 32BJ; SEIU locals also participate in H-CAP Inc. (granted $4.6 million); and LIUNA is active in training programs in Virginia, Rhode Island, Michigan, and Montana that were collectively awarded almost $17 million.

UPDATE (Jan. 7, 3:00PM): Quotes!

Mike Fishman, President of SEIU 32BJ:

High-impact, cost-effective labor-management programs like [the Shortman Fund’s] Green Supers are vital to the success of President Obama’s energy and environmental protection agenda. With nearly 80 percent of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions produced by buildings it’s imperative for owners, workers, environmental groups and the Federal government to jointly tackle this environmental challenge.

Terry O’Sullivan, General President, LIUNA:

Weatherization on a nationwide scale will require hundreds of thousands of skilled workers and LIUNA’s weatherization training program is leading the way while creating good jobs for working families and their communities. LIUNA’s credentialed weatherization workers will set the standard for a new American industry.

*This post originally appeared in Change to Win on January 6, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author Jason Lefkowitz: is the Online Campaigns Organizer for Change to Win, a partnership of seven unions and six million workers united together to restore the American Dream for everybody. He built his first Web site in 1995 and has been building online communities professionally since 1998. To read more of his work, visit the Change to Win blog, CtW Connect, at http://www.changetowin.org/connect.


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Young Workers: Hit Hard, Hitting Back

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Image: Liz ShulerAs newly elected secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, I traveled the country this fall, talking with workers and hearing their concerns. The economic crisis is causing a lot of pain. So many people have no jobs, no health care–and many are losing their homes. And as I looked into the faces of young workers, the reality hit home that these young people are part of the first generation in recent history likely to be worse off than their parents.

This is a tragedy.

The AFL-CIO and our community affiliate, Working America, recently surveyed young workers–and I’m not talking about 17- and 18-year-olds. I’m talking about 18- to 34-year-olds. In the past 10 years, young workers have suffered disproportionately from the downturn in the economy:

  • One in three young workers is worried about being able to find a job–let alone a full-time job with benefits.
  • Only 31 percent make enough money to cover their bills and put some aside–that is 22 percentage points worse than it was 10 years ago.
  • Nearly half worry about having more debt than they can handle.
  • One in three still lives at home with parents.

Young workers are living the effects of a 30-year campaign to create a low-wage workforce. It has succeeded.

For decades, the far right led an anti-government, anti-investment, feed-the-rich-and-starve-the-poor drive that gave us an era of deregulation, privatization and job exporting.

At the same time, corporations and government attacked unions and workers’ freedom to form unions and bargain for decent wages and benefits. When unions are strong, paychecks grow and workers have benefits like health care and pensions.

When unions are under attack, paychecks shrink. Pensions vanish. Health care becomes the emergency room.

What’s left is not working for young people–or for any of us. It will take a broadly shared sense of wartime urgency to replace today’s low-wage economy with a high-wage, high-skills economy. The first step must be immediate action to address the nation’s jobs crisis, with five essential steps:

  1. Extend the lifeline for jobless workers.
  2. Rebuild America’s schools, roads and energy systems and invest in green technology and green jobs.
  3. Increase aid to state and local governments to maintain vital services.
  4. Fund jobs in our communities.
  5. Put TARP funds to work for Main Street with job-creating loans to small businesses.

We took these initiatives to the White House Summit on Jobs on Dec. 3 and are pushing Congress to take action now. The first reports from the Jobs Summit are encouraging, and we look forward to working with the Obama administration and Congress to carry on this momentum.

It’s time to rebuild an economy that works–an economy based on prosperity, an economy we can be proud to pass on to our children and their children. And we need young people to lead the way. That survey I mentioned earlier shows they are ready.

· Young workers have a whole new level of civic engagement, with the surge of new voters in the 2008 election.
· They are well-informed and following government and policy news.
· They believe in collective action and understand the power of having a union.
· They have hope for the future and the vision of a savvy, diverse movement to bring about progressive change.

We’re planning a major summit for young workers after the first of the year to bring all our ideas and voices together. When crises hit, it’s young people who drive change.

Martin Luther King Jr. was 26 when he led the Montgomery bus boycott. At 25, César Chávez was registering Mexican Americans to vote. Walter Reuther headed strikes demanding GM recognize its workers’ rights starting when he was 30. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was 33 when she drafted the declaration of women’s rights.

Young people are being hard in this jobs crisis. But I believe they provide much of the fuel we need to get out of it.

*This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post on December 7, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.

**Photo credt: © 2009 Jay Mallin.  All rights reserved. Licensed soley for use in publications, both electronic and print, websites, and public relations of the AFL-CIO.  All other uses, publication, or distribution strictly prohibited. Licensing is contingent on payment in full of our invoice. For more information, contact: [email protected] 202-363-2756

About the Author: Liz Shuler was elected AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer in September 2009, the youngest person ever to become an officer of the AFL-CIO. Shuler previously was the highest-ranking women in the Electrical Workers (IBEW) union, serving as the top assistant to the IBEW president since 2004. In 1993, she joined IBEW Local 125 in Portland, Ore., where she worked as an organizer and state legislative and political director. In
1998, she was part of the IBEW’s international staff in Washington, D.C., as a legislative and political representative.


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The Lesson of Pittsburgh for G-20: Manufacturing Matters

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The revival of Pittsburgh, site of the G-20 summit this week, can provide valuable lessons for the world’s leaders. Among them: Manufacturing matters and poor trade policies hurt everyone.

Pittsburgh, G-20 and the New Economy: Lessons to Learn, Choices to Make,” a report released today by the Campaign for America’s Future (CAF), makes clear that the renaissance of Pittsburgh after the collapse of the steel industry was cut short because of the lack of a national industrial policy and the nation’s trade policies.

During a telephone news conference, CAF Co-Director Robert Borosage said some manufacturing jobs in Pittsburgh were replaced by high-end jobs in education or medicine.

But many were replaced by jobs in hotels and food services—jobs that never paid as well and proved even more vulnerable in the recent downturn. Some manufacturing jobs were never replaced at all. That helps explain why the city’s population is declining, especially among youth, who seek opportunity elsewhere.

That idea was echoed by more than 400 people who marched through the streets of Pittsburgh on Sept. 20 calling for an economic recovery that includes jobs for the unemployed.

The march set out from a local church where some 25 people slept overnight in tents to symbolize the poverty that lies behind the glitz of the renewed downtown Pittsburgh.

During the news conference today, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said trade policies were at the core of the steel industry decline. He praised President Obama’s recent decision to provide relief to the domestic consumer tire industry in response to surging tire exports from China.

Obama’s action was significant, Brown said, because it is the first time a president has really enforced trade rules. He said he hopes it leads to even more complaints as U.S. industries see that their government cares about fair trade.

Brown added that the country “cannot tolerate” trade policies that spawn low wages and allow illegal trade subsidies in China and other countries to decimate our economy.

Economist Jeff Madrick of the New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, said the nation’s manufacturing sector has been the victim of deliberate neglect by policymakers. It is clear, he said, that union manufacturing jobs pay better wages and have more benefits than service jobs.

The G-20 summit is a perfect time for U.S. officials to take a hard look at what has happened to workers over the past decades. For example, the median wage for males is less today than it was in the 1970s when you take inflation into account. And workers’ wages have not kept up with productivity for 25 years.

We need new policies to stimulate manufacturing. This [decline] has gone on too long.

The report specifically proposes an industrial policy that promotes manufacturing. Eric Lotke, author of the report, writes:

We need to dispel the notion that America has moved beyond the production of goods. From cars to computers to refrigerators, a country needs things. If we don’t make those things here, then someone else gets our money.

The report also says the experience with the steel industry in Pittsburgh should spawn new trade policies that reflect the truce functioning of the market. It cites Obama’s decision in the tire case as a first step in this new direction.

Read the CAF report here.

Lotke also says the G-20 summit provides an opportunity to examine American patterns of production and consumption. Even when the economy was growing, America ran a combined trade deficit and interest payments of more than $700 billion every year, he said.

We borrowed $2 billion every day to cover the difference. That might have worked well for the countries we bought and borrowed from—but it worked less well for America. It was never sustainable anyway.

As the G-20 leaders plan a recovery from the global downturn, they should not assume that the United States will remain the world’s consumer—spending more than we earn and paying for it with personal and national debt. The G-20 must chart the process by which the global economy that emerges from the crisis is more balanced, and less dependent on U.S. consumption. Growth must be sustainable in Pittsburgh as well as Beijing.

One avenue to create more manufacturing jobs is through the green revolution. Tomorrow, the Alliance for Climate Protection’s Repower America campaign, the USW and the Blue Green Alliance will conclude their Clean Energy Jobs Tour with a rally in Pittsburgh.

The Jobs Tour, a monthlong campaign with more than 50 events in 22 states, is highlighting how a transition to a clean-energy economy will create jobs while reducing harmful carbon pollution and breaking our dependence on foreign oil.

Says David Foster, executive director of the Blue Green Alliance:

We can create millions of jobs building the clean energy economy—whether it’s manufacturing the parts for windmills, building hybrid car batteries or weatherizing homes to make them more efficient. By transitioning to a clean-energy economy, we can revitalize America’s manufacturing sector and boost our economy for the long run by creating jobs here at home.

“Building a clean energy economy can revitalize American manufacturing, but only if we commit to using domestically produced components,” said USW President Leo Gerard.

In confronting the challenges of recession, global warming and energy independence, we have an opportunity to transform our economy and create good jobs that truly are Made in America.

About the Author James Parks: had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He has also been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

This article originally appeared in the AFL-CIO blog on September 22, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.


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