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The Green New Deal Just Won a Major Union Endorsement. What’s Stopping the AFL-CIO?

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The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second largest teachers’ union in the country, passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal at its biennial convention at the end of July. The Green New Deal, federal legislation introduced in early 2019, would create a living-wage job for anyone who wants one and implement 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030. The endorsement is huge news for both Green New Deal advocates and the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States. The AFT’s endorsement could be a sign of environmental activists’ growing power, and it sends a message to the AFL-CIO that it, too, has an opportunity to get on board with the Green New Deal. But working people’s conditions are changing rapidly, and with nearly half of all workers in the country without a job, the leaders of the AFL-CIO and its member unions may choose to knuckle down on what they perceive to be bread-and-butter issues, instead of fighting more broadly and boldly beyond immediate workplace concerns.

The AFT endorsement follows that of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), National Nurses United (NNU) and the Maine AFL-CIO—all of which declared their support for the Green New Deal in 2019. And while local unions have passed resolutions in support of the Green New Deal, the AFT, NNU and AFA-CWA are the only national unions in the AFL-CIO to endorse the Green New Deal. (SEIU is affiliated with another labor federation, Change to Win.)

Yet the AFL-CIO has remained resistant. When Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) introduced the Green New Deal legislation in February 2019, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters, “We need to address the environment. We need to do it quickly.” But he also noted that, “We need to do it in a way that doesn’t put these communities behind, and leave segments of the economy behind. So we’ll be working to make sure that we do two things: That by fixing one thing we don’t create a problem somewhere else.”

Where Trumka has been skeptical and resistant, some union leaders in the federation have been more forceful in their opposition; many unions with members who work in extractive industries, including the building trades, slammed the legislation. Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, wrote a letter to both Markey and Ocasio-Cortez on behalf of the AFL-CIO Energy Committee that said, “We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families. We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered.”

But with 80,000 members today, UMWA is more of a retirees’ organization than a fighting union—and at roughly 1.6 million members, the AFT is one of the largest unions in the country. Its endorsement is “the most high-profile labor endorsement of the Green New Deal since SEIU last summer,” according to Will Lawrence, director of strategic partnerships at the Sunrise Movement. The AFT’s support for the Green New Deal, coupled with the writing on the wall for the fossil fuel industry, could mean a crisis for the AFL-CIO. Trumka has so far straddled the line between the federation’s conservative and progressive members, giving a nod to the importance of climate change while also affirming the importance of fossil fuel jobs. But Trumka plans to step down at the AFL’s convention in 2021, and whoever wins the election to be his successor will determine whether the largest federation in the labor movement goes all-in on the fight against climate change, or maintains one foot in the door and one foot out, balancing between the new world and the old.

This fork in the road is complicated by the fact that both the labor movement and the entire country are in crisis, with millions unemployed and all eyes on the presidential election in November. Trumka favors Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL (and his second in command) as his successor. But Sara Nelson, president of AFA-CWA and one of the early endorsers of the Green New Deal, also has her eyes on the leadership position. Although neither have officially announced their candidacy, it’s been reported that both have been privately vying for support.

Nelson’s support for the Green New Deal may hurt her if she decides to run. Sean McGarvey, the president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, the labor federation of the building trades unions and a member of the AFL, said, “She’s aligned herself with a plan that would eliminate half of the AFL-CIO’s jobs. That’s not going to work real well.” But Nelson told In These Times, “Climate change is directly in our workplace. Turbulence is on the rise. Our schedules, our work, our lives are totally disrupted every time there’s a major weather event. Some have tried to have us believe that this is an attack on jobs and on our way of life, but we know that if we don’t get out in front of something, the crisis will become so great and people will be desperate for a resolution, and that resolution won’t be one that works for working people.”

Nelson believes deeply in a just transition for workers whose industries would be shuttered in an attempt to bring carbon emissions down. The term “just transition” is often used in conversations about climate change as a way to secure workers’ livelihoods if and when their industry is phased out. And while this term is more often heard in the environmental movement now, the idea was developed in the labor movement by Tony Mazzocchi, a lifelong trade unionist and an elected leader in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW). In Mazzocchi’s words, a true just transition would give workers in extractive industries “a new start in life” by providing financial support and opportunities for education and re-training.

Many environmental groups like Sunrise Movement and Climate Justice Alliance have used the term in their literature and their campaign planning, but union workers have often expressed concern that their job security and livelihoods are not a true priority. After all, environmental groups often wage campaigns against pipelines or refineries without consulting the unions or their members first. While to environmentalists, union work has sometimes meant environmental destruction, to union members, environmentalism has meant financial destruction.

But according to David Hughes, treasurer of Rutgers AAUP-AFT and professor of Anthropology at Rutgers-New Brunswick, extractive industry workers’ standard of living is already threatened regardless of the proposed Green New Deal legislation. Hughes told In These Times that the country is already on the cusp of an energy transition away from fossil fuels. “We have an economic disaster and a complete collapse of the price of oil, coal has been collapsing, gas is not in good shape. So now solar and wind are competitive, even without subsidies. The economic case for fossil fuels has evaporated—those jobs are not going to be here for much longer.”

Although most union members have no interest in being re-trained for another career, fossil fuel workers and their unions are particularly protective of their jobs. Refinery workers can make up to six figures without a college degree, and there are very few jobs with comparable wages in non-extractive industries that these same workers could easily be hired for. Further, these workers have a right to be suspicious: Barack Obama campaigned on creating 5 million green jobs, but it’s unclear how many new green jobs were actually produced. There are some new green jobs, of course, but the vast majority are non-union, and the wages reflect that: Solar panel installers make between $30,000 and $50,000 per year.

Yet, numerous union members—workers in non-extractive industries—are serious about the Green New Deal, and AFT members who worked to pass the resolution are calling for more than tacit support: They intend for the endorsement to be a tool with which to organize their fellow members and to guide their work moving forward. This is precisely what the members of Rutgers AAUP-AFT have been trying to make happen. Hughes, who is also the chair of the Rutgers’ Climate Crisis Committee, raised the issue of supporting the Green New Deal at an AFT Executive Council meeting in 2019, before SEIU endorsed. No endorsement came out of it, but a committee, the Climate Task Force, was formed with the backing of the Executive Council. The task force has three main priorities: Form a relationship with Sunrise Movement and other environmental groups, create green schools campaigns, and organize with other unions to encourage them to support the Green New Deal. Hughes told In These Times, “What you do when you’re working in a sector that’s collapsing is you figure, what’s the strategic moment for my union to try to jump onto a ship that’s not sinking? If we get Biden elected, and we pass Green New Deal legislation, it will be the moment to jump. If we miss that moment, we’ve got nothing.”

But faculty like Hughes, along with teachers and nurses, already have green jobs—and will keep them, Green New Deal or not. While there have been hiring freezes at major universities, AFT members have been mostly unaffected by all of the job losses created by Covid-19. Construction workers, many of whom have just experienced a difficult few months without work, are understandably wary about potentially gambling with their jobs. But Keon Liberato, President of Local 3012 of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters, is looking forward to the passage of the Green New Deal. He’s a trackman who works on railroads in the Philadelphia area, and he told In These Times that “even if you don’t care about climate change, even if you have a more narrow interest, there’s a ton of money in the Green New Deal for the building trades, for infrastructure.” 

The Green New Deal’s focus on investing in high-speed rail could mean significant potential work for electricians and rail workers like Liberato. The legislation also calls for “repairing and upgrading the infrastructure in the United States,” which means fixing bridges and roads, retrofitting buildings, and updating sewage and water systems. And the AFT’s green school buildings campaign will need the support of building trades unions, like electricians, plumbers, roofers, and boilermakers. All of this infrastructure work means more union jobs—but only if the labor movement acknowledges the true magnitude of climate change and decides to play a leadership role in fighting it. John Braxton, Co-President Emeritus of AFT Local 2026, who contributed to AFT’s recent resolution, told In These Times that “unions don’t want to be told what to do, and they’d also like to believe it’s not going to be as big of a problem as it is. But we’ve got to make contingency plans that provide protections for every worker, and we need to do it now. Why would labor argue with that?”

Labor’s current focus is getting Joe Biden elected, who, according to his ads, has the “most ambitious” climate plan of any major party’s presidential nominee ever. His platform includes achieving net zero emissions no later than 2050, conserving 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030, and making a federal investment of $1.7 trillion in the fight against climate change. He promises to “fulfill our obligation to workers… who powered our industrial revolution and decades of economic growth” by securing coal miners’ pensions and benefits. And he also promises to “put people to work by enlisting them to help fight the pandemic, including through a Public Health Jobs Corps.” But unlike the Green New Deal legislation, his platform has no explicit promise of a job for all who want one. It also makes no mention of fracking or a drastic reduction in fossil fuels, perhaps because his climate advisors may support fracking. Braxton says, “What we need to do is pressure Biden into a Jobs for All program, and the green is not in the headline, but it’s incorporated into it. The environmentalists will read the fine print, and maybe labor can look at it and say, this is what we need.”

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second largest teachers’ union in the country, passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal at its biennial convention at the end of July. The Green New Deal, federal legislation introduced in early 2019, would create a living-wage job for anyone who wants one and implement 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030. The endorsement is huge news for both Green New Deal advocates and the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States. The AFT’s endorsement could be a sign of environmental activists’ growing power, and it sends a message to the AFL-CIO that it, too, has an opportunity to get on board with the Green New Deal. But working people’s conditions are changing rapidly, and with nearly half of all workers in the country without a job, the leaders of the AFL-CIO and its member unions may choose to knuckle down on what they perceive to be bread-and-butter issues, instead of fighting more broadly and boldly beyond immediate workplace concerns.

The AFT endorsement follows that of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), National Nurses United (NNU) and the Maine AFL-CIO—all of which declared their support for the Green New Deal in 2019. And while local unions have passed resolutions in support of the Green New Deal, the AFT, NNU and AFA-CWA are the only national unions in the AFL-CIO to endorse the Green New Deal. (SEIU is affiliated with another labor federation, Change to Win.)

Yet the AFL-CIO has remained resistant. When Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) introduced the Green New Deal legislation in February 2019, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters, “We need to address the environment. We need to do it quickly.” But he also noted that, “We need to do it in a way that doesn’t put these communities behind, and leave segments of the economy behind. So we’ll be working to make sure that we do two things: That by fixing one thing we don’t create a problem somewhere else.”

Where Trumka has been skeptical and resistant, some union leaders in the federation have been more forceful in their opposition; many unions with members who work in extractive industries, including the building trades, slammed the legislation. Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, wrote a letter to both Markey and Ocasio-Cortez on behalf of the AFL-CIO Energy Committee that said, “We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families. We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered.”

But with 80,000 members today, UMWA is more of a retirees’ organization than a fighting union—and at roughly 1.6 million members, the AFT is one of the largest unions in the country. Its endorsement is “the most high-profile labor endorsement of the Green New Deal since SEIU last summer,” according to Will Lawrence, director of strategic partnerships at the Sunrise Movement. The AFT’s support for the Green New Deal, coupled with the writing on the wall for the fossil fuel industry, could mean a crisis for the AFL-CIO. Trumka has so far straddled the line between the federation’s conservative and progressive members, giving a nod to the importance of climate change while also affirming the importance of fossil fuel jobs. But Trumka plans to step down at the AFL’s convention in 2021, and whoever wins the election to be his successor will determine whether the largest federation in the labor movement goes all-in on the fight against climate change, or maintains one foot in the door and one foot out, balancing between the new world and the old.

This fork in the road is complicated by the fact that both the labor movement and the entire country are in crisis, with millions unemployed and all eyes on the presidential election in November. Trumka favors Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL (and his second in command) as his successor. But Sara Nelson, president of AFA-CWA and one of the early endorsers of the Green New Deal, also has her eyes on the leadership position. Although neither have officially announced their candidacy, it’s been reported that both have been privately vying for support.

Nelson’s support for the Green New Deal may hurt her if she decides to run. Sean McGarvey, the president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, the labor federation of the building trades unions and a member of the AFL, said, “She’s aligned herself with a plan that would eliminate half of the AFL-CIO’s jobs. That’s not going to work real well.” But Nelson told In These Times, “Climate change is directly in our workplace. Turbulence is on the rise. Our schedules, our work, our lives are totally disrupted every time there’s a major weather event. Some have tried to have us believe that this is an attack on jobs and on our way of life, but we know that if we don’t get out in front of something, the crisis will become so great and people will be desperate for a resolution, and that resolution won’t be one that works for working people.”

Nelson believes deeply in a just transition for workers whose industries would be shuttered in an attempt to bring carbon emissions down. The term “just transition” is often used in conversations about climate change as a way to secure workers’ livelihoods if and when their industry is phased out. And while this term is more often heard in the environmental movement now, the idea was developed in the labor movement by Tony Mazzocchi, a lifelong trade unionist and an elected leader in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW). In Mazzocchi’s words, a true just transition would give workers in extractive industries “a new start in life” by providing financial support and opportunities for education and re-training.

Many environmental groups like Sunrise Movement and Climate Justice Alliance have used the term in their literature and their campaign planning, but union workers have often expressed concern that their job security and livelihoods are not a true priority. After all, environmental groups often wage campaigns against pipelines or refineries without consulting the unions or their members first. While to environmentalists, union work has sometimes meant environmental destruction, to union members, environmentalism has meant financial destruction.

But according to David Hughes, treasurer of Rutgers AAUP-AFT and professor of Anthropology at Rutgers-New Brunswick, extractive industry workers’ standard of living is already threatened regardless of the proposed Green New Deal legislation. Hughes told In These Times that the country is already on the cusp of an energy transition away from fossil fuels. “We have an economic disaster and a complete collapse of the price of oil, coal has been collapsing, gas is not in good shape. So now solar and wind are competitive, even without subsidies. The economic case for fossil fuels has evaporated—those jobs are not going to be here for much longer.”

Although most union members have no interest in being re-trained for another career, fossil fuel workers and their unions are particularly protective of their jobs. Refinery workers can make up to six figures without a college degree, and there are very few jobs with comparable wages in non-extractive industries that these same workers could easily be hired for. Further, these workers have a right to be suspicious: Barack Obama campaigned on creating 5 million green jobs, but it’s unclear how many new green jobs were actually produced. There are some new green jobs, of course, but the vast majority are non-union, and the wages reflect that: Solar panel installers make between $30,000 and $50,000 per year.

Yet, numerous union members—workers in non-extractive industries—are serious about the Green New Deal, and AFT members who worked to pass the resolution are calling for more than tacit support: They intend for the endorsement to be a tool with which to organize their fellow members and to guide their work moving forward. This is precisely what the members of Rutgers AAUP-AFT have been trying to make happen. Hughes, who is also the chair of the Rutgers’ Climate Crisis Committee, raised the issue of supporting the Green New Deal at an AFT Executive Council meeting in 2019, before SEIU endorsed. No endorsement came out of it, but a committee, the Climate Task Force, was formed with the backing of the Executive Council. The task force has three main priorities: Form a relationship with Sunrise Movement and other environmental groups, create green schools campaigns, and organize with other unions to encourage them to support the Green New Deal. Hughes told In These Times, “What you do when you’re working in a sector that’s collapsing is you figure, what’s the strategic moment for my union to try to jump onto a ship that’s not sinking? If we get Biden elected, and we pass Green New Deal legislation, it will be the moment to jump. If we miss that moment, we’ve got nothing.”

But faculty like Hughes, along with teachers and nurses, already have green jobs—and will keep them, Green New Deal or not. While there have been hiring freezes at major universities, AFT members have been mostly unaffected by all of the job losses created by Covid-19. Construction workers, many of whom have just experienced a difficult few months without work, are understandably wary about potentially gambling with their jobs. But Keon Liberato, President of Local 3012 of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters, is looking forward to the passage of the Green New Deal. He’s a trackman who works on railroads in the Philadelphia area, and he told In These Times that “even if you don’t care about climate change, even if you have a more narrow interest, there’s a ton of money in the Green New Deal for the building trades, for infrastructure.” 

The Green New Deal’s focus on investing in high-speed rail could mean significant potential work for electricians and rail workers like Liberato. The legislation also calls for “repairing and upgrading the infrastructure in the United States,” which means fixing bridges and roads, retrofitting buildings, and updating sewage and water systems. And the AFT’s green school buildings campaign will need the support of building trades unions, like electricians, plumbers, roofers, and boilermakers. All of this infrastructure work means more union jobs—but only if the labor movement acknowledges the true magnitude of climate change and decides to play a leadership role in fighting it. John Braxton, Co-President Emeritus of AFT Local 2026, who contributed to AFT’s recent resolution, told In These Times that “unions don’t want to be told what to do, and they’d also like to believe it’s not going to be as big of a problem as it is. But we’ve got to make contingency plans that provide protections for every worker, and we need to do it now. Why would labor argue with that?”

Labor’s current focus is getting Joe Biden elected, who, according to his ads, has the “most ambitious” climate plan of any major party’s presidential nominee ever. His platform includes achieving net zero emissions no later than 2050, conserving 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030, and making a federal investment of $1.7 trillion in the fight against climate change. He promises to “fulfill our obligation to workers… who powered our industrial revolution and decades of economic growth” by securing coal miners’ pensions and benefits. And he also promises to “put people to work by enlisting them to help fight the pandemic, including through a Public Health Jobs Corps.” But unlike the Green New Deal legislation, his platform has no explicit promise of a job for all who want one. It also makes no mention of fracking or a drastic reduction in fossil fuels, perhaps because his climate advisors may support fracking. Braxton says, “What we need to do is pressure Biden into a Jobs for All program, and the green is not in the headline, but it’s incorporated into it. The environmentalists will read the fine print, and maybe labor can look at it and say, this is what we need.”

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second largest teachers’ union in the country, passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal at its biennial convention at the end of July. The Green New Deal, federal legislation introduced in early 2019, would create a living-wage job for anyone who wants one and implement 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030. The endorsement is huge news for both Green New Deal advocates and the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States. The AFT’s endorsement could be a sign of environmental activists’ growing power, and it sends a message to the AFL-CIO that it, too, has an opportunity to get on board with the Green New Deal. But working people’s conditions are changing rapidly, and with nearly half of all workers in the country without a job, the leaders of the AFL-CIO and its member unions may choose to knuckle down on what they perceive to be bread-and-butter issues, instead of fighting more broadly and boldly beyond immediate workplace concerns.

The AFT endorsement follows that of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), National Nurses United (NNU) and the Maine AFL-CIO—all of which declared their support for the Green New Deal in 2019. And while local unions have passed resolutions in support of the Green New Deal, the AFT, NNU and AFA-CWA are the only national unions in the AFL-CIO to endorse the Green New Deal. (SEIU is affiliated with another labor federation, Change to Win.)

Yet the AFL-CIO has remained resistant. When Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) introduced the Green New Deal legislation in February 2019, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters, “We need to address the environment. We need to do it quickly.” But he also noted that, “We need to do it in a way that doesn’t put these communities behind, and leave segments of the economy behind. So we’ll be working to make sure that we do two things: That by fixing one thing we don’t create a problem somewhere else.”

Where Trumka has been skeptical and resistant, some union leaders in the federation have been more forceful in their opposition; many unions with members who work in extractive industries, including the building trades, slammed the legislation. Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, wrote a letter to both Markey and Ocasio-Cortez on behalf of the AFL-CIO Energy Committee that said, “We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families. We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered.”

But with 80,000 members today, UMWA is more of a retirees’ organization than a fighting union—and at roughly 1.6 million members, the AFT is one of the largest unions in the country. Its endorsement is “the most high-profile labor endorsement of the Green New Deal since SEIU last summer,” according to Will Lawrence, director of strategic partnerships at the Sunrise Movement. The AFT’s support for the Green New Deal, coupled with the writing on the wall for the fossil fuel industry, could mean a crisis for the AFL-CIO. Trumka has so far straddled the line between the federation’s conservative and progressive members, giving a nod to the importance of climate change while also affirming the importance of fossil fuel jobs. But Trumka plans to step down at the AFL’s convention in 2021, and whoever wins the election to be his successor will determine whether the largest federation in the labor movement goes all-in on the fight against climate change, or maintains one foot in the door and one foot out, balancing between the new world and the old.

This fork in the road is complicated by the fact that both the labor movement and the entire country are in crisis, with millions unemployed and all eyes on the presidential election in November. Trumka favors Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL (and his second in command) as his successor. But Sara Nelson, president of AFA-CWA and one of the early endorsers of the Green New Deal, also has her eyes on the leadership position. Although neither have officially announced their candidacy, it’s been reported that both have been privately vying for support.

Nelson’s support for the Green New Deal may hurt her if she decides to run. Sean McGarvey, the president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, the labor federation of the building trades unions and a member of the AFL, said, “She’s aligned herself with a plan that would eliminate half of the AFL-CIO’s jobs. That’s not going to work real well.” But Nelson told In These Times, “Climate change is directly in our workplace. Turbulence is on the rise. Our schedules, our work, our lives are totally disrupted every time there’s a major weather event. Some have tried to have us believe that this is an attack on jobs and on our way of life, but we know that if we don’t get out in front of something, the crisis will become so great and people will be desperate for a resolution, and that resolution won’t be one that works for working people.”

Nelson believes deeply in a just transition for workers whose industries would be shuttered in an attempt to bring carbon emissions down. The term “just transition” is often used in conversations about climate change as a way to secure workers’ livelihoods if and when their industry is phased out. And while this term is more often heard in the environmental movement now, the idea was developed in the labor movement by Tony Mazzocchi, a lifelong trade unionist and an elected leader in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW). In Mazzocchi’s words, a true just transition would give workers in extractive industries “a new start in life” by providing financial support and opportunities for education and re-training.

Many environmental groups like Sunrise Movement and Climate Justice Alliance have used the term in their literature and their campaign planning, but union workers have often expressed concern that their job security and livelihoods are not a true priority. After all, environmental groups often wage campaigns against pipelines or refineries without consulting the unions or their members first. While to environmentalists, union work has sometimes meant environmental destruction, to union members, environmentalism has meant financial destruction.

But according to David Hughes, treasurer of Rutgers AAUP-AFT and professor of Anthropology at Rutgers-New Brunswick, extractive industry workers’ standard of living is already threatened regardless of the proposed Green New Deal legislation. Hughes told In These Times that the country is already on the cusp of an energy transition away from fossil fuels. “We have an economic disaster and a complete collapse of the price of oil, coal has been collapsing, gas is not in good shape. So now solar and wind are competitive, even without subsidies. The economic case for fossil fuels has evaporated—those jobs are not going to be here for much longer.”

Although most union members have no interest in being re-trained for another career, fossil fuel workers and their unions are particularly protective of their jobs. Refinery workers can make up to six figures without a college degree, and there are very few jobs with comparable wages in non-extractive industries that these same workers could easily be hired for. Further, these workers have a right to be suspicious: Barack Obama campaigned on creating 5 million green jobs, but it’s unclear how many new green jobs were actually produced. There are some new green jobs, of course, but the vast majority are non-union, and the wages reflect that: Solar panel installers make between $30,000 and $50,000 per year.

Yet, numerous union members—workers in non-extractive industries—are serious about the Green New Deal, and AFT members who worked to pass the resolution are calling for more than tacit support: They intend for the endorsement to be a tool with which to organize their fellow members and to guide their work moving forward. This is precisely what the members of Rutgers AAUP-AFT have been trying to make happen. Hughes, who is also the chair of the Rutgers’ Climate Crisis Committee, raised the issue of supporting the Green New Deal at an AFT Executive Council meeting in 2019, before SEIU endorsed. No endorsement came out of it, but a committee, the Climate Task Force, was formed with the backing of the Executive Council. The task force has three main priorities: Form a relationship with Sunrise Movement and other environmental groups, create green schools campaigns, and organize with other unions to encourage them to support the Green New Deal. Hughes told In These Times, “What you do when you’re working in a sector that’s collapsing is you figure, what’s the strategic moment for my union to try to jump onto a ship that’s not sinking? If we get Biden elected, and we pass Green New Deal legislation, it will be the moment to jump. If we miss that moment, we’ve got nothing.”

But faculty like Hughes, along with teachers and nurses, already have green jobs—and will keep them, Green New Deal or not. While there have been hiring freezes at major universities, AFT members have been mostly unaffected by all of the job losses created by Covid-19. Construction workers, many of whom have just experienced a difficult few months without work, are understandably wary about potentially gambling with their jobs. But Keon Liberato, President of Local 3012 of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters, is looking forward to the passage of the Green New Deal. He’s a trackman who works on railroads in the Philadelphia area, and he told In These Times that “even if you don’t care about climate change, even if you have a more narrow interest, there’s a ton of money in the Green New Deal for the building trades, for infrastructure.” 

The Green New Deal’s focus on investing in high-speed rail could mean significant potential work for electricians and rail workers like Liberato. The legislation also calls for “repairing and upgrading the infrastructure in the United States,” which means fixing bridges and roads, retrofitting buildings, and updating sewage and water systems. And the AFT’s green school buildings campaign will need the support of building trades unions, like electricians, plumbers, roofers, and boilermakers. All of this infrastructure work means more union jobs—but only if the labor movement acknowledges the true magnitude of climate change and decides to play a leadership role in fighting it. John Braxton, Co-President Emeritus of AFT Local 2026, who contributed to AFT’s recent resolution, told In These Times that “unions don’t want to be told what to do, and they’d also like to believe it’s not going to be as big of a problem as it is. But we’ve got to make contingency plans that provide protections for every worker, and we need to do it now. Why would labor argue with that?”

Labor’s current focus is getting Joe Biden elected, who, according to his ads, has the “most ambitious” climate plan of any major party’s presidential nominee ever. His platform includes achieving net zero emissions no later than 2050, conserving 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030, and making a federal investment of $1.7 trillion in the fight against climate change. He promises to “fulfill our obligation to workers… who powered our industrial revolution and decades of economic growth” by securing coal miners’ pensions and benefits. And he also promises to “put people to work by enlisting them to help fight the pandemic, including through a Public Health Jobs Corps.” But unlike the Green New Deal legislation, his platform has no explicit promise of a job for all who want one. It also makes no mention of fracking or a drastic reduction in fossil fuels, perhaps because his climate advisors may support fracking. Braxton says, “What we need to do is pressure Biden into a Jobs for All program, and the green is not in the headline, but it’s incorporated into it. The environmentalists will read the fine print, and maybe labor can look at it and say, this is what we need.”

Because of our current political climate—a pandemic that has already killed over 160,000 people in the United States, millions out of work, and a president and Senate that seem to despise working people —unions may be less willing to lead in the fight against climate change. After all, the climate crisis may feel less urgent than the unemployment crisis, or even contract negotiations over wages and benefits. But for the faculty, teachers and paraprofessionals who make up the AFT, leading in the fight against climate change is paramount. And to get the rest of the labor movement on board, Nelson has some advice: “If you believe in something, you gotta be willing to fight for it.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia. She is a frequent contributor to Working In These Times.


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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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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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A Low-Carbon Economy Will Be Built By Nannies, Caregivers and House Cleaners

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Image result for mindy isserReinvigorated movements are charting new terrain to build worker power and reverse the dramatic climate crisis facing society. Uncompromising mass mobilizations are on the rise, as more workers participated in strikes in the U.S. in 2018 than any of the previous 31 years, and historic demonstrations, like climate strikes, have taken off to demand action around climate change. Migrant workers, many of whom are climate refugees working in the care industry are waging a tremendous struggle against the Trump administration’s relentless, racist attacks, like the new “public charge” rule, which stops immigrants who receive public benefits from obtaining a green card or permanent residency. The Green New Deal offers an opportunity to bring these fights together around a broad program that tackles not only climate change, but also advances a vision of what a society that prioritizes people—not profit—could look like. But this future can only be won if the labor and climate movements find more ways to act together, and if they strategize more seriously about how to ensure low-carbon work is also good work.

The lowest carbon jobs are the ones that don’t extract anything from the land, don’t create any new waste and have a very limited impact on the environment—an idea put forward by writers and activists Naomi Klein and Astra Taylor, along with striking West Virginia teacher Emily Comer. These jobs include teaching, nurturing and caring— invaluable jobs like cleaning homes and caring for children, seniors and those living with disabilities. Care work is generally ignored or looked down upon because it doesn’t create commodities that can be bought and sold, and because it is typically done by women. The shift towards low-carbon work should necessarily include a dramatic expansion of care work. But in order to make that possible, the standards and conditions of that work must be urgently raised.

Care work is not only immensely important for individuals and families who depend on it, but for the economy at large. The National Domestic Workers Alliance (my employer) describes it as “the work that makes all other work possible.” By taking care of young children, nannies and child care workers allow parents to produce at their jobs. And by caring for seniors, home care workers, Certified Nursing Assistants and other caregivers keep those in the “sandwich generation,” caring for both children and parents, in the workforce. If there were no more caregivers—or if there were a nationwide caregiving work stoppage—our economy would crumble almost instantly.

The history of domestic work and care work, however, is stained by our country’s legacy of racism and sexism. In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed, giving workers the legal right to organize, and recourse if they were intimidated or fired for doing so. But not all workers were afforded these rights—domestic workers and farm workers were purposefully excluded as part of a compromise in order to pass the NLRA. Democrats in the South feared that allowing farm and domestic workers to unionize would give black workers—who were the vast majority of farm workers and domestic workers—too much economic and political power.

We’ve seen how this legacy affects care work today: low pay, no benefits, and it’s often illegal to unionize. In addition to their lack of labor protections, these workers’ social standing makes them even more susceptible to abuse at work, including wage theft and sexual harassment or assault. The vast majority of domestic and care workers in this country are women of color, many of whom are migrants.

By understanding this connection, we can build deeper solidarity between care workers organizing for power on the job and the climate movement more broadly. The exclusion of domestic workers from the NLRA, and the ensuing degradation of their working conditions and lack of rights at work, was a compromise rooted in economic injustice and political exclusion—two historical wrongdoings that the Green New Deal seeks to undo.

While presidential candidates and other politicians are lauding these jobs as the key to a just transition away from fossil fuels and into a Green New Deal, we can’t expect to meaningfully transition to low-carbon work without first focusing on how to improve that work. That effort must be a central part of the transition’s strategy. Every worker deserves a union job with high wages and benefits—including domestic and care workers.

In the midst of the Great Depression and massive unemployment in the 1930s, the New Deal created nearly 10 million union jobs. We face a challenge of even larger proportions today: how to radically reconfigure our economy away from industries that poison the environment, and how to create millions of new, green union jobs.

The Green New Deal resolution put forward by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) promises to do just that, stating that it will establish “high-quality union jobs” that provide a “family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security.” While millions of people will be put to work repairing the damage inflicted by climate change and setting the foundation of a new economy that will help us weather the crises we couldn’t stop, millions of workers will be left to find other low-carbon work.

When we transition workers away from well-paying oil and gas jobs, we don’t just want their tacit acceptance, we want their support, participation, and excitement: It’s the only way we’ll build the political will to actually pass the Green New Deal, and transform our economy at the speed and scale necessary to halt future damage. To do this, we need a real plan to make low-carbon jobs good jobs.

The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which has already passed in 9 states and one city, was introduced into Congress by Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) earlier this year. The legislation will essentially amend the NLRA to include domestic workers, while also giving them some new rights too, like the right to overtime pay, safe and healthy working conditions, and written agreements with their employers. Passing the Bill of Rights is a first step in ensuring that all domestic workers are treated with respect and dignity.

In California, child care workers just won a 16-year battle for the right to unionize. Now, 12 states allow child care workers to negotiate over wages and benefits. A handful of states have recognized unions for home care worker paid through Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, although the Trump administration is now trying to make it illegal for unions to deduct dues from workers’ paychecks.

To make child care and home care jobs not just low-carbon jobs, but good jobs, every single worker in this country needs the right to collectively bargain. Without being able to stand together to bargain for wages, benefits and rights at work, workers are forced to negotiate individually—just them against the boss. For workers who are oppressed due to their race, gender or migration status, this unequal reality is compounded by the ways employers use these social systems to further erode conditions, and to undermine workers’ abilities to advocate for themselves. Collective bargaining builds power for workers to push back both against bosses who want to exploit them for their labor, and corporations that want to maximize profit through environmental destruction. Building a union and engaging in shared struggle is also our best method to build solidarity across oppression and fight our common enemy — the ultra-rich who make decisions about both our working conditions on the job and our living conditions on our planet.

Although traditional collective bargaining is possible for certain child care and home care workers—because their employer is the state—it’s more complicated for domestic workers who tend to have multiple gigs. Because nannies, private-pay home care workers and house cleaners are often isolated in individual homes, we need the government to intervene to set a wage floor for the industry, and to ensure benefits and rights for all workers.

The Albany Park Workers’ Center in Chicago experimented with a living-wage hiring hall for day laborers and domestic workers by allowing those workers to connect with employers use written contracts, and find jobs that pay a living wage. Workers were able to access a daily job distribution list, and secure jobs through a coordinator. In 2015 and 2016, workers reported an average wage of $32 per hour, which was three times Chicago’s minimum wage at the time. Experiments like this must be expanded upon at a scale that sets a wage floor for all domestic workers.

One of the biggest challenges with domestic worker rights is enforcement, because these workers are so isolated. But that’s why we need a labor movement and a climate movement that’s dedicated to prioritizing care work—both for workers’ rights and for the future of our earth. A powerful movement of working-class people is the only way we will be able to force the government to both make the economic transitions we need to save our planet, and to improve conditions for care workers. As the need for care and the need to transform our economy for the sake of our environment both continue to grow astronomically, our movements need a plan to put care workers first. And because care work intersects with so many other social struggles—sexism, racism, migration, climate justice—focusing on it expands the base in in support of a movement of workers to transform both the economy and climate.

A transition away from extractive and destructive work will necessarily mean a growth of the care industry. Organizing and raising standards for care workers needs to be a central focus of a strategy to bring labor and climate together—to envision a low carbon economy that works for all of us.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on October 22, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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

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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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8 Unions Have a Plan for Climate Action—But It Doesn’t Mention Fighting the Fossil Fuel Industry

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On June 24, the BlueGreen Alliance—a national coalition which includes eight large labor unions and six influential environmental groups—released an eight-page document laying out its vision to curb climate change and reduce inequality. The report, dubbed Solidarity for Climate Action, marks a significant development in the world of environmental politics. It argues the needs of working people must be front-and-center as the U.S. responds to climate change, and rejects the “false choice” between economic security and a healthy planet.

While the report’s focus on public investment, good jobs and justice shares much in common with the federal Green New Deal resolution introduced in February, it also stands in tension with environmentalists who demand the U.S. work to transition more quickly away from oil, coal and natural gas. “We’d really like them to be stronger and more concise about what it means to move away from fossil fuels and transition to renewables,” said José Bravo, executive director of the Just Transition Alliance and speaking on behalf of the Climate Justice Alliance. Members of the BlueGreen Alliance say the ultimate goal should be to decarbonize the economy—to reduce CO2 emissions, but not necessarily end the fossil fuel industry itself, with its tens of thousands of high-paying jobs. Other climate groups say that won’t be enough, and humanity cannot afford to preserve industries that have caused so much environmental harm. This difference in vision will stand as one of the most fundamental political questions facing progressives in the next decade.

The report spells out a series of principles, including limiting warming to 1.5°C, expanding union jobs, modernizing infrastructure, bolstering environmental protections and rebuilding the nation’s manufacturing sector with green technologies. It also elevates the issue of equity, calling to “inject justice into our nation’s economy by ensuring that economic and environmental benefits of climate change solutions support the hardest hit workers and communities.” The BlueGreen Alliance emphasizes the disproportionate impact low-income workers and communities of color will face, and says those affected by the energy transition must receive “a just and viable transition” to new, high-quality union jobs.

To make its platform a reality, the BlueGreen Alliance endorses a host of specific policies and timetables, like reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, while being “solidly on a path” to that goal by 2030. Among other things, the report calls for measures like restoring forests and wildlands, cracking down on empl­oyee misclassification, making it easier to unionize one’s workplace, winning universal access to high-speed Internet, and “massive” economic investing in deindustrialized areas, “including remediating any immediate loss of tax base or public services for communities.”

Labor groups in the coalition include the United Steelworkers, the Utility Workers Union of America, the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, the Communications Workers of America, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, the Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers. The environmental organizations include the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Environmental Defense Action Fund, and the League of Conservation Voters.

Following the 2016 election, the coalition organized listening sessions with workers in communities that voted for Donald Trump, like in Macomb County, Michigan, and the Iron Range in Wisconsin. After those discussions, leaders started investing in broader polling, message-testing and focus groups. While opponents of regulating greenhouse gas emissions relish exploiting tensions between environmentalists and labor unions, Mike Williams, the deputy director of the BlueGreen Alliance, said it became clear from the research “that working people do quite care about climate change, but they also believe they should not be forced to make a choice between that and having a good job.”

“We went through a lot of iterations and a lot of conversations,” said Sara Chieffo, the vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters. “There was real unanimity that we were solving the twin crises of inequality and climate change.”

Jeremy Brecher, the co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability, which supports organized labor in tackling climate change, tells In These Times that he sees the Solidarity for Climate Action report as “quite a significant stepping out” for the BlueGreen Alliance. “The BGA was basically [created in 2006] to advocate for the growth and quality of jobs in the clean economy,” he said. “It did not take positions on targets and timetables for carbon reduction, clean coal and the KXL pipeline. It was a green jobs organization, which is important in terms of understanding where the BGA was coming from.” Brecher says the BlueGreen Alliance’s new statement “about the pace of greenhouse gas emission reductions and the absolute centrality and necessity of it is an extremely positive development.”

Evan Weber, the political director and co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, agrees. “I think the platform represents a really historic step forward for a number of the nation’s largest and most influential labor unions,” he said. “It leaves some questions about what needs to be done, and we’d like to see more ambition, but it is really meaningful that these groups and unions have come to the table and shown that they’re willing to move forward and not stay in the ways of the past.”

The Green New Deal resolution was introduced in Congress as the BlueGreen Alliance hashed out its own proposal. The leaders of some labor unions in the BlueGreen Alliance that represent workers in the fossil fuel industry—including the Steelworkers and the Utility Workers—have publicly voiced criticism of the Green New Deal, blasting it for a lack of specifics. The federal resolution “certainly took over a big portion of the national climate conversation, and a few of our partners were supportive, but there is also skepticism from the labor side,” said Williams. “As we were working we said we need to focus on our own process to see where we can forge alignment.”

Some hope the BlueGreen platform can serve as a policy blueprint for moving forward on the Green New Deal. SEIU, which represents 2 million workers, is both a BlueGreen coalition member and the first international union to back the federal Green New Deal resolution. “SEIU members know that we must take bold, immediate action on climate change, including holding corporations accountable for rampant pollution and ensuring good union jobs as we transition to a clean energy economy,” president Mary Kay Henry told In These Times. “That’s why we are proud to support both the Green New Deal, our North Star for what needs to be accomplished on climate change, and the BlueGreen Alliance’s platform, a roadmap for how we can get there.”

The League of Conservation Voters also endorsed the Green New Deal resolution back in February, and Chieffo told In These Timesthat her group sees the Solidarity for Climate Action report as “a really essential addition” to the conversation. “We are proud to endorse the Green New Deal and I think it’s incredibly valuable to have these eight powerful unions at the table laying out a proactive vision for how we tackle climate change.”

In These Times reached out to the original co-sponsors of the Green New Deal, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey of (D-Mass.), for comment on the BlueGreen Alliance’s report.

Anika Legrand-Wittich, a spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez, said while she was unable to reach the Congresswoman for specific comment, she “confirmed with our staff that we have indeed worked with BlueGreen Alliance and share many of their goals.”

Giselle Barry, a spokesperson for Sen. Markey, pointed to a supportive tweet the senator posted following the report’s release. It signal boosted the BlueGreen Alliance platform, and reads, “Transforming our economy and combatting climate change will create millions of jobs, but it won’t be possible without our workers and their families. Great to see our allies in organized labor continuing to make climate action a top priority.”

New Consensus, a think tank working to develop policies for the Green New Deal, said in an email “We don’t have any comment on the BGA report at this time.”

Fossil fuels

Despite its generally positive reception, the Solidarity for Climate Action has not gone without critique — and some environmental groups and labor leaders have raised issues and questions about the platform.

“I don’t think it goes far enough in terms of moving us definitively off fossil fuels at the speed that is required,” said Weber of the Sunrise Movement.

Brecher, of the Labor Network for Sustainability, said while overall the report marks a “very big step forward” for unions, he thinks its language “can use a little tightening up” to prevent groups from having too much “wiggle room.” He specifically pointed to language that America should be “on a pathway” to reducing its emissions, and suggests that be more specific. “It is overall quite close to the Green New Deal resolution, which also has a little wiggle room,” he said. (For example, most action items in the Green New Deal come with the caveat of “as much as is technologically feasible.”)

Julian Brave NoiseCat, the director of Green New Deal strategy at Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, said his organization’s vision for climate action shares a lot of overlap with the BlueGreen Alliance platform. But he noted BlueGreen Alliance’s does not include a 100% clean energy commitment, nor explicit provisions to phase-out fossil fuels, and it does not include a 10-year mobilization, in line with the Green New Deal. He also said he wonders whether the BlueGreen Alliance would support a federal jobs guarantee, or some other federal work provision.

Erich Pica, the president of Friends of the Earth, a climate group, said while it’s significant to see the labor movement taking proactive steps on the environment, as well as seeing the report’s emphasis on justice and equity, he protested its lack of mention of fossil fuels, natural gas, oil or coal. “How do you have solidarity for climate action when you’re not proactively calling out the very fuel sources that we have to eliminate from the U.S. economy?” he asked. “It says a lot of great things about how we want the economy structured, but in many ways it papers over where some of the greatest disagreement is between parts of the labor movement and the environmental community.”

Pica also acknowledged that the Green New Deal resolution did not make any mention of fossil fuels. “We were critical of that, too,” he said.

Mike Williams, of the BlueGreen Alliance, said while he understands that critique, he also thinks “it’s a bit much” to expect this platform to call for banning fossil fuels. “Our goal is to get climate pollution out of our economy by a certain time to avoid as much warming as possible, so we established our platform with the methods we think will help get us to those goals,” he said. “The banning of fossil fuels — that’s pretty controversial to expect of the people who represent the human beings who work in that sector. This is tens of thousands of people who work in these industries, and for a union to step out and say we’re going to end your job and the promise of a new job is a wink and a nod and a handshake. Well America has never before followed through on any proper transition, save for maybe the New Deal for white dudes.”

From Williams’ perspective, demanding unions call for ending their own jobs, before any sort of real alternative agreement is in place, is simply unrealistic. “It’s so mind boggling to think that people who represent folks who work in those industries would jump so far out ahead of where their membership is, and without any real forthright and immediately implementable solution,” he said.

Pica, of Friends of the Earth, also critiqued the BlueGreen Alliance for making no gesture toward campaigns to keep fossil fuels in the ground. “It’s been the divestment fights, trying to get universities and cities to divest their money from fossil fuel companies, that has been the fuel of the climate movement over the last decade,” he said.

Williams said the absence of certain “buzzwords” doesn’t diminish from what the document accomplishes. “We’re on the same side, and I truly respect [the environmental critics] and I hear them, but this is about building a broader movement that can get bigger solutions across the line,” he said.

Carbon-capture technology

Perhaps the most polarizing policy endorsed by the Solidarity for Climate Action report is that of carbon-capture technology, a method backed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and supported by most of the labor movement. But among environmentalists it’s more divisive, as some argue it will prolong dependence on fossil fuels, be too costly, and make it harder to reduce emissions overall.

“The fact that it’s included in the BGA report I think is very unfortunate and something that realistically has no chance of making a significant contribution to climate protection,” Brecher said. “Some of the other environmental groups are more squishy.”

Pica called carbon-capture “an expensive detour to nowhere” that’s a “nonstarter and at worse feeds kind of feeds false hope.” In January more than 600 environmental groups sent a letter to Congress saying they will—among other things—“vigorously oppose” federal climate legislation that promotes “corporate schemes” like carbon-capture and storage. Brecher and Pica’s groups were among the signatories. While the Green New Deal resolution is ambiguous on carbon-capture, last week Sen. Bernie Sanders released his presidential climate plan, which includes opposition to the technology.

Phil Smith, a spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America, a labor union not represented in the BlueGreen Alliance, tells In These Times that there are aspects of the report his union agrees with, “especially with respect to carbon-capture technology.” But he critiqued it as not specific enough when it comes to defining what a “just transition” means. The platform calls for “guaranteed pensions and a bridge of wage support, healthcare and retirement security” until an impacted worker finds a new job or retires.

“Coal miners want to know what the hell you mean when you say you want a ‘just transition,’” Smith says. “Training to drive a truck is not a just transition. Training a miner to earn half of what they’re making now is not a just transition. … Our concern is once laws get passed to phase out carbon dioxide in 10 years, if we’re going to have a ‘just transition’ then we needed to be working on that 15 years ago. It’s just meaningless words on paper right now, and we keep seeing it over and over.”

Moving forward, members of the BlueGreen Alliance plan to promote the policies outlined in their new platform through legislative advocacy and local community organizing. In late July, the coalition sent a letter to the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), and its ranking member, John Shimkus (R-Ill.), encouraging them to consider the Solidarity for Climate Action platform as they proceed in Congress.

“I think the next phase of work is educating elected officials on what’s in the platform,” said Chieffo. “And then really rolling up our sleeves to craft the legislation and hopefully future executive branch options needed to deliver it.”

This article was originally published by In These Times on August 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

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


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Every American Should Be Guaranteed a Job. The Green New Deal Could Make That Happen.

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fed•er•al jobs guar•an•tee

noun

1. A government policy to provide a job for anyone who wants one

We’ve been talking about this for a while, right?

Yes! President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a “second Bill of Rights” in his 1944 State of the Union, a list of economic and social rights including “the right to a useful and remunerative job.”

“Full employment” has been the official goal of the U.S. government since 1978, with the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act following advocacy from labor groups as well as Coretta Scott King. Early versions of the bill included an actual jobs guarantee, which was cut out of the final legislation.  A jobs guarantee was also part of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential platform.

Are any of this year’s presidential candidates supporting a jobs guarantee?

Several! Cory Booker (N.J.) introduced a Senate bill—co-sponsored by Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.)—to create a three-year pilot program in up to 15 “high-unemployment communities” to provide jobs with at least a $15 wage.

Bernie Sanders (Vt.) arguably goes further, invoking FDR’s call for a second Bill of Rights and a full jobs guarantee.

If the point is to keep people out of poverty, why not just give people money or provide better social services?

Why not all of the above? A universal basic income is preferred by some, but there’s no need to choose just one policy to answer economic inequality. Jobs advocates argue there is plenty of fulfilling work to be done and that a jobs guarantee would strengthen the bargaining position of workers in the private sector. The Sanders campaign website, for example, suggests childcare, elder care and green infrastructure as areas to emphasize.

Speaking of which, isn’t a jobs guarantee part of the Green New Deal?

That’s right—a Green New Deal could fund millions of jobs to dramatically scale up clean energy production, build and run public transportation, and prepare communities to adapt to the realities of a warming planet. While a jobs guarantee is already popular—52% of Americans support it, according to a poll by Civis Analytics—polling commissioned by the Sunrise Movement indicates that a jobs guarantee focused on green jobs and climate protection is even more popular.

Saving the planet and ending poverty at the same time? Certainly sounds worth a try!

This article appeared originally in In these Times on August 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission.


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One of the world’s largest banks thinks the writing is on the wall for the oil industry

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romm_joe_bio

Plunging prices for batteries and renewables are driving an electric vehicle (EV) revolution so rapidly that the economics of oil “are now in relentless and irreversible decline.”

That’s the startling conclusion of a detailed new analysis for “professional investors” of the economics of EVs versus gasoline cars produced by BNP Paribas, the world’s eighth largest bank by total assets.

The report is good news for humanity because it means peak oil demand may be less than a decade away, which in turn means ambitious climate goals will be more affordable than previously thought.

But the bank’s analysis, “Wells, Wires and Wheels,” is devastating for Big Oil. It concludes that “the oil industry has never before in its history faced the kind of threat that renewable electricity in tandem with EVs poses to its business model.”

Within a few years, electric vehicles (EVs) will be superior to gasoline powered cars in every respect. In part, that’s because electric motors are vastly more efficient than gasoline engines. And it’s also in part because solar and wind power and batteries have seen staggering price drops in the past decade — and are projected to see equally big drops in the coming years.

But one of the most startling findings is that because the cost of running EVs on solar or wind power is dropping so rapidly, the only way gasoline cars can compete with these renewable energy-powered EVs in the 2020s is if the price of oil were to drop to $11 to $12 per barrel. The current price of oil is over $50.

Even worse for oil, this economic analysis doesn’t even factor in many of the other benefits of running cars on renewable power rather than oil. These include the vast public health benefits of not breathing air pollution from burning oil, along with the benefits of not having huge oil spills and of not destroying a livable climate.

The report is written by Mark Lewis, global head of sustainability research at the bank. Lewis formerly worked as head of European utilities research at Barclays and as global head of energy research at Deutsche Bank.

Lewis notes that many independent analyses — including Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the risk management firm DNV GL — have concluded that in the 2022-2024 timeframe, the total lifecycle cost of owning an EV will be cheaper than that of owning a gasoline-fueled car.

The report also looks at the lifecycle costs of oil (drilling, production, and transportation) versus the life-cycle cost of renewable power plants (building and operating).

“We think the economics of renewables are impossible for oil to compete with when looked at over the cycle,” the study concludes.

If the future is so bad for oil, then why hasn’t there been a crash in either the price of petroleum, or the stock prices of major oil companies?

“There is a catch, and it is a big one,” explains the report, “oil has a massive incumbency advantage.”

Right now, oil is benefiting from the fact that its entire production and delivery system was built over decades and that investment gives oil a big short-term advantage over EVs, which have yet to build-out their fueling infrastructure globally.

“The clear conclusion of our analysis is that if we were building out the global energy system from scratch today,” Lewis explains, “economics alone would dictate that at a minimum the road-transportation infrastructure would be built up around EVs powered by wind- and solar-generated electricity.”

But oil has a big head start. And, of course, Big Oil uses its vast current income to buy political power so that it can slow down investment and government policies aimed at advancing electric cars.

Lewis, however, argues that from a policy perspective, governments need to start making much bigger investments in electric cars and their fueling infrastructure, simply because the economics are becoming so good for EVs and the public health and climate benefits are so huge.

Since BNP Paribas is a big bank and the report is for investors, though, a key point of the analysis is that oil companies are investing staggering amounts of money in finding and producing new wells — and most of them are going to lose a lot of that money.

“By the late 2020s” Lewis explains, a significant fraction of the oil produced today “might only be competitive at a price below [oil companies’] full cost of production.” Even worse, this fraction “will rise over the lifetime of these projects as the penetration rate of EVs increases.”

If you can’t produce oil profitably at under $10 or $20 a barrel, your oil company is in big trouble.

From a broader perspective, Lewis warns that all this money currently being spent on finding and producing new oil is a huge waste — “an opportunity cost to society as a whole.”

Exactly how big a cost? BNP Paribas calculates “the size of that opportunity cost is $24 trillion over the next 25 years on gasoline alone.” And that’s without counting the cost of saving a livable climate.

It’s time for investors and governments to walk away from Big Oil before the crash — and before it’s simply too late to save our children and future generations from catastrophe.

This article appeared originally in Think Progress on August 9, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

Dr. Joe Romm is a Fellow at American Progress and is the founding editor of Climate Progress, which New York Times columnist Tom Friedman called “the indispensable blog” and Time magazine named one of the 25 “Best Blogs of 2010.” In 2009, Rolling Stone put Romm #88 on its list of 100 “people who are reinventing America.” Time named him a “Hero of the Environment? and “The Web’s most influential climate-change blogger.” Romm was acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997, where he oversaw $1 billion in R&D, demonstration, and deployment of low-carbon technology. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from MIT.


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The Fight for a Green New Deal Can Start with Your Union Contract

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Image result for Jared OdesskyNews coverage of the Green New Deal portrays organized labor as a major obstacle to its enactment. But our new report for Data for Progress paints a different picture. In a poll conducted for the think tank by YouGov Blue, union members overwhelmingly favored the proposed reforms, with 62 percent in support and 22 percent against. In a memo for Data Progress, where I am a legal fellow, I show how union contracts can be an effective way to fight for a Green New Deal.

In step with the rank-and-file, some union leaders have already backed the ambitious plan. In a resolution adopted in June by its executive board, the Service Employees International Union called the Green New Deal “an unprecedented opportunity to unite the fights for environmental, racial and economic justice.” Los Angeles County Federation of Labor secretary-treasurer Rusty Hicks said in March the “framework is vital to fighting” inequality and climate change. Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson explained in April that it is “not the solutions to climate change that kills jobs,” but climate change itself. To be sure, a handful of union leaders, such as United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers president Lonnie Stephenson, have come out against the proposal. Yet even Roberts has said that he and Green New Deal supporters “agree on 75 percent.”

Even as union support for the measure continues to grow, the current political stalemate in Washington means that passage of the Green New Deal is unlikely in the near future. But labor leaders have an immediate way to translate member support for the Green New Deal into tangible wins: bargaining green union contracts.

American workplaces are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, even in industries without a direct connection to the production of fossil fuels. Individual workers are relatively powerless to change a company’s carbon culture on their own, but through unions, workers can join together and put real pressure on employers to agree to binding commitments to combat a warming world.

Efforts to build climate protection goals directly into collective bargaining agreements are already being undertaken by labor unions in countries like Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Work in a Warming World (W3), a Canadian research project linking academics and community partners to recenter the role of work in the fight against global warming, has undertaken an extensive project to document green clauses in union contracts across the globe. Their research provides a roadmap for American unions seeking to create sustainable workplaces.

For one, unions can bargain for the establishment of workplace environment committees that give workers real power to set sustainability benchmarks and to play an active role in implementation. In an agreement with a leading Canadian metals and mining company, the United Steelworkers Local 408 won contract language establishing a committee for workers and management to jointly develop programs aimed at preventing pollution, minimizing environmental impact and protecting employee health. The clause included an enforceable requirement that management furnish the union with all relevant data about the company’s environmental impact. Union involvement in designing sustainability initiatives can be particularly critical to ensuring there is real bite behind green programs that can otherwise be empty public relations ploys. When several American hotel chains rolled out a program that rewarded guests who forwent housekeeping services, it was hotel staff who spoke out about the pervasive problem of guests who “cheat a bit” while reaping the program’s perks.

Unions can also demand that employers commit to specific environmental goals directly in their contracts. Some activists have sought to get employers to agree to annual carbon footprint reductions, or to purchase union-approved carbon offsets if reductions cannot be achieved. Othershave successfully bargained for building efficiency improvements and recycling programs. Seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions caused by transportation, some unions have even won telework provisions that give employees more flexibility to work from home. Where in-person work is required, unions have obtained employer support for employee transit programs that promote the use of public transportation, bikes and carpooling.

Bargaining green contracts will surely be most difficult in fossil fuel-linked industries, where the work itself contributes to the degradation of the climate. But union contracts have an important role to play in ensuring a just transition to a green economy. Employees worried about a Washington-negotiated Green New Deal can take control of planning for our climate change future at their own workplaces. To ensure that workers can compete for the growing number of green jobs, unions can bargain for employer-sponsored training programs that give employees an opportunity to learn new skills. They can also negotiate for robust severance pay and layoff benefit plans and even early retirement to ensure workers and their families are not left behind as transition nears. And while the National Labor Relations Act does not require employers to bargain with workers over entrepreneurial decisions about the firm, unions can push management to pursue green projects themselves, so that workers can stay on as the company itself shifts missions.

Each of these goals will be far easier to achieve with government intervention, which is why passing the Green New Deal is paramount. But we have no time to wait. American workers may not have a seat at the table in Washington, but unions can take advantage of their seat at the bargaining table now. If they negotiate green new deals at work, we can promote good jobs while averting a climate disaster.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on August 2, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jared Odessky is a legal fellow at Data for Progress. He is also a law student at Harvard, a regular contributor to the blog OnLabor, and a former union organizer. His writing has been featured in The New York Times, Slate, and the Harvard Law and Policy Review.

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The Media Uses Coal Miners To Attack the Green New Deal—Then Ignores Their Pension Fight

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To stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis, at least 80 percent of coal reserves must stay in the ground, according to a conservative estimate in the journal Nature. This means that coal miners would see their already declining industry all but disappear. The Green New Deal, the resolution put forward by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) for an economy-wide mobilization to address the climate crisis, call for a “just transition” that guarantees good new jobs for coal miners. Some insist that the “just transition” start now, which is why they are supporting the American Miners Act.

Introduced in the Senate on January 3, the Act protects the pensions of more than 100,000 coal miners whose retirement fund was depleted by the 2008 crash. It also rescues the healthcare benefits of miners whose companies went bankrupt last year.

But you wouldn’t know about this bill, or its sister legislation in the House, from reading the New York Times, the Washington Post or Politico, three influential outlets within the Beltway. None have reported on—or mentioned—the legislation since it was introduced in early January, even though it has the support of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and high-profile cosponsors like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Ocasio-Cortez.

Yet these outlets have given considerable space to coal miners and unions to advance other narratives. In a four month period this spring and summer (February 25 to June 25), the New York TimesWashington Post and Politico have published 34 articles and opinion pieces that touch on coal miners or their unions. Collectively, they paint coal miners primarily as a source of votes, and assume that the sole political motivation of that bloc is opposing environmental policies that would close mines.

Seven stories discuss the decline of the coal industry or the new mergers, without mentioning the American Miners Act. Seven describe Democrats’ attempts to reach out to coal miners. One mentions rising suicide rates among coal miners in the Midwest. One includes brief mention of a coal miners’ strike more than a century ago. Only one piece highlights coal miners’ present-day concerns about workplace conditions: an article about silica dust causing a resurgence of black lung, that was produced by Reuters and reprinted by the New York Times. And only one discusses how the Gre­en New Deal could support coal miners.

By far the most frequent reference, in 16 stories, was to depict coal workers as a conservative constituency. These 16 stories either pit coal miners’ livelihoods against robust climate action, reference miners’ support for regressive policies like environmental deregulation, or discuss miners who back President Trump. When coal miners speak against progressive policies, particularly environmental ones, they’re more likely to be given a platform. When they issue demands that affect their everyday survival, they’re on their own.

Politico and the Washington Post gave considerable space to the opposition of coal miners and unions to the Green New Deal, with three articles in this period highlighting the topic. By contrast, only one article, a 855-word opinion piece in the Washington Post, made the case for why coal miners should support the Green New Deal.

Overlooked blue-green alliances

These Green New Deal articles are worth examining, because they establish a narrative that there is an insurmountable divide between elite climate activists and workers just trying to get by. On March 12, the Washington Post ran the headline, “AFL-CIO criticizes Green New Deal, calling it ‘not achievable or realistic.’” The piece centered on a letter of opposition to the Green New Deal co-drafted by Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, on behalf of the AFL-CIO’s energy committee.

Yet, on May 8, when Roberts rallied at Capitol Hill to call attention to the existential threat posed to retired coal miners’ livelihoods, the Washington Post was mum. Alongside the Alliance of Retired Americans, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) and multiple members of Congress, Roberts made an impassioned case for the American Miners Act, the aforementioned legislation that would transfer money to the UMWA pension fund, a boon to workers whose benefits were threatened by the Great Recession. “We didn’t get any of the money you sent to Wall Street. You bailed them out,” Roberts shouted from a podium. “What about the people who work for a living in America? What about the people who’ve given their health to America?”

The press conference would have also offered an opportunity to report on alliance-building between coal miners and Green New Deal proponents. And in fact, Sara Nelson, president of AFA and vocal supporter of the Green New Deal, spoke at the press conference. “Flight attendants are here, with our miners, to make sure that miners’ healthcare and pensions are preserved,” she said. “They earned them.”

In a May interview with In These Times, Nelson emphasized the importance of rallying behind the bill. “We need to push to adopt legislation that keeps America’s promise to coal miners of pensions and healthcare,” she said, “as well as addresses black lung— that’s the bare minimum to show good faith that this process of taking on climate change will focus on making coal miners’ lives better, not worse.”

As labor and climate activists grapple with difficult questions about how to transition away from a fossil fuel economy without leaving workers behind, major media outlets remain stuck in a reductive “elite vs. blue-collar” divide. In These Times contributor Michelle Chen noted that this false dichotomy appears throughout a June 1 Politico article, “Labor anger over Green New Deal greets 2020 contenders in California.” The article quotes Jack Pitney, described as “a veteran California political analyst and political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.”

He says there’s a “cautionary tale” for Democrats, who should remember that “West Virginia, until 2000, was considered solidly blue.” Republican strategist Karl Rove, working for candidate George W. Bush, pushed the fact “that the Democratic nominee was Al Gore, author of ‘Earth in the Balance,’’’ a fact that didn’t sit well with coal miners, Pitney recalls.

The piece cites unnamed coal miners as a warning to Democrats: If you campaign on the Green New Deal, you will lose elections. But reality is not so simple. While it is true that labor leaders in the building trades and extractive industries have expressed criticism or outright opposition to the Green New Deal, they don’t represent all of labor, nor all of their own rank-and-file membership. As Stanley Sturgill, a retired coal miner, told me at the People’s Climate March in 2014, “I worked underground for 41 years and I have black lung disease. I’m actually having a hard time breathing just to get to this stage. I am marching today because I want to build a bright future for my family, for Appalachia, and for this world. I have a vision where my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren can have good jobs that support our families without doing damage to our water, air, land and climate.”

And in fact, a survey by the progressive think tank Data for Progress in June 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.”

Some unions, locals and labor federations have come out in support of the Green New Deal, including the Service Employees International Union, the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, the Maine AFL-CIO and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. And labor and climate groups worked together to pass landmark climate legislation through the New York legislature in June, thanks in part to the backing of the New York State Amalgamated Transit Union, Teamsters Joint Council 16 and the Communications Workers of America Local 1108. Environmental and workers’ groups have long tried to build cross-movement trust and solidarity, years before the Green New Deal was introduced.

The Black Mesa Water Coalition, for example, has long organized in Arizona to build support within coal mining communities for a just transition from coal. And Kentuckians for the Commonwealth organizes coal mining communities, including coal miners with black lung, to push for a transition away from fossil fuel extraction, rooted in opposition to climate change and the devastating health effects of coal mining. The organization has been talking about the need for a just transition for at least a decade, meaning that coal mining communities deserve partial credit for advancing this concept. In the former coal camps of Lynch and Benham, the organization is working to help residents envision and fight for a just transition to renewable energy, from protesting mountaintop removal to retrofitting homes.

The climate stakes

But perhaps the most glaring omission in Politico’s June 1 article is its failure to reckon with the stakes. Whether to support or not support a Green New Deal is not a question of political strategy to win voters or union support, devoid of context. The UN’s IPCC report, released in October, estimated that we have 12 years to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius and save hundreds of millions of people from devastating environmental destruction, poverty and death. This is a crisis that hurts poor and working-class people most, particularly those in the Global South, who are already seeing their societies uprooted by intensifying storms, draughts, and sea-level rise. Miners, who are on the front lines of hazardous fossil-fuel extraction, are not spared.

To be sure, a May 7 article in the Washington Post does emphasize the urgency of the climate crisis before noting the concern that it would “put coal miners out of work.” And it is worth noting the one Washington Post op-ed, published April 19, that defends the Green New Deal against critics like Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr (R-Ky.), who dared Ocasio-Cortez to come his district.

“The Green New Deal specifically addresses the need to help people in communities affected by the transition away from fossil fuels,” the article notes. “It calls for “directing investments [to] deindustrialized communities, that may otherwise struggle with the transition away from greenhouse gas intensive industries.”

Yet the 855-word opinion piece may do little to counterbalance the narrative of conservative, anti-environmental coal miners reinforced across many stories. This lopsided focus contributes to the impression that the gulf between coal miners and climate justice campaigners is impossible to bridge.

“Mine workers are not the enemy here, and I think the press does play them out to be,” says Uehlein. “But they’re not. They’re potential allies if we can wrap our heads around real full-spectrum ‘just transition’ policies and fight for them.”

Accomplishing this transformation will require nuance and respect for the lives of coal miners who are hurting from dried-up pension funds, something influential media outlets could use more of.

Anna Attie, Eleanor Colbert and Daniel Fernandez contributed research to this report.

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 8, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Nation, Tom Dispatch, YES! Magazine, and Al Jazeera America. Her article about corporate exploitation of the refugee crisis was honored as a top censored story of 2016 by Project Censored. A former staff writer for AlterNet and Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.


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