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

Rachel M. Cohen August 26, 2019

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) union workers with SEIU Local 1021 hold signs as they picket in front of the Lake Merritt station on July 2, 2013 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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 Times that 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.”

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