How Unions and Climate Organizers Learned To Work Together in New York

Rachel M. Cohen June 10, 2019

Hundreds of New Yorkers meet on the State Capitol in Albany on 06/01/2016 to call on Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers to support the NYS Climate & Community Protection Act. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Sev­er­al years before Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) ele­vat­ed the cli­mate, jobs and jus­tice frame­work to the nation­al lev­el, a coali­tion of labor, envi­ron­men­tal and com­mu­ni­ty groups joined togeth­er to push for a pio­neer­ing cli­mate bill in New York.

The idea for the leg­is­la­tion came in the imme­di­ate after­math of the 2014 People’s Cli­mate March, when orga­niz­ers decid­ed to build on the momen­tum of the his­toric demon­stra­tion. In 2016 the Cli­mate and Com­mu­ni­ty Pro­tec­tion Act (CCPA) was born, an expan­sive bill that would require New York to gen­er­ate half of its elec­tric­i­ty from renew­able sources by 2030, and elim­i­nate all green­house gas emis­sions by 2050. The bill would also man­date that 40 per­cent of New York’s cli­mate fund­ing go towards projects in low-income, vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties, and require all green projects to have high labor stan­dards, includ­ing the require­ment for a pre­vail­ing wage.

It’s among the most aggres­sive decar­boniza­tion pro­pos­als in the nation,” said Arielle Swer­noff, the com­mu­ni­ca­tions coor­di­na­tor for New York Renews, a coali­tion of over 170 state groups back­ing the leg­is­la­tion. The only state that has real­ly done some­thing com­pa­ra­ble is Hawaii.”

New York Renews offers an encour­ag­ing exam­ple of how labor and envi­ron­men­tal groups can work togeth­er to act on cli­mate change. The coali­tion has the back­ing of unions like 32BJ Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union — a prop­er­ty ser­vice work­ers union, the New York State Nurs­es Asso­ci­a­tion, the New York State Amal­ga­mat­ed Tran­sit Union, Team­sters Joint Coun­cil 16 and the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca Local 1108. It also has the sup­port of a vast num­ber of envi­ron­men­tal groups, includ­ing the Sier­ra Club, Envi­ron­men­tal Advo­cates of New York and GreenFaith.

The bill’s strong lan­guage around labor — such as requir­ing that gov­ern­ment con­tracts include mech­a­nisms for resolv­ing dis­putes and ensur­ing labor har­mo­ny — has helped quell oppo­si­tion from build­ing trade unions that typ­i­cal­ly fight robust cli­mate pro­pos­als. The New York AFL-CIO, a labor fed­er­a­tion rep­re­sent­ing 3,000 state affil­i­ates, has notably stayed qui­et on the bill.

Nel­la Pine­da-Mar­con, the chair of the Cli­mate Jus­tice and Dis­as­ter Relief com­mit­tee with the New York State Nurs­es Asso­ci­a­tion, told In These Times that it was an easy deci­sion for her union to back the CCPA. Her union, which rep­re­sents 43,000 nurs­es statewide, got very involved with the cli­mate cri­sis fol­low­ing Hur­ri­cane Sandy in 2012. The fol­low­ing year, Pine­da-Mar­con trav­eled to the Philip­pines as a first-respon­der to Typhoon Haiyan. We are on the front lines of this cri­sis, we see first-hand the destruc­tion it has,” she explained. And the mas­sive amounts of pol­lu­tants in our air are dri­ving up rates of chron­ic asth­ma in our most vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties… We need to lead now and the rest of the world can fol­low us.”

The pol­i­tics of the CCPA are com­ing to a head as the dead­line for pas­sage ends June 19. The bill passed the state Assem­bly in 2016, 2017 and 2018 — and last year a major­i­ty of state sen­a­tors signed on in sup­port. But the Sen­ate Leader nev­er allowed it to come to the floor for a vote. After the 2018 midterms, how­ev­er, when pro­gres­sive Democ­rats oust­ed a group of cen­trists who often cau­cused with Repub­li­cans, advo­cates felt the stars were align­ing more favor­ably for the CCPA’s pas­sage this year.

Indeed, in Jan­u­ary the new Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Andrea Stew­art-Cousins released a state­ment call­ing the CCPA the main vehi­cle through which we will address cli­mate change.” The state sen­ate held its first-ever hear­ing on cli­mate change in Feb­ru­ary, led by Sen. Todd Kamin­sky (D), the new Envi­ron­men­tal Con­ser­va­tion Com­mit­tee chairman.

Var­i­ous sci­en­tists tes­ti­fied, includ­ing Math­ias Vuille, a pro­fes­sor of cli­mate and atmos­pher­ic sci­ences at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Albany and a mem­ber of the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change. Vuille explained that the most sig­nif­i­cant impact result­ing from a chang­ing cli­mate in New York so far has been the rise of intense storms, which have increased in fre­quen­cy in the North­east more than any oth­er region in the Unit­ed States. Sea lev­els along the mid-Atlantic and New Eng­land coasts have also risen much high­er than the glob­al aver­age, he said, point­ing to a rise in New York sea lev­els by 280 mil­lime­ters over the 20th cen­tu­ry, com­pared to a glob­al aver­age increase of 170 millimeters.

While Vuille cau­tioned that he’s nei­ther a renew­able ener­gy spe­cial­ist nor an econ­o­mist, he said we owe it to future gen­er­a­tions” to con­tin­ue lead­ing the tran­si­tion off fos­sil fuels, and empha­sized a need to reduce emis­sions in the trans­porta­tion sec­tor in par­tic­u­lar. I think this can be done if we real­ly have the will,” he said.

Some labor advo­cates, like Mike Gen­dron, the exec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca Local 1108, also tes­ti­fied in sup­port of the CCPA. As we tran­si­tion from fos­sil fuel based ener­gy to renew­able ener­gy, we must make sure that the jobs cre­at­ed, are good pay­ing union jobs with prop­er train­ing, for both new work­ers and tran­si­tion­ing work­ers,” he said. The New York State Cli­mate and Com­mu­ni­ty Pro­tec­tion Act will help make that happen.”

Oth­er unions offered more qual­i­fied sup­port, endors­ing spe­cif­ic sec­tions of the leg­is­la­tion. Ellen Red­mond, rep­re­sent­ing the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (IBEW), tes­ti­fied that her union does in fact believe the CCPA con­tains com­mend­able lan­guage around work­ers’ rights. We do believe the labor pro­tec­tions are strong,” she said, though sug­gest­ed it could be even bet­ter if there were more teeth and real dol­lars behind it. IBEW rep­re­sents about 50,000 mem­bers in New York, many of whom work in the util­i­ties industry.

Mark Brueggen­jo­hann, a spokesper­son for the IBEW, told In These Times that his union didn’t have any­thing new to add to Redmond’s Feb­ru­ary tes­ti­mo­ny and doesn’t antic­i­pate any fur­ther state­ments” this month.

State sen­a­tors also heard from indus­try groups that raised con­cerns, like Mitch Paley, tes­ti­fy­ing on behalf of the New York State Builders Asso­ci­a­tion. Paley said while his col­leagues sup­port some aspects of the CCPA, they object to the pre­vail­ing wage require­ments which would, by their own esti­mate, increase res­i­den­tial projects by 35 to 45%. The man­dat­ed solar require­ments for new homes, he added, could increase the cost of each project by $10,000. This would dra­mat­i­cal­ly affect the abil­i­ty to pro­mote afford­able homes in our region,” he argued.

Dar­ren Suarez, the senior direc­tor of gov­ern­ment affairs for the Busi­ness Coun­cil of New York State tes­ti­fied against the bill, argu­ing that the pro­posed leg­is­la­tion would increase ener­gy costs, oper­a­tional costs, and cre­ate uncer­tain­ty, com­pro­mis­ing the glob­al com­pet­i­tive­ness of ener­gy-inten­sive, trade-exposed indus­tries.” He insist­ed the bill’s goals are not prac­ti­cal, and that the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor should be includ­ed in devel­op­ing the state’s cli­mate policies.

A study by the Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my Research Insti­tute at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts — Amherst found that New York tran­si­tion­ing to a 100 per­cent renew­able econ­o­my could sup­port 160,000 direct and indi­rect jobs ini­tial­ly and an aver­age of about 150,000 in each year over the first decade. The insti­tute also esti­mates that New York’s fos­sil fuel work­force is rel­a­tive­ly small, com­prised of rough­ly 13,000 indi­vid­u­als, out of a statewide work­force of around 9 million.

A threat­en­ing fac­tor for CCPA sup­port­ers is that the state’s gov­er­nor, Andrew Cuo­mo, has intro­duced his own more mod­er­ate cli­mate bill—the Cli­mate Lead­er­ship Act. His leg­is­la­tion calls for the elec­tric­i­ty sec­tor to be car­bon-free by 2040, but does not lay out a con­crete plan for oth­er sec­tors that emit green­house gas, like trans­porta­tion. The two bills are divid­ing Democ­rats in Albany. Advo­cates for CCPA say Cuomo’s bill does not go far enough, and it’s imper­a­tive to leg­is­late spe­cif­ic cli­mate goals, so they are not at the whim of the exec­u­tive” anymore. 

Swer­noff of New York Renews says the governor’s office has expressed dis­com­fort specif­i­cal­ly with the pre­vail­ing wage stan­dard for all green projects, the 40% invest­ment into vul­ner­a­ble and low-income com­mu­ni­ties, and set­ting a time­line for the whole econ­o­my, as opposed to just for electricity.

New York fed­er­al leg­is­la­tors are ramp­ing up pres­sure on state law­mak­ers to pass the CCPA. On June 4, eleven Con­gres­sion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tives from New York, includ­ing Reps. Oca­sio-Cortez and Nydia Velázquez, sent a let­ter in sup­port of the bill. We believe the peo­ple-led Cli­mate and Com­mu­ni­ty Pro­tec­tion Act before you in Albany presents…an oppor­tu­ni­ty for New York,” they wrote. An oppor­tu­ni­ty to cure the injus­tices of the past and to secure, with intent, a just tran­si­tion into the future.” On June 5, New York sen­a­tor Kirsten Gilli­brand sent her own let­ter in sup­port of the bill.

Mar­itza Sil­va-Far­rell, exec­u­tive direc­tor of ALIGN, a steer­ing com­mit­tee mem­ber of New York Renews and the New York affil­i­ate of Jobs with Jus­tice, said she knows law­mak­ers are tak­ing the CCPA very seri­ous­ly right now, and she’s hope­ful this year its pas­sage will become a reality.”

When it comes to the gov­er­nor sign­ing the bill, Sil­va-Far­rell says she is less sure. You nev­er know where he’s going to be on an issue,” she said. But one thing that is very clear is that if he wants to leave a strong lega­cy for his fam­i­ly, for his kids, and his grand­kids, he should get behind this.” 

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