On March 8, the AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee sent an open letter to Sen. Edward Markey (D‑Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) blasting their Green New Deal resolution—a plan for a “new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization” to tackle climate change and “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers.”
“We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families,” said the letter, signed by Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered.” This statement follows previous remarks by the president of the United Mine Workers, who expressed concerns about the protection of jobs in the fossil fuel industry.
The science is unambiguous: To arrest climate change and protect the survival of human society, the fossil fuel industry, indeed, must be eliminated. This does not mean, however, that workers will be left to fend for themselves. The Green New Deal’s call for a just transition emerged from the demands of Indigenous, environmental justice and labor leaders in the 1980s and 1990s. It is premised on the notion that, as the Climate Justice Alliance puts it, “workers and communities impacted first and worst must lead the transition to ensure it is just.”
Programs such as a jobs guarantee, universal basic income and protection of union rights can play a key role in this transition. Instead of reflexively rejecting the Green New Deal, the labor movement could be playing a vital role in ensuring it is rooted in justice and self-determination for workers. Workers’ groups including the Vermont Workers Center, Climate Workers and the Labor Network for Sustainability, have spent years trying to drum up broad support for a just transition.
I spoke with Liam Cain, a wildland firefighter in Oregon and former worker in the extractive fossil fuel industry, about what it would take to build a labor movement willing to fight for a just transition — and a climate movement willing to center the needs of workers.
Cain is a 34-year-old member of the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 1271, which is part of the AFL-CIO, and the Industrial Workers of the World. He spent five years building mainland pipelines and working at refineries, with his last extractive industry job ending roughly five years ago. He argues, “If we believe this labor movement stuff we talk about, that an injury to one is an injury to all, we need to recognize this industry is perpetuating harms against our peers, our neighbors, other working stiffs in other places.”
What do you think the climate movement needs to understand about workers in the extractive industry?
Liam Cain: One of things that always sticks out to me is I grew up pretty poor and I have a GED and a union card. And doing heavy construction, building pipelines, was the best money I’ve made in my life. It’s not that phenomenal, but it’s better than anything else I’ve made. In the area where I joined, in the Rockies — Wyoming specifically — you were either landed gentry and owned a bunch of land, you were a cowboy who made shit wages, you were someone else who made shit wages, or you were working in the extractive industry. You own the land and exploit someone else, or you’re a rank-and-file member of an industry that exploits the land, but at least you can pay rent.
It’s on us as people whose wages are paid by the industry destroying the earth to not just sit back and be like, “Hey look, this is something that pays my rent and feeds my kids. It sucks that we’re destroying the earth and other people’s homes.”
But I think the majority of rhetoric I hear form liberals, the left, virtually everyone, really kind of goes after these workers but skips over the fact that the society we live in is incredibly exploitive. This whole system is messed up. Some of the problems I experienced in the extractive industry are applicable to wildland firefighting that overwhelmingly centers the protection of property and wealth.
Workers accepting the status quo and not trying to change it is also messed up. One of the larger issues I see based off my experiences and the people I worked with was that there were always false dichotomies, and we would have these really bad choices: work shitty jobs that are exploitive and treat people and the environment like crap, or work another job that’s still exploitive and pays you better. When I was with Labor for Standing Rock, I knew people building that pipeline I was fighting. Dakota Access Pipeline was a union pipeline. I also knew union pipeliners who might not have felt all pipelines are bad, but stayed away from that project because the Indigenous resistance felt way too close to a picket line for them to work that project in good conscience.
As I’m sure you know, the AFL-CIO leadership just criticized the Green New Deal. What’s it going to take to build a labor movement that sides with the climate movement — not with the fossil fuel bosses?
Liam Cain: I have a lot of empathy for these workers doing these jobs that are actively pulling sand out of the hour glass of human life on this planet for people who aren’t in a wealthy bubble. But I have very little love for the figureheads at the top of building and trade unions.
I think we’re going to have to wrestle with the conception of trade unionism and different unions having different turf if we’re going to actually push a just transition. If we don’t honestly engage that in a way that makes a lot of us uncomfortable, not only are we totally screwed but we will use the power of the labor movement to support the capitalist exploitation of the environment and vulnerable communities. We need to be building solidarity in our workplaces, as well as outside of our workplaces.
We should be actively taking to heart that showing solidarity with people means conceptualizing our struggles as shared. We need to understand that a union is a vehicle for workers to level the playing field while they are working for someone exploiting them. That’s what a union is.
Members vote with our feet and actions. Inside the AFL-CIO and other unions, that’s going to matter. Any shift is going to come from coordination between the rank-and-file in a variety of union and non-union organizations.
How can the climate movement do a better job of reaching workers?
Liam Cain: You have to be very conscious about looking at the different forces at play. Don’t just look at a person as someone who works for the industry. I think it’s important for the climate justice movement to discuss these systemic pressures. In our interactions with these workers, show you care about them and where they come from.
This whole fetishization of green capitalism is bullshit. Elon Musk is doing shit — okay. Well if his workers didn’t get treated like trash that would be cool. And we shouldn’t glorify the philanthropy of some rich fucker who stole a bunch of money. An oil worker might not have a great analysis, but usually they can tell bullshit when they see it.
But we shouldn’t be afraid to say we need to do something different. We need to articulate a vision that says clearly, ‘we need to find work for the people who are being displaced as we transition out of these industries.’ There are different ways to articulate that. We need to step away from an economy that has to grow. We can’t do that and be sustainable. Do these workers deserve to take the fall for this systemic issue? No, they don’t. Do we need to talk about how to transition them into something that sustains them? Yes. The system exploiting the environment is unsustainable. Capitalism is unsustainable.
We need to be empowering people to take control of their workplaces and lives — and tie that in with a holistic view of things. We need to have more people’s voices in the conversation about what the future looks like. One of the ways we do that is by taking back control of our lives.
How do we reach and talk to each other? It’s important to make connections between the workers and the people fighting the extraction. If you’re in the climate movement and want someone to respect your picket, give respect to get respect. People need to have base-level respect for someone working the job. If you believe the stuff you say about climate, have enough knowledge of the labor movement and workplace dynamics to have a conversation with workers about that. How are you going to stop people from crossing that line? If you’re going to talk to them, understand what you’re talking about enough to have empathy for those workers.
Ultimately, refinery and pipeline workers are employed by an industry that, if we are going to save society and the planet, must no longer exist. What’s your argument for why workers in that industry should get behind a movement opposed to that industry?
Liam Cain: The industry shouldn’t exist because it’s really harmful to communities where these projects happen and really harmful to the land where these projects happen. On a larger scale, the industry is harmful to a lot more people who we don’t meet and we don’t see. If we believe this labor movement stuff we talk about, that an injury to one is an injury to all, we need to recognize this industry is perpetuating harms against our peers, our neighbors, other working stiffs in other places.
Sarah Lazare is web editor at In These Times. She comes from a background in independent journalism for publications including The Intercept, The Nation, and Tom Dispatch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.