What It Will Take to Build Union Support for the Green New Deal—Despite the AFL-CIO

Sarah Lazare March 18, 2019

Members of the Laborers International Union of North America stood with members of the Full Rights for Immigrants Coalition and members of the National Immigration Attorney Association during a news conference in front of the Federal building in downtown Los Angeles April 28, 2010. (Photo by Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

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.

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