Cochabamba and Labor on the Road to Climate Justice

Michelle Chen

There was lots of energy, if few definitive answers, at the climate summit in Bolivia this week. Unlike the frustration activists felt in the wake of the Copenhagen fiasco, the mood at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth was decidedly optimistic, inclusive, as well as open-ended.

But one facet of civil society was relatively underrepresented at the People’s summit. Although unions might seem like just the type of folks who would flock to the poor people’s answer to Copenhagen’s elite inner sanctum, at least one labor activist was feeling lonely in Cochabamba.

J.J. Johnson of 1199 SEIU, part of a U.S. delegation that included union Executive Vice President Estela Vazquez and a few dozen other activists, observed that labor’s presence at the gathering, particularly from North America, was subdued. Johnson and Vazquez were the only U.S. union representatives in attendance, he reported. Meanwhile, the agenda seemed oriented toward agriculture and indigenous rights, like deforestation and food sovereignty, not workers in key polluting industries.

In the lead-up to COP15, prominent international labor organizations like Global Unions mapped out plans for giving workers in the public and private sectors a chief role in driving a green economy with strong labor standards.

But even though the Bolivia conference hosted a panel on green jobs – featuring Korean, British and Argentine activist voices – overall, participants appeared unsure where labor fit into the climate justice agenda, according to Johnson:

The environmental movement is akin to a ghetto,” [Jonathon Teale of Great Britain’s University and College Union] said. An alliance with labor, he and others noted, is the way out of the ghetto. But labor must take the lead. We also have to live on this earth, said a speaker. She added that workers, especially the poorest, have to bear the heaviest burden.

Labor unions haven’t dropped climate change, of course. In post-COP15 follow up reports, the ITUC’s Trade Union Task Force on Green Jobs and Climate Change reported earlier this year that international unions remain committed to the just transition” agenda, which combines a shift to clean energy sources with compensatory policies to protect workers and the economically disadvantaged. The AFL-CIO and SEIU have also adopted this framework.

The Task Force aims to broaden outreach on the economic implications of climate change within the labor movement and the general public, in anticipation of the upcoming COP 16 conference in Mexico.

But did Cochabamba mark a lost opportunity to solidify an alliance between labor and the indigenous and agrarian movements pushing back against industrial exploitation.

A more radical climate change agenda could set off tension between environmental protection and concerns about workers’ livelihoods. There was broad consensus at the conference that climate change and global capitalism were the twin enemies of the earth and must be attacked in tandem. Progressive unions aren’t likely to prioritize dismantling whole industries; they seek primarily to integrate environmental goals into private enterprise. (The conferees at Cochabamba, for their part, did contemplate the role of technology and clean energy consumption, but we shoudn’t expect green manufacturing to be a top concern for dispossessed peasant farmers or rainforest communities.)

Still, many labor activists, fusing pragmatism and principle, advocate for long-term sustainability in both economic and environmental terms. The ITUC’s policy paper on climate change declares:

Trade unions call for an equitable sharing of the responsibilities regarding climate protection and emission reductions. There must be provision for the fair distribution of the cost associated to emission reductions, so that the poorest will not carry the heaviest burden. At both international and national levels, income needs to be taken into account in order to direct emission reduction efforts towards those with the capacity to carry out such measures.

Just transition” complements the idea of climate debt” – one of Cochabamba’s key platforms, which calls on rich countries to compensate the Global South for centuries of evironmental exploitation.

But can climate-justice principles be fully realized in a global economic system that is diversifying and urbanizing at an unprecedented pace?
Jessica Camille Aguirre of the Democracy Center
reflects on a possible rural-urban disconnect in a dispatch from Day One of the conference:

Conversations that have happening among Bolivian social movements for months are now being thrust into international spotlight, and into a global context. CONAMAQ, the Bolivian national indigenous organization, is a ubiquitous presence at these presentations, underlining the necessity to live in harmony with nature and rejecting what they see as the commodification of natural resources. Speakers emphasize the need re-enforce communities….

But the challenge to many of these messages is making them resonate with activists from around the world who face different realities. The concept of vivir bien – living in harmony with nature and in reciprocity with community – is difficult to imagine in the context of contemporary urban environments.

Indeed, the tension between economic development and conservation is playing out within Bolivia itself; the government has stirred controversy by moving forward on massive development projects while Morales champions the sanctity of Mother Earth.

True, this reverence for a natural communitarian lifestyle might be hard to square with the rising anxiety in America’s Rust Belt, where activists hope to sell blue-collar workers on the promise of green jobs. But the most forward-thinking elements of the labor, human rights and conservation movements all demand collective responsibility and redistributive justice.

Back in Cochabamba, 1199SEIU’s Vazquez tried to stress a shared ideal of environmental equity. A follow-up SEIU blog post quotes her:

The corporations and multinationals that violate workers’ rights at home and abroad are the same ones that are responsible for climate change. Our enemies are the same. We in labor and our allies are planning a people’s march in October to bring millions to Washington, D.C. We will link the demands for jobs with demands to save our Mother Earth.

The union members rallying in D.C. probably won’t be chanting for Pachamama, per se, but rather, demanding expanded public investment in renewables and green-collar job initiatives. 

Yet Evelyn Rangel-Medina of the Ella Baker Center, who came to Cochabamba to represent the green jobs movement in communities of color, came away from the conference with some inspiration for local organizers back home. Now, more than ever,” she wrote on the group’s blog, I am convinced that we must work at every level to protect our planet and uplift our people. We must continue to build a green economy that is equitable and interconnected.”

It remains to be seen where these strands of activism will ultimately converge, and they may never fully mesh. But the various social sectors fighting climate change on their own terms, whether by protesting the plunder of native lands or pressing for living-wage jobs in solar power, all face a single shared reality: there’s only one Mother Earth.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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