The Green New Deal Just Won a Major Union Endorsement. What's Stopping the AFL-CIO?

Union support for the Green New Deal is growing. It’s time for America’s largest labor federation to get on board.

Mindy Isser August 12, 2020

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten greets a crowd of striking teachers in Grand Park on January 22, 2019 in downtown Los Angeles, California. Scott Heins/Getty Images

The Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT), the sec­ond largest teach­ers’ union in the coun­try, passed a res­o­lu­tion in sup­port of the Green New Deal at its bien­ni­al con­ven­tion at the end of July. The Green New Deal, fed­er­al leg­is­la­tion intro­duced in ear­ly 2019, would cre­ate a liv­ing-wage job for any­one who wants one and imple­ment 100% clean and renew­able ener­gy by 2030. The endorse­ment is huge news for both Green New Deal advo­cates and the AFL-CIO, the largest fed­er­a­tion of unions in the Unit­ed States. The AFT’s endorse­ment could be a sign of envi­ron­men­tal activists’ grow­ing pow­er, and it sends a mes­sage to the AFL-CIO that it, too, has an oppor­tu­ni­ty to get on board with the Green New Deal. But work­ing people’s con­di­tions are chang­ing rapid­ly, and with near­ly half of all work­ers in the coun­try with­out a job, the lead­ers of the AFL-CIO and its mem­ber unions may choose to knuck­le down on what they per­ceive to be bread-and-but­ter issues, instead of fight­ing more broad­ly and bold­ly beyond imme­di­ate work­place concerns.

The AFT endorse­ment fol­lows that of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants-CWA (AFA-CWA), Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU), Nation­al Nurs­es Unit­ed (NNU) and the Maine AFL-CIO — all of which declared their sup­port for the Green New Deal in 2019. And while local unions have passed res­o­lu­tions in sup­port of the Green New Deal, the AFT, NNU and AFA-CWA are the only nation­al unions in the AFL-CIO to endorse the Green New Deal. (SEIU is affil­i­at­ed with anoth­er labor fed­er­a­tion, Change to Win.)

Yet the AFL-CIO has remained resis­tant. When Sen. Ed Markey (D‑Mass.) and Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) intro­duced the Green New Deal leg­is­la­tion in Feb­ru­ary 2019, AFL-CIO Pres­i­dent Richard Trum­ka told reporters, We need to address the envi­ron­ment. We need to do it quick­ly.” But he also not­ed that, We need to do it in a way that doesn’t put these com­mu­ni­ties behind, and leave seg­ments of the econ­o­my behind. So we’ll be work­ing to make sure that we do two things: That by fix­ing one thing we don’t cre­ate a prob­lem some­where else.”

Where Trum­ka has been skep­ti­cal and resis­tant, some union lead­ers in the fed­er­a­tion have been more force­ful in their oppo­si­tion; many unions with mem­bers who work in extrac­tive indus­tries, includ­ing the build­ing trades, slammed the leg­is­la­tion. Cecil Roberts, pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UMWA), and Lon­nie Stephen­son, pres­i­dent of the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers, wrote a let­ter to both Markey and Oca­sio-Cortez on behalf of the AFL-CIO Ener­gy Com­mit­tee that said, We will not accept pro­pos­als that could cause imme­di­ate harm to mil­lions of our mem­bers and their fam­i­lies. We will not stand by and allow threats to our mem­bers’ jobs and their fam­i­lies’ stan­dard of liv­ing go unan­swered.”

But with 80,000 mem­bers today, UMWA is more of a retirees’ orga­ni­za­tion than a fight­ing union — and at rough­ly 1.6 mil­lion mem­bers, the AFT is one of the largest unions in the coun­try. Its endorse­ment is the most high-pro­file labor endorse­ment of the Green New Deal since SEIU last sum­mer,” accord­ing to Will Lawrence, direc­tor of strate­gic part­ner­ships at the Sun­rise Move­ment. The AFT’s sup­port for the Green New Deal, cou­pled with the writ­ing on the wall for the fos­sil fuel indus­try, could mean a cri­sis for the AFL-CIO. Trum­ka has so far strad­dled the line between the federation’s con­ser­v­a­tive and pro­gres­sive mem­bers, giv­ing a nod to the impor­tance of cli­mate change while also affirm­ing the impor­tance of fos­sil fuel jobs. But Trum­ka plans to step down at the AFL’s con­ven­tion in 2021, and who­ev­er wins the elec­tion to be his suc­ces­sor will deter­mine whether the largest fed­er­a­tion in the labor move­ment goes all-in on the fight against cli­mate change, or main­tains one foot in the door and one foot out, bal­anc­ing between the new world and the old.

This fork in the road is com­pli­cat­ed by the fact that both the labor move­ment and the entire coun­try are in cri­sis, with mil­lions unem­ployed and all eyes on the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in Novem­ber. Trum­ka favors Liz Shuler, Sec­re­tary-Trea­sur­er of the AFL (and his sec­ond in com­mand) as his suc­ces­sor. But Sara Nel­son, pres­i­dent of AFA-CWA and one of the ear­ly endorsers of the Green New Deal, also has her eyes on the lead­er­ship posi­tion. Although nei­ther have offi­cial­ly announced their can­di­da­cy, it’s been report­ed that both have been pri­vate­ly vying for sup­port.

Nelson’s sup­port for the Green New Deal may hurt her if she decides to run. Sean McGar­vey, the pres­i­dent of the North America’s Build­ing Trades Unions, the labor fed­er­a­tion of the build­ing trades unions and a mem­ber of the AFL, said, She’s aligned her­self with a plan that would elim­i­nate half of the AFL-CIO’s jobs. That’s not going to work real well.” But Nel­son told In These Times, Cli­mate change is direct­ly in our work­place. Tur­bu­lence is on the rise. Our sched­ules, our work, our lives are total­ly dis­rupt­ed every time there’s a major weath­er event. Some have tried to have us believe that this is an attack on jobs and on our way of life, but we know that if we don’t get out in front of some­thing, the cri­sis will become so great and peo­ple will be des­per­ate for a res­o­lu­tion, and that res­o­lu­tion won’t be one that works for work­ing peo­ple.”

Nel­son believes deeply in a just tran­si­tion for work­ers whose indus­tries would be shut­tered in an attempt to bring car­bon emis­sions down. The term just tran­si­tion” is often used in con­ver­sa­tions about cli­mate change as a way to secure work­ers’ liveli­hoods if and when their indus­try is phased out. And while this term is more often heard in the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment now, the idea was devel­oped in the labor move­ment by Tony Maz­zoc­chi, a life­long trade union­ist and an elect­ed leader in the Oil, Chem­i­cal and Atom­ic Work­ers Inter­na­tion­al Union (OCAW). In Mazzocchi’s words, a true just tran­si­tion would give work­ers in extrac­tive indus­tries a new start in life” by pro­vid­ing finan­cial sup­port and oppor­tu­ni­ties for edu­ca­tion and re-train­ing.

Many envi­ron­men­tal groups like Sun­rise Move­ment and Cli­mate Jus­tice Alliance have used the term in their lit­er­a­ture and their cam­paign plan­ning, but union work­ers have often expressed con­cern that their job secu­ri­ty and liveli­hoods are not a true pri­or­i­ty. After all, envi­ron­men­tal groups often wage cam­paigns against pipelines or refiner­ies with­out con­sult­ing the unions or their mem­bers first. While to envi­ron­men­tal­ists, union work has some­times meant envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion, to union mem­bers, envi­ron­men­tal­ism has meant finan­cial destruc­tion.

But accord­ing to David Hugh­es, trea­sur­er of Rut­gers AAUP-AFT and pro­fes­sor of Anthro­pol­o­gy at Rut­gers-New Brunswick, extrac­tive indus­try work­ers’ stan­dard of liv­ing is already threat­ened regard­less of the pro­posed Green New Deal leg­is­la­tion. Hugh­es told In These Times that the coun­try is already on the cusp of an ener­gy tran­si­tion away from fos­sil fuels. We have an eco­nom­ic dis­as­ter and a com­plete col­lapse of the price of oil, coal has been col­laps­ing, gas is not in good shape. So now solar and wind are com­pet­i­tive, even with­out sub­si­dies. The eco­nom­ic case for fos­sil fuels has evap­o­rat­ed — those jobs are not going to be here for much longer.”

Although most union mem­bers have no inter­est in being re-trained for anoth­er career, fos­sil fuel work­ers and their unions are par­tic­u­lar­ly pro­tec­tive of their jobs. Refin­ery work­ers can make up to six fig­ures with­out a col­lege degree, and there are very few jobs with com­pa­ra­ble wages in non-extrac­tive indus­tries that these same work­ers could eas­i­ly be hired for. Fur­ther, these work­ers have a right to be sus­pi­cious: Barack Oba­ma cam­paigned on cre­at­ing 5 mil­lion green jobs, but it’s unclear how many new green jobs were actu­al­ly pro­duced. There are some new green jobs, of course, but the vast major­i­ty are non-union, and the wages reflect that: Solar pan­el installers make between $30,000 and $50,000 per year.

Yet, numer­ous union mem­bers — work­ers in non-extrac­tive indus­tries — are seri­ous about the Green New Deal, and AFT mem­bers who worked to pass the res­o­lu­tion are call­ing for more than tac­it sup­port: They intend for the endorse­ment to be a tool with which to orga­nize their fel­low mem­bers and to guide their work mov­ing for­ward. This is pre­cise­ly what the mem­bers of Rut­gers AAUP-AFT have been try­ing to make hap­pen. Hugh­es, who is also the chair of the Rut­gers’ Cli­mate Cri­sis Com­mit­tee, raised the issue of sup­port­ing the Green New Deal at an AFT Exec­u­tive Coun­cil meet­ing in 2019, before SEIU endorsed. No endorse­ment came out of it, but a com­mit­tee, the Cli­mate Task Force, was formed with the back­ing of the Exec­u­tive Coun­cil. The task force has three main pri­or­i­ties: Form a rela­tion­ship with Sun­rise Move­ment and oth­er envi­ron­men­tal groups, cre­ate green schools cam­paigns, and orga­nize with oth­er unions to encour­age them to sup­port the Green New Deal. Hugh­es told In These Times, What you do when you’re work­ing in a sec­tor that’s col­laps­ing is you fig­ure, what’s the strate­gic moment for my union to try to jump onto a ship that’s not sink­ing? If we get Biden elect­ed, and we pass Green New Deal leg­is­la­tion, it will be the moment to jump. If we miss that moment, we’ve got noth­ing.”

But fac­ul­ty like Hugh­es, along with teach­ers and nurs­es, already have green jobs — and will keep them, Green New Deal or not. While there have been hir­ing freezes at major uni­ver­si­ties, AFT mem­bers have been most­ly unaf­fect­ed by all of the job loss­es cre­at­ed by Covid-19. Con­struc­tion work­ers, many of whom have just expe­ri­enced a dif­fi­cult few months with­out work, are under­stand­ably wary about poten­tial­ly gam­bling with their jobs. But Keon Lib­er­a­to, Pres­i­dent of Local 3012 of the Broth­er­hood of Main­te­nance of Way Employ­ees Divi­sion of the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of the Team­sters, is look­ing for­ward to the pas­sage of the Green New Deal. He’s a track­man who works on rail­roads in the Philadel­phia area, and he told In These Times that even if you don’t care about cli­mate change, even if you have a more nar­row inter­est, there’s a ton of mon­ey in the Green New Deal for the build­ing trades, for infra­struc­ture.”

The Green New Deal’s focus on invest­ing in high-speed rail could mean sig­nif­i­cant poten­tial work for elec­tri­cians and rail work­ers like Lib­er­a­to. The leg­is­la­tion also calls for repair­ing and upgrad­ing the infra­struc­ture in the Unit­ed States,” which means fix­ing bridges and roads, retro­fitting build­ings, and updat­ing sewage and water sys­tems. And the AFT’s green school build­ings cam­paign will need the sup­port of build­ing trades unions, like elec­tri­cians, plumbers, roofers, and boil­er­mak­ers. All of this infra­struc­ture work means more union jobs — but only if the labor move­ment acknowl­edges the true mag­ni­tude of cli­mate change and decides to play a lead­er­ship role in fight­ing it. John Brax­ton, Co-Pres­i­dent Emer­i­tus of AFT Local 2026, who con­tributed to AFT’s recent res­o­lu­tion, told In These Times that unions don’t want to be told what to do, and they’d also like to believe it’s not going to be as big of a prob­lem as it is. But we’ve got to make con­tin­gency plans that pro­vide pro­tec­tions for every work­er, and we need to do it now. Why would labor argue with that?”

Labor’s cur­rent focus is get­ting Joe Biden elect­ed, who, accord­ing to his ads, has the most ambi­tious” cli­mate plan of any major party’s pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee ever. His plat­form includes achiev­ing net zero emis­sions no lat­er than 2050, con­serv­ing 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030, and mak­ing a fed­er­al invest­ment of $1.7 tril­lion in the fight against cli­mate change. He promis­es to ful­fill our oblig­a­tion to work­ers… who pow­ered our indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion and decades of eco­nom­ic growth” by secur­ing coal min­ers’ pen­sions and ben­e­fits. And he also promis­es to put peo­ple to work by enlist­ing them to help fight the pan­dem­ic, includ­ing through a Pub­lic Health Jobs Corps.” But unlike the Green New Deal leg­is­la­tion, his plat­form has no explic­it promise of a job for all who want one. It also makes no men­tion of frack­ing or a dras­tic reduc­tion in fos­sil fuels, per­haps because his cli­mate advi­sors may sup­port frack­ing. Brax­ton says, What we need to do is pres­sure Biden into a Jobs for All pro­gram, and the green is not in the head­line, but it’s incor­po­rat­ed into it. The envi­ron­men­tal­ists will read the fine print, and maybe labor can look at it and say, this is what we need.”

Because of our cur­rent polit­i­cal cli­mate — a pan­dem­ic that has already killed over 160,000 peo­ple in the Unit­ed States, mil­lions out of work, and a pres­i­dent and Sen­ate that seem to despise work­ing peo­ple —unions may be less will­ing to lead in the fight against cli­mate change. After all, the cli­mate cri­sis may feel less urgent than the unem­ploy­ment cri­sis, or even con­tract nego­ti­a­tions over wages and ben­e­fits. But for the fac­ul­ty, teach­ers and para­pro­fes­sion­als who make up the AFT, lead­ing in the fight against cli­mate change is para­mount. And to get the rest of the labor move­ment on board, Nel­son has some advice: If you believe in some­thing, you got­ta be will­ing to fight for it.”

Mindy Iss­er works in the labor move­ment and lives in Philadelphia.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH