Why Unions Must Bargain Over Climate Change

Nato Green

Teachers at The Accelerated Schools, a community of public charter schools in South Los Angeles picket outside the school on second day of the Los Angeles school teachers strike on January 15, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Al Seib / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Union con­tract nego­ti­a­tions include manda­to­ry and per­mis­sive sub­jects of bar­gain­ing. Employ­ers are required by law to nego­ti­ate over manda­to­ry sub­jects — wages, ben­e­fits and work­ing con­di­tions. Per­mis­sive sub­jects, such as deci­sions about which pub­lic ser­vices will be pro­vid­ed and how, have his­tor­i­cal­ly been the purview of man­age­ment. We only nego­ti­ate over how man­age­r­i­al deci­sions affect mem­bers’ jobs. Employ­ers may vol­un­tar­i­ly agree to nego­ti­ate per­mis­sive sub­jects, but unions can’t legal­ly strike over them.

In recent years, some unions have embraced bar­gain­ing for the com­mon good,” which use the union cam­paign to win broad, right­eous pub­lic ben­e­fits. The best cur­rent exam­ple of this is the Los Ange­les teach­ers’ strike, which opposed the under­fund­ing, pri­va­ti­za­tion and over­crowd­ing of schools — all of which hurt stu­dents. Com­mon good goals often bump against the con­straints of what is legal­ly bar­gain­able. For instance, does a demand from teach­ers’ unions that school dis­tricts use dis­trict-owned prop­er­ty to fund and build afford­able hous­ing for teach­ers affect work­ing con­di­tions? While short­ages of afford­able hous­ing affect teach­ers very direct­ly, how school dis­tricts use their land and invest their mon­ey is nor­mal­ly con­sid­ered a man­age­r­i­al prerogative.

But last fall’s report from the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change is a game-chang­er. It con­cludes that human­i­ty has 12 years to cut green­house gas emis­sions enough to hold glob­al warm­ing to 1.5 degrees Cel­sius — and avoid civ­i­liza­tion-threat­en­ing con­se­quences of cli­mate change. There is a lot of space between pro­ject­ed best- and worst-case future sce­nar­ios. It’s the dif­fer­ence between bad and apoc­a­lyp­tic. That space rep­re­sents hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple dying. Avoid­ing worst-case sce­nar­ios, in strict­ly sci­en­tif­ic terms, requires every­one to do every­thing, immediately.

The loom­ing time­line of the IPCC report means unions must have a right to bar­gain over cli­mate change, espe­cial­ly in the pub­lic sec­tor. What good is it to nego­ti­ate the assign­ment of over­time when the sky is on fire? Does a pub­lic employ­er real­ly want to claim that its direct com­plic­i­ty in the poten­tial col­lapse of civ­i­liza­tion has no bear­ing on work­ing con­di­tions? Can gov­ern­ment claim that aban­don­ing its work­force to die or flee their homes doesn’t affect work­ing con­di­tions? If employ­ers don’t accept that every choice made today affects the near future, they’re deny­ing sci­ence. Local and state gov­ern­ments in Demo­c­ra­t­ic strong­holds may find it polit­i­cal­ly chal­leng­ing to pos­ture about resist­ing Repub­li­can­ism nation­al­ly while deny­ing the local impli­ca­tions of that stance.

Thanks to the Sun­rise Move­ment and Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.), the Green New Deal pro­vides a frame­work for us to declare our part in every­one doing every­thing imme­di­ate­ly. The Green New Deal calls for a gov­ern­ment-fund­ed jobs pro­gram to car­ry out a just tran­si­tion to a car­bon-free econ­o­my at the rates called for by the IPCC report. This is a per­fect com­mon good frame­work for unions to respond to the most urgent chal­lenge of our time, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pro­mot­ing a high-func­tion­ing pub­lic sec­tor as anti­dote to neoliberalism’s degra­da­tion of pub­lic services.

Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) Local 1021, the union where I work, sup­port­ed the cam­paign to divest the San Fran­cis­co pen­sion plan from fos­sil fuels and to stop a new coal ship­ping ter­mi­nal at the Port of Oak­land. In my union, we advance our goals on par­al­lel tracks via col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing and pub­lic pol­i­cy, using each to rein­force the oth­er. The nexus between the func­tions of local gov­ern­ment, cli­mate change and jobs goes even fur­ther. San Fran­cis­co has already made sig­nif­i­cant com­mit­ments on many of these ini­tia­tives, and plans to do more. A local gov­ern­ment Green New Deal col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing plat­form would include cli­mate mit­i­ga­tion strate­gies to reduce emissions:

  • Divest pen­sions from the fos­sil fuel industry.
  • Con­vert to 100 per­cent renew­ables for utilities.
  • Retro­fit pub­lic build­ings for ener­gy effi­cien­cy and dis­as­ter resilience.
  • Imme­di­ate­ly tran­si­tion to renew­able ener­gy vehi­cles for pub­lic bus­es, tran­sit and car fleets, which could achieve that crit­i­cal 1.5 degrees Cel­sius target.
  • Plant trees and expand parks and bike infrastructure.
  • Fund and expand pub­lic transit.
  • Reduce car­bon emis­sions in food pro­cure­ment by pub­lic agen­cies by encour­ag­ing local, real food, and reduc­ing meat.

It would also include cli­mate adap­ta­tion strate­gies to pre­pare vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties to sur­vive com­ing floods, fires, droughts and diseases:

  • Man­date inclu­sion of cli­mate change in land use and planning.
  • Build cli­mate-adap­tive infrastructure.
  • Devel­op pro­ce­dures and train per­son­nel on emer­gency response, espe­cial­ly to care for our unhoused neigh­bors.

Per­haps the best cli­mate pol­i­cy is tran­sit-ori­ent­ed, high-den­si­ty afford­able hous­ing. It reduces com­mute times, and helps pub­lic work­ers and the peo­ple who depend on their ser­vices. In San Fran­cis­co, pub­lic ser­vices suf­fer from hous­ing costs as work­ers move away and com­mute fur­ther dis­tances. Hous­ing dri­ves teacher turnover, makes bus­es late because the Munic­i­pal Trans­porta­tion Author­i­ty can’t hire dri­vers, and com­pro­mis­es emer­gency response when many first respon­ders live far away.

For unions deal­ing with State gov­ern­ments, a Green New Deal plat­form might also include:

  • Funds for wild­fire response and pre­ven­tion, includ­ing forestry, strength­en­ing over­sight of util­i­ty reg­u­la­tors, and fire­fight­ers, all of which are car­ried out by pub­lic work­ers. Since wild­fires are both the con­se­quences of cli­mate change and the cause of more accel­er­at­ing car­bon emis­sions, state gov­ern­ment needs greater invest­ments in rapid response.
  • Funds to sup­port indige­nous peo­ple to do for­est man­age­ment.
  • The trans­for­ma­tion of pri­vate util­i­ties into pub­lic agencies.
  • Funds for cli­mate research at pub­lic universities.
  • The pro­mo­tion of union­iza­tion in green jobs like elec­tric car man­u­fac­tur­ing and solar.

One obsta­cle to bar­gain­ing the Green New Deal is buy-in from mem­bers. Union mem­bers, like a lot of us, wor­ry about cli­mate change but are demor­al­ized that it is too vast for them to do any­thing about. They’ve tak­en it on the chin from neolib­er­al­ism for a long time, so have urgent goals about fight­ing to pro­tect pub­lic ser­vices from pri­va­ti­za­tion and their jobs from being dragged yet fur­ther down in a race to the bot­tom. Tack­ling the Green New Deal can under­stand­ably feel like one more bur­den added to an already stuffed agenda.

Unions have long been wag­ing defen­sive fights to main­tain basic work­place pro­tec­tions in an era of aus­ter­i­ty, but we’re chang­ing. Where com­mon good strate­gies suc­ceed, most recent­ly show­cased with the Los Ange­les teacher strikes, the membership’s readi­ness to strike for the com­mu­ni­ty result­ed from lengthy deep inter­nal edu­ca­tion, orga­niz­ing and coali­tion-build­ing. Union lead­er­ship would need to see the Green New Deal as a tool against aus­ter­i­ty pol­i­tics. We’d need to edu­cate mem­bers about their col­lec­tive pow­er to make a dif­fer­ence on the most fun­da­men­tal crises of our time — and raise expec­ta­tions of what an expand­ed pub­lic sec­tor could do.

The Green New Deal is basi­cal­ly the reverse of Nao­mi Klein’s con­cept of the shock doc­trine,” which refers to the process where­by cap­i­tal­ists take advan­tage of crises to reorder poli­cies in their inter­ests. Civ­i­liza­tion is men­aced by the Two Horse­men of the Apoc­a­lypse: cli­mate change and inequal­i­ty. Inequal­i­ty is so bad that the rich­est 400 Amer­i­cans own more wealth than the poor­est 60 per­cent. The per­cent­age of young peo­ple who will earn more than their par­ents is plung­ing. Pub­lic work­ers and their unions belong at the cen­ter of the solu­tion to both. The poli­cies of a Green New Deal require a robust and well-fund­ed pub­lic sec­tor with good union jobs. Because of the nature of pub­lic sec­tor work, an expand­ed pub­lic sec­tor as part of a Green New Deal dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly ben­e­fits women and peo­ple of color.

On Fri­day, the AFL-CIO issued a let­ter crit­i­ciz­ing the Green New Deal, appar­ent­ly on behalf of build­ing trades unions who work in the fos­sil fuel busi­ness. Those unions are inex­plic­a­bly con­cerned that the Green New Deal’s expressed goals of meet­ing the chal­lenge of cli­mate change with a job guar­an­tee to pro­tect affect­ed work­ers doesn’t include them. Con­trary to labor skep­tics who think the labor move­ment is hope­less, labor crit­ics of the Green New Deal are opti­mists, believ­ing that there are in fact jobs on a dead planet. 

Any sea­soned union cam­paign­er worth her salt loves a con­tract fight because it has a hard dead­line that focus­es everyone’s atten­tion — expi­ra­tion and a strike threat. We already know that the rul­ing class’ answer to cli­mate change is dooms­day bunkers for bil­lion­aires, while the vast major­i­ty become cli­mate refugees. For the rest of us, every labor vic­to­ry in recent years has involved work­er mil­i­tan­cy and broad demands that link work­ers with their com­mu­ni­ties. Sim­i­lar­ly, through­out his­to­ry, every sig­nif­i­cant social move­ment has found an expres­sion in labor strug­gles. The cli­mate cri­sis will be no dif­fer­ent. Cli­mate sci­ence gives us a new dead­line and an oppor­tu­ni­ty to show that we’re up to the task. We have 12 years.

Nato Green is a standup come­di­an, writer, and Cam­paign Coor­di­na­tor for SEIU Local 1021 in San Francisco.
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