How Supporters of the Green New Deal Are Showing Up for Workers

Elizabeth King December 2, 2019

Members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) who are employed at the General Motors Co. Flint Assembly plant in Flint, Michigan, hold signs as they go on strike early on September 16, 2019. (JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Calls for a just tran­si­tion” have become cen­tral to a robust and revi­tal­ized envi­ron­men­tal move­ment in the Unit­ed States aimed at pre­vent­ing cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe. The idea behind a just tran­si­tion is that, as our econ­o­my shifts away from depen­dence on fos­sil fuels, the work­ers in the fos­sil fuel and relat­ed indus­tries should be treat­ed with dig­ni­ty and respect, and guar­an­teed good union jobs.

The prin­ci­ple of a just tran­si­tion was includ­ed in the Green New Deal, a res­o­lu­tion put for­ward by Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D‑Mass.). The Green New Deal calls for a just tran­si­tion for all com­mu­ni­ties and work­ers.” While the Green New Deal has gar­nered some crit­i­cism from Indige­nous schol­ars and the Left, it is the most pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy option to gar­ner some sup­port among Democ­rats in Con­gress, and is also pop­u­lar among envi­ron­men­tal­ists, includ­ing pro­gres­sive youth cli­mate orga­niz­ers. Demands for a Green New Deal and just tran­si­tion echoed through­out the U.S. con­tin­gent of the lat­est stu­dent cli­mate strike march­es, which took place in more than 150 coun­tries with approx­i­mate­ly 4 mil­lion par­tic­i­pants worldwide

But there is still more to be done to build the alliances between the envi­ron­men­tal and labor move­ments. Some unions have expressed skep­ti­cism and even out­right oppo­si­tion to the Green New Deal, cit­ing con­cerns that a just tran­si­tion will not deliv­er on promis­es to work­ers, leav­ing them aban­doned. But pock­ets of labor and and cli­mate move­ments have been join­ing forces to push a shared agen­da and build rela­tion­ships. Trade union mem­bers, includ­ing mem­bers of Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union (SEIU) Local 1 in Chica­go, joined stu­dent cli­mate strik­ers for their day of march­es in September. 

Labor advo­cates also called on the cli­mate move­ment sol­i­dar­i­ty with the Unit­ed Autowork­ers (UAW) strike over work­ing con­di­tions and com­pen­sa­tion at Gen­er­al Motors (GM). The strike last­ed 40 days total, end­ing in Octo­ber. One such call came from writer and labor orga­niz­er Jane McAlvey, who wrote for The Nation in Sep­tem­ber that there’s no strate­gic oppor­tu­ni­ty big­ger or more impor­tant for the econ­o­my or the earth than set­ting up a work­er-envi­ron­men­tal­ist alliance and a work­er-friend­ly tran­si­tion from gas-pow­ered vehi­cles to electric.” 

Mem­bers of the cli­mate move­ment also made calls for sol­i­dar­i­ty with strik­ing UAW mem­bers, urg­ing envi­ron­men­tal activists to show sup­port at the pick­et lines and to pub­licly back the work stoppage.

In late Sep­tem­ber, 46 envi­ron­men­tal and oth­er pro­gres­sive groups — includ­ing Friends of the Earth, Green­peace USA, Oil Change Inter­na­tion­al and sev­er­al branch­es of 350​.org — sent a let­ter to the CEO of GM, Mary Bar­ra, express­ing sup­port for the UAW strike.

The let­ter high­lights that the cli­mate cri­sis can­not be solved with­out a com­mit­ment to pro­tect­ing work­ers’ rights. Cor­po­rate greed is the ulti­mate cause of our com­bined eco­nom­ic and envi­ron­men­tal crises,” the let­ter states. As envi­ron­men­tal­ists, we sup­port the Unit­ed Autowork­ers in their fight for good, fam­i­ly-sus­tain­ing jobs. Cli­mate change and oth­er envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems can­not be solved with­out invest­ing in work­ers and sup­port­ing strong union contracts.” 

In an inter­view with In These Times, Lukas Ross, senior pol­i­cy ana­lyst for Friends of the Earth, says that the orga­ni­za­tion took part in cre­at­ing the let­ter in response to a call for sup­port for the UAW strike, and worked with the UAW to make sure the envi­ron­men­tal­ists were send­ing a mes­sage that aligns with the strike goals. 

Ross also under­scores the neces­si­ty of pri­or­i­tiz­ing the labor move­ment in cli­mate solu­tions, because the real­i­ty we have is that rich cor­po­ra­tions are try­ing to divide us by fram­ing this as cli­mate ver­sus jobs,’ but this [frame­work] only ben­e­fits the boss­es [and has been] used to stop progress for as long as labor and cli­mate orga­niz­ing have existed.”

Youth cli­mate orga­niz­ers have also been answer­ing the call for sol­i­dar­i­ty with the labor move­ment, bring­ing some young envi­ron­men­tal­ists out to labor pick­et lines for some of the first times in their lives. Nicholas Jansen, the Michi­gan direc­tor for the Sun­rise Move­ment, a youth cli­mate action orga­ni­za­tion, says that he went out to sup­port strik­ing UAW work­ers on the pick­et line, an activ­i­ty he’d only pre­vi­ous­ly tak­en part in when his moth­er, a teacher, was on strike when he was younger. Jansen says that feel­ing the ener­gy and sol­i­dar­i­ty was real­ly incred­i­ble,” and that he was inspired by UAW work­ers’ fight for bet­ter conditions.”

Zoe Cina-Sklar, part­ner­ships man­ag­er for the Sun­rise Move­ment, says that in addi­tion to encour­ag­ing mem­bers to show sup­port for the UAW strike, the orga­ni­za­tion is also col­lab­o­rat­ing with SEIU 32BJ on cam­paign­ing for the Green New Deal. SEIU and the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants-CWA were ear­ly sup­port­ers of the Green New Deal, and lat­er Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio, and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca became the first indus­tri­al union in the U.S. to endorse the resolution. 

Oth­ers who have been involved in the fight for a just tran­si­tion for many years are encour­aged to see so many young peo­ple advo­cat­ing for labor and envi­ron­men­tal rights. Ros­alin­da Guillen, a long­time leader in the rur­al jus­tice and farm­work­er labor move­ments with Com­mu­ni­ty to Com­mu­ni­ty (C2C), an anti-cap­i­tal­ist, anti-colo­nial fem­i­nist orga­ni­za­tion focus­ing on food jus­tice in Wash­ing­ton state, says she’s real­ly excit­ed that young peo­ple are get­ting involved and push­ing [against cli­mate change]. There’s a lot of lack of edu­ca­tion in the schools for youth about the sys­tems that are dri­ving the cli­mate cri­sis,” but young peo­ple are begin­ning to learn about the caus­es of cli­mate change.

C2C, a mem­ber orga­ni­za­tion of the Cli­mate Jus­tice Alliance, works close­ly with a farm­work­ers union called Famil­ia Uni­da por La Jus­ti­cia, which edu­cates and orga­nizes its mem­bers around what a Just Tran­si­tion could be from a farm­work­er per­spec­tive,” Guillen says. She adds, Some of the mem­bers of the union and oth­er unions are lead­ing the way to a just tran­si­tion by sup­port­ing farm­work­ers in own­ing their own farms and hav­ing work­er-owned coop­er­a­tives that are pro­duc­ing agri­cul­tur­al prod­ucts in the way that we believe they should be pro­duced,” which is to say sus­tain­ably and envi­ron­men­tal­ly friendly. 

The sol­i­dar­i­ty-build­ing has also entailed labor unions reach­ing out and cre­at­ing bonds with cli­mate groups. As In These Times report­ed in ear­ly Novem­ber, teach­ers’ unions around the coun­try have been work­ing toward putting the pow­er of their unions behind the stu­dent cli­mate protests. Numer­ous labor unions also turned out in the streets for the glob­al stu­dent cli­mate strike in September.

As con­cepts like a just tran­si­tion and the ideals encap­su­lat­ed in the Green New Deal gain trac­tion among pro­gres­sives, labor union and cli­mate orga­niz­ers are coor­di­nat­ing around their shared goals. Cina-Sklar of the Sun­rise Move­ment says that cli­mate orga­niz­ers have a lot to learn from that his­to­ry of labor orga­niz­ing.” With the pop­u­lar­i­ty and broad sup­port for the stu­dent cli­mate strike, includ­ing from labor unions, she says that she has a renewed sense of hope that we’re going to be chang­ing our sys­tem and chal­leng­ing the pow­ers that be, so that we have lead­ers that are actu­al­ly stand­ing with com­mu­ni­ties and not only stand­ing with their bot­tom line.”

Eliz­a­beth King is an inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ist in Chicago.
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