The Green New Deal Needs Labor’s Support. We Asked Sara Nelson How To Get It.

The president of the flight attendants union says stopping climate change and defending workers are part of the same fight.

Sarah Lazare May 7, 2019

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants (Photo illustration by Rachel K Dooley; original photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Despite wide­spread sup­port for the Green New Deal, an ambi­tious res­o­lu­tion to trans­form the econ­o­my and soci­ety to address the cli­mate cri­sis, the labor move­ment is not unit­ing behind it. On March 8, the AFLCIO’s Ener­gy Com­mit­tee released an open let­ter to Sen. Ed Markey (D‑Mass.) and Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) crit­i­ciz­ing the plan on grounds it could cause imme­di­ate harm to mil­lions of our mem­bers and their families.”

Labor has never seen an actual ‘just transition.’ ... So, there’s zero trust.

In con­trast, some union locals have come out in sup­port of the res­o­lu­tion, includ­ing the San Diego and Impe­r­i­al Coun­ties Labor Coun­cil, which not­ed in Jan­u­ary that cli­mate change pos­es an imme­di­ate and long-term threat to all work­ing peo­ple.” Groups like Cli­mate Work­ers, a mem­ber­ship orga­ni­za­tion of rank-and-file work­ers, the Labor Net­work for Sus­tain­abil­i­ty, a labor group that fights for eco­log­i­cal and eco­nom­ic jus­tice, and the Blue­Green Alliance, a coali­tion of major unions and envi­ron­men­tal groups, have spent years try­ing to bridge the labor move­ment and the move­ment for cli­mate jus­tice, but rifts remain.

The labor move­ment is divid­ed pre­cise­ly at a moment when it could ensure the pas­sage of a Green New Deal root­ed in jus­tice, self-deter­mi­na­tion and union rights. The resolution’s call for a just tran­si­tion emerges from the envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice, labor and Indige­nous rights move­ments of the 1980s and 1990s. It is premised on the prin­ci­ple that the shift away from a fos­sil fuel econ­o­my must ensure work­ers play a lead role in the tran­si­tion — and that work­ers are not aban­doned in the shift to zero emis­sions. A jobs guar­an­tee, uni­ver­sal basic income and pro­tec­tion of union rights — all float­ed as com­po­nents of a Green New Deal — could play key roles.

In These Times called Sara Nel­son, pres­i­dent of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants-Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (AFACWA) and a ris­ing star among union lead­ers, to dis­cuss the idea.

Nel­son cap­tured nation­al atten­tion when she issued a strike threat in the midst of the Trump administration’s infa­mous gov­ern­ment shut­down over bor­der wall fund­ing. Five days lat­er, when some air traf­fic con­trollers on the East Coast did not show up for work, she told New York mag­a­zine that flight atten­dants were mobi­liz­ing imme­di­ate­ly” to strike. Hours lat­er, Trump announced he’d reached a deal to tem­porar­i­ly reopen the government.

Nelson’s very pub­lic chal­lenge has made her a lead­ing con­tender to replace Richard Trum­ka as pres­i­dent of the AFL-CIO if he retires as expect­ed, at the end of his term, in two years.

Nel­son was born in Cor­val­lis, Ore., to a teacher and a lum­ber mill work­er. She majored in Eng­lish and edu­ca­tion, and applied for a flight atten­dant posi­tion in 1996 to pay the bills. She recalled to the New York Times that her six-week train­ing includ­ed make-up” day for women to learn how to apply mas­cara while men took the day off. An ear­ly pay dis­pute turned her into a union activist, and she became the union’s pres­i­dent in 2014. One of the few inter­na­tion­al union pres­i­dents who pub­licly aligns her­self with Bernie Sanders, Nel­son now works about one flight a year, devot­ing the rest of her time to her union.

Nel­son hails from an indus­try that pos­es a prob­lem to the goal of zero emis­sions: Pas­sen­ger air­planes account for 1 – 2% of glob­al car­bon emis­sions, and air trav­el is expect­ed to dou­ble in the next 20 years. Find­ing alter­na­tive ener­gy sources for air­planes has proven trick­i­er than for cars or elec­tri­cal grids. At the same time, Nel­son rep­re­sents work­ers whose con­di­tions have already grown more dan­ger­ous as the cli­mate cri­sis has esca­lat­ed. Extreme weath­er is increas­ing instances of tur­bu­lence, which is a seri­ous occu­pa­tion­al injury threat,” Nel­son notes.

The Green New Deal calls for us to achieve net-zero green­house gas emis­sions through a fair and just tran­si­tion for all com­mu­ni­ties and work­ers.” As a labor pub­li­ca­tion that cares a lot about cli­mate change, we have been ask­ing our­selves what a just tran­si­tion” could actu­al­ly be. What do you think?

SN: I can tell you what it’s not! A few hours of train­ing is not a just tran­si­tion. The tran­si­tion needs to begin before the jobs go away. A just tran­si­tion must ensure pen­sions and health­care are pro­tect­ed for work­ers who spent their lives pow­er­ing our coun­try in the fos­sil fuel indus­tries. A just tran­si­tion includes bring­ing the exper­tise of unions to the table so we don’t cre­ate pol­i­cy that has unin­tend­ed con­se­quences, such as mak­ing it impos­si­ble to pro­duce steel need­ed to cre­ate alter­na­tive forms of ener­gy. A just tran­si­tion must also invest in tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion to deter­mine whether cur­rent ener­gy sources can be uti­lized in a green way. A just tran­si­tion includes focus on nego­ti­at­ing fair trade agree­ments for Amer­i­can work­ers to keep pro­duc­tion in the Unit­ed States so that, for exam­ple, Amer­i­can work­ers are build­ing wind tur­bines and solar pan­els. And final­ly, a just tran­si­tion means main­tain­ing income for fam­i­lies who depend on an actu­al tran­si­tion of jobs, career train­ing, apprenticeships. 

What would it take to build more labor move­ment sup­port for the Green New Deal?

SN: Make labor cen­tral to the dis­cus­sion, includ­ing labor rights, labor pro­tec­tions and labor exper­tise. We must rec­og­nize that labor unions were among the first to fight for the envi­ron­ment because it was our work­spaces that had pol­lu­tants, our com­mu­ni­ties that indus­try pol­lut­ed. Let’s not dis­miss the labor move­ment. Let’s rec­og­nize and engage the infra­struc­ture and expe­ri­ence of the labor move­ment to make this work.

We need the air­line indus­try to engage as well. Accord­ing to an indus­try analy­sis, the air­line indus­try has, for the last 40 years, improved fuel effi­cien­cy at a rate equiv­a­lent to tak­ing 25 mil­lion cars off the road each of those years.

The point here is that we need to build a broad coali­tion, and to do that we can’t start from a posi­tion that assumes oppo­si­tion. If we bring every­one to the table, rec­og­nize the efforts to date, draw on the exper­tise from each affect­ed field, and mobi­lize a unit­ed effort, then we can cre­ate allies where we oth­er­wise might have had enemies.

Is increas­ing fuel effi­cien­cy enough? Because of more flights, total air­line emis­sions are still expect­ed to rise. Must flights decrease, and if so, how do we pro­tect workers?

SN: I think … [laughs] I think that we have to be pret­ty clear that inter­state com­merce in the Unit­ed States, inter­na­tion­al trade and trans­porta­tion just don’t work with­out air trav­el, right? We can advance tech­nol­o­gy to help the air­lines use an alter­na­tive ener­gy source and there is both a moral and a cost incen­tive to do that. 

What are the biggest lies oppo­nents of the Green New Deal tell workers?

SN: The biggest lie is that the Green New Deal res­o­lu­tion is leg­isla­tive pol­i­cy and that it impos­es cer­tain strict require­ments — for exam­ple with air trav­el, that every plane will stay on the ground in 10 years. There is not a flight atten­dant or pilot or any­one in avi­a­tion who actu­al­ly believes that avi­a­tion is going to be ground­ed. That’s sim­ply not true. The oppo­site is true. This res­o­lu­tion seeks to pro­mote tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ments and poli­cies that will keep flights in the air. Today, air­planes are ground­ed because of severe weath­er events, some­times for long peri­ods because these events destroy infra­struc­ture that is nec­es­sary to take off and land. Or, destroy the demand for those loca­tions — there is noth­ing to fly to. 

How can cli­mate cam­paign­ers build bridges with orga­nized labor?

SN: First and fore­most, there has to be a recog­ni­tion that labor has nev­er seen an actu­al just tran­si­tion.” You can say those words all day long, but what peo­ple hear is a cou­ple hours of train­ing and then you’re going to leave my com­mu­ni­ty dev­as­tat­ed and alone — like a ghost town.” So, there’s zero trust.

If you want to build trust, you need to do two things. One, you need to shore up the waste­land that’s already been cre­at­ed where there was no just tran­si­tion. When new envi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions pro­mot­ed low-sul­fur min­ing, col­lec­tion of coal moved from union mines in Appalachia to nonunion sur­face mines out West. No one addressed the com­mu­ni­ties that were hurt in the process. So min­ers are under­stand­ably skeptical.

Now coal com­pa­nies have filed for bank­rupt­cy and stopped con­tribut­ing to health­care and pen­sion funds. We need to push to adopt leg­is­la­tion that keeps America’s promise to coal min­ers of pen­sions and health­care, as well as address­es black lung— that’s the bare min­i­mum to show good faith that this process of tak­ing on cli­mate change will focus on mak­ing coal min­ers’ lives bet­ter, not worse. Bipar­ti­san leg­is­la­tion to fund pen­sions has had sup­port for years, but Mitch McConnell has stopped it from get­ting to a vote. We can demand H.R. 934935 and S. 27 get passed now, and show min­ers and oth­ers work­ing in the fos­sil fuel indus­try that we’re on their side. My union, AFA-CWA, will be on the Hill with the Unit­ed Minework­ers of Amer­i­ca on May 8 to do just that. Every­one should get behind secur­ing those pensions.

Sec­ond, a just tran­si­tion needs to talk about how we start the tran­si­tion process ear­ly. We need to get into these com­mu­ni­ties, talk with them about their needs, and get to know them. It’s impor­tant that we not write them off and say, They just have to get over it.” Nobody is ever going to get over not being able to pro­vide health­care for their fam­i­lies and watch­ing peo­ple die in pover­ty or lose their homes. So, let’s talk with the peo­ple about the jobs that are there and what those jobs also sup­port in the com­mu­ni­ty. Every good union coal min­ing job sup­ports anoth­er five jobs in that com­mu­ni­ty. So, we need to start talk­ing about how we are going to put some of these jobs back into those com­mu­ni­ties. With new tech­nol­o­gy? With train­ing? And how are we going to sup­port peo­ple in the mean­time? Who is going to be able to get retrained and learn a new career? 

Is there any­one doing it right — cen­ter­ing on the needs of impact­ed workers?

SN: There’s the Blue­Green Alliance — peo­ple in labor who under­stand these issues and have been through the real hor­rif­ic impact of lop­sided trade agree­ments and the destruc­tion of jobs, exac­er­bat­ed fur­ther by the hor­rif­ic tax bill, which cre­at­ed incen­tives for cor­po­ra­tions to move work out of the Unit­ed States. Both the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers and CWA have tons of expe­ri­ence, and have long-stand­ing records on address­ing envi­ron­men­tal issues in a mean­ing­ful way, hand in hand with the Sier­ra Club.

You men­tioned fair trade — what would an inter­na­tion­al com­po­nent of a Green New Deal look like?

SN: Tak­ing on cli­mate change is a glob­al neces­si­ty. The Unit­ed States can pri­or­i­tize the prin­ci­ples of the Green New Deal in trade agree­ments. We should be clear that tack­ling cli­mate change and pro­mot­ing labor rights for good jobs is our pri­or­i­ty, and we should be using our stand­ing in the world to encour­age oth­er coun­tries to join us.

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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