How the Labor and Environmentalist Movements Can Put Workers at the Center of Climate Justice

Trish Kahle July 1, 2015

Union members rally during the 2014 People's Climate March. (maisa_nyc / Flickr)

2015, only halfway over, has already been an extreme year for both labor and the cli­mate: the Mid­west and Texas are expe­ri­enc­ing record rain­fall while Cal­i­for­nia is in a record-break­ing drought, and 2015 is the hottest year on record so far (the stand­ing record is from 2014), includ­ing a heat­wave in India that left more than 2,300 peo­ple dead. The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion con­tin­ues to try and push through the Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship on fast-track, with mil­lions of work­ers liveli­hoods hang­ing in the glob­al bal­ance and attacks on unions like the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers con­tin­ue to threat­en work­er, com­mu­ni­ty and envi­ron­men­tal safe­ty. Mean­while, ener­gy com­pa­nies insist that drilling in the soon-to-be ice-free sum­mer­time arc­tic will cre­ate jobs — even as it may mean game over for the climate.

There has per­haps nev­er been a more pre­scient moment to empha­size what a grow­ing num­ber of peo­ple already know: the fate of labor and the cli­mate are linked. In his most recent piece for The Nation, Jere­my Brech­er notes how well suit­ed the tra­di­tions of the labor move­ment are to the fight for cli­mate pro­tec­tion: The labor move­men­t’s most essen­tial val­ue is sol­i­dar­i­ty … that we will sur­vive and pros­per only if we look out for one anoth­er. Cli­mate pro­tec­tion is the new sol­i­dar­i­ty.” Brech­er, a founder of the Labor Net­work for Sus­tain­abil­i­ty and author of Cli­mate Insur­gency: A Strat­e­gy for Sur­vival as well as the clas­sic labor his­to­ry Strike! is at the fore­front of the strug­gle to break down the false dichoto­my of jobs ver­sus envi­ron­ment” and to fight for a just tran­si­tion that puts work­ers at the cen­ter of a vision of cli­mate justice. 

In These Times recent­ly spoke with Brech­er to con­sid­er this cen­tral ques­tion: How do we fight for a just tran­si­tion that puts work­ers at the cen­ter of a vision of cli­mate justice?

What com­pelled you to write your lat­est arti­cle in The Nation?

I felt like those who observed the big impact of labor par­tic­i­pa­tion in the People’s Cli­mate March didn’t have any way to find out about all the things that hap­pened after­wards. The moti­va­tion for the arti­cle was to share that expe­ri­ence of what was going on, talk­ing to the peo­ple who were doing those kinds of activ­i­ties and to try to put it in some kind of con­text in which peo­ple could relate it to the over­all strat­e­gy of bring­ing labor to the fore­front of the cli­mate movement.

The role of labor in the cli­mate jus­tice move­ment is a real­ly broad and var­ied one, and work­ers and activists are start­ing to make con­nec­tions. Some of these con­nec­tions, like the one between the strug­gle of rail­road­ers for safer work­ing con­di­tions and com­mu­ni­ties con­cerned about oil spills from derail­ing trains, are clear, but what links between the labor and envi­ron­men­tal­ist move­ments do you see that might be less than obvious?

Links are nev­er obvi­ous until some­one makes the link. Take the plumbers’ and pip­efit­ters’ unions: a few years ago, they declared them­selves green build­ing trades unions. They devel­oped a train­ing and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram for green builders and sent a trail­er truck around the coun­try pro­mot­ing their role in mak­ing build­ings ener­gy effi­cient. Because they reached out, they made the link between the work that they do and cli­mate protection.

I did a work­shop with machin­ists’ union work­ers in Wind­sor Locks, Con­necti­cut, and we start­ed talk­ing about what they could do as work­ers — not only fight­ing for good cli­mate poli­cies but actu­al­ly chang­ing the kind of work they do. They start­ed say­ing, We make gauges and valves and all kinds of things that are nec­es­sary for run­ning low-waste water sys­tems and all kinds of infra­struc­ture.” They made sug­ges­tions about how they could be used to fight cli­mate change.

In Con­necti­cut, we have a round­table on the cli­mate and jobs which tries to draw togeth­er trade union­ists and oth­er peo­ple who are con­cerned about the cli­mate, includ­ing reli­gious groups. We just got a new governor’s coun­cil on cli­mate change which is work­ing on a new cli­mate action plan. It’s hard to keep up with the peo­ple ask­ing how they can help out with this work as shown by all the things that have hap­pened with­out any large scale orga­ni­za­tion in the wake of the People’s Cli­mate march.

If we build a move­ment, we can accom­plish things in our unions and indus­tries regard­less of what’s hap­pen­ing in Wash­ing­ton. There is pow­er that doesn’t come from Con­gress, and we are the ones who can impose it. That cer­tain­ly doesn’t mean that we don’t have to change the nation­al polit­i­cal frame­work and the glob­al polit­i­cal frame­work to address cli­mate change. We can start build­ing the build­ing blocks even if we don’t have imme­di­ate access to the com­mand­ing heights of power.

And yet the ques­tion of polit­i­cal pow­er seems para­mount, not some­thing we can just hope will work itself out. What are we actu­al­ly doing now in terms of build­ing a polit­i­cal alter­na­tive that has at its heart both the inter­ests of work­ing peo­ple and the environment?

The core start­ing point for me is to find a pro­gram that unites cli­mate change and jobs and work­er-friend­ly devel­op­ments. That is a pro­gram the 99% can be orga­nized around. Par­tial­ly by doing local and nation­al plans for work­er-friend­ly, good job-pro­duc­ing cli­mate pro­tec­tion strate­gies, and par­tial­ly by draw­ing togeth­er the con­stituen­cies that have the strongest stake in doing that.

Link­ing envi­ron­men­tal­ism to high­er stan­dards of liv­ing for the work­ing class is key. It’s far too easy for argu­ments for degrowth” to be mar­shalled in the name of aus­ter­i­ty. How can activists make clear that when we chal­lenge the nar­ra­tive of growth, we’re actu­al­ly aim­ing at the elites, the cor­po­ra­tions, and not at work­ing people?

Both the labor move­ment and the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment, and the world they’re embed­ded in, have got­ten off on the wrong foot in rela­tion to the word growth.” If you’re say­ing we need less growth of bombs and pol­lu­tion and poi­sons, then the peo­ple who say we need less growth are total­ly on the right track. If you say we need more growth of healthy food, good med­ical care, good hous­ing for peo­ple in bombed-out areas of cities like Chica­go — those peo­ple are also total­ly on the right track. The ques­tion of growth is con­fused because growth is often expressed in terms of GDP.

Efforts to reduce car­bon emis­sions will cre­ate far more jobs than the fos­sil fuel indus­try has or could. Cli­mate pro­tec­tion is far more job-inten­sive than car­bon-based ener­gy. The prob­lem with that is that the jobs that are going to be lost are held by very spe­cif­ic peo­ple who live in very spe­cif­ic places and have very spe­cif­ic skills.

We need a gen­er­al jobs pro­gram, but we also need to have time for a just tran­si­tion. Peo­ple have been advo­cat­ing this for decades. Tony Maz­zoc­chi, the for­mer pres­i­dent of the Oil, Chem­i­cal and Atom­ic Work­ers Union, was one of the orig­i­nal inspir­ers of this way of think­ing. He had a plan for a Super­fund for work­ers. And there has actu­al­ly been for the first time a sig­nif­i­cant ini­tia­tive, just in the last few months, for the Pow­er+ Plan. The most recent Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion bud­get has set aside $55 mil­lion for a pro­gram very much along the lines of the one called for by my orga­ni­za­tion, Labor Net­work for Sus­tain­abil­i­ty. Many oth­ers have been advo­cat­ing for a just tran­si­tion for fos­sil fuel work­ers. They have pro­pos­als for big land recla­ma­tion activ­i­ties which will employ and pro­vide train­ing for a lot of peo­ple and begin expand­ing envi­ron­men­tal tourism and envi­ron­men­tal, sus­tain­able farm­ing econ­o­my and so on. We’ve been push­ing the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion to do this for years; its time has final­ly come.

The miss­ing piece that has to be added to a gen­er­al jobs pro­gram is a just tran­si­tion pro­gram to make sure that peo­ple who will be adverse­ly affect­ed by cli­mate pro­tec­tion will not be made the butt of this program.

The com­pa­nies that are in the busi­ness of destroy­ing the atmos­phere by mak­ing mon­ey off of fos­sil fuels have as their strongest suit mon­ey to use for ide­o­log­i­cal war­fare, but coal min­ers are well respect­ed cul­tur­al­ly in the labor move­ment. They were at the fore­front of some of the country’s most mil­i­tant labor strug­gles. There­fore, coal com­pa­nies have spent vast amounts of mon­ey mak­ing the ide­o­log­i­cal frame­work of cli­mate pro­tec­tion all about destroy­ing the jobs of coal miners.

A just tran­si­tion will be a mas­sive under­tak­ing. Who should pay? Could a demand that com­pa­nies who have destroyed the envi­ron­ment should be made to pay for job train­ing and land recla­ma­tion be put forward?

I saw recent­ly a pro­pos­al for putting a roy­al­ty on coal extrac­tion to sup­port the health and safe­ty plan or to sup­port var­i­ous kinds of land recla­ma­tion pro­grams. This was a sim­i­lar kind of pro­gram I saw for coal min­ers and oth­er coal-relat­ed work­ers. Some­thing in the bud­get for a just tran­si­tion pro­gram would be great, too. There’s no rea­son that var­i­ous sources should not have been con­tribut­ing to these work­ers and fam­i­lies who have been sac­ri­fice zones not only for decades but also for a cou­ple of centuries.

Will the shifts to renew­able ener­gy help us do away with sac­ri­fice zones?

Def­i­nite­ly. Any­thing that human beings do, there are poten­tial risks. Solar pan­els make some pol­lu­tion. Pro­duc­tion of green ener­gy equip­ment is ener­gy inten­sive. You can’t change every­thing instantly.

We need to be aware that the record of nation­al­ized, pub­licly owned ener­gy indus­tries is not stel­lar, either on pol­lu­tion issues, on green­house gas emis­sion issues or on work­er health and safe­ty. We need to have a planned tran­si­tion to a cli­mate-safe coun­try and world; that involves more social con­trol and less free­dom for cor­po­ra­tions to do what­ev­er they want to do to make the biggest buck. I don’t think we need to, say, imme­di­ate­ly nation­al­ize the ener­gy indus­try — that could be a last rather than a first step.

There have been peri­ods where there were great hopes for solar instal­la­tions to expand, or ener­gy effi­cien­cy of build­ings to increase great­ly. Large num­bers of peo­ple were trained and then there were no jobs for the peo­ple who were trained. Then a few years lat­er, there’s a real expan­sion of rooftop solar — we are hav­ing one in Con­necti­cut, because it’s so much cheap­er than it was just a few years ago. The gov­er­nor wants to increase the amount of rooftop solar by ten­fold. Already they have a labor short­age. It’s going to hap­pen over and over again. From the labor side of it and oth­er aspects, you need a much more planned, orga­nized way to make that transition.

A planned tran­si­tion” — is that com­ing from the Fed­er­al or state level?

That ques­tion is only begin­ning to be opened up. What I’m work­ing on in my state is work­ing to see that a cli­mate action plan that’s being devel­oped has a strat­e­gy for that kind of plan­ning. We’ve got the state offi­cials who are deal­ing with solar ener­gy expan­sion fac­ing this labor short­age. I hope that they’re see­ing that they must make a planned program.

How do we take up the ques­tion of planned economies and nation­al­iza­tion in the cur­rent polit­i­cal climate?

Again, I think we have to start where we can. Because we have a con­text where we have labor sup­port and a gov­er­nor and a leg­is­la­ture that are con­cerned, I’m work­ing at the state lev­el for one thing to try to get them to think of the neces­si­ty of a planned cli­mate pro­tec­tion sec­tor that has sus­tain­able devel­op­ment and growth. In places like Cal­i­for­nia and Mary­land where there is a state cli­mate pro­gram, the log­ic of doing that is very strong.

I wrote with Joe Uehlein and Ron Black­well, two for­mer AFL-CIO offi­cials, a labor plan for cli­mate pro­tec­tion. That lays out a pro­gram that uses as a take­off point the World War II eco­nom­ic mobi­liza­tion pro­gram, which cre­at­ed mil­lions of new jobs, for which it trained peo­ple and pro­duced a huge amount of planes and tanks and bat­tle ships and whole new tech­nolo­gies like the atom bomb. It did it by using pub­lic finance and pub­lic and pri­vate­ly owned pro­duc­tion facil­i­ties to do what we would now call Key­ne­sian expan­sion. I don’t think this is the only pos­si­ble strat­e­gy. But that’s where I would start.

What do you think would be the impacts of the pro­posed TPP on this kind of program?

I’ve been writ­ing books attack­ing eco­nom­ic glob­al­iza­tion for sev­er­al decades. They were based on many things, but espe­cial­ly destruc­tion of democ­ra­cy, the envi­ron­men­tal impact, and labor and con­sumer dimen­sions. This rep­re­sents a con­tin­u­a­tion and accel­er­a­tion of the gen­er­al trend to a glob­al cor­po­rate dic­ta­tor­ship. The growth of inter­na­tion­al oppo­si­tion has been a crit­i­cal fac­tor in slow­ing it down. The stuff they’re propos­ing in the cur­rent agree­ment is stuff they were propos­ing in the 1980s and 1990s.

The steel­work­ers’ union argues against Chi­nese solar pan­els on the grounds that they are sub­si­dized by the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment and oth­er coun­tries do sim­i­lar things, yet the U.S. does not. We should sup­port a domes­tic solar and wind pow­er indus­try in the Unit­ed States, but I think we need to encour­age a glob­al com­pe­ti­tion for which coun­tries sub­si­dize their cli­mate-pro­tect­ing indus­tries the most. I’d like to see inter­na­tion­al agree­ment and coop­er­a­tion on every coun­try ben­e­fit­ing out of expand­ing their cli­mate pro­tec­tion industries.

As with growth, we should be able to say what should be glob­al or local. It makes com­plete sense to do food pro­duc­tion where it’s suit­able as local­ly as pos­si­ble. That’s no rea­son that we shouldn’t have glob­al agree­ments to reduce green­house gasses and that we shouldn’t have as much shar­ing of tech­nol­o­gy as pos­si­ble so that that tech­nol­o­gy can ben­e­fit peo­ple all over the world. We should all be shar­ing that tech­nol­o­gy and not try­ing to keep it secret.

Cer­tain­ly there’s no way to sim­ply undo glob­al­iza­tion, yet we also under­stand that glob­al­iza­tion has exac­er­bat­ed inequal­i­ty around the world. How do we move for­ward, under­stand­ing that glob­al­iza­tion is this con­tra­dic­to­ry force?

Resources and peo­ple are dis­trib­uted unequal­ly around the world. More impor­tant­ly, there are very few places in the world where peo­ple can’t grow their own food. What they need are the resources and the sup­port sys­tems and the financ­ing. We need to make the local food move­ment be not turn­ing our backs on peo­ple who can’t grow local foods. Even under glob­al warm­ing, it won’t be impos­si­ble to grow food in Africa — it will just be more dif­fi­cult. Some import­ing will be nec­es­sary even in the long run.

That rais­es the oth­er big ques­tion: What are the glob­al respon­si­bil­i­ties of peo­ple in those coun­tries that have the great­est respon­si­bil­i­ty for caus­ing cli­mate change and in those coun­tries that have exces­sive wealth? Part of hav­ing a glob­al strat­e­gy for cli­mate change pro­tec­tion is to think about how to do that.

At the pit of the Great Reces­sion, all of a sud­den the IMF and the U.S. Trea­sury and so on sud­den­ly start­ed com­ing out for gov­ern­ments to run bil­lions and tril­lions of dol­lars in deficits to counter the Great Reces­sion and what they feared was the col­lapse of cap­i­tal­ism. The IMF actu­al­ly came out for using spe­cial draw­ing rights or paper gold — which is the way you do Key­ne­sian expan­sion in the glob­al econ­o­my, the same way you do gov­ern­ment deficits in the nation­al economy.

I think that rep­re­sents a direc­tion for­ward for cre­at­ing a sit­u­a­tion where you can have growth of the things we want, like liv­ing stan­dards and cli­mate pro­tec­tion based on revers­ing aus­ter­i­ty and hav­ing a glob­al eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy and forms of coop­er­a­tion instead of each coun­try try­ing to squeeze the oth­ers, see­ing that there’s a ben­e­fit for every­one in eco­nom­ic growth of the right kind.

How is the just tran­si­tion going to address both not hurt­ing the work­ers in their cur­rent jobs, but also giv­ing access to good pay­ing union jobs to work­ers who his­tor­i­cal­ly have been exclud­ed from them — specif­i­cal­ly women, peo­ple of col­or, queer work­ers and immigrants?

What we are try­ing to do with the cli­mate jobs plan in my state is very ori­ent­ed towards that. We are hold­ing a gath­er­ing in a cou­ple of weeks focused on what we want in the jobs pro­gram, in the cli­mate action pro­gram for the state. We are hav­ing some­one from the coali­tion for envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice and also some­one who has been involved in cre­at­ing the jobs pipeline for the city of New Haven talk­ing about how we cre­ate a jobs pipeline for our state, which has some of the poor­est urban areas in the coun­try, even though it’s one of the rich­est states by some standards.

But none of this has been done on a big enough scale. I think it needs to be part of think­ing about a planned approach — think­ing about how to move peo­ple who have been exclud­ed from the labor mar­ket into entry-lev­el jobs and how to move peo­ple who have lousy jobs into bet­ter jobs, and how to do all of this in such a way that you cre­ate a grow­ing, sta­ble sec­tor. Same thing with union work­ers: How do you make it so it’s not just a flash in the pan, but instead make the cli­mate pro­tec­tion jobs sec­tor become part of the push­back against the casu­al­iza­tion of work, the whole destruc­tion of job secu­ri­ty? I would like to see con­scious, delib­er­ate plan­ning to make that a grow­ing sec­tor in which we re-estab­lish the prin­ci­ple that job secu­ri­ty is an essen­tial part of a decent life.

Trish Kahle is a jour­nal­ist who cov­ers labor and the envi­ron­ment. She is a grad­u­ate stu­dent in his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago.
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