How Unions Can Bridge the Gap Between Climate and Labor Movements

The unionization of environmental organizations is changing the climate justice movement for the better. Here’s how.

Mindy Isser

SAN FRANCISCO , CA: People march during the "Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice" march in San Francisco, Calif., on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. (Jose Carlos Fajardo via Getty Images)

While U.S. union den­si­ty hit an all-time low in 2019, the non­prof­it sec­tor appears to be one area where work­ers are union­iz­ing. The Non­prof­it Pro­fes­sion­al Employ­ees Union (NPEU) brought sev­en new work­places into their union dur­ing a 16-day peri­od in April, includ­ing the envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion Friends of the Earth. And while there is no offi­cial data on non­prof­it unions yet (many of them are fair­ly new), cli­mate jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions are some of the many work­places that have scram­bled to union­ize both pri­or to and dur­ing the pan­dem­ic for the same rea­sons as oth­er work­ers: pay, ben­e­fits and job security. 

Cli­mate activists have often been denounced by trade union­ists who believe they are out to destroy work­ers’ well-pay­ing jobs. There’s an old joke that goes, Are you an envi­ron­men­tal­ist, or do you work for a liv­ing?” But what hap­pens to the often fraught rela­tion­ship between unions and envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions when green staffers become union mem­bers too?

Unions’ pri­ma­ry pur­pose is to give work­ers the abil­i­ty to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain around work­ing con­di­tions — so it’s not hard to under­stand why many work­ers would want to be union mem­bers. In fact, labor unions cur­rent­ly have a 65% approval rat­ing. As the econ­o­my is in sham­bles, labor’s sup­port has been steadi­ly increas­ing, per­haps because mil­lions have been laid off, many of whom lost their health insur­ance and received no sev­er­ance. Non­prof­its, which can be financed through a mix of fed­er­al and state fund­ing, pri­vate grants and indi­vid­ual dona­tions, are also in a Covid-induced pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion. Work­ers who may have felt that their jobs were pre­vi­ous­ly secure thanks to an air of pres­tige have seen col­leagues fur­loughed or laid off — or have wit­nessed lead­er­ship make big changes in their orga­ni­za­tions with­out involv­ing staff. 

Char­lie Jiang, a cli­mate cam­paign­er at Green­peace USA, an envi­ron­men­tal non­prof­it, told In These Times that staff there have been orga­niz­ing for quite some time, and the pan­dem­ic strength­ened our resolve. We’re fight­ing for more clear and con­sis­tent poli­cies and more orga­ni­za­tion­al trans­paren­cy.” The Green­peace USA Work­ers Union, affil­i­at­ed with Pro­gres­sive Work­ers Union (PWU), was vol­un­tar­i­ly rec­og­nized in August. Jiang said that union mem­bers are look­ing ahead to meet­ing man­age­ment with good faith at the bar­gain­ing table… We formed a union to fight for fair and bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions, and for a cul­ture root­ed in justice.”

Unions do far more than allow work­ers to col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain. They give peo­ple the abil­i­ty to prac­tice democ­ra­cy in the work­place, they have the pow­er to change our polit­i­cal sys­tem, and they chal­lenge cor­po­rate prof­it and pow­er — mak­ing them poten­tial allies for envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions that do the same. Groups like Green­peace, the Sier­ra Club and 350​.org often fight big cor­po­ra­tions over their dan­ger­ous dis­pos­al of chem­i­cal waste, fos­sil fuel emis­sions, fac­to­ry farm­ing and more. Work­ers for these cor­po­ra­tions are the ones who han­dle tox­ic waste, breathe dirty air and process chick­en at poul­try plants. 

Envi­ron­men­tal groups and work­er orga­ni­za­tions are aligned on many issues, and some do work close­ly togeth­er. Accord­ing to Rebec­ca Wolf, a senior orga­niz­er on the fac­to­ry farm team at Food and Water Watch and a mem­ber of NPEU, Our true focus is cor­po­rate con­trol. Union­iz­ing work­ers inher­ent­ly beats back against cor­po­rate con­trol and con­trol of the food sys­tem. I see envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions all the time in cor­po­rate part­ner­ships, and we have a hard line against that.” 

While unions are fund­ed only by mem­bers’ dues mon­ey, many envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions take mon­ey from cor­po­rate donors — some of which face off against unions in their own work­places. This dynam­ic can cre­ate ten­sion between staff and lead­er­ship at envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, which may have dif­fer­ent priorities.

Elon Musk, bil­lion­aire CEO of Tes­la, anony­mous­ly donat­ed over $6 mil­lion to the Sier­ra Club. But in the sum­mer of 2018, after com­ing under fire for a $40,000 dona­tion to a Repub­li­can-allied group, Musk asked Sier­ra Club exec­u­tive direc­tor Michael Brune for pub­lic sup­port. A stew­ard at PWU who asked to remain anony­mous for fear of retal­i­a­tion told In These Times that PWU kicked that tough dis­cus­sion off. [We] help them stay ground­ed on work­er issues.” While Brune ini­tial­ly shared words of sup­port for Musk on his per­son­al Twit­ter account, lat­er that year, the Sier­ra Club released a state­ment in sup­port of work­ers orga­niz­ing at Tes­la — some­thing union mem­bers believe can be attrib­uted, at least in part, to the union. The anony­mous stew­ard told In These Times, It’s impor­tant for unions that rep­re­sent work­ers at pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions to hold those orga­ni­za­tions account­able.” With­out a union, it may have been more dif­fi­cult for Sier­ra Club staff to push back against lead­ers and ensure that they pub­licly sup­port­ed Tes­la work­ers instead of their CEO, that stew­ard underscores. 

And while unions are able to win impres­sive gains around wages, ben­e­fits and a voice at work, their true pow­er lies in their abil­i­ty to shut down the econ­o­my if nec­es­sary. On the whole, work­ers at non­prof­its and oth­er pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions are not nec­es­sar­i­ly in a strate­gic posi­tion to exert lever­age to secure the biggest wins for the cli­mate — their going on strike would not have a sig­nif­i­cant impact on the broad­er econ­o­my. Work­ers in logis­tics, health­care and edu­ca­tion have far more pow­er to throw a wrench in how our econ­o­my and soci­ety func­tions. And build­ing trades work­ers, who are like­ly to have more work if leg­is­la­tion like the Green New Deal is passed, could be very influ­en­tial in cli­mate pol­i­cy. Their unions are large and pow­er­ful, and their mem­bers are con­struc­tion work­ers and elec­tri­cians, whose work will be direct­ly impact­ed by both cli­mate change and cli­mate leg­is­la­tion. While build­ing trades work­ers tend to be more con­ser­v­a­tive, the poten­tial for more work and larg­er mem­ber­ship rolls could make them the decid­ing fac­tor in the pas­sage of a Green New Deal.

But envi­ron­men­tal staffers’ iden­ti­ty with the broad­er labor move­ment and the sol­i­dar­i­ty that can be strate­gi­cal­ly expressed — such as in the case of the Sier­ra Club and Tes­la work­ers orga­niz­ing — could forge more ties between the work­ers’ move­ment and the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment as more of these work­ers orga­nize at their work­places. It’s also unde­ni­able that the expe­ri­ence of act­ing col­lec­tive­ly with cowork­ers can deep­en polit­i­cal con­scious­ness, no mat­ter one’s work­place or pri­or polit­i­cal commitments.

Wolf, who was on her union’s orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee, told In These Times that even though we work to make people’s lives bet­ter every day at work, col­lec­tive action is the expe­ri­ence you need to tru­ly under­stand pow­er-build­ing. Form­ing a union takes all the messy and good bits of expe­ri­ence, val­ues, and polit­i­cal con­scious­ness and brings them togeth­er in a patch­work that moves every­one along.”

But a fac­tor that may dimin­ish the influ­ence of these envi­ron­men­tal staff unions is the unions they are tied to. NPEU is affil­i­at­ed with the Inter­na­tion­al Fed­er­a­tion of Pro­fes­sion­al and Tech­ni­cal Engi­neers (IFPTE), which is a mem­ber of the AFL-CIO, the largest labor fed­er­a­tion in the coun­try. In con­trast, NPEU is a fair­ly small union, with rough­ly 250 to 300 dues-pay­ing mem­bers, about 500 work­ing on their first con­tract, and hun­dreds more that are in the process of orga­niz­ing,” accord­ing to Katie Bar­rows, vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions for the union.

In con­trast, PWU, which also orga­nizes envi­ron­men­tal non­prof­its, is an inde­pen­dent union, which means it’s not affil­i­at­ed with any oth­er union or any labor fed­er­a­tion. (PWU’s bar­gain­ing units include staffers at Sier­ra Club, 350​.org, Green­peace USA and the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists.) Accord­ing to the anony­mous Sier­ra Club stew­ard, this inde­pen­dence from the AFL-CIO has actu­al­ly helped the union: PWU is free to run its own pro­gram, which focus­es on anti-racism and social jus­tice. He told In These Times that the mem­bers of PWU are first-time union mem­bers. They nev­er knew what was pos­si­ble in a union, so there are no lim­i­ta­tions. Our pow­er is in the involve­ment of our mem­bers and their creativity.”

How­ev­er, there are ben­e­fits to being part of a larg­er fed­er­a­tion. Only AFL-CIO affil­i­ates are able to shape the federation’s strat­e­gy and elect its lead­ers, which means that PWU won’t have a say in whether the AFL-CIO ever sup­ports the Green New Deal. Bar­rows believes that if envi­ron­men­tal pro­fes­sion­als orga­nize, they’ll be a grow­ing part of the labor move­ment, and they’ll have a voice in deci­sions, espe­cial­ly if they’re in the AFL. Hav­ing envi­ron­men­tal work­ers orga­nize will be help­ful to bridg­ing that gap, and to unit­ing labor and envi­ron­men­tal groups.”

While envi­ron­men­tal staffers have formed unions for the same rea­sons most work­ers do, their unions may be a tool for some­thing greater. The anony­mous stew­ard told In These Times, Our mem­bers are at the inter­sec­tion of labor and envi­ron­men­tal work. They work on behalf of envi­ron­men­tal caus­es, but they’re work­ers as well. They’re try­ing to weave their beliefs about the impor­tance of work­ers into cli­mate leg­is­la­tion and con­ver­sa­tions with politi­cians and union lead­ers.” The stew­ard point­ed to a pro-union video that PWU mem­bers made in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Sier­ra Club about the 2018 Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court deci­sion, which made it ille­gal for pub­lic sec­tor unions to col­lect fees from non-mem­bers. He also told In These Times that the Sier­ra Club and union also worked togeth­er to release a state­ment about the deci­sion, which quotes exec­u­tive direc­tor Brune as say­ing, Today’s deci­sion does the bid­ding of the very same cor­po­ra­tions that have pol­lut­ed our com­mu­ni­ties, but we will march on.” 

While it is unde­ni­able that the rift between labor and envi­ron­men­tal orga­niz­ing runs deep, the staff at cli­mate orga­ni­za­tions join­ing the ranks of the labor move­ment could help bridge the divide between these two crit­i­cal move­ments. As Wolf at Food and Water Watch told In These Times, We can always be doing bet­ter, and while greens in gen­er­al are doing bet­ter, we need to be much more pub­lic about our con­nec­tion to labor, and a broad­er con­nec­tion to and with all social movements.

Mindy Iss­er works in the labor move­ment and lives in Philadelphia.
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