SEIU cleaners stage the first union-authorized climate strike in the U.S.

Strike logo yellowTo launch his new column,  Strike: Jeremy Brecher’s Corner at the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) website, Jeremy Brecher  began with the theme “The Future of Climate Strikes”.  On February 29 , he posted “First U.S. Union-Authorized Climate Strike?” (re-published in Common Dreams as  “Did we just witness the first union-authorized climate strike in the United States?”). The article describes a one day strike on February 27 by members of Service Employees International Union Local 26 , employed by over a dozen different subcontractors to clean corporate buildings in Minneapolis.  He states that it is, “as far as I have been able to discover, the very first—union sanctioned strike in the U.S. for climate protection demands. ”

Brecher gives voice to many of the low-wage and immigrant workers who are the backbone of the strike, and traces their climate activism back to 2009, when Local 26 won contract language:  to establish an Ad Hoc Committee of union and company representatives at each company, to “review the use of green chemicals”, to provide training to employees on the “use, mixing and storage” of cleaning chemicals, and that “The employer “shall make every effort to use only green, sustainable cleaning products where possible.”  The SEIU Local 26 collective agreement for 2016-2019 is here , with climate-related clause 18.13 on pages 39-40.  Other examples of clauses related to toxic chemicals in Canadian collective agreements are available from the ACW Green Agreements database here ; clauses regarding green procurement are here , and the full searchable database of 240 clauses  is here .

seiu strikeAlthough the main focus of  First U.S. Union-Authorized Climate Strike?  is on the climate-related demands, the strike is also important for its success in coalition-building and community support. Brecher characterizes it as exemplary of the growing trend toward “Bargaining for the Common Good, ” as outlined in a September 2019 article in The American Prospect , “How Workers Can Demand Climate Justice”  .  An article by Steve Payne reported on the broader community justice issues in the strike in “Twin Cities Janitors and Guards Feature Climate and Housing in Their Strike Demands” in Labor Notes (Feb. 20) .

UPDATE: 

Since Brecher’s article, the union has released a press release on March 14,  announcing agreement with most employers and members’ approval of  a contract which includes funding towards a Labor-Management Cooperation Fund for green education and training.  Notably, given that these are the workers keeping airports and commercial buildings clean in the Covid-19 crisis, the agreement also provides for an increase for all full-time workers to six paid sick days by the second year of the contract.

Harvard scholars propose labour law reforms including the right to bargain over our shared environment

clean slate coverClean Slate for Worker Power: Building a Just Economy and Democracy  is a far-reaching analysis and set of recommendations for labour law reform, released in January 2020 by the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program.  Its purpose is to offer “an intervention that promises to help stop the vicious, self-reinforcing cycle of economic and political inequality. By proposing a fundamental redesign of labor law, we aspire to enable working people to create the collective economic and political power necessary to build an equitable economy and politics.” The report – the result of discussions with 70  academics, union leaders, workers, activists and others over a period of two years – offers detailed and specific recommendations for changes to labour laws in the U.S., starting with the fundamental premise that “Labor law reform must start with inclusion to ensure that all workers can build power and to address systemic racial and gender oppression.” In its long list of recommendations comes basic freedoms such as the right to organize and protection from strikebreaking, as well as more innovative proposals for sectoral bargaining, worker representation on company boards, support for digital organizing and cyber-picketing – and of most interest to those working for environmental  progress –  this recommendation:

“Workers deserve a voice in the issues that are important to them and their communities….To ensure that workers can bargain over the corporate decisions that impact their lives, Clean Slate recommends that the new labor law: • Expand the range of collective bargaining subjects to include any subjects that are important to workers and over which employers have control, including decisions about the basic direction of the firm and employers’ impact on communities and our shared environment.” 

More detail comes on page 69, where the report states:

“Accordingly, and taking inspiration from the Bargaining for the Common Good movement, Clean Slate recommends that when an employer has influence beyond the workplace over subject matters that have major impacts on workers’ communities, such as pollution and housing, the bargaining obligation ought to extend beyond the terms and conditions of employment and encompass these “community impact” subjects. Moreover, when bargaining over community impact subjects, the workers’ organization involved in collective bargaining should have the right to bring community organizations—those with members and expertise in the relevant area—to the bargaining table. … for example, the worker organization would be entitled to bring community environmental justice groups to bargain over pollution controls and abatement and to bring housing groups and tenants unions to bargain over affordable housing development.”

Clean Slate for Worker Power is a project of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, led by Professor Benjamin Sachs and  Sharon Block, Executive Director, Labor and Worklife Program.  The 15-page Executive Summary is here ; the 132-page full report is here  .  The report is summarized by noted labour journalist and author Steven Greenhouse in  “Overhaul US labor laws to boost workers’ power, new report urges”  in The Guardian (Jan. 23), and also in “‘Clean slate for worker power’ promotes a fair and inclusive U.S. economy” from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth  (Jan. 29), which includes links to a range of academic articles related to the Clean Slate proposals. The authors are interviewed about the Clean Slate framework in a Harvard press release here.

Some workers risk their jobs if they flee disasters. Can unions help?

bicycle in floodingWith the well-accepted consensus that climate change will make extreme weather disasters more likely in Canada and around the world, and with the misery of Hurricane Florence in full view, it is time to consider the dilemma of those who must work despite evacuation orders and disaster.  A recent AFL-CIO blog (reposted to Portside) summarizes the problem:  “You can be fired for not showing up for work during a hurricane” (Sept. 13) . The blog relates the results of a survey conducted by Central Florida Jobs With Justice following Hurricane Irma in 2017, which found that more than half of survey respondents said they faced disciplinary action or termination if they failed to show up to work during the storm. Others weren’t paid if they if they didn’t report for work – making it an impossible choice between a normal, much-needed paycheque, or tending to their own and their family’s safety.  Following Hurricane Irma, a few employers instituted climate leave policies, and in June 2018,  the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners passed an ordinance  prohibiting employers from retaliating against employees who comply with evacuation orders during a state of emergency. But for most workers, evacuation is not an option. waffle house

A similar situation was reported in the latest newsletter from  Labor Network for Sustainability . The Central Labor Council in Miami conducted a survey and interviews, canvassing labor leaders and coalition partners from AFSCME Florida, IUOE and South Florida Building Trades, Unite HERE, United Teachers of Dade, and the Miami Climate Alliance of community, and environmental groups, to find out their concerns about climate change and health.   Answers reflected the difficulties of working in extreme heat in a surprising number of ways, and also asked the question: “Have extreme weather events like hurricanes, flooding, or high heat impacted your job on a day to day basis?”. Recurring responses included:  “Being required to work during a hurricane or bad weather” , and concerns for job security and losing wages, because of a  workplace being closed.  Other concerns: unsafe workplaces, being required to work excess hours without allowance for caring for one’s own home, and “Not having access to clean, safe drinking water.”

Similar concerns were reported in a December 2017 report  of a survey about the impacts of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, highlighted  in the WCR article “What happens to workers when wildfires and natural disasters hit?”  In that summary, we also featured the impacts on families after the wildfires near Fort McMurray in Alberta in 2016.  In the case of Alberta,  amendments to the  Alberta Employment Standards Code took effect in January 2018, providing new Personal and Family Responsibility Leave of up to 5 days of job protection per year for personal sickness or short-term care of an immediate family member, including attending to personal emergencies.

Until legislation makes such personal leaves universal,  consider the job and wage protection in the 2014-2019 Collective Agreement  between Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3886 and Royal Roads University in Victoria B.C..

Article 31.8 states:

“a) Should the University, or an area of the University, be closed temporarily due to environmental conditions, utility disruptions, road conditions or other reasons beyond the control of the University, employees shall receive their regular salary (excluding shift differential and weekend premium) during the closure. The University may layoff employees in accordance with the terms of Article 16 if the closure is expected to be for greater than twenty (20)working days.

b) If an employee is called in to work during a temporary closure of the University they will be paid at Overtime rates as per Article 18.02. “

Green collective agreement language achieved by Canadian Union of Public Employees

CUPE LOGO   “Bargaining language for a green agreement” , posted to the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)  Table Talk newsletter on July 25,  is a brief article highlighting some of the innovative bargaining done by CUPE locals on the issues of environmental stewardship, transit passes, bicycle reimbursement, sustainable work practices and green procurement. The Table Talk article reproduces the actual language of the agreements; for links to the full agreements, and almost 200 others by many unions, go to the Green Collective Agreements database maintained by the Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Climate Change project (ACW).

How to lead a workplace discussion on climate change

CUPE LOGOIn June, the National Environment program of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE/SCFP) shared online the materials for a workshop on How to lead a workplace discussion on Climate Change .  The materials consist of a 28-slide PowerPoint presentation, Speaking notes and Tips for facilitators, in English and French versions.   It provides labour-focused information and interactive discussion tools on “how climate change is affecting our planet, our communities and our economy”, and although the content is specific to CUPE – presenting examples from CUPE jobs and CUPE  policy statements, it offers an excellent model for other unions.

CUPE has a long history of climate change related educational materials, including: Healthy, Clean & GREEN: A Workers’ Action Guide to a Greener Workplace (2015),     which encourages workplace behaviours such as waste reduction, environmental committees and environmental audits; How to form a workplace environment Committee ;  and  an online, interactive Eco-audit tool  to workers score their workplace behaviours related to energy conservation, recycling, water use, cleaning products, transportation, and workplace meetings. A very early document was the CUPE Green Bargaining Guide , published in 2008 and which provided examples of collective agreement language on many issues, including conservation, commuting, and establishing an environment committee .  Most of these examples have also been incorporated in the ACW Green Collective Agreements database, here.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE/SCFP) is Canada’s largest union, with over 650,000 members in every province, representing workers in health care, emergency services, education, early learning and child care, municipalities, social services, libraries, utilities, transportation, airlines and more.   All CUPE materials are available in English or French.