Positive examples of climate action needed to bring unionists into the climate fight, says veteran activist

“The Climate Movement Doesn’t Know How to Talk with Union Members About Green Jobs” appeared in The Intercept on March 9, transcribing an interview with Jane McAlevey,  a veteran labour activist in the U.S. and now a senior policy fellow at the University of California Berkeley’s Labor Center.  One interview  question: “What do you think organizers should be doing right now to make sure a climate-friendly platform can win in a presidential race where Trump will argue that ending fossil fuel investment means lost jobs?” In response, McAlevey urges activists to allay workers’ fears about the future with examples of positive changes – citing as one of the best examples  the “New York wind deal”  when,  “unions won a far-reaching climate agreement to shift half of New York State ’s total energy needs to wind power by 2035. They did it by moving billions of subsidies away from fossil fuels and into a union jobs guarantee known as a project labor agreement.”   (A previous WCR post  summarizes the campaign which culminated in the New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in the summer of 2019).  Ultimately, McAlevey calls for “spade work” which educates workers about the climate crisis and reassures them by providing positive solutions. Citing the deeply integrated nature of the climate and economic crises, she concludes: “We have to build a movement that has enough power to win on any one of these issues that matter to us….. We’re relying on the people that already agree with us and trying to get them out in the streets. We can’t get there with these numbers.”

McAveley CollectiveBargain-book-cover-329x500The Intercept interview is one of many since Jane McAlevey’s published her third book  in January 2020.   A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy  discusses the climate crisis, but is a much broader call to arms for  the U.S. labour movement.  A very informative review of the book by Sam Gindin appears in The Jacobin, here .

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.

Toronto Labour Council’s new Plan of Engagement for Unions shares sample climate change resolutions

The Toronto and York Region Labour Council approved its 2020-2022 Strategic Plan in November of 2019, as announced in a press release in January, and in full here.  Continuing  the Labour Council’s longstanding leadership on climate justice,  Plan item #3 is “Tackle climate change”, which states that the Labour Council will:

  • Work to counter the efforts to sabotage climate action by polluters and conservative politicians, including their “carbon tax revolt” which is promoted by Conservative premiers and climate change deniers
  •  Establish a climate justice labour network
  •  Provide educational material to highlight the real cost of inaction by governments and businesses, and get young members engaged by using new, creative approaches
  •  Continue to work in coalition with key environmental organizations including youth and student-led groups
  •  Work with affiliates, local governments and school boards to adopt serious climate action policies
  •  Continue promoting the creation of Joint Labour-Management Environment Committees and ask affiliates to bargain for their establishment
  •  Help to popularize the key elements of a Green New Deal for All.

Our_Unions_and_Climate_Justice_iconPutting these goals into action, the Labour Council hosted its 2nd Climate Justice Network Roundtable on February 12.  It  also released a 3-page Plan of Engagement for Unions  which includes the a sample climate change resolution for affiliate unions, and a sample resolution to take to convention. The sample resolution for affiliates is also published ( page 17) in the Winter 2020 issue of the Labour Council’s magazine, Labour Action .

The sample resolution asks affiliate unions to join the fight for climate justice through the following actions:

  • Ask the employer to detail their plans to climate-proof the workplace;
  • Bargain contract language on climate, and a union role in sustainability;
  • Seek the establishment of Joint Workplace Environment Committees;
  • Establish training programs for members to be actively involved in greening the workplace;
  • Utilize an equity lens to ensure new job opportunities benefit all of our communities;
  • Engage in campaigns for climate justice – including Just Transition legislation for workers and communities impacted by changes to a low-carbon economy;
  • Support public services that deliver quality programs and good jobs while ensuring public control and operation.

Also in the Winter issue of Labour Action : a profile on page 16 of the many activities of the Labour Council’s  Labour Education Centre , which include a strong component of training programs for  climate change literacy.  In addition, the LEC has researched Just Transition experiences after closing of coal-fired electricity plants in Alberta, Australia and Ontario, and is publishing those results. Finally, LEC continues to support a Joint Labour Management Committee at the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) that has made a number of recommendations to dramatically decrease the GHG emissions in the Board.

The Toronto and York Region Labour Council  shares climate justice resources at a dedicated website, including social media shareables, links to articles and documents such as the pioneering 2016 Greenprint , and all the documents mentioned above.

How to engage your union in the fight for a Green New Deal

The January 2020 issue of  the Labor Network for Sustainability newsletter refers to a recent article, “A Green New Deal can win even among Building Trades Unions”, which appeared in The Jacobin (Jan 30 2019). It is written by an IBEW tradesman who led a successful effort to pass a Green New Deal resolution at the 60th Annual Texas AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention.  The author describes how he was inspired by a resolution from the Alameda California Central Labor Council, and how he moved his own resolution from that model to the one which passed in Texas. He outlines a process of internal discussion and education which created a broader resolution, and one which had to compromise by replacing the highly emotive term “Green New Deal” with “Federal Environmental Policy”.

The article concludes:

“What does the labor-focused segment of the climate justice movement need to do next? First, we must repeatedly engage labor, from the local level on up to the national/international level, in as many places as we can — both through defined democratic processes like the one I experienced, as well in the rank-and-file space of our locals. The goal is not to simply push resolutions through, but to educate and build a base of support in the process….In order for the Green New Deal to move forward, it must become a standard demand from organized labor. The task for us now is to replicate this kind of effort at each and every one of our locals .”

The article is one of the latest written by unionists to instruct and inspire direct action. To cite a few: “Calling All Union Members” , in The Trouble  (May 2019), which begins: “Teachers, construction workers, nurses, miners, frycooks—you have an indispensable role to play in the passage of the Green New Deal. Here are five concrete steps to take.”  An earlier U.S. article by Nato Green “Why Unions Must Bargain Over Climate Change” appeared in In these Times (March 2019).

Labor Network for Sustainability maintains an ongoing compilation of GND resolutions by U.S. unions, and has written numerous articles.  The WCR has written  previously about union actions for a Green New Deal in both the U.S. and Canada,  here. 

Transit Equity and Free Transit: addressing social justice, climate justice and workplace justice

transit equity day people of colourTransit Equity Day in the United States was held on February 4 – a date chosen to honour Rosa Parks, whose refusal to yield her seat on a bus in 1955 was the catalyst in the U.S. struggle against the segregation of public transit.  Now in 2020, Transit Equity Day’s main goal is “to promote environmentally-sustainable and affordable transit accessible to all, regardless of income, national origin, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, religion, or ability,” and in all communities, rural or urban.  In addition to social justice goals, it also promotes climate justice and workplace justice, calling for good, union jobs for transit workers and those who manufacture transit equipment, as well as a  just transition for workers and communities in the  transition to an electrified, non-polluting transit system.  Transit Equity Day is organized by the Labor Network for Sustainability, in cooperation with environmental and labour groups already working to promote public transit – including the Amalgamated Transit Union , Transport Workers of America, Connecticut Roundtable for Climate and Jobs , Metropolitan Washington District AFL-CIO, and Jobs to Move America .

Transit Equity Day also supports the growing free public transit movement – described, with global case studies, in Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay to Ride Elevators, a book published in Canada by Black Rose books in 2017.  Since then, advocates have focused mainly on the social justice arguments: for example in  “Free and Accessible Transit Now: Toward A Red-Green Vision for Toronto” (Canadian Dimension, May 10 2018) . This continues to be the focus in the July 2019 call for free transit by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 2, representing Toronto Transit Commission workers,  and endorsed by CUPE Ontario. Also in a January 2020 blog by the Amalgamated Transit Union in Canada , which stated:

“….successful examples of fare free transit around the world demonstrate that this model of public transit service may not be radical or utopian. However, there are real concerns implementation of fare free transit.

ATU Canada advocates for fares to be affordable for all, and advocates for progress toward creating a fare-free transit. Incremental pricing actions (such as fare-freezes and reductions) are realistic in lieu of immediate fare-free transit subsidized by government. In our advocacy, we prioritize efforts to eliminate cost barriers to accessing jobs, education, health care, and other services, through the implementation of low-income passes. A gradual approach to fare reduction is sorely needed in many municipalities across Canada, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that transit is safe, reliable, and affordable for all.”

Free transit and climate change

The Richochet published two articles which marry concern for social justice with the well-established environmental benefits of transit over cars:  “Advocates say decommodified housing and free transit needed to fight climate emergency” (Oct.9)  describes activism in  Montreal, and “Free public transit is key to any Green New Deal worthy of the name” (Oct. 19)  which is an overview of the growing activism Canada-wide. “The case for free public transit in Toronto” in Now Magazine (Dec. 2019) only begins to discuss the fraught transit politics in Toronto. In December 2019, members of the Free Transit Edmonton movement published an Opinion piece: “Make transit free for the sake of our climate and community” in the Edmonton Journal.  For a recent U.S. summary, see “Should Public Transit Be Free? More Cities Say, Why Not?” in the New York Times (Jan. 14).