Updated: U.S. Labour views on climate strikes and the Green New Deal

Speakers, listed here, addressed the issues of Just Transition, the Green New Deal, public ownership of energy production, and an appropriate role for labour in climate activism at the New York Labor History Association Annual Spring Conference on May 11, under the banner  “Taking the Lead: Labor and Global Warming: Our History, Activism and Challenge”.  “New Calls for a General Strike in the Face of Coming Climate Catastrophe” appeared in the Labor Press (May 13) (re-posted to Portside on May 22) , summarizing some of the discussion, especially the statement by Bruce Hamilton, VP of the  Amalgamated Transit Union, that a general strike “should never be taken off the table”.  The article notes that “A general strike, however, requires a level of unity around the question of climate change and the Green New Deal that presently does not exist inside organized labor.”  On May 30, Portside published  a lengthly compilation of “Reader Responses”  , both pro and con, about using a general strike as a tactic.  (Note that the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is calling for  “a day of global action on climate change” on June 26 as part of their  Climate Proof our Work campaign   , and the Fridays for Future student strike movement has called for a worldwide general strike by adults and youth for September 20).

Union differences  around the Green New Deal have been noted before in the WCR:  in “Labor’s voice in support of the Green New Deal” (May 14) , and “AFL-CIO Energy Committee releases letter opposing the Green New Deal” (Mar 14). On May 22, “The Green New Deal is fracturing a critical base for Democrats: unions” appeared in Vox, providing  a broad overview of national and state-level examples.

Service Employees International Union endorses GND: On June 6, the Service Employees International Union issued a press release announcing that the International Executive Board had passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal , which states in part: “the Green New Deal supports the right of all workers to have unions, no matter where they work; makes unions central to accomplishing the ambitious goal of an environmentally responsible and economically just society; and commits to providing universal healthcare and a good, union job with family-sustaining wages
and benefits for everyone who wants one.”   The Resolution affirms the goals of the GND, commits to political action, and to cooperation with other advocacy partners in environmental,  immigrant, health care,  and economic justice movements.

On the issue of transitions, it states:

4. “SEIU stands in solidarity with all in the labor movement who share our desire to create family-sustaining union jobs and a healthy and safe environment. Workers who have built and are dependent upon the fossil fuel industry must have:

  • a. Access to good union jobs, training and advancement if their current jobs cease to exist;
  • b. Guaranteed pensions and a bridge of wage support and healthcare until impacted workers find comparable employment or reach retirement;
  • c. Financial support for local community public services during a transition period

Green New Deal and Labour in California:  There is support for the Green New Deal  in polling the green new dealCalifornia – as evidenced by “Packed Bay Area Convergence on Climate Plans for Green New Deal” and other articles  in the Green New Deal compilation by the Labor Network for SustainabilityYet “Labor anger over Green New Deal greets 2020 contenders in California”  appeared in Politico, focusing on the opposition to the Los Angeles Green New Deal announced on April 29, chiefly by California’s building trades unions.  Those unions fear job loss and the costs members may face from higher gas taxes, as well as congestion pricing for tolls on freeways during rush hour. They have differed with environmentalists in the past over environmental justice and pollution regulation at the State level .  In “The Green New Deal- Be-labored?” in Resilience (May 11) and originally in Civil Notion, author Joel Stronberg describes the California divide in even greater detail and quotes a professor from Loyola Law School, who assesses that “the Green New Deal…divides the Democrats on a fault line, which is more of the elites against the working class Democrats who are concerned about losing their jobs.”  Stronberg also states that the Association of Flight Attendants is a second union which has endorsed the Green New Deal, and cites a recent survey by Data for Progress between March 30 and April 7, 2019 which measured union members’ (not leadership) attitudes. According to Stronberg, it shows 52 percent of current union members approve of the Green New Deal, 22 percent were opposed,  21 percent didn’t know about it, and five percent were neutral.

Canadian unions:  In Canada, unions have not yet been as vocal about the Green New Deal – although “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal: The Canadian Connection” in The Tyee (June 3) describes the close ties between the U.S. GND and Canadians Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein of The Leap.    Some unions have endorsed the uniquely-Canadian Pact for a Green New Deal – and the United Steelworkers  have endorsed the New Democratic Party’s newly announced climate change platform  – Power to change: A new deal for climate action and good jobs .

New York State Climate Law incorporates Environmental Justice

Hurricane Sandy_Poweroutage_1

Power outages from Hurricane Sandy in New York City, 2012

The New York State Climate and Community Protection Act  was passed in the State Assembly on June 1 , and Inside Climate News calls it  “ the nation’s most ambitious climate change bill” .   The Bill was supported by NYC-Environmental Justice Alliance , as well as the Service Employees International Union.  It establishes aggressive mandates for ramping up the use of clean, renewable energy, and reducing climate pollution – and is most notable because it  prioritizes environmental justice goals. From the preamble,  it will:  “-shape the ongoing transition in the State’s energy sector to ensure that it creates good jobs and protects workers and communities that may lose employment in the current transition. -Setting clear standards for job quality and training standards encourages not only high-quality work but positive economic impacts; -prioritize the safety and health of disadvantaged communities, control potential regressive impacts of future climate change mitigation and adaptation policies on these communities.”

Labour unions disagree over NextGen Climate alliance

On  May 13, NextGen Climate announced the formation of the For Our Future Political Action Committee (PAC)  , which includes labour unions and youth groups, to campaign for environmental justice issues.   Subsequently, seven building trades unions send a letter to Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO,  demanding that the AFL-CIO cut its ties with Tom Steyer, the billionaire who funds NextGen Climate . The Labourer’s International Union (LIUNA) also  sent its own letter, which characterized the AFL-CIO relationship as a “politically bankrupt betrayal” of union members.  Both letters were reproduced in “Rift Between Labor and Environmentalists Threatens Democratic Turnout Plan” in the New York Times (May 16).  The New York Times article prompted the Labor Network for Sustainability to write:  “The Times characterized this as a “rift between labor and environmentalists.” It is much better understood, however, as an effort by a small group of unions to retain their veto power within the AFL-CIO.”…  “The great majority of unions that accepted the alliance with NextGen Climate should proudly defend it as a way to express this historic tradition of meeting their members’ needs by addressing the most pressing needs of society.”

The AFL-CIO officially endorsed Hillary Clinton on June 16 ; LIUNA  has also endorsed Hillary Clinton, and  launched a campaign promoting natural gas as a bridging fuel and as an important fuel for the future on June 23; see their campaign website Clean Power Progress .   The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is not one of the NextGen PAC allies,  but was endorsed by Tom Steyer  when it recently voted to add environmental justice to the list of the union’s priorities.   According to the SEIU, climate change disproportionately affects low-income and minority communities where many of its members live, so the union is committing resources to “broadening environmental justice”.  See “Leading US Union SEIU Makes Fighting Climate Change a Campaign Priority” in The Guardian (May 24) .

Alternative Economic Models proposed for the 21st Century by a new U.S. Group

The Next System is a new project “that seeks to disrupt or replace our traditional institutions for creating progressive change”. Its backers include Greenpeace President Annie Leonard, clean energy champion Van Jones, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, Gerald Hudson, Mark Levinson and Peter Colavito from Service Employees Intl Union, Ron Blackwell, UNITE and AFL-CIO, Joe Uehlein from the Labor Network for Sustainability, climate activist Bill McKibben, and hundreds of other prominent academics including Noam Chomsky, Frances Fox Piven, and Jeffrey Sachs. The project launches with a webinar on May 20th, and has already released its inaugural report, The Next System Project: New Political Economic Alternatives for the 21st Century. The report states that such new movements as the Next System “seek a cooperative, caring, and community-nurturing economy that is ecologically sustainable, equitable, and socially responsible”. It draws inspiration from a variety of alternative systemic models and ideas, including employee ownership and self-management, cooperatives, social democracy, participatory economic planning, socialism and public ownership, localism and bioregionalism, and ecological economics.

Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference in Washington

Over 1,800 union workers, environmentalists, business and non-profit leaders gathered from April 16 to 18 for the 2013 Good Jobs, Green Jobs National Conference, sponsored by the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation. This year’s official theme was Let’s Get to Work: Climate Change, Infrastructure and Innovation. In the opening panel, the message was the common cause in the fight for workers rights and environmental rights: speakers were CWA President Larry Cohen, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, USW President Leo Gerard, and SEIU Property Services Division Deputy Director Jon Barton. Videos, summaries and blogs from the proceedings are available at the conference website at http://www.greenjobsconference.org/.