By Jim Miller
Last week I was proud to see that some of my brothers and sisters in San Diego’s local labor movement made the news by protesting Donald Trump’s speech at the North America’s Building Trades Union’s (NABTU) National Legislative Conference in Washington D.C. As I have written before in this space, this kind of dissent inside the trades is crucial to stopping Trump from dividing and conquering labor and creating a serious rift between the labor and climate justice movements.
Fortunately, as Kris LaGrange reported of Trump’s reception by the trades at the conference, he may have been met with more boos than cheers, despite his efforts to curry favor with this more traditionally conservative union group: “Even though Sean McGarvey, the President of the NABTU clapped at every Trump comment like a drunken seal, it was obvious that the house was divided on the support for the most unpopular ‘President’ in the history of the United States.”
People need to know that, despite the incredibly bad judgment of some in the NABTU leadership who are willing to sell out public sector and other unions and our allies in the resistance for hollow promises, there are many people of good faith inside the trades who see this as folly. Here in California, for instance, there are folks in the labor movement working to promote green jobs and climate justice while aligning themselves with environmentalists and other community groups.
The labor councils in San Diego and Alameda County both passed resolutions opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline and many local unions and our Labor Council’s Environmental Caucus were deeply involved in the campaign by the Quality of Life Coalition that defeated SANDAG’s ill-conceived Measure A. So, even as we acknowledge the dismaying spectacle of President Trump being invited to speak at a major union event, we should also recognize that there are signs of resistance and hope elsewhere.
In that vein, it was interesting to observe that Art Pulaski, the Executive Secretary of the California Labor Federation, opened his remarks to the 2017 California Federation of Teachers (CFT) Convention in Sacramento by condemning Trump’s reactionary policies on the climate as well as a host of his other sins. At that same convention, it was my great pleasure to share the stage with prominent climate justice advocate, Tom Steyer, who called for continued fierce resistance to the Trump agenda.
After Mr. Steyer’s address to the body, I presented the recommendations of the CFT’s Climate Justice Task Force to the delegates. The Mission Statement of the CFT Climate Justice Task Force begins by declaring:
At the 2016 CFT Convention, the delegates passed a resolution committing the CFT to a climate justice agenda which recognized that we are currently facing a historic environmental crisis that demands immediate action. In the short time since the convention, the science on climate change has only presented us with more and more severe warnings about the dire consequences of continuing on the same course.
As a historical force for progressive change and social justice, the labor movement can and must play a powerful role in calling for swift action to address the climate crisis and in producing tangible solutions that will ensure we are strengthening, not weakening, our middle-class as we transition to a more sustainable society. The idea that the market is the only thing that truly matters in human existence is a central obstacle to achieving economic and environmental justice. We know from experience that the labor movement must be at the table to shape the conversation if we are to effect positive change for working people.
Historically, we have been sold the myth that we must choose between good jobs and a clean environment. This is a false choice and has been perpetuated by a multi-billion-dollar corporate network that dominates the political and public sphere. We even face challenges inside our own labor movement from those who acknowledge the existence of climate change but refuse to come to terms with the political and economic changes we need to make in order to address it. Thus the challenge is big and the answer is to change the game.
Any successful movement to address the looming threat of climate change must also involve an accompanying revolution in values, a paradigm shift. As Naomi Klein put it when speaking to one of Canada’s largest labor unions last year: “climate change—when its full economic and moral implications are understood—is the most powerful weapon progressives have ever had in the fight for equality and social justice. But first, we have to stop running away from the climate crisis, stop leaving it to the environmentalist, and look at it. Let ourselves absorb the fact that the industrial revolution that led to our society’s prosperity is now destabilizing the natural systems on which all of life depends.”
In that spirit, the Task Force presented its recommendations (which the Executive Board of the CFT passed and thus will become policy) to the delegation. These recommendations call for ongoing member education on climate change and climate justice, developing curriculum on climate justice for teachers, making candidates’ positions on climate policy part of CFT’s political endorsements, promoting environmental legislation and divestment of our pensions from fossil fuels, and building strong community partnerships.
By adopting these recommendations, we seek to influence the national discussion inside labor and be part of a broader movement that knows that in these times of existential threat we must be more open, inclusive, and visionary. We need to re-imagine our role in society in the spirit of the old labor motto: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”