“Let’s be clear, climate change is the most important issue facing all of us for the rest of our lives.” –John Harrity, President of the Connecticut State Council of Machinists
By Jim Miller & Micah Mitrosky
We are facing a historic environmental crisis that threatens our present and future survival. Think Progress pithily summarized the conclusions of last year’s United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, noting that:
The world’s top scientists and governments have issued their bluntest plea yet to the world: Slash carbon pollution now (at a very low cost) or risk “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” Scientists have “high confidence” these devastating impacts occur “even with adaptation” — if we keep doing little or nothing.
A short list of the many catastrophic effects that unchecked climate change may bring includes severe drought, dangerous wildfires, increased disease, threatened food systems due to Dust Bowl-like conditions, ocean acidification, more global conflict over resources, economic collapse, and mass extinction.
In short, the overwhelming majority of serious scientists as well as governmental agencies such as NASA and even the U.S. Defense Department are warning of a grim future if we fail to address this issue.
Climate/Jobs. Two Crises, One Solution
The severity of the climate crisis has not gone without notice in the world of labor. As some of our brothers and sisters in Trade Unions for Energy Democracy in Australia put it:
We are facing an energy and climate emergency that amounts to a planetary crisis. The growing levels of fossil based energy is stretching planetary limits by raising greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution to alarming levels. This is affecting the health and quality of life of millions.
The power of fossil fuel corporations has made it practically impossible to protect the health and safety of workers and communities, and union representation is under attack across the globe. Despite more energy being generated every year, energy poverty remains a serious global issue — 1.6 billion people, or 20% of the world’s population, do not have regular access to electricity.
It has become increasingly clear that the transition to an equitable, sustainable energy system can only occur if there is a decisive shift in power towards workers, communities and the public.
And this challenge is a big one, but one that can unite the public and private sector as well as labor, environmental, and community activists. What we need is a dramatic transition to green energy, and the climate crisis creates the possibility for new alliances and historic opportunities to change the game and create a more environmentally sustainable and economically just world.
And while some in U.S. labor have been hesitant to embrace this issue or been at odds with environmentalists for fear of job loss, others have been fully engaged and there is a real opening to green the American labor movement.
As Bruce Hamilton, Vice President of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), puts it:
Labor should not just be at the table, labor should be planning the transition. We also believe that labor has a responsibility to really lead the transition to a low-carbon, to really a no-carbon economy, because if we don’t do that, then some kind of a transition is going to be made by big business, and it is going to be very detrimental to working people and poor people. Far, far, far more jobs are available in fighting against climate change than there ever could possibly be in expanding dirty fuel. As a matter of fact, the biggest job killer really is inaction on climate change.
Christopher Erikson, the business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3, also sees the crucial need for labor to join the movement against climate change. Speaking to over 400,000 activists at the Peoples’ Climate March in New York City he observed:
Today we march and our voices will be heard and there will be change. We’re here because we know it is our responsibility to try and fix this, and we’re joined by people from all over the world. We face tremendous odds: this is not just a moral issue, this is an economic battle and our adversaries are not going to just roll over. The stakes are high. The wealth of nations, corporations and individuals are at risk. These are powerful motivators to resist change, yet if we don’t act our coastal cities around the world will fall like sand castles in the surf. The devastation will be immeasurable. Today, we compel those elected officials with the responsibility and the ability to fix this – to act. To act in good conscience. To act now.
Hence, to quote a sign from the People’s Climate March in New York City last fall, we are confronted with, “Climate/Jobs. Two Crises: One Solution.” And some folks are dreaming big about what could happen. Jeremy Brecher, Ron Blackwell, and Joe Uehlein in “If Not Now, When? A Labor Movement Plan to Address Climate Change” envision:
A strategy designed to provide full employment and rising living standards by putting millions of people to work on the transition to a climate-safe economy could transform the politics of climate by shattering the “jobs versus the environment” frame. And it could provide a common platform around which climate protection advocates at every level of the labor movement could rally . . .
Organized labor played a significant role in World War II mobilization. Tripartite boards of government, business, and labor representatives gave unions a formal role in decision making, albeit one that often remained subordinate to corporate power. If organized labor stands aloof from the climate protection movement, it is unlikely to have such a role in future government-led climate protection institutions. If labor takes a lead in building public support for a climate protection plan, it is far more likely to have a voice in ensuring that climate policies are worker-friendly
Right now, much of organized labor is painting a portrait of itself as an obstacle to climate protection. By advancing a plan that protects the environment by reducing GHG emissions while putting Americans back to work, raising wages, and reducing economic inequality, labor can lead the struggle for a more just and sustainable economy and put itself back on the right side of history.
In sum, what the climate crisis offers us is a chance to address both the issues of historic economic inequality and looming environmental catastrophe in a way that will allow us to create a new world out of the ashes of the old.
San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council
Environmental Caucus Formed
One of the most exciting developments in local labor of late has been the formation of the Environmental Caucus inside the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council. After the participation of a number of unions in the Peoples’ Climate March in San Diego, a group of interested activists from the American Federation of Teachers, IBEW, the Building Trades, the nurses, and other unions got together to form the first ever Environmental Caucus inside the Labor Council.
The caucus had its first meeting in late October of last year and came up with the following mission statement and goals:
San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council Environmental Caucus Mission Statement
In 2010, the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council passed a “Resolution in Support of Preserving Environmental Laws and Building Environmental Partnerships” declaring that the Council “supports outreach and partnership with the environmental community in order to strengthen efforts to fight for a better quality of life for all working people; and supports efforts to preserve environmental laws; and condemns efforts to weaken and undermine environmental laws; and declares our labor community to be stronger when working together with environmental allies; and urges the California Labor Federation and other labor councils and bodies throughout the nation to adopt the same position as this Council.”
That resolution affirmed labor’s support for existing environmental laws and recognized the impact that environmental pollution, the water crisis, and climate change have on workers’ lives and health while noting that the negative effects of the climate crisis “will disproportionately impact disenfranchised communities with the least resources.” Hence, the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council committed to promoting smart growth, green jobs, and real partnerships with the environmental community in order to work toward environmental and economic justice.
Since 2010, 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 economy. 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 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. 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 San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council Environmental Caucus is committed to:
- Engaging our members and the community about labor’s role in advocating for tangible solutions to the climate crisis that simultaneously strengthen our middle-class.
- Letting our members know that good green jobs don’t kill construction projects, in fact in some cases it actually increases opportunity.
- Insisting that those who might be displaced should be retrained for the new economy as well as ensuring that the green economy is creating union career opportunities to ensure a just transition for working people.
- Building and sustaining real partnerships with the local environmental movement and community groups committed to economic and environmental justice.
- Pushing for bold new political and policy initiatives that move beyond lip service to effectively address the two great issues of our age—historic economic inequality and climate change
Purpose of the Caucus: With these global goals of the mission statement in mind, the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council Environmental Caucus’s specific purpose is to:
1) Educate our members and the community about the pressing environmental issues of our day and possible solutions to the present crisis.
2) Build strong alliances and partnerships between labor and other environmental and community groups.
3) Serve as a policy body inside the labor council that assures that labor’s agenda always includes an environmental focus and that labor’s issues are always present in larger discussions of environmental issues.
4) Promote progressive labor/environmental legislation.
We are excited about this new project and hope to engage our brothers and sisters in labor and the community at large as the Environmental Caucus develops, and we do our best to address this most crucial of issues for the future of our society and the quality of life on earth.
Jim Miller, American Federation of Teachers, Local 1931 and Micah Mitrosky, LEED Green Associate Environmental Organizer, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 569