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Labor Needs to Listen to the Next Generation and Help Craft a Green New Deal with Strong Labor Provisions

Mar 20, 2019

Young people across the world are making sure their voices are heard.  I was proud of my son, his friends, and their classmates last week when they walked out of San Diego High School to participate in the Global Climate Strike during which over a million students worldwide in two thousand locations across one hundred and twenty-five countries stood up to call for urgent climate action.


Moments like these serve as lights in the greater darkness.  And that darkness has been brought to us not just by the current occupant of the White House, but by years of inaction by previous generations of adults in power who have failed to have the vision to act decisively and effectively on everything from racial injustice and economic inequality to gun violence, gender inequity, and that most pressing problem of all, the looming threat of catastrophic climate change.


The students in San Diego and elsewhere in the United States were not just raising the alarm about climate change, they were demanding a Green New Deal to save their futures.  This inspiring action by students followed in the wake of a few other good signs here in San Diego and up north in Alameda where labor councils passed resolutions endorsing a Green New Deal with strong union provisions proactively aiming to put workers’ concerns at the heart of the discussion of what a sustainable American economy would look like.  These moves, along with the seminal work of groups like the Labor Network for Sustainability, which outlines how a Green New Deal could simultaneously fight climate change and economic inequality, were also beacons of hope.


Hence, it was deeply disappointing to see a small group of national labor leaders, largely representing workers in industries dependent on fossil fuel extraction, take aim at the Green New Deal last week by sending a letter to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward Markey decrying their resolution for “making promises that are not achievable or realistic.”  While acknowledging that climate change exists and that “doing nothing is not an option”, the thrust of the letter from the AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee is a warning shot.  More specifically, it declares, “we will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families” and unfairly characterizes the Green New Deal as a “threat.”


Not surprisingly, this missive was greeted with joy across the right-wing media landscape, with outlets like the National Review, the Washington Times, Freedom Works, and Maga News blaring headlines like “Big Labor Agrees the ‘Green New Deal’ Would Crush Workers.’”  And, predictably, GOP politicians joined the chorus celebrating the apparent rift between unions and the Democrats, with folks like Republican Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming (who has received big money from both fossil fuel interests AND union busters) happily tweeting, “I agree with the AFL-CIO.”


Of course, as the Jacobin piece on the media firestorm observed, most news outlets failed to note that the letter was sent not by “the entire AFL-CIO and the more than 12.5 million workers it represents” but “on behalf of the AFL-CIO Energy Committee, a body on which four-fifths of the AFL-CIO member unions are not represented.”  Hence, perhaps the “labor versus environmentalists” or “labor versus progressive Democrats” narratives are a bit premature.

Instead, it might be useful to keep in mind, as Rachel Cohen at the Intercept reminds us, that a number of the national—but not state or local—Building Trades leaders (there was not a single public sector, service sector, or health care workers union endorsing the statement) who signed on to this letter were the same folks who assailed the heroic activists opposing the Keystone Pipeline, visited Trump in the White House and praised the most anti-union president in history afterward, and, leaned right in the midterms. Indeed, as Cohen reports, “In the 2018 cycle, NABTU gave 41 percent of its political action committee contributions to Democratic candidates and 59 percent to Republicans.”


This is not necessarily even the inclination of Trades leaders in places like California or elsewhere, where both leaders and rank and file members of some of these unions have been a big part of the resistance to Trump.  Hence, it’s up to those folks of good will to do what they can to push back against their national leaders attacking progressives and giving aid and comfort to the right.


In essence, what we see here is a fearful reaction by a minority of the American labor leaders who didn’t poll the rank and file before issuing their shot across the bow against what is the most potentially transformational progressive political possibility on the near horizon.  If labor as a whole chooses to go in this direction, it seems likely that the AFL-CIO will be remembered for helping to re-elect Donald Trump and playing a key role in squandering what little time we have left to stop the worst effects of catastrophic climate change.


Let’s hope that rather than following the lead of those labor leaders who want to cozy up to Trump and deny or delay robust climate action, the rest of labor and the majority of workers inside and outside of unions will recognize that the grave threat that we face will require rapid, bold action and, yes, a just transition away from the extractivist industries that are killing the planet.


Blocking or delaying action until it’s too late is neither a moral position nor a smart long-term strategy when one considers that the economic impacts of climate change will halt growth and harm workers in ways which are beyond anything we have ever seen.  As David Wallace-Wells writes in his seminal new book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, the economic effects of the climate crisis, if not adequately addressed, will likely make the Great Depression look like a picnic.  And that’s nothing compared to the cost in human life, outlined by Wallace-Wells, that will give us the equivalent of “twenty five Holocausts” just from moving from 1.5 to 2 degrees of additional warming as “150 million people more would die from air pollution alone in a 2-degree warmer world than in a 1.5 degree warmer one.”


This will bring ruin to workers’ lives, with the poorest paying the steepest price and disaster for the future of all of our children.  Rather than railing against the aspirational vision of the Green New Deal, labor should get to the table and be a part of the solution.  As the Jacobin piece puts it:

A growing number of rank-and-file members back the Green New Deal and are in the position to build committees in their locals, form caucuses inside their international unions, and take action in their workplaces. These efforts inside unions to support climate action — buttressed by groups like Trade Unions for Energy Democracy and the Labor Network for Sustainability — can help us bring the imagination of the Green New Deal to the shop floor. And make it work.

The proponents of the Green New Deal are willing to listen to the concerns of labor as evidenced by Senator Markey already reaching out to some of the concerned unions.  If unions want to help shape a better future, they should embrace a partnership with those striving to find a way off the suicide path we are currently treading.  It will be hard, but there is no other way other than waving the white flag of surrender to a dystopian future in the service of very short-term economic interests.  Saying that you understand the threat of climate change while standing in the way of real action simply doesn’t cut it.  In sum, it’s time for all of the American labor movement to get on the right side of history.

If we don’t, our children will rightly curse us, labor politics be damned.


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