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How labor is working on climate justice

By Sean Petty - Socialist Worker, December 14, 2015

Many political leaders and the mainstream media are hailing the agreement signed by nearly 200 countries at the United Nations climate summit in Paris as "groundbreaking." But for the many thousands of people and hundreds of organizations struggling for climate justice, the deal struck at COP 21 doesn't go far enough--and not nearly fast enough.

Sean Petty, a pediatric ER nurse in New York City and member of the New York State Nurses Association, traveled to Paris during the two weeks of COP 21 to be part of protests and discussions organized by climate justice organizations. Here, he answered SW's questions about the presence of unions during the summit and what lies ahead for labor and the struggle to save the planet:

WHY WERE people from your union present at the climate talks?

FOR A number of reasons. Especially after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 caused heavy damage in large parts of New York City, including several public hospitals where our members care for patients, we have become very active in the movement to stop climate change.

We opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, we opposed fracking in our state, and we helped mobilize for the People's Climate March in September 2014. We also developed lunchtime educational meetings in our hospitals around climate change and are organizing a Climate Justice committee, which is something we hope other unions emulate.

We wanted to come to Paris to relate these experiences and join with other unions in sending a clear message that we have to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius, and that the necessary transition to renewable energy has to happen on a world-historic scale, has to involve the creation of good, union jobs, and has to happen through a massive expansion of public investment in energy, infrastructure and transportation.

HOW WAS the union presence organized during the COP 21?

THE MAIN global federation of unions is the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC), and it is the official voice of unions within negotiations. The ITUC also organized a two-day series of workshops called the "Trade Union Forum on Climate and Jobs," where a number of unions contributed to panel discussions around different aspects of the climate crisis.

The ITUC also held workshops at the broader assembly of climate justice organizations called the "Sommet citoyen pour le climat" (People's Climate Summit), which took place in Motreuil, a close suburb of Paris, over the weekend of December 5-6.

The ITUC's main objective in the talks over the last decade or so was to fight for two words to be included in any final agreement: "just transition." This language was included in drafts leading up to the COP 21, but was dropped pretty early on during negotiations.

This triggered a significant action on December 10, where as many as 400 members of the union delegation and their allies staged a sit-in for several hours in the social space adjacent to the talks. This was a somewhat bold move, as the French ban on protests, imposed following the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, was still in effect. The French authorities chose not to have a confrontation and allowed to action to proceed without incident.

The protest gained attention for this issue. But the strategy of focusing on getting vague language into a nonbinding agreement as the primary focus of international trade union action has to be questioned. The stakes are way too high for such low expectations.

WHY DO you think the official trade union strategy is so limited?

I THINK there's two obvious causes.

First, many unions that are, of course, prominent members of national and global labor federations represent workers in fossil-fuel industries. These unions don't want to lose dues-paying members, and they rightly don't want to see a largely nonunion industry replace a largely unionized industry. Thus, the call for a "just transition" is the lowest common denominator in terms of demands.

These unions, mostly from energy, manufacturing, and building and construction trades, state that they are opposed to climate change and support measures to reduce emissions. But in practice, at least at the present time, they vigorously oppose any measures aimed at limiting the expansion of fossil fuel companies and fossil fuel-based energy. The U.S. delegation to the COP 21 talks was weighted heavily in favor of these unions.

But a growing number of unions, mainly organized through the network Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), are becoming more of a presence in numerous countries worldwide and are providing an alternative framework for climate and economic justice.

The second main reason the strategy is so limited is political. Many unions, especially in North America and Europe, have close ties with notoriously compromised social democratic parties--and in the U.S., with the explicitly pro-capitalist Democratic Party. All of these parties are committed to further austerity.

I think the global financial crisis along with the now widely recognized climate crisis provides an opportunity for possible breaks and splits within the limited approach. But it will take a significant resurgence of politically organized rank-and-file activity that has been small-scale or absent altogether up to this point.

YOU MENTIONED Trade Unions for Energy Democracy. What was its approach in Paris?

TUED'S MAIN goal was to create space for a serious strategic debate within the union movement, before, during and after the COP 21 talks.

TUED's central argument is that the solution to austerity, the jobs crisis and the climate crisis is for unions to unite in a global fight for a massive public investment in renewable energy, public transportation and mass carbon-neutral infrastructure. The framework of "energy democracy" versus market-driven energy solutions is central.

The underlying assumption is that we will never come close to meeting emissions reductions on the scale needed to stop climate catastrophe if profit is the determining factor for how energy is produced and consumed.

TUED has helped organize union opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline; coordinated an international presence at the People's Climate March in New York, initiated a union call for a Global Moratorium on Fracking; and helped support the work of the Global Climate Jobs Campaign, which has developed immediately implementable climate jobs proposals for six different countries.

In Paris, TUED, its member unions and allies organized close to half of the workshops at the ITUC Forum, including a specific panel on the fight for energy democracy. My union co-sponsored a meeting on the Global Moratorium on Fracking, as well as a panel discussion on the union response to the migrant crisis.

We also participated in a panel discussing the unique role of health care unions in the climate justice movement. Unfortunately, National Nurses United, a very vocal union in the U.S. around climate change, decided not to attend the talks due to security concerns.

Other TUED-affiliated unions hosted workshops on the crucial role of expanding public transportation and the global fight for climate jobs.

But in my view, the most important event that TUED pulled together was an amazing panel discussion on December 7 in central Paris featuring left-wing author Naomi Klein and British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

HOW DID that come about? What was it like at the meeting?

I'M NOT sure of all of the details, but Klein has collaborated closely with TUED over the years, specifically around building last year's People's Climate March, connecting with Canadian unions and building on this concept of energy democracy. Corbyn, for his part, has come out with a very clear and bold proposal to reduce emissions and create jobs, which prominently features the One Million Climate Jobs plan in the UK, along with calls for energy democracy.

So I think it was a natural fit for them to speak together at this moment. In addition to these headliners, the panel was complemented by four TUED-affiliated union leaders and allies. Around 700 people packed the Salle De Olympe de Gouges to hear the panel, making it possibly the largest union-themed meeting to address climate change thus far.

The strength of Klein's presentation was threefold. First, she talked about the specificity of this moment, especially for unions and the question of jobs. Here's an excerpt from what she told the meeting:

The oil and gas industry was creating so many well-paying jobs, and they were the only ones doing it. This was the problem. When we were having these debates about green jobs versus pipelines, it was a debate about actual jobs that the oil and gas industry was putting on the table and notional jobs that no one was putting on the table. Even if there are more notional jobs than actual jobs, people are still going to fight for those actual jobs.

Where we are at now is different. Some 100,000 workers have lost their jobs in the Alberta Tar Sands. Workers are being hurt in this moment. For a long time, the oil and gas industry was able to equate their interests with the interests of workers, and say "We're fighting for jobs" and so on. But of course, they threw their workers under the bus as soon as there was an oil price shock. So those interests have now been severed, and it's an opportunity to build those alliances.

Next, Klein emphasized the intersection of questions of racial justice and climate justice:

People and places have been sacrificed so that our economies could be powered by fossil fuels. And those are the communities--indigenous communities, communities of color--that are dealing with the cancer and the asthma of the fossil-fuel based economy. They need to be first in line for public money to own and control their own renewable energy projects.

Finally, she made it clear why it was possible to win these demands in the short term:

The money we need is out there. We just have to go after it...It's an end to fossil fuel subsidies. That will give us trillions of dollars right there. It's financial transaction taxes, increases on fossil fuel royalties, higher income taxes on corporations and the wealthy, a progressive carbon tax--and by the way, it's a very good time to introduce one when the price of oil is down--and cuts to military spending.

Indeed, Clara Paillard of the Public and Commercial Services Union in Britain, put this last point more bluntly. "In 2008," she told the meeting, "the UK found 8 billion pounds to save the banks. And in the UK, tax avoidance and evasion represent over $100 billion pounds every year. Let's be clear--if the planet was a bank, they would have already saved it."

Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, the president of my union NYSNA, emphasized building on the momentum of recent victories and keeping the focus on power from below. "In the U.S.," she said, "it was people's power that stopped the Keystone XL pipeline. In New York state, it was relentless organizing, education and agitating that forced the governor to not only call for a moratorium on fracking, but to ban it forever."

Then Jeremy Corbyn, after elaborating extensively on the nature of the current environmental crisis and the need for energy democracy, ended with an inspiring call to action:

We've taken the responsibility on ourselves to do something here and now. To stop the destruction of the world's environment, to bring people together to prevent that from happening. And above all, to bring people together not through fear, but through hope, through imagination, through optimism.

Unleash the optimism. Unleash the imagination. Unleash the hope. That is the way forward.

It was, in my opinion, a very important conversation, with an important audience of both union leaders and activists. Especially critical in this atmosphere of low expectations and scapegoating was the fact that the biggest cheers came after speakers called for standing up the French government's protest ban, and for standing up to racist fear-mongering in the wake of the recent attacks in Paris. Indeed, perhaps the loudest cheers of the night came when TUED coordinator Sean Sweeney thanked Corbyn for his stance in support of Syrian refugees and against bombing.

This meeting--along with the trade union sit-in the following Wednesday and the sheer size of the planned mobilization on December 12--was responsible in some measure for the French government's decision to lift the ban on protests. And more generally, it pointed to several important political strategies that we will need in order to win this fight.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

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