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Sean Sweeney

Green Capitalism Won’t Work

By Sean Sweeney - New Labor Forum, June 1, 2015

For the last twenty years, unions in the United States and internationally have generally accepted the dominant discourse on climate policy, one that is grounded in assumptions that private markets will lead the “green transition,” reduce emissions, and stabilize the climate over the longer term. Indeed, unions began attending the climate negotiations convened by the United Nations in the early 1990s, a time when the “triumph of the market” went unchallenged and the climate debate was awash with neoliberal ideas. Unions, therefore, focused on articulating the need for “Just Transition” policies to deal with the negative impacts on employment brought about by climate policies and to highlight the need for income protection, re-employment opportunities, education and re-training, and job creation.1

In keeping with the policy discourse of the time, unions talked and acted as if the transition to a low carbon economy was inevitable—the science was, after all, definitive and a broad consensus was emerging among business, governments, and civil society that emissions reductions were urgently needed and made good economic sense. Few unions openly expressed the view that capitalism might be incapable of addressing climate change and that radical restructuring of political economy is necessary in order to stay within planetary boundaries.

Standing Rock Solid with the Frackers: Are the Trades Putting Labor’s Head in the Gas Oven?

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, October 14, 2016

This article first appeared in New Labor Forum. It has been updated to reflect the rising level of union opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

If anyone were looking for further evidence that the AFL-CIO remains unprepared to accept the science of climate change, and unwilling to join with the effort being made by all of the major labor federations of the world to address the crisis, the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) provides only the most recent case in point. Taking direction from the newly minted North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU) and the American Petroleum Institute (API), the federation stood against the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribal nations.

In a recent video interview, NABTU president Sean McGarvey dismissed those who oppose the expansion of fossil fuels infrastructure. “There is no way to satisfy them…no way for them to recognize that if we don’t want to lose our place in the world as the economic superpower, then we have to have this infrastructure and the ability to responsibly reap the benefits of what God has given this country in its natural resources.”[i] Although the leaders of NABTU no longer identify with the AFL-CIO and the letterhead does not mention the Federation, the Trades continue to determine the shape the AFL-CIO’s approach to energy and climate. This is despite the fact that a growing number of unions have opposed the DAPL, among them the Amalgamated Transit Union, Communication Workers of America, National Domestic Workers Alliance, National Nurses United, New York State Nurses Association, Service Employees International Union (SEIU); SEIU 1199, and the United Electrical Workers. Union locals (branches or chapters) have also opposed the DAPL, among them, GEU UAW Local 6950 and Steelworkers Local 8751.

These unions have been joined by the Labor Coalition for Community Action, which represents well established AFL-CIO constituency groups like LCLAA, APALA, Pride at Work, CBTU, CLUW and the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

Reacting to the progressive unions’ solidarity with Standing Rock Sioux, NABTU’s president Sean McGarvey wrote a scathing letter to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, copies of which were sent to the principal officers of all of the Federation’s affiliated unions. In a fashion reminiscent of the Keystone XL fight, McGarvey disparaged the unions that opposed DAPL. A day later, on September 15th, the AFL-CIO issued its own already infamous statement supporting DAPL. “Trying to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved” said the statement. “The AFL-CIO calls on the Obama Administration to allow construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to continue.”[ii]

Unions in Philippines Commit to Defend Power Generation Cooperatives, Drive Public Renewables

By Wilson Fortaleza - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, October 4, 2016

Pasig City, Philippines, Sept 24th, 2016 — The Center for Power Issues and Initiatives (CPII) was very grateful to have, as its main speaker to the Conference on Financing Renewable Energy and Energy Democracy, Prof. Sean Sweeney of the Murphy Institute, City University of New York, and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED).

Held in 23-24 of September 2016, the conference, composed mainly of unions from the power sector, NGOs, and members of the academe, energetically discussed the concept of energy democracy and whether the Philippine government’s policies, specifically on financing renewable energy, would lead to the advancement of this alternative framework. Unions present were from the electric cooperatives and power generation and are affiliated to SENTRO. Unions from NAGKAISA also sent representatives. Finally, the unions resolved to include in their collective bargaining provisions on the shift to RE and just transition for those needing it.

The conference, which got a generous support from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) Philippine Office, was the fourth of a series on renewable energy organized by FES and the CPII. The first was on the proposed re-commissioning of the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant (BNPP); the second was on the impending power crisis; and the third was Getting There, which discussed about the gaps in policies and program implementation that hinder the advance of green energy in the Philippines.

While acknowledging that energy democracy is a “contested” concept, Sweeney insisted that an alternative framework, which is an independent trade union and working class approach based on eco-socialist principles, must be vigorously pursued by the trade unions and social movements in addressing energy emergency, climate change, and the continuing control of private monopolies of the energy sector.

In his presentation Sweeney argued that despite the compelling statistics on climate and health crisis, energy production, particularly on power, continues to be dominated by fossil fuels,especially coal. Likewise, despite the rapid rise of renewable energy in the global energy mix, fossil fuel is not likely to be displaced soon as shown in the latest data of global energy consumption and carbon emissions.

However, Sweeney was very optimistic that the shift is reversible, not only because of the advancement in RE technology but also because the concept of energy democracy is gaining wide recognition and practical application all over the world. In Germany, for instance, 60 cities have reclaimed their grids from private companies and 5 UK cities are soon to follow.

Unfortunately, he added, acceptance of pro-market ideas is still dominating the union approach as in the case of social partnership and social dialogue framework that influence many EU trade unions.

Pope’s encyclical sets the tone for June 29th Trade Union Climate Summit in New York

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, June 17, 2015

Just 11 days after Pope Francis released his encyclical on the environment, New York will host a major gathering of 40 unions from 14 countries. With resistance to ‘extreme extraction,’ austerity and inequality all rising, unions see opportunities to begin to build a united global movement for fundamental change.  The Pope’s radical critique of the existing system is sure to resonate with the 100-person gathering.

More than 40 unions from 14 countries will participate in a one-day Trade Union Climate Summit in New York City on June 29th, 2015.  Hosted by 32BJ SEIU, approximately 25 unions from the US will be present, representing workers in energy, nursing and health care, public transport, food and retail, building services, as well as new organizing efforts among precarious workers in the New York City area. Roughly 30 allied organizations will also participate, including the Climate Justice Alliance, 350.org, and the Emerald Cities Collaborative. A full list of registered participants is here.

Why a summit?

The summit is being organized nine months after the massive People’s Climate March on September 21, 2014, and just 5 months before the ‘last chance’ UN climate negotiations (COP 21) in Paris in early December 2015. Unions and close allies will come together in New York determined to find ways to help better connect the rising climate movement with the growing global struggle against austerity and inequality.  Unions have been playing an important role in both movements, but in most instances fighting for climate protection (read: people protection) and building opposition to austerity, low pay and precarious work remain separate struggles. But the potential for building a new and tranformational ‘climate and class movement’ appears to be growing.

This potential seems particularly visible in Southern Europe where the left has won impressive electoral victories in recent months. Importantly, this is a left for which atmospheric and ecological degradation is not an afterthought, but a central question that reveals a basic truth: we live in a political economy that takes but does not give back. Both nature and labor are inseparable, and both are treated as a ‘resource’ from which value is extracted as needed and then dumped.

The June 29 summit in New York will hear from unions from Greece (Thessaloniki water workers) and Spain (Comisiones Obreras) as well as from Italy (CGIL) where the traditional political parties are also losing support. With an eye on the Paris climate talks, the summit will hear from two representatives from the main French trade union federation (CGT) regarding the preparations for the events around COP21.  The UN climate meetings have been the scene of large mobilizations in recent years, particularly Copenhagen in late 2009 and Durban in late 2011.

Winning Clean Energy & Climate Justice for All

By Sean Sweeney - The Murphy Institute, June 20, 2017

Sean Sweeney, from Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), speaking at the 2017 People’s Summit, held on June 9-11th, on the three tasks to win energy democracy in front of the labor movement today.

Trade Unions For Energy Democracy: Asia-Pacific Regional meeting

By staff - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, August 29, 2017

Agenda:

Chair: Lance McCallum (National Campaign Coordinator, Australian Council of Trade Unions)

1. Sean Sweeney (Director, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy) :
A. Keystone USA: Calling from Nebraska: testifying against jobs claims for Keystone pipeline, strong movement in republican state also from first nations and environment groups
B. USA: Positive TUED presence at recent People’s Summit in Chicago – good traction in USA and support from Bernie Sanders supporting unions for TUED – this is against the spilt over energy in unions in the USA
C. UK: Labour party has adopted platform of energy democracy – Corbyn’s excellent result is encouraging–the platform is not straightforward nationalisation rather focused on initiatives like municipal control and procurement. Further movement from the Trade Union Council (UK) through recent motion to split up big power utility companies
D. Europe: Successful first meeting in Geneva that brought together cross section of European unions including – France, UK and Basque region. Resolved to produce framing statement for COP 23 when in Bonn.
E. South Africa: NUMSA and new national centre (SAFTU) undertaking strike action against the closure of coal and adoption of privatised renewable energy. Potential to strike at 6 power stations currently. Potential for NUMSA and SAFTU to embark on campaign for nationwide just transition campaigns (which would be first of such scale)
F. Australia: impressed by latest video on social media by ACTU starting a conversation about nationalising electricity system.
Questions

Colin Long: TUED presence at COP 23: Yes TUED is applying to host side event, have presence as part of union contingent, potential street protests. ITUC contact is Annabel Rosenberg – organising ITUC event.

2. Kate Lee ( Executive Officer: Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA)
a. India trip: End of November, 2017
TNI India is organising conference for unions, academics and state governments to explore climate impacts and energy democracy opportunities in India. Sean Sweeney will attend and speak with good opportunities for more discussion regarding the TUED analysis. There will also be an opportunity to link with a global unions meeting in the region. Following this Sean will be able to visit Nepal to visit TUED unions there for further discussions. Interested unions are welcome to participate – contact Kate for further details
b. Tom Reddington’s position
Tom has recently started working at Union Aid Abroad –APHEDA as the climate justice and energy democracy organiser. He has capacity to support the TUED Asia-Pacific network. He is progressing the mapping exercise from the recent New York meeting and will be distributing a short survey for members to complete soon.
Questions:
Greg Mclean will send Kate Lee contacts re. Energy democracy and unions in India (Prayas and Raman Khan)
Colin Long: interested in bringing Bangladeshi unionist to Australia to discuss new coal projects (e.g. Adani) from their perspective and worker exploitation

(Working Paper #5) The Hard Facts About Coal: Why Trade Unions Should Re-evaluate their Support for Carbon Capture and Storage

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, November 6, 2015

The Hard Facts About Coal – Unions and CCS - Coal use has grown dramatically in the past 25 years and is today responsible for 44% of the world’s annual CO2 emissions.  It also has a dramatic impact on health and life expectancy.

Much hope has been placed in carbon capture and storage (CCS) to help address the CO2 generated by burning coal. Its proponents have included trade unionists, climate scientists, environmentalists, and governments looking for a way to greatly reduce emissions. And indeed, this evolving technology promises to capture up to 90% of the CO2 produced by coal-fired power plants and to permanently bury it in stable geological formations deep underground.

However, the promise of CCS has so far gone unfulfilled. In fact, the potential of deploying CCS—and the support it receives from unions and others—has been used as political cover for the development of new coal infrastructure. It seems increasingly unlikely that CCS will ever be deployed at an adequate level, leaving us with a locked-in carbon infrastructure without the promised mitigation.

Even if CCS is deployed at the levels needed to significantly reduce emissions, the environmental damage done by extracting, transporting, and burning coal will continue. Indeed, the “energy penalty” associated with CCS means that coal’s impact on human health and the environment may even be increased. In this context, trade union support for CCS risks alienating frontline communities and other allies who are taking the lead in building a movement for climate and environmental justice.

In this TUED Working Paper, Sean Sweeney, the director of the International Program for Labor, Climate and the Environment at CUNY’s Murphy Institute, looks at CCS in the context of coal-fired electricity generation. He argues that rather than supporting CCS within a market-dominated policy debate, the trade union movement should be exploring a “third scenario,” one that challenges the neoliberal policy framework and the “growth without end” assumptions that dominates policy discussions on energy use. CCS may have a place in the transition to a post-carbon world, but this place must be determined democratically, and by public need.

Should Unions Strike for a Just Transition?

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, October 10, 2017

After more than a decade of tenacious union lobbying of government negotiators, the words “a just transition of the workforce” was written into the preamble of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

But now what? Encouraged by Paris, unions around the world have committed fresh energy towards giving Just Transition some practical significance, otherwise it will remain little more than a moral appeal for fairness in a corporate-dominated world economy where both morality and fairness are increasingly scarce.

This Bulletin features an article by TUED coordinator Sean Sweeney on the recent commitment made by unions in South Africa to strike for a “just transition.” However, the goal of the threatened strike is to halt the plan of the national utility (Eskom) to close 5 coal-fired power stations, a move that threatens 40,000 jobs.  Titled “When Stopping Coal Plant Closures Makes Environmental Sense” the article, which first appeared in the Fall 2017 edition of New Labor Forum, urges environmentalists not to support the closures, but to join with unions in opposing Eskom’s proposed actions.  Supporting the closures, argues Sweeney is “a poisoned chalice,”  that “will separate the environmental movement from the unions with whom it should be allied. And whatever environmental gains the 5 closures might produce at the margins in terms of avoided emissions and pollution levels will be more than offset by the impact of ‘jobs versus environment’ political fragmentation. This is why the Eskom closures should be opposed, but opposed in a way that might lay the political foundations for a more fundamental energy transition.”

Since the article was written, Eskom’s war with the private renewable energy companies has continued, with the utility pushing back against high-cost of power purchase agreements for wind and solar power. TUED union NUMSA and also the new South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) have called for a socially owned renewables sector in order to allow for a just energy transition from the present coal-dominated power system to one that can take advantage of South Africa’s abundant supplies of wind and sunshine.

(Working Paper #6) Carbon Markets After Paris: Trading in Trouble

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, March 11, 2016

The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement enshrines emissions trading schemes (ETSs) as a key mechanism for reducing emissions. But are ETSs effective?

Since the early 1990s, “putting a price on carbon” has been, perhaps, the primary policy proposal for fighting climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Whether through carbon taxes or “cap-and-trade” ETSs, proponents of carbon pricing see it as a way to guide investment toward green solutions without the need for more decisive government interventions. ETSs, in particular, have been favored by businesses and neoliberal policy makers seeking to limit emissions without disrupting business-as-usual.

It has been a decade since the European Union established the world’s largest ETS. In the long aftermath of the 2008-9 financial crisis, the price on carbon has been too low to incentivize investors to move away from fossil fuels.

Union Approaches

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC)—a supporter of the EU ETS—has called for policies that would raise the price on carbon while also expressing concern about “carbon leakage” —where companies move polluting activities (and associated jobs) to jurisdictions without price constraints on pollution. Such a position threads the needle of trade union debates around the EU ETS without resolving the underlying tensions—nor, it should be noted, shifting EU policy in any appreciable way. With the Paris Agreement giving an even more prominent role to carbon pricing, unions around the world are likely to face similar debates.

In the TUED Working Paper Carbon Markets After Paris, TUED Coordinator  Sean Sweeney argues that it is time for unions to reevaluate their stance on emissions trading. Market-based solutions may be appealing to business interests and their political allies, but it’s going to take direct governmental action to guide a transition to a just, democratic, and sustainable energy system and a low-carbon economy.  The now battered neoliberal consensus finds public and democratic ownership and control of a key economic sector to be anathema, but it is precisely what is needed if we are serious about combating climate change.

TUED Disclaimer: This paper represents the views of its author.  The opinions expressed here may or may not be consistent with the policies and positions of unions participating in TUED. The paper is offered for discussion and debate.

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