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Understanding Sunrise, Part 2: Organizing Methods

By Dyanna Jaye and William Lawrence - Convergence, March 24, 2022

Sunrise melded mass protest, electoral work, and distributed organizing to great effect, but 2020 upended its plans and forced a reassessment.

Sunrise Movement grew from a labor of love by 12 young people, including the two of us, into the most prominent climate justice organization in the country. We put the Green New Deal on the map, strengthened the Left insurgency in the Democratic Party, and helped drive youth turnout to defeat Trump in 2020. Climate change became a political priority for the Democratic Party, and Sunrise directly influenced Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.

In the last year, though, despite a few impactful protests demanding ambition and urgency from Congress, Sunrise members and observers alike have noted a loss of strategic clarity and organizing power compared to 2017 through 2020. And it’s not just Sunrise: the entire Left has struggled to make the jump from punching upwards in the Trump era to winning material reforms in the Biden era.

In this essay, we’ll pull back the layers of Sunrise’s organizing model: how we actually recruited young people and united them in a structure for collective action. We’ll first discuss the major influences on Sunrise’s organizing and run through how it all played out in practice, the good and the bad.

We share a diagnosis that a central shortcoming in Sunrise’s organizing model was the absence of a sustained method of mass organizing at a local level, which left us nowhere to go once we could no longer rely on the fast-but-shallow growth of distributed organizing methods. We’re proud of the movement’s accomplishments while humble about its shortcomings. We offer our reflection in the practice of learning together in public; we hope our transparency can empower the next generation of movement builders—in Sunrise and across movements—to lead transformative organizing for the next era.

Understanding Sunrise, Part 1: Strategy

By William Lawrence - Convergence, March 14, 2022

Sunrise Movement made climate change a key political issue, but new conditions require new theory and strategy.

The state of Sunrise Movement, one of the more successful and visible U.S. Left organizations to emerge in the last five years, reflects trends in the broader Left. We hit a high-water mark with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ February 2020 victory in the Nevada caucus. Shortly after, the revenge of the Democratic establishment and the COVID pandemic halted all momentum and put Sunrise into a rear-guard attempt to salvage what could be won in a Biden administration. The underwhelming first year of that administration has left us floundering.

Today, a private and public reckoning is well underway. A new generation of leaders is taking account of Sunrise’s successes and failures, and working to design the next life of the movement. Early Sunrise leaders—of which I am one—are in the process of moving on, and handing over leadership of this youth organization to a more youthful cohort.

As a leader in Sunrise’s development from its founding in 2017 through early 2021, I feel obliged to offer an evaluation of our strategy and methods. My aim is to offer a detailed account of Sunrise’s aims and influences, in order that the next generation of strategist-organizers both inside and outside Sunrise may learn from what we did well, while overcoming our limitations.

You can consider just about every word of this essay as a self-critique and a practice of learning in public. As ever, I write with deep appreciation for all the climate justice fighters who find a place to place their hope amidst the looming dread of this crisis.

Part 1 of this essay, which you are reading now, focuses on Sunrise’s strategy, including our demands, rhetoric, and relation to the US party system. Part 2 will look at Sunrise’s methods of organizing.

I hope these essays not only illuminate our specific choices and why we made them, but demonstrate how the theoretical concepts on which we build our organizations actually shape their development. Sunrise’s successes owe much to the theories underpinning our strategy and methods, and our failures reveal much about where these theories fall short. I hope my reflections on these recent experiences may aid in developing better theory to face the challenges of the 21st century.

Beyond the Green New Deal: A Discussion with Monica Atkins of the Climate Justice Alliance

Coal Miners Weren’t Happy When Joe Manchin Derailed Build Back Better

By Austyn Gaffney - Sierra, January 19, 2022

The United Mine Workers of America issued a statement criticizing the senator for withdrawing his support from the legislation:

When West Virginia senator Joe Manchin III, a well-known coal baron, withdrew support from the Build Back Better agenda, the Biden administration’s landmark climate and social safety net bill, an influential coal-mining union was quick to respond.

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), a labor union formed in 1890 to organize coal miners seeking safe working conditions and fair pay, released a statement by international president Cecil E. Roberts on December 20 characterizing the union’s relationship with Manchin as “long and friendly” but expressing disappointment that the bill didn’t pass. (On the same day, the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of American labor unions, released a similar statement.)

“We urge Senator Manchin to revisit his opposition to the legislation and work with his colleagues to pass something that will help keep coal miners working,” Roberts wrote, “and have a meaningful impact on our members, their families, and their communities.”

Given the UMWA’s history with Manchin—he has been an honorary member since 2020—it was a notable reminder of just how much is at stake for miners and their communities as the president’s signature measure hangs in the balance. The Build Back Better legislation includes important items for the UMWA, like incentives to build manufacturing facilities in post-coal communities, financial penalties for employers who deny workers their rights to unionize, and an extension of the black lung trust fund, a levy paid by coal companies that provides a small monthly payment to miners with pneumoconiosis, a disease caused by coal dust and silica inhalation. 

Suds and Socialism Forum: Workers and the Environment

Biden’s Climate Pledge Is a Promise He Cannot Keep

By Howie Hawkins - Solidarity, May 4, 2021

IWW EUC web editor's disclaimer: the IWW does not advoate electralism or endorse political parties, including the Green Party. This article is included to provide a critique of the reformism of the Democratic Party (a similar critique could be offered about the Greens and all other parties).

The climate emergency demands a radical and rapid decarbonization of the U.S. economy with numerical goals and timetables to transform all productive sectors, not only power production (27% of carbon emissions), but also transportation (28%), manufacturing (22%), buildings (12%), and agriculture (10%). It also requires that the U.S. pay its “climate debt” as the world’s largest historical carbon emitter and destroyer of carbon-storing forests, wetlands, and soils. Paying that climate debt would not only be reparations to the Global South for deforestation and fossil fuel emissions by the rich capitalist countries, but also an investment in the habitability of the planet for everyone. This emergency transformation can only be met by an ecosocialist approach emphasizing democratic public enterprise and planning.

Instead, Biden’s plan features corporate welfare: subsidies and tax incentives for clean energy that will take uncertain effect at a leisurely pace in the markets. It does nothing to stop more oil and gas fracking and pipelines for more gas-fired power plants, or to shut down coal-fired power plants. Without out directly saying so, it is a plan to burn fossil fuels for decades to come.

The scale of spending falls pathetically short of what is needed to decarbonize the economy. An effective plan would not only reach zero emissions on a fast timeline. It would also move quickly toward negative emissions. We have to draw carbon out of the atmosphere because we are already well past carbon levels that are triggering dangerous climate change.

Biden’s stated goal of a 50% cut in emissions does not actually cut current emissions in half. His proposed 50% cut is from a baseline of 2005 when emissions were at their peak, not what they are today. Emissions were 6 GtC (gigatons of carbon dioxide) in 2005. Due to a leveling of electric power demand, a trend away from coal to wind, solar, and gas for electric power, and more energy-efficient vehicles, U.S. emissions were down 13% from 2005 by 2019 to 5.1 GtC and, due to the covid contraction, down 21% in 2020 to 4.6 GtC, although emissions are now soaring back up as the economy re-opens. Biden’s goal of 50% below 2005 is 3 GtC per year in emissions instead of 2.5 GtC if 2019 were the baseline, or 2.3 GtC if 2020 were the baseline.

Biden provided no explanation for how the U.S. will get to the precisely stated range of “50% to 52%.” 52% seems to be an arbitrary number pulled out of the air so he can say he is aiming for more than 50%. Greta Thunberg’s video prebuttal to the targets that were to be announced by Biden and the other 40 world leaders at his Earth Day Climate Summit saw right through the staged spectacle. “We can keep cheating in order to pretend that these targets are in line with what is needed, but while we can fool others, and even ourselves, we cannot fool nature and physics… Let’s call out their bullshit.”

Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin: Green New Deal Is Essential for Human Survival

By C.J. Polychroniou - Truthout, April 22, 2021

Earth Day has been celebrated since 1970, an era which marks the beginning of the modern environmental movement, with concerns built primarily around air and water pollution. Of course, the state of the environment has shifted dramatically since then, and while environmental policy has changed a lot in the United States over the past 50 years, biodiversity is in great danger and the climate crisis threatens to make the planet uninhabitable.

On the 51st anniversary of Earth Day, world-renowned scholar and public intellectual Noam Chomsky, institute professor emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, laureate professor of linguistics and also the Agnese Nelms Haury chair in the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona; and leading progressive economist Robert Pollin, distinguished professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, share their thoughts on the state of planet Earth in this exclusive interview for Truthout.

C.J. Polychroniou: The theme of Earth Day 2021, which first took place in 1970 with the emergence of environmental consciousness in the U.S. during the late 1960s, is “Restore Our Earth.” Noam, how would you assess the rate of progress to save the environment since the first Earth Day?

Noam Chomsky: There is some progress, but by no means enough, almost anywhere. Evidence unfortunately abounds. The drift toward disaster proceeds on its inexorable course, more rapidly than rise in general awareness of the severity of the crisis.

To pick an example of the drift toward disaster almost at random from the scientific literature, a study that appeared a few days ago reports that, “Marine life is fleeing the equator to cooler waters — this could trigger a mass extinction event,” an eventuality with potentially horrendous consequences.

It’s all too easy to document the lack of awareness. One striking illustration, too little noticed, is the dog that didn’t bark. There is no end to the denunciations of Trump’s misdeeds, but virtual silence about the worst crime in human history: his dedicated race to the abyss of environmental catastrophe, with his party in tow.

They couldn’t refrain from administering a last blow just before being driven from office (barely, and perhaps not for long). The final act in August 2020 was to roll back the last of the far-too-limited Obama-era regulations to have escaped the wrecking ball, “effectively freeing oil and gas companies from the need to detect and repair methane leaks — even as new research shows that far more of the potent greenhouse gas is seeping into the atmosphere than previously known … a gift to many beleaguered oil and gas companies.” It is imperative to serve the prime constituency, great wealth and corporate power, damn the consequences.

Indications are that with the rise of oil prices, fracking is reviving, adhering to Trump’s deregulation so as to improve profit margins, while again placing a foot on the accelerator to drive humanity over the cliff. An instructive contribution to impending crisis, minor in context.

Climate Crisis: Which Transitional Demands Should Ecosocialists Campaign For?

By Mike Shaughnessy - London Green Left Blog, April 20, 2021

The concept of transitional demands will be familiar to traditional socialists, particularly those followers of Leon Trotsky’s theories of socialism, although, I hasten to add, Trotsky was no ecosocialist. These demands are designed to appear to sound reasonable to the average citizen, and not directly lead to the overthrow of capitalism, but instead to create a pathway to socialism. They are more than just asking for reforms to the capitalist system, although they would be reforms, but they are not ends in themselves.

Much as I would like to see the overthrow of the capitalist system, and as an ecosocialist, I believe that this is necessary if we are to solve the climate crisis and the many other bad effects, both ecological and social, that capitalism creates. But there just isn’t enough time left.

If we are brutally honest with ourselves, a revolution to replace capitalism with ecosocialism is not on the horizon, and the well-being of the earth and all those (human and non-human) who inhabit it are in such deep peril now, we really can’t afford to wait until those conditions arise, as they surely will at some stage. We need mitigating action now. 

So, which sort of demands should ecosocialists be making? Given the urgency of the situation on climate change particularly, with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest assessment saying that we need to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, to avoid catastrophic changes to the environment, this is the main goal that we need to pursue. But not the only one. 

To Save America, Help West Virginia

By Liza Featherstone - Jacobin, March 30, 2021

A Democratic swing vote in an evenly divided Senate, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin has already proved to be a significant obstacle to progressive policy. His opposition was a significant reason for Biden’s failure to raise the minimum wage to $15; Manchin also played a key role in shrinking the household stimulus checks, as well as the weekly unemployment checks. He will be a necessary and highly undependable vote as Democrats attempt to address the climate crisis, advance union organizing rights, and counter racist Republican efforts to legislate voter suppression.

However, the infrastructure bill that Biden and the Democrats are preparing to unveil, which is expected to call for $3 trillion in investment in public goods and services, presents an opportunity for West Virginians — and for all of us. Manchin has been championing this legislation, even calling for it to be funded with an increase in taxes on corporations and the wealthy. On this issue, Eric Levitz of New York magazine has convincingly argued, Manchin is actually pulling Biden to the left.

Manchin’s salience puts West Virginia in a powerful position. The state has urgent needs, given the long decline of the coal industry and the double impact of the opioid and coronavirus public health crises. Almost a third of West Virginians filed for unemployment between mid-March 2020 and the end of January 2021.

A report by University of Massachusetts economists with the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), released in late February, proposed a recovery plan for West Virginia, with good jobs and environmental sustainability at its center. The study showed how compatible these priorities really are. The state’s coal industry has spent years successfully demonizing Democrats and environmentalists as job killers. Under recent regimes of neoliberal austerity, there might been some truth to that, but with more generous investment from the federal government, West Virginia can redevelop its economy and lead the nation in fighting climate change at the same time.

PERI found that the struggling Appalachian state could reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and reach zero emissions by 2050 — the targets the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) determined in 2018 were needed in order to avoid irreversible damage to our planet and to human civilizations — while creating jobs and promoting prosperity. The UMass researchers found that $3.6 billion per year in (both public and private) investments in a clean energy program — averaged over the 2021–2030 time period — would generate about 25,000 West Virginian jobs per year. The PERI researchers also analyzed the effect of $1.6 billion a year — also over 2021–2030 — in investments in public infrastructure, manufacturing, land restoration, and agriculture, finding that these efforts would generate about 16,000 jobs per year.

In fighting for such priorities, progressives need resist the pull of what we might call “woke neoliberalism.” Woke neoliberalism functions by using charges of racism and sexism — very real problems! — against initiatives that could help the entire working class. (Remember Hillary Clinton’s, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?”) In the debate over the Biden infrastructure bill, some well-meaning people are falling into that trap, already pitting investment in care work and infrastructure against each other.

The Washington Post reported on Monday, “Some people close to the White House say they feel that the emphasis on major physical infrastructure investments reflects a dated nostalgia for a kind of White working-class male worker,” citing SEIU president Mary Kay Henry’s private admonitions to the White House not to overlook the care economy. Henry said, “We’re up against a gender and racial bias that this work is not worth as much as the rubber, steel and auto work of the last century.” Economists Heidi Shierholz, Darrick Hamilton, and Larry Katz reportedly argued to the White House that investing in care work would create more jobs than investing in infrastructure.

Let’s not do this.

This Is What the Beginning of a Climate-Labor Alliance Looks Like: The PRO Act is emerging as the left’s answer to a classic political tension

By Kate Aronoff - New Republic, March 10, 2021

Tuesday night, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act passed the House by 225–205 votes. If it passes the Senate and becomes law, it will peel back over half a century of anti-union policies, including core provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. It would override state-level right-to-work protections—the darlings of the Koch brothers machine—and create harsher penalties for employers who interfere with employees’ organizing efforts. But in myriad ways, the act might also do something unexpected: set the stage for sweeping climate policy.

A coalition led by the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, or IUPAT, and the Communication Workers of America is mobilizing to push the PRO Act over the finish line in the Senate. The youth climate group Sunrise Movement was an early recruit, and the Democratic Socialists of America—including its ecosocialist working group, which is also pushing for a Green New Deal—will be deploying its members in key districts around the country to ensure it’s passed. After a kick-off call over the weekend featuring Congressman Jamaal Bowman, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA head Sara Nelson, and Naomi Klein, DSA is holding trainings for its members throughout March as well as events around the country pushing key senators to back the bill in the lead-up to May Day. Sunrise last week launched a Good Jobs for All campaign, which is urging on a federal job guarantee introduced recently by Representative Ayanna Pressley. Over the next several weeks, Sunrise hubs will be working alongside progressive legislators and holding in-district protests to advance five priorities for upcoming infrastructure legislation, including the PRO Act. After its passage through the House last night, a press release from the groups praised the measure as a “core pillar of the Green New Deal.”

The alliances forming around the PRO Act buck long-held wisdom in Washington about what it would take to get labor unions and environmentalists to work together. James Williams Jr., IUPAT’s vice president at large, has been frustrated by years of seeing the two talk past one another. Construction unions, in particular, have come to loggerheads with climate hawks over infrastructure projects like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. “I would blame labor a lot of the time for this,” he says, “but there have to be deeper conversations about the fact that labor is going to lose jobs that have been really good jobs for a really long time.” 

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