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Sean Petty

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.

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