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Viewpoint: Climate Justice Must Be a Top Priority for Labor

By Peter Knowlton and John Braxton - Labor Notes, September 21, 2021

Today’s existential crisis for humanity is the immediate need to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. All of us have to. Everywhere. For workers and for our communities there is no more pressing matter than this.

We need to begin a discussion among co-workers, creating demands and acting on them at the workplace and bargaining table. We need to show up at local union meetings, central labor councils, and town halls supporting demands that move us toward a fossil fuel-free future.

At the same time, we need to protect the incomes and benefits of workers affected by the transition off of fossil fuels and to make sure they have real training opportunities. And we need to restore and elevate those communities that have been sacrificed for fossil fuel extraction, production, and distribution. We should promote candidates for elected office who support legislation which puts those aspirations into practice, such as the Green New Deal.

If the labor movement does not take the lead in pushing for a fair and just transition, one of these futures awaits us: (1) the world will either fail to make the transition to renewable energy and scorch us all, or (2) the working class will once again be forced to make all of the sacrifices in the transition.

The time is long past ripe for U.S. unions and our leaders to step up and use our collective power in our workplaces, in our communities, and in the streets to deal with these crises. That means we need to break out of the false choice between good union jobs and a livable environment.

There are no jobs on a dead planet. Social, economic, and environmental justice movements can provide some pressure to mitigate the crises, but how can we succeed if the labor movement and the environmental movement continue to allow the fossil fuel industry to pit us against each other? Rather than defending industries that need to be transformed, labor needs to insist that the transition to a renewable energy economy include income protection, investment in new jobs in communities that now depend on fossil fuels, retraining for those new jobs, and funds to give older workers a bridge to retirement.

Like any change of technology or work practice in a shop, if the workers affected don’t receive sufficient guarantees of income, benefits, and protections their support for it, regardless of the urgency, will suffer.

Fossil fuel unions in Texas sign on to a climate jobs plan

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, September 7, 2021

A July report from the Workers’ Institute at Cornell University Industrial Relations School examines the state of play in Texas and makes a series of recommendations “that can help Texas simultaneously combat climate change, create high-quality jobs, and build more equitable and resilient communities.” Combatting Climate Change, Reversing Inequality: A Climate Jobs Program for Texas identifies the current challenges : a COVID-19 public health pandemic and ensuing economic crisis; a growing crisis of inequality of income, wealth, race and power; and the worsening climate crisis, which has brought weather disasters to the state.

Texas is an interesting case study: it is the state with the most greenhouse gas emissions and pollution in the U.S., with 42.4% of emissions from its well-established oil and gas industry. Oil and gas (including extraction, refining, petrochemical production) employs over 450,000 Texans, with a state-wide unionization rate of 4.8%. But Texas also leads the states in wind power installations and has wind power manufacturing facilities. Into this mix, the researchers crafted a series of concrete recommendations for jobs-driven strategies to achieve a low-carbon, more equitable economy. These include targets for the installation of wind, solar and geothermal energy, along with an upgraded electricity grid to handle renewables; a target of 2040 to electrify school buses and State and Local government vehicle fleets ; construction of a High-Speed Rail Network between the five largest cities in Texas; a target to reduce energy use in existing buildings by 30% by 2035, and a mandate for Net-Zero Emissions for new construction by 2050; and the creation of a multi-stakeholder Just Transition Commission. The report also applies many of these recommendations for the cities of Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio.

Each of these state-wide recommendations is described in detail, with costing, GHG emissions reductions estimates, and job creation estimates by sector. Total direct jobs created over a range from 10 to 25 years is estimated at 1,140,186, with another 1,125,434 indirect and 913,981 induced jobs.

The report was written by Professors Lara Skinner and J. Mijin Cha, with research assistance from Hunter Moskowitz and Matt Phillips, in consultation with 27 Texas labour unions. It accompanies the launch of the Texas Climate Jobs Project , an offshoot of the Texas AFL-CIO. Lara Skinner describes the report and the Climate Jobs Project in “Why Texas Fossil Fuel unions signed onto a climate plan” (Grist, July 30). A press release from Texas AFL-CIO includes a summary of recommendations and endorsements from various unions.

Texas Unions Launch Major Effort to Combat Climate Change, Tackle Inequality in US Energy Capital

By Bo Delp - Texas AFL-CIO, July 27, 2021

A new and growing coalition of Texas labor unions Monday launched the Texas Climate Jobs Project (TCJP), a major joint effort to fight climate change and reverse income inequality in the energy capital of the country.

A new report by climate and labor experts at Cornell University, Northeastern University, and Occidental College, in consultation with 27 Texas labor unions, accompanied the launch and outlays out a comprehensive climate jobs action plan to put Texas on the path to building an equitable clean-energy economy. A provision of the plan includes the installation of 40 GW of solar energy and 100 GW of wind energy and the electrification of school bus and public vehicle fleets by 2040.

The launch of the Texas Climate Jobs Project comes a day before the Texas AFL-CIO convention, at which the state’s labor leaders are expected to pass a resolution backing the coalition’s mission and its foundational report.

“Texans are facing several converging crises: a changing climate that is hurting working people first and worst, skyrocketing income inequality, and deep racial injustice,” said Rick Levy, President of the Texas AFL-CIO. “Today, the Texas labor movement is coming together to endorse a historic proposal that would tackle these crises by creating good union jobs across our state and combating climate breakdown. As the unions that power the energy capital of America, we believe the Texas Climate Jobs Project can lead the way in transforming our economy in ways that lift up working families and communities while protecting the air we breathe and the water we drink. We must make sure that the workers who have powered this state for generations are not left behind.”

The Texas Climate Jobs Project will advocate for long-term solutions to these intertwined crises by pushing state and local lawmakers to tap the state’s massive renewable energy potential and create millions of new family-sustaining union jobs, as outlined in the report’s recommendations.

In addition to outlining targets for renewable energy development and vehicle electrification, the report calls for the retrofitting and installation of solar panels systems on all Texas public K-12 schools by 2035, the creation of a Just Transition Commission, and the construction of a high-speed rail network.

“Climate change is hurting every working person in Texas,” said Bo Delp, Executive Director of Texas Climate Jobs Project. “Today, unions from across our state are advancing their vision of a pro-worker, pro-climate agenda that gives everyone a fair shot to succeed in our clean energy transition.” 

Rutgers Divests!

By staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, May 2021

Members of Rutgers American Association of University Professors – American Federation of Teachers (AAUP-AFT) are joining with student allies in celebrating a vote to divest from fossil fuels by the Rutgers Board of Governors and Board of Trustees.

The decision, set in motion last year by a formal request from a broad student coalition, backed by Rutgers unions, will commit the university to cutting financial connections to any company or investment fund whose primary business is in oil, coal, or natural gas, from exploration and extraction to pipelines and transportation.

Divestment is the culmination of years of efforts by students, faculty, and staff to get Rutgers to take concrete action toward the goal of climate justice, said David Hughes, past president and current treasurer of Rutgers AAUP-AFT, the union representing full-time faculty and graduate workers. “This is seven-and-a-half years in the making,” Hughes said, “and it will give greater strength to the divestment movement at exactly the moment when the new Biden administration is beginning to take up climate change.”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten also highlighted the years of organizing. “The university community at Rutgers has shown that when people come together around an issue like climate sustainability, change is possible,” Weingarten said. “Hopefully the work Rutgers is doing on fossil fuel divestment will set a standard for other institutions. For our universities to truly become institutions of climate mitigation and resiliency, we must also invest in solarizing buildings and other measures that generate clean energy.”

Climate Justice, Jobs, and Freedom to Thrive

How to “Build Back Better”

By staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 2021

Anyone interested in how to address the concerns of both labor and environmentalists in upcoming legislation should take a look at the new Sierra Club report “How to Build Back Better: A 10-year Plan for Economic Renewal.” Although the Sierra Club is an environmental organization – in fact, the country’s largest–this “blueprint for economic renewal” has been designed with the needs of workers and discriminated-against groups front and center.

The plan is based on the THRIVE Agenda, which has been endorsed by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, American Federation of Teachers, American Postal Workers Union, Amalgamated Transit Union, Communications Workers of America, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America and Service Employees International Union.

  • By investing $1 trillion per year, an economic renewal plan based on the THRIVE Agenda would create over 15 million good jobs–enough to end the unemployment crisis–while countering systemic racism, supporting public health, and cutting climate pollution nearly in half by 2030.
  • These investments must come with ironclad labor and equity standards to curb racial, economic, and gender inequity instead of reinforcing the unjust status quo.

Why Unions Are the Key to Passing a Green New Deal

By Dharna Noor - Gizomodo, September 25, 2020

There’s a persistent conservative myth that the clean energy transition must come at the expense of employment. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. The Congressional resolution on a Green New Deal, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey last February, includes a proposal guarantee employment to all those who want it. And increasingly, climate activists are focusing on the potential to create millions of good jobs in clean energy.

These pro-worker proposals—and the knowledge that it will take an economy-wide effort to kick fossil fuels and the curb to avert climate catastrophe—have won the platform support from swaths of the labor movement. Yet some powerful unions still oppose the sweeping proposal. The president of the AFL-CIO—the largest federation of unions in the U.S.—criticized the Green New Deal resolution, and heads of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, the United Mine Workers of America, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have outright opposed it. That poses a political roadblock to achieving the necessary transformation of the U.S. economy. 

“The Green New Deal movement needs broader support from the labor movement to be successful,” Joe Uehlein, founding president of the Labor Network for Sustainability and former secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department, said. “As long as labor isn’t a central player in this movement, they will they have the power to block pretty much anything. on Capitol Hill. They contribute in electoral campaigns. They’re a very powerful force.”

The Green New Deal Just Won a Major Union Endorsement. What's Stopping the AFL-CIO?

By Mindy Isser - In These Times, August 12, 2020

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second largest teachers’ union in the country, passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal at its biennial convention at the end of July. The Green New Deal, federal legislation introduced in early 2019, would create a living-wage job for anyone who wants one and implement 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030. The endorsement is huge news for both Green New Deal advocates and the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States. The AFT’s endorsement could be a sign of environmental activists’ growing power, and it sends a message to the AFL-CIO that it, too, has an opportunity to get on board with the Green New Deal. But working people’s conditions are changing rapidly, and with nearly half of all workers in the country without a job, the leaders of the AFL-CIO and its member unions may choose to knuckle down on what they perceive to be bread-and-butter issues, instead of fighting more broadly and boldly beyond immediate workplace concerns.

The AFT endorsement follows that of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), National Nurses United (NNU) and the Maine AFL-CIO — all of which declared their support for the Green New Deal in 2019. And while local unions have passed resolutions in support of the Green New Deal, the AFT, NNU and AFA-CWA are the only national unions in the AFL-CIO to endorse the Green New Deal. (SEIU is affiliated with another labor federation, Change to Win.)

Yet the AFL-CIO has remained resistant. When Sen. Ed Markey (D‑Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) introduced the Green New Deal legislation in February 2019, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters, ​“We need to address the environment. We need to do it quickly.” But he also noted that, ​“We need to do it in a way that doesn’t put these communities behind, and leave segments of the economy behind. So we’ll be working to make sure that we do two things: That by fixing one thing we don’t create a problem somewhere else.”

Where Trumka has been skeptical and resistant, some union leaders in the federation have been more forceful in their opposition; many unions with members who work in extractive industries, including the building trades, slammed the legislation. Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, wrote a letter to both Markey and Ocasio-Cortez on behalf of the AFL-CIO Energy Committee that said, ​“We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families. We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered.”

Labor, Environmental Groups Urge Emergency Action to Protect Frontline Workers From COVID-19

By Various - Center for Biological Diversity, et. al., August 11, 2020

Legal Filing Demands Trump Administration Use Defense Production Act to Provide PPE, Prevent More Deaths, Illness

WASHINGTON— Labor unions representing health care workers, teachers, transit operators and millions of other frontline workers joined with environmental groups today to demand that the Trump administration take emergency action to provide adequate masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment to these essential workers.

The legal petition demands that Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf act immediately to ensure the manufacture and distribution of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). The Trump administration has refused to properly manage PPE production and distribution, leaving states and industry to compete and frontline workers short of supplies.

“It’s terrifying to risk your life every day just by going to work. It brings a lot of things into perspective,” said Rick Lucas, a registered nurse at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and president of the Ohio State University Nurses Organization local of the Ohio Nurses Association. “I’m not going to give up on protecting my patients, even though it’s clear the federal government has basically given up on protecting us. More than 100 of my coworkers have tested positive for the coronavirus, and many of those positive tests were due to occupational exposure because of lack of PPE. This is inexcusable.”

Today’s petition was submitted by some of the nation’s largest labor unions — representing essential workers in healthcare, education, transportation and service sectors — including the AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union, National Nurses United, American Federation of Teachers and Amalgamated Transit Union. The groups collectively represent more than 15 million workers in frontline industries that have suffered thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of illnesses from COVID-19.

“The Trump administration is AWOL on safety and refuses to help the front-line workers who are still in desperate need of more PPE,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “It is unconscionable, it is costing lives and in this petition America's essential workers are demanding answers, and most of all, action.”

In March President Donald Trump issued a series of executive orders declaring a national emergency due to COVID-19 and delegating broad powers to Azar and Wolf under the Defense Production Act. The act is designed to ensure the provision of essential materials and goods during public health emergencies. The secretaries have failed to fully utilize their authority, leading to a shortage of PPE.

AFT Resolution in Support of the Green New Deal

Resolution passed by the American Federation of Teachers, July 31, 2020

WHEREAS, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that current concentrations and ongoing emissions of greenhouse gases will continue to cause increases in global temperatures, warming of the world’s oceans and increases in the average sea level rise for many centuries; that irreversible changes in major ecosystems and the planetary climate system may already have been reached or passed; that ecosystems as diverse as the Amazon rainforest and other natural wildlife and forest reserves across the world have or are approaching thresholds of dramatic change; and that these events will transcend generations; and

WHEREAS, the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas for the purposes of electricity generation and transportation is the primary source of climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions; and

WHEREAS, the World Health Organization reports that rising temperatures and rising seas, as well as diminished air and water quality, lead to significant health risks such as heat-related risks, cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, vector-borne infection, illness related to contaminated water, loss of shelter and compromised food supplies; and

WHEREAS, there is growing opposition to the negative health and environmental effects of fossil fuel extraction and consumption; coal-specific fossil fuel-dependent regions across the United States have been economically devastated by the shift from coal consumption; and the remaining coal jobs across the country are expected to steadily decline over the coming years; and

WHEREAS, working families, frontline communities, communities of color, low-income communities and other vulnerable populations suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation and climate change events such as extreme hurricanes, wildfire, drought and flooding, extreme heat and the spread of infectious disease; and

WHEREAS, studies show that 13 million Americans could be forced out of their communities and jobs due to climate change by the next century; and,

WHEREAS, hundreds of institutional investors in the United States and abroad have taken steps to divest their dollars from fossil fuel companies; and energy companies may actually pose a long-term risk to pension fund portfolios because there is a risk that governments could regulate oil and coal companies so extensively that their equities are devalued; and

WHEREAS, the International Labor Organization has reported that large economies moving toward greener and more environmentally sustainable transitions could generate up to 60 million new jobs worldwide over the next two decades; and

WHEREAS, the American Society of Civil Engineers has reported that if the American infrastructure investment gap is not addressed throughout the nation’s infrastructure sectors by 2025, the economy is expected to lose almost $4 trillion in gross domestic product, and that these gaps in infrastructure funding combined with climate change pose a potentially serious impact on worldwide water resources, energy production and use, agriculture, forestry, coastal development and resources, flood control and public infrastructure; and

WHEREAS, working collaboratively with industry partners, career and technical education teachers can prepare students for a green economy by developing CTE programs with sustainability and environmental content, and by providing opportunities for students to gain hands-on, project-based experience directly tied to emerging professions and family-sustaining jobs; and

WHEREAS, the Department of Defense is the largest single emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet, and the AFT has repeatedly endorsed the principle of reducing military spending (except for veterans’ benefits) and using the money saved to create millions of jobs in a peaceful green economy, including transitioning many weapons production jobs to peacetime production jobs; and

WHEREAS, private investment for transitioning from fossil fuels has been completely insufficient, and multinational corporate interests strongly oppose public efforts for a just transition, especially public financing and labor protections; and

WHEREAS, working collaboratively with parents, communities and public institutions across the United States, teachers and professors can prepare diverse students to be informed leaders for a just green society by developing curricula and programming that create inclusive democratic spaces for learning and collaboration promoting sustainability, resilience and climate justice; and

WHEREAS, the American Federation of Teachers represents workers from all sectors of the economy and across all demographics who have a significant stake in the development of a green economy that can both slow the crisis of climate change and build an economy and strengthened public sector based on the foundation of a strong labor movement with family-supporting wages, benefits and shared prosperity for all; and

WHEREAS, the labor movement must be at the center of shaping climate policies to include a just transition for workers and communities, including tax-base support for impacted communities, wage replacement and parity for affected workers, retirement protections, partnerships between industry and communities on emerging green industries and jobs, continued access to healthcare, zero-cost education and training, a job guarantee, expanded collective bargaining rights, and prioritizing the needs of historically marginalized communities that have disproportionately suffered from environmental injustice, racism and systemic exclusion from well-paying jobs; and

WHEREAS, emerging studies have begun identifying potential sources of job growth in regions that are experiencing a decline in fossil fuel demand, which can be found through sustainable regional solutions in partnership with economists and industry experts, projected over long periods across generations of workers:

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