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Working for Climate Justice: Trade unions in the front line against climate change

By Ben Crawford and David Whyte - Institute of Employment Rights: Centre for Climate Crime and Climate Justice, November 23, 2023

For further background, visit this site.

Co-authors of the report, David Whyte, Queen Mary University of London and Ben Crawford, The London School of Economics, argue that the transition away from a carbon-based economy relies on the collective action of workers and their organisations, challenging an economic system focused on extracting value at any cost. While the primary analysis addresses the British context, the authors acknowledge the global nature of ecological sustainability and its transformation of social existence both within and outside the workplace.

Focusing on the economic sphere of production as the engine of climate change, the authors contend that the future of the planet relies heavily on workers' power and collective action. Contrary to decisions made in boardrooms and cabinets, they stress that a sustainable transition depends on workers and their communities organising a new social and economic system.

Co-author of report Professor David Whyte, and Director of the Centre for Climate Crime and Climate Justice, Queen Mary University of London explains: “Time is running out for us. We don’t have time to wait politely until employers decide to do the right thing. This is why a transition to a low carbon economy has to be led by workers taking action in their workplaces. A sustainable planet has to be based on sustainable jobs and sustainable ways of working and living.”

Trade unions, historically not prioritising climate change in bargaining, have a rich history of environmentalism and struggles against the commodification of labour. The pamphlet argues for a "secret solidarity" between workers and nature, emphasising the shared interest in slowing down production processes causing social and environmental harm.

To achieve a transition at the necessary scale and pace, the pamphlet proposes priorities for the trade-union movement:

  1. Empowering Members: Workers must put climate change on an industrial footing, building a grassroots power base through coordinated workplace representatives and political education.
  2. Integrating Climate Bargaining: Climate bargaining should be integrated into campaigns for employment rights, demanding a statutory basis for the right to bargain on climate and ecology.
  3. Allocating Resources: Trade unions must allocate greater resources to climate campaigning, countering the false dichotomy between jobs and a green economy and advocating for public ownership of key sectors.
  4. Engaging Globally: Unions should organise and recruit along global supply chains, recognising the need for international coordination and bargaining.

The report concludes by urging a transformative approach to just transition, where workers and trade unionists rethink the production and purpose of value, ensuring products and services align with socially useful and sustainable goals. The call is clear: workers must harness their collective power to lead the way towards a low-carbon economy.

Download a copy of this publication here (PDF).

Putting America Back on Track: The Case for Public Rail Ownership

Infrastructural Solidarity

Amazon Strikes as a Climate Justice issue; Trade Union briefing

Progressives Call for Embrace of 'Green Steel' Manufacturing

By Kenny Stancil - Common Dreams, May 24, 2023

"It's time that the steel industry take the growing need and demand for fossil-free steel seriously," said one advocate.

Progressive organizers on Wednesday urged steelmakers to swiftly adopt the clean manufacturing methods needed to achieve a shift from coal-based steel to "green steel."

At the Great Designs in Steel conference held in a Detroit suburb, Public Citizen and Mighty Earth activists used a series of digital ads and mobile billboards to call on industry insiders and automotive executives to accelerate the nascent transition from dirty to clean steel by fully embracing low- to zero-carbon production processes—one of many changes that scientists say are necessary to avert the worst consequences of the fossil fuel-driven climate crisis.

"Steel manufacturing remains one of the most energy-intensive and polluting aspects of making a vehicle, but there are solutions to clean it up," Erika Thi Patterson, supply chain campaigns director at Public Citizen, said in a statement. "As companies and governments work to meet net-zero climate commitments, it's time that the steel industry take the growing need and demand for fossil-free steel seriously and embrace the cleaner technologies that exist today."

"Insiders at this conference," Patterson continued, "need to recognize the inevitability of green transportation and move in that direction quickly and forcefully."

At the conference venue, mobile billboards denounced steelmaker Cleveland-Cliffs Inc.'s recent announcement that it plans to stick with coal-powered blast furnaces in the near term. Rival company U.S. Steel, by contrast, is ramping up the use of lower-emission electric arc furnaces at its mini-mills.

Billboards with the message, "Cleveland-Cliffs: Ditch the past, embrace the Green Steel future!" circled the venue for the duration of the meeting.

RMT demands stronger workers’ rights on offshore wind farms

By staff - National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), April 5, 2023

OFFSHORE union RMT today demanded trade union rights and fair pay in the Offshore Wind industry following an independent report by the UK government’s Offshore Wind Champion Tim Pick.

RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said that it was disappointing that trade unions were not consulted as part of the report, especially as it acknowledges the importance of a just transition to the 50,000 jobs which are expected to be lost from the oil and gas industry by 2030.

“RMT is calling for mandatory collective bargaining in the offshore wind supply chain for fixed and floating projects, including in low tax low regulation Freeports where the government intend much of this accelerated offshore wind activity to take place.

“However, we welcome the recognition of the delay in skills passporting for our offshore members, the move away from voluntary local content targets and the linking of seabed leasing rights to supply chain development, which could be funded out of Crown Estates’ profits. 

“The recognition of the advantage gained in the US and EU by massive subsidy commitment to green energy is also significant but we need some reality to prevail over the damaging effects of government policy to date on increasing jobs, safety and skills across the offshore wind supply chain.

“For example, crew in the offshore wind supply chain can be paid below the national minimum wage to work at sea for months on end and that needs to change fast,” he said.

New Bigger Risks Await Poorly Regulated Rail Industry

By Justin Mikulka - DeSmog, March 31, 2023

In July of 2013, a train carrying Bakken oil from North Dakota derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and destroying the downtown. I spent the five years after that accident researching what happened, following the railroad regulatory process that spans the U.S.-Canada border, and publishing a book about that experience. The main lesson of that book was that the regulatory process in America is deeply flawed and controlled by industry — both rail and oil interests. 

As we approach the 10-year anniversary of Lac-Mégantic, the disaster in East Palestine shows just how little was done to protect the public from these dangerous trains. Meanwhile, the public is facing new rail risks that are receiving scant attention — and once again federal regulators are allowing industry to move forward without proper consideration of the health and safety risks. I live three blocks from a busy rail line and what worries me the most when I hear the trains rumble past is not that they’re carrying vinyl chloride or even Bakken oil, but the looming risk of mile-long trains of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and hydrogen. 

In 2019, then-President Trump issued an executive order to fast-track new regulations that would allow shipping liquefied natural gas by rail without any meaningful guardrails on its transport. 

But Earthjustice and other organizations sued the administration over this move, citing the perils. “It would only take 22 tank cars to hold the equivalent energy of the Hiroshima bomb,” according to Earthjustice attorney Jordan Luebkemann. 

Modeling by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) estimates that for a train pulling 100 tank cars of LNG and traveling at 40 miles per hour, a derailment is expected to cause four punctures in the tank cars. 

The Biden administration is reviewing this Trump-era regulation, but the only sensible option is to ban the movement of LNG-by-rail. 

Over the last year, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upset global energy markets, giving a big boost to plans to increase exports of American LNG overseas and placing pressure to move as much LNG as possible as quickly as possible — including by rail.

US Railroads Lag Behind the World in Railroad Electrification, and the Reason is Private Ownership

By Maddock Thomas - Brown Political Review, March 7, 2023

Railroads in the United States have avoided electrification, lagging behind much of the rest of the world. Consequently, American railroads are some of the largest consumers of diesel. In 2018, they used 4.2 billion gallons of diesel, second only to the US military. This diesel becomes quite expensive when prices spike during fuel crises. While railroads often claim to be improving fuel efficiency, they have failed to invest in the obvious solution: electrification. Railroad electrification would massively reduce pollution, improve operating efficiency, lower costs, and clear the way for faster rail service. With all these benefits, why have American railroads failed to electrify? The answer has to do with monopolization, a short-sighted focus on profit, and lack of national planning. However, it is not too late to correct our failures now. The US can still create a world-class, electrified rail network by nationalizing railroad infrastructure and recognizing it as a public good.

The US rail network is privately owned, largely by two sets of regional duopolies: CSX and Norfolk Southern in the east, and BNSF and Union Pacific in the west. These companies are fastidiously opposed to deploying capital that would improve infrastructure. As a result, they are unwilling to fund electrification and focus on cutting costs and services in order to reap higher profits. 

This refusal to invest in better rail infrastructure in pursuit of short-term profits is short-sighted at best and downright counterproductive at worst. The operating cost of electrified railways is markedly lower than that of those that run on diesel. A study from the 1980s found that electrification had an “economic advantage” over diesel, with a 19 percent pre-tax rate of return on electrifying 29,000 miles of US mainlines. Additionally, it is more than 50 percent cheaper to power a train on electricity than on diesel, especially considering current price hikes. Plus, with regenerative braking and catenaries, when trains are going downhill or slowing, they can sell power back to the grid.

Where Do Railroad Workers Go from Here?

By Jay, Marilee Taylor, John Tormey, Matt Parker, and Maximillian Alvarez - In These Times, February 10, 2023

After a three-year saga of stalled contract negotiations between the country’s freight rail carriers and the 12 unions representing over 100,000 railroad workers, ​“pro-union” President Biden and Congress ​“averted” a national rail shutdown by overriding the democratic will of rail workers and forcing a contract down their throats. So, what happens now? 

In December, shortly after the Biden administration and Congress intervened, Working People convened a special all-railroader panel to break down the events of the last week and to discuss where railroad workers and the labor movement go from here.

Panelists include: Jay, a qualified conductor who was licensed to operate locomotives at 19 years old, and who became a qualified train dispatcher before he was 23; Marilee Taylor, who worked on the railroads for over 30 years and retired earlier this year from her post as an engineer for BNSF Railway, but is still an active member of Railroad Workers United; John Tormey, a writer and BMWED-IBT member who works as a track laborer for the commuter rail in Massachusetts; and Matt Parker, a full-time locomotive engineer who’s worked on the railroads for 19 years and also serves part-time as Chairman on the Nevada State Legislative Board of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

Railroads Must Be Brought Under Public Ownership

By General Executive Board - United Electrical Workers, January 30, 2023

Statement of the UE General Executive Board

Railroads are a crucial part of our nation’s infrastructure. Nearly every sector of our economy depends on goods shipped by the railroads, which haul forty percent of all long-distance freight in the U.S., measured by ton-miles. A third of all exports travel by rail. Furthermore, the greater fuel efficiency of using rail to move both people and freight means that moving more of our transportation onto the railroads will be necessary to address the existential threat of climate change.

Yet the private owners of our nation’s Class 1 railroads have shown themselves utterly incapable of facing the challenge of the climate crisis, dealing fairly with their own workers, or even meeting the most basic needs of their customers. The railroad companies cannot even be said to be in the business of moving freight; they are merely in the business of using their monopoly control over the nation’s rail infrastructure to squeeze as much profit as possible from customers and workers at the behest of their Wall Street shareholders.

Therefore, we demand that Congress immediately begin a process of bringing our nation’s railroads under public ownership. Public ownership of part or all of their rail systems has allowed many other countries to create rail systems that can move people and goods quickly, affordably, and in an environmentally sound way. With public ownership, governments can take the long view and make crucial infrastructure investments — and prevent price-gouging.

Railroads are, like utilities, “natural monopolies.” The consolidation of the Class 1 railroads in the U.S. into five massive companies over the past several decades has made it clear that there is no “free market” in rail transportation. With most customers having no other choice, and no central authority mandating long-term planning, each individual railroad company has little incentive to make investments in infrastructure and every temptation to take as much of their income as possible as profits. Even Martin Oberman, chair of the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that regulates rail, has called the railroads “monopolists” who are cutting services and raising prices because “that’s the easiest way for them to get rich.”

In their endless thirst for profit, the railroads have implemented a system called “precision scheduled railroading,” which simply means operating with as few staff as possible — speed-up by another name. Shippers have been complaining about the resulting poor service for years, and during the pandemic our entire economy paid the price with snarled supply lines leading to shortages and price hikes. The railroads do not even seem interested in expanding their share of the freight market, instead seeking to extract more and more short-term profit out of customers for whom rail is the only feasible way to ship their products.

The effect on railroad workers has been even more severe. In order to implement precision scheduled railroading, the companies have imposed draconian attendance policies which make it virtually impossible for railroad workers to take any time off, even for medical reasons. This intolerable state of affairs almost led to a railroad strike at the end of last year, until President Biden and Congress — clearly willing to intervene in the “market” when workers threaten to withdraw their labor — imposed a contract on the workers that did not even contain the workers’ bottom-line demand of adequate sick leave.

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