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Unions and Climate Activists Find Common Cause in Opposing Airport Expansion

By Dayton Martindale - Truthout, September 27, 2021

Airport employees and community allies protest a proposed expansion of Los Angeles International Airport on September 14, 2021; image by author.

“Are you scared you’re going to lose all your jobs ’cause there will be no planes?”

The audience chuckled at MSNBC host Chris Hayes’s first question for Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, at a March 2019 special on the Green New Deal. Nelson, an ardent climate advocate, dismissed the notion out of hand: “We still have to get around.” The real threat to flights, she insisted, is an increase in extreme weather events. It is climate inaction, then, that could keep planes from flying, rather than climate action.

Across the Atlantic, the messaging is notably different. Environmentalists across the U.K. and France have campaigned against airport expansions, and the Swedish language now has a word (flygskam) for the climate shame felt by those who fly. In August 2019, Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg chose to ride a boat to New York to reduce emissions and draw attention to the crisis.

So, will we have to keep any airplanes on the ground? The answer is complicated, depending on how quickly certain technologies become widespread, how willing we are to tolerate financial and environmental costs of jet fuel alternatives, and whether we aim to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions entirely or merely reach “net-zero” emissions (in which scenario we would continue to emit, but attempt to offset the climate impact through carbon capture and storage).

But there is a growing consensus that even in technologically optimistic scenarios, some constraints on demand will be necessary to curtail the expected growth in flights over the decades to come. Many climate activists argue that because these technologies are uncertain, we should start reducing flights as soon as possible. And some early indications — such as an ongoing union-led fight against an airport expansion in Los Angeles — suggests that the climate movement’s most powerful ally against rampant growth in air travel may be labor.

Few demonstrators at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) during a September 14 rally held greenhouse gas emission foremost in their minds as they decried the proposed expansion. The 50 or so protesters — most wearing the shirt of either SEIU United Service Workers West (SEIU-USWW) or Unite Here Local 11 — were more vocal about issues such as health care, wages, and the impact of air pollution and traffic congestion at their jobs and in their neighborhoods. The two unions, representing thousands of food, custodial and passenger service employees at the airport, were joined by Sunrise LA and other community and environmental groups outside a meeting of the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners (BOAC).

An SEIU-USSW press release argues that the current plans to expand LAX “ignore the needs of workers at the airport as well as those who are most impacted by it: nearby neighborhood residents,” but they do not oppose the expansion outright. Instead, the labor groups want to see a community benefits agreement — an enforceable contract between the airport and community groups that allows workers and residents to provide substantive input, ensuring any airport development respects economic and environmental justice. If this demand is not met, SEIU-USWW President David Huerta tells Truthout, the union “could transition into direct opposition.”

Any solution must ensure worker voices are heard, says Sunrise LA spokesperson Josiah Edwards. Airport employees kept LAX running through the pandemic for inadequate pay, and already bear a heavy environmental burden. That they are not invited to the BOAC’s closed-door meetings is “a clear instance of environmental injustice,” Edwards says.

Trade Unionists And Ecologists Demand A Just Transition Towards Less Air Traffic

By Stay Grounded - Popular Resistance, February 11, 2021

London/Vienna Today, the UK trade union PCS and the global network Stay Grounded published together a paper entitled “A Rapid and Just Transition of Aviation – Shifting towards Climate-Just Mobility”. Tahir Latif, PCS Aviation Group President, says: “This paper clearly shows: the aviation workforce needs to accommodate the urgent requirement for a reduction in flying. This is imperative to avoid climate catastrophe. We need to retain job security through retraining and redeployment into jobs, some within aviation and some in other sectors, that help to restore the planet, not destroy it.”

This Paper makes it clear that there is no option to go back to business as before Covid-19: instead of bailing out airlines, airports and manufacturers, recovery packages must directly finance a just transition. This includes providing a living wage and social protection for workers leaving the industry, retraining programmes, creating jobs in climate-safe sectors and fostering alternatives to flights and harmful mass tourism. 

Public money must save people, not planes”, says Magdalena Heuwieser, from Stay Grounded. “If we try to go back to the old high-speed fossil-fuelled transport system, it will crash very soon. Let’s be realistic: aviation will change, and it will do so either by design or by disaster. So let’s choose design.” 

The discussion paper has a global scope and is the result of a collective writing process by people active in the climate justice movement, trade unionists, indigenous communities and academics from around the world. Several aviation workers who were involved also advocate for a just transition and less flying, like ex-pilot Paul Taylor: “I was made redundant from my airline due to Covid-19 – and I won’t go back to flying. I realised it’s neither healthy for me, nor for the planet.”

The document has its focus on the question of how to fairly reduce passenger flights and it makes clear links to freight as well as tourism. ”Mass sun and beach tourism is a sector that is highly dependent on aviation and very vulnerable, as the Covid pandemic has shown. We need to focus on more inland and local tourism, based on sustainability, respect for the territory and on more sustainable mobility options,” says Carlos Martínez, member of the Secretary of Environment from CC.OO. The Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras) is one of the biggest Spanish unions. In another paper published in January 2021 with the biggest Spanish environmental NGOs, it argues for reducing dependency on mass tourism and air travel. 

It is key that the climate justice movement, trade unions and workers join forces to fight for our future”, concludes Magdalena Heuwieser from Stay Grounded. The demand for a just transition has been developed by trade unions and the climate justice movement. It aims to protect workers and communities currently dependent on fossil fuel industries, but is also a broader process to help safeguard the future of workers, communities and the planet. It is not an argument for delaying the changes needed, rather for managing them effectively, fairly and democratically. 

The Public and Commercial Services union (PCS) is one of the largest unions in the U.K., with around 180,000 members. PCS represents workers in the civil service and ex-civil service areas that are now in the private sector, including aviation. PCS is one of six UK unions with members in aviation, representing around 1,800 workers in air traffic management, airport ground and security staff and in civil aviation regulation.

Stay Grounded is a network of about 170 member organisations from all over the world, among them: NGOs, climate justice groups, indigenous organisations, labour unions and civil initiatives against airport noise and expansion. Together, they fight for climate justice and a fair reduction of aviation.

A Rapid and Just Transition of Aviation: Shifting towards climate-just mobility

By staff - Stay Grounded, February 2021

Covid-19 has grounded air traffic. The aviation industry itself expects to be operating at a lower capacity over the next few years. This Paper discusses how long-term security for workers and affected communities can be guaranteed, without returning to business as before. 

With the looming climate breakdown, automation, digitalisation and likely climate induced pandemics, we need to be realistic: aviation and tourism will change – and they will do so either by design or by disaster. They will transition either with or without taking into account workers’ interests.

This Discussion Paper, published by the Stay Grounded Network and the UK Trade Union PCS in February 2021, is a result of a collective writing process by people active in the climate justice movement, workers in the aviation sector, trade unionists, indigenous communities and academics from around the world. It aims to spark debates and encourage concrete transition plans by states, workers and companies.

Read the text (PDFs: EN | DA | DE | ES | FR | PT ).

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