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labor and environment

Just Transition, System Change, and Revolutionary Green Transformation

By Steve Ongerth - Environmental Unionism Caucus, April 21, 2016

The term “Just Transition” is becoming increasingly prevalent in discussions involving workers, climate change, and post carbon energy economics.

Wikipedia describes Just Transition as, “a framework that has been developed by the trade union movement to encompass a range of social interventions needed to secure workers’ jobs and livelihoods when economies are shifting to sustainable production, including avoiding climate change, protecting biodiversity, among other challenges.”

This is particularly timely given the fact that humanity faces a deepening crises due to global warming, brought on by capitalist economic activity centered on a fossil-fuel based economy. In order to prevent the absolute worst case scenarios of what will almost undoubtedly a warming world, at least 80% of the known fossil fuel reserves will need to remain unextracted, and humanity will need to transition to a renewable energy based post-carbon economy. Such a shift will inevitably require a massive transformation of the means of production, likely affecting much of the working class.

Already we’re witnessing the beginnings of major upheaval simply due to the innate characteristics of chaotic capitalist market activity, as 100,000s of workers jobs are imperiled by collapsing coal, oil, and commodities markets worldwide, combined with just the beginnings of a major shift as disruptive technologies such as wind and solar achieve greater and greater share of the mix of energy sources now available.

Furthermore, climate justice and/or environmental activists know—at least intuitively—that the fossil fuel based economy, including all parts of its supply chain must be shut down as rapidly as possible and replaced by ecologically sustainable alternatives, and all attempts at expansion of the fossil fuel based activity must be opposed, by any means necessary, including (but limited to) direct action. 

In this context, the issue of jobs and just transition has become a major topic. Obviously, shutting down any project cold (even if possible) would result in the loss of jobs performed by the workers, who’re not responsible for the activities of their employers (and quite likely do not entirely agree with their employers’ motives). Even limiting such projects can potentially negatively affect the workers’ livelihoods. Given such a threat, it’s understandable that these workers would oppose efforts by climate justice and environmental activists to disrupt fossil fuel supply chains.

It’s not a new concept...

(Read the entire document here in PDF Form)

Unions and the Climate Justice Movement

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, October 7, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Where does the union movement stand on the issue of climate justice? The answer to that question is not entirely simple. First of all, it's important to understand the differences between revolutionary unions (most of which are syndicalist--such as the CNT, FAI, SAC--or Marxist--such as NUMSA--in their orientation, or some hybrid inclusive of both and more--such as the IWW) and mainstream reformist unions, such as the AFL-CIO.  For most revolutionary unions, climate justice is an inherent part of the struggle to overthrow capitalism, abolish wage slavery, and create a new society within the shell of the old. For example, the IWW has organized an environmental unionism caucus that dedicates itself to climate justice and other ecological issues. The South African union, NUMSA, is a supporter of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED)1 and has issued a statement calling for the end to the "Mineral Industrial Complex" (even though they represent mine workers) in favor of renewable energy.

Where the reformist unions (sometimes called "business unions" or "class collaborationist" unions by their detractors) stand varies widely, and to be accurate, some of these "reformist" unions have more (or less) "revolutionary" orientation within the spectrum of the mainstream labor movement. While many still believe that capitalism can be reformed, the evolving realities of capitalism--which is becoming extremely repressive as it imposes increasingly crushing austerity upon the working class--the ever heightening urgency of addressing capitalist induced global warming, and the increasingly impossible-to-ignore realities of police violence, movements like Black Lives Matter, and other social issues are driving many unions to question their adherence to it, beyond the mere rank and file militants within each of them.

One would expect the Building Trades and most heavy industry based unions in the United States, many of which are still largely dominated by white male workers, to be least supportive of climate justice (or even likely to swallow the rhetoric of climate denialism) and conversely expect the service unions, many of which are predominantly composed of women and People of Color to be most supportive of it, and in some cases that's true, but not always! The actual "geography" of where unions stand on climate justice is actually quite complex2, inconsistent, and in some instances contradictory.  Sorting it out completely is well beyond the scope of this article, but it is illustrative to cover some general ground and cite a few interesting examples.

Standing Rock Solid with the Frackers: Are the Trades Putting Labor’s Head in the Gas Oven?

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, October 14, 2016

This article first appeared in New Labor Forum. It has been updated to reflect the rising level of union opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

If anyone were looking for further evidence that the AFL-CIO remains unprepared to accept the science of climate change, and unwilling to join with the effort being made by all of the major labor federations of the world to address the crisis, the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) provides only the most recent case in point. Taking direction from the newly minted North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU) and the American Petroleum Institute (API), the federation stood against the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribal nations.

In a recent video interview, NABTU president Sean McGarvey dismissed those who oppose the expansion of fossil fuels infrastructure. “There is no way to satisfy them…no way for them to recognize that if we don’t want to lose our place in the world as the economic superpower, then we have to have this infrastructure and the ability to responsibly reap the benefits of what God has given this country in its natural resources.”[i] Although the leaders of NABTU no longer identify with the AFL-CIO and the letterhead does not mention the Federation, the Trades continue to determine the shape the AFL-CIO’s approach to energy and climate. This is despite the fact that a growing number of unions have opposed the DAPL, among them the Amalgamated Transit Union, Communication Workers of America, National Domestic Workers Alliance, National Nurses United, New York State Nurses Association, Service Employees International Union (SEIU); SEIU 1199, and the United Electrical Workers. Union locals (branches or chapters) have also opposed the DAPL, among them, GEU UAW Local 6950 and Steelworkers Local 8751.

These unions have been joined by the Labor Coalition for Community Action, which represents well established AFL-CIO constituency groups like LCLAA, APALA, Pride at Work, CBTU, CLUW and the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

Reacting to the progressive unions’ solidarity with Standing Rock Sioux, NABTU’s president Sean McGarvey wrote a scathing letter to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, copies of which were sent to the principal officers of all of the Federation’s affiliated unions. In a fashion reminiscent of the Keystone XL fight, McGarvey disparaged the unions that opposed DAPL. A day later, on September 15th, the AFL-CIO issued its own already infamous statement supporting DAPL. “Trying to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved” said the statement. “The AFL-CIO calls on the Obama Administration to allow construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to continue.”[ii]

Pope’s encyclical sets the tone for June 29th Trade Union Climate Summit in New York

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, June 17, 2015

Just 11 days after Pope Francis released his encyclical on the environment, New York will host a major gathering of 40 unions from 14 countries. With resistance to ‘extreme extraction,’ austerity and inequality all rising, unions see opportunities to begin to build a united global movement for fundamental change.  The Pope’s radical critique of the existing system is sure to resonate with the 100-person gathering.

More than 40 unions from 14 countries will participate in a one-day Trade Union Climate Summit in New York City on June 29th, 2015.  Hosted by 32BJ SEIU, approximately 25 unions from the US will be present, representing workers in energy, nursing and health care, public transport, food and retail, building services, as well as new organizing efforts among precarious workers in the New York City area. Roughly 30 allied organizations will also participate, including the Climate Justice Alliance, 350.org, and the Emerald Cities Collaborative. A full list of registered participants is here.

Why a summit?

The summit is being organized nine months after the massive People’s Climate March on September 21, 2014, and just 5 months before the ‘last chance’ UN climate negotiations (COP 21) in Paris in early December 2015. Unions and close allies will come together in New York determined to find ways to help better connect the rising climate movement with the growing global struggle against austerity and inequality.  Unions have been playing an important role in both movements, but in most instances fighting for climate protection (read: people protection) and building opposition to austerity, low pay and precarious work remain separate struggles. But the potential for building a new and tranformational ‘climate and class movement’ appears to be growing.

This potential seems particularly visible in Southern Europe where the left has won impressive electoral victories in recent months. Importantly, this is a left for which atmospheric and ecological degradation is not an afterthought, but a central question that reveals a basic truth: we live in a political economy that takes but does not give back. Both nature and labor are inseparable, and both are treated as a ‘resource’ from which value is extracted as needed and then dumped.

The June 29 summit in New York will hear from unions from Greece (Thessaloniki water workers) and Spain (Comisiones Obreras) as well as from Italy (CGIL) where the traditional political parties are also losing support. With an eye on the Paris climate talks, the summit will hear from two representatives from the main French trade union federation (CGT) regarding the preparations for the events around COP21.  The UN climate meetings have been the scene of large mobilizations in recent years, particularly Copenhagen in late 2009 and Durban in late 2011.

Jobs, Justice, and the Clean-Energy Future

By Jeremy Brecher - Dollars and Sense, September & October, 2016

Today, there are 400 parts per million (PPM) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, far above the 350 ppm climate scientists regard as the safe upper limit. Even in the unlikely event that all nations fulfill the greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction pledges they made at the Paris climate summit at the end of 2015, carbon in the atmosphere is predicted to increase to 670 ppm by the end of this century. The global temperature will rise an estimated 3.5 degrees Celsius (6.3 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. For comparison, a one-degree increase was enough to cause all the effects of climate change we have seen so far, from Arctic melting to intensified hurricanes to desertification.

Limiting climate catastrophe will require drastic cuts in the burning of the fossil fuels that cause climate change. But many workers and their unions fear that such cuts will lead to drastic loss in jobs and economic well-being for working people—aggravating the shortage of good jobs and the burgeoning inequality we already face. Is there a way to escape the apparent lose-lose choice between saving the climate and saving jobs?

Climate Emergency: Global Insurgency

By Jeremy Brecher - Common Dreams, October 14, 2016

Note: The new, updated 2016 edition of Jeremy Brecher’s Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival, from which the following is drawn, can be now be downloaded for free at the author's website here.)

The Lilliputian defenders of the earth’s climate have been winning some unlikely battles lately. The Standing Rock Sioux, supported by nearly two hundred Native American tribes and a lot of other people around the globe, have put a halt, at least for now, to completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project that threatens their sacred burial sites and the water supply for 17 million people—not to mention the world’s climate. Before that a seven-year struggle terminated the Keystone XL pipeline. Other fossil fuel extraction, transport, and burning facilities have been halted by actions around the world.

But as Bill McKibben has said, "Fighting one pipeline at a time, the industry will eventually prevail."[1] Is there a plausible strategy for escalating today’s campaigns against fossil fuel infrastructure to create an effective challenge to the escalating climate threat? How can we get the power we need to counter climate catastrophe? My book Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival (download) grapples with that question and proposes a possible strategy: a global nonviolent constitutional insurgency. Now that strategy is being tried – and may even be overcoming some of the obstacles that have foiled climate protection heretofore.

How Labor and Climate United Can Trump Trump

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, January 2017

Donald Trump and his congressional Republican allies have taken control of the U.S. government. The result threatens to be devastating for both labor and the climate — not to mention immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, women, children, the elderly, the disabled, LGBTQ people, and many others.

The Trump regime is potentially vulnerable because it only represents the interests of the top 1% of the top 1%. But it has a potentially winning strategy to rule nonetheless: keep those who might stand up in the interest of the 99.9 percent divided and therefore powerless. While Trump has played black against white, Latino against Anglo, women against men, gay against straight, and exploited many other divisions, his “trump card” may well be his ability to divide labor and climate advocates.

The Trump ascendancy creates a new context for addressing long-standing tensions between organized labor and the environmental movement, between workers’ job concerns and everyone’s need to protect the climate. Trump and his congressional Republican allies intend to exploit these tensions to the max. But their threat to workers, the earth’s climate, and society as a whole make cooperation against them imperative for both organized labor and the climate protection movement. Forging a force that can effectively counter Trumpism requires change that will involve tension within each movement as well as between them, but that may be necessary if either is to have a future. The alternative is most likely decimation of both movements and of everything they are fighting for.

The EPA’s Clean Power Plan: How Unions and Allies Can Protect Affected Workers

By Joe Uehlein, et. al. - Labor Network for Sustainability, August 5, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just issued the final text of the Clean Power Plan (CPP), a regulation whose purpose is to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) that climate scientists say are causing global warming. EPA and independent studies indicate that the CPP will create far more jobs than it eliminates. However, some jobs will be lost as a result of the plan, almost entirely concentrated in coal mining and electrical utilities. Affected workers and their communities should not have to bear the burden of environmental protection that benefits all. Public policy can and should provide a “just transition” that protects their wellbeing.

The EPA has released a “regulatory impact analysis” of job and other effects of the CPP. Dr. Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) conducted a further analysis to evaluate and extend the EPA findings and has produced the recently-released study “A Comprehensive Analysis of the Employment Impacts of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.”

Between now and 2020, the CPP will require large investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency. It will also reduce jobs in power plants and mining. The new “direct” jobs created by 2020 will outnumber the jobs lost by 96,000 jobs.

Dakota Access Pipeline and the Future of American Labor

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, September 28, 2016

As United States Energy Transfers Partners began building the Dakota Access Pipeline through territory sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, the tribe began an escalating campaign against the pipeline. By this summer nearly 200 tribes around the country had passed resolutions opposing the pipeline and many hundreds of their members joined nonviolent direct action to halt it. Amidst wide public sympathy for the Native American cause, environmental, climate protection, human rights, and many other groups joined the campaign. On September 9, the Obama administration intervened to temporarily halt the pipeline and open government-to-government consultations with the tribes.

The Dakota Access Pipeline has become an issue of contention within organized labor. When a small group of unions supported the Standing Rock Sioux and opposed the pipeline, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka issued a statement discounting Native American claims and urging that work on the pipeline resume. Other constituencies within labor quickly cracked back. Why has this become a divisive issue within labor, and can it have a silver lining for a troubled labor movement?

Just Transition: Just What Is It?

A Joint Report by Labor Network for Sustainability and Strategic Practice - July 2016

We are now one-sixth of the way through the twenty-first century and well into the greatest economic transition ever experienced — one that will dwarf all that came before this one. This transition includes energy, creating a carbon-neutral economy, communications, manufacturing, transportation, health care, waste management, and more.

This transition has already produced road-kill with many thousands of workers thrown on the scrap heap and disintegrating communities — with no help in the offing for them. So many individuals and groups are now asking how we organize society, our economy, and our politics in such a way that our institutions serve the people, rather than capital.

The “just transition” frame is being used by an increasing number of organizing networks, grassroots organizations, groups affiliated with organized labor, and environmental organizations. This report aims to assess the notion of just transition, how it is being used, what kinds of ideas and approaches are surfacing for short and long-term strategies, and what kinds of relationships groups are developing in pursuit of a just transition. Its purpose is to open a broad and respectful discussion about the varied ways the “just transition” frame is being used, and whether they can contribute to a shared vision of how to make the transition we face a just transition.

This report is based on 17 interviews conducted between October, 2015 and March, 2016 by Christina Roessler, accompanied at times by Joe Uehlein and Richard Healey. Interviewees were offered the opportunity to revise their quotations and their revisions are included in this draft. This report represents a preliminary effort based on a limited number of interviews and a small amount of additional research. Leaders were interviewed from the following groups:

Organizing Networks

  • Climate Justice Alliance
  • GreenWave
  • National People’s Action
  • New Economy Coalition

Grassroots organizing

  • ALIGN: The Alliance for Greater New York
  • Asian Pacific Environmental Network
  • Buffalo PUSH
  • Kentuckians For The Commonwealth
  • Movement Generation

Labor

  • AFL-CIO
  • BlueGreen Alliance
  • Labor Network for Sustainability
  • Oregon AFL-CIO

Environmental

  • North Carolina League of Conservation Voters
  • Sierra Club

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