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labor and environment

Trumka and building trades leaders join bosses, support Dakota Pipeline

By Richard Mellior - Facts for Working People, September 22, 2016

In an article on its website, the liberal leaning Common Dreams has published a letter sent by Sean McGarvey, president of North America's Building Trades Unions to the presidents of all the AFL-CIO. The letter condemns those unions that support the Standing Rock Sioux in their struggle to defend their sacred lands our environment. The article reads:

In the letter, McGarvey questions top leadership for not taking a firmer position in defense of the union members working on Dakota Access and calls out other AFL-CIO member unions—specifically the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), the National Nurses United (NNU), the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and the American Postal Workers Union (APWU)—for aligning with "environmental extremists" opposed to the pipeline and participating in a "misinformation campaign" alongside "professional agitators" and members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

The letter condemns the other unions and the AFL-CIO for not defending the 4500 workers who will lose their jobs if the project is halted. This horror that stopping the pipeline represents for the heads of the building trades is not unlike the horror it represents to the capitalists and investors who hope to profit from it: “Should the administration ultimately stop this construction, it would set a horrific precedent,” I quoted one leader of a pro-pipeline coalition as saying in an earlier commentary.

It's not just that the stifling bureaucracy that heads organized labor doesn't care about climate change, they don't care about their own members or workers in general. The trade unions to these leaders, especially those in the building trades, are employment agencies with them as the CEO's. They are protecting a smaller and smaller dues base that will keep them in their positions and preserve the relationships they have built with the bosses and the corporations based on labor peace.

They are junior partners alongside the developers, energy companies and other huge industries in making capitalism work, keeping profits sacrosanct and flowing in to the coffers of the rich. It is not simply a matter of disrespecting sacred or sovereignty of Native Americans whose culture was almost wiped out as capitalism spread across this continent in the wake of a racist genocidal war. The only thing sacred for the ruling class in this country is profits. The only reason that capitalists hire workers is they have to as profit comes from the unpaid labor of the working class. It is created though the labor process as workers are paid less in wages than the value the use of their labor power creates.

As Tribes Fight Pipeline, Internal AFL-CIO Letter Exposes 'Very Real Split'

By Jon Queally - Common Dreams, September 22, 2016

The AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation, generated waves of criticism by standing against the Standing Rock Sioux and supportive allies last week when it endorsed the Dakota Access Pipeline – a project opponents say threatens tribal sovereignty, regional water resources, and sacred burial grounds while also undermining efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change.

Yet while a public statement by AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka stirred widespread backlash, what has not been seen by the general public is an internal letter which preceded that statement—a letter which not only reveals a deeper and growing rift within the federation, but one that also helps expose the troubling distance between the needs of workers and priorities of policy-makers on a planet where runaway temperatures are said to be changing everything.

Trumka said the pipeline deserved the AFL-CIO's support because it was "providing over 4,500 high-quality, family supporting jobs" and argued that "attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved."

In turn, many of the tribes and their progressive allies saw the statement as a short-sighted, if predictable, position on behalf of the federation's building trade unions. Norman Solomon, writing on these pages, didn't mince words when he said Trumka's remarks amounted to "union leadership for a dead planet" that could easily be mistaken for the "standard flackery" of the oil and gas industry. On Monday of this week, a coalition of AFL-CIO constituency organizations, made up of groups normally supportive of the federation, bucked Trumka's public stance by declaring their own opposition to the pipeline.

But many of those outside critics of the AFL-CIO didn't know the half of it. That's because none of them have likely seen a much more harshly-worded letter, obtained by Common Dreams, which was circulated internally among the federation's leadership ahead of Trumka's statement.

The five-page letter (pdf), dated September 14th, is addressed to Trumka and copied to all presidents of the AFL-CIO's 56 affiliated unions. It was sent by Sean McGarvey, president of North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU), which represents 14 separate building and construction unions within the federation.

In the letter, McGarvey questions top leadership for not taking a firmer position in defense of the union members working on Dakota Access and calls out other AFL-CIO member unions—specifically the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), the National Nurses United (NNU), the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and the American Postal Workers Union (APWU)—for aligning with "environmental extremists" opposed to the pipeline and participating in a "misinformation campaign" alongside "professional agitators" and members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

Solidarity Forever? - Last week the AFL-CIO broke my heart, releasing a statement supporting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline

By Brendan Orsinger - Medium, September 21, 2016

My grandma Gloria is 92-years old and the single greatest influence in my life. She has inspired me through the way she has led her life. She has strengthened my moral fabric as a human being and shaped what I believe to be right. She has given me the gift of music, and understanding and deep appreciation for justice, solidarity, and unions. Through the stories she’s told with great passion and conviction, she’s the reason I feel so moved and empowered to act.

Among her accomplishments, she:

  1. Alone raised three young children after being widowed when my grandfather Arthur died very suddenly.
  2. Graduated from law school at the age of 60, and was elected keynote speaker by her classmates.
  3. Worked on passage of and was present at the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (and has one of the pens!).

Gloria came to Washington, DC to work for the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or the CIO, where she met my grandfather. After a secretive office romance, they snuck away one Friday afternoon to Alexandria Courthouse in Virginia to exchange their vows. When my grandfather Arthur passed away, it was their colleagues and union members who surrounded her with love and support and made sure she had a job to support her three small children.

In the 1960’s grandma Gloria was a legislative representative for the IUE, or the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America. They exist today as the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine and Furniture Workers — Communications Workers of America, or IUE-CWA. She worked with members of Congress and the White House during that time for passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. She was invited to the signings of both pieces of landmark legislation. She believed deeply in equality, and when Dr. Martin Luther King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28th, 1963 and shared his dream, she was there with my mother.

She later would go on to work for AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.) Then for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC.

The labor movement runs in my blood through four generations, going back to my great-grandmother, Rose.

Gloria was influenced by her mother Rose, who worked in the garment district in New York. She worked for a dress factory/sweatshop and after seeing a need for improvement of conditions, became a member of the IWW or the Industrial Workers of the World — also affectionally known as the “Wobblies”. Under the IWW, she specifically worked with the International Ladies Garment Union.

Back then, conditions were really bad. There were stories of women with out means for childcare who would be forced to work with their babies beside them, asleep on the dirty floor covered with garment lint. There were no laws or protections for these women, so the doors were locked to force higher productivity. These were the same conditions that led to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory fire in New York City that killed 145 workers.

It was my great-grandmother Rose who became a leader on then picket lines to demand the right to a reasonable wage and better working conditions. She ensured during strikes that the picket lines were held and never crossed. When the police tried to open the line to let the “scabs” through. Rose was punched by a cop after she warned him, “Don’t you put your hands on my girls!”. It’s unclear if the slap she landed on his cheek prior provoked the officer to violence.

There are so many stories like this I have heard from my grandmother about her “Mommy Rose”, but there are two in particular that stuck with me last Friday afternoon and Monday morning in the rain when I stood outside the headquarters of the AFL-CIO yelling and singing until I had lost my voice and my megaphone died — and even then, with no voice I sat outside in the rain and whistled union songs my grandmother taught me.

Dakota Access Foes Call on AFL-CIO to Retract Support of Pipeline

By Mark Hand - CounterPunch, September 20, 2016

The AFL-CIO is coming under attack from trade unions and their supporters angry about the organization’s support of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through Native American land in North Dakota.

Demonstrators stood outside the AFL-CIO’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 19 calling on the union federation to renounce its support for the oil pipeline project. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, in a Sept. 15 statement, called on Native Americans and the federal government not to “hold union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay” and asked the Obama administration to let construction on the pipeline continue.

“This is unacceptable behavior for the AFL-CIO, which has a rich history of supporting the right causes — civil rights, voting rights,” Brendan Orsinger, an activist and organizer, said in an interview at the demonstration. “My grandmother worked with unions to harness that people power and put pressure on Congress to help pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965. My great-grandmother worked on the picket lines.”

The president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) came out with an even stronger statement against Native Americans opposed to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. “LIUNA is a champion of the right to peacefully demonstrate, however, extremists have escalated the demonstrations well beyond lawful civil disobedience,” Terry O’Sullivan, general president of LIUNA, said in a statement. O’Sullivan said he found it frustrating that Native Americans “have disregarded the evidence and the review process to vilify a project.”

Other labor unions have expressed solidarity with Native Americans in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, proposed by Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners. The Amalgamated Transit Union condemned “the ongoing violent attacks on the Standing Rock Sioux and others who oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline” and noted “these attacks by a private security company bring back horrific memories of the notorious Pinkertons, who used clubs, dogs and bullets to break up peaceful worker protests.” The Communications Workers of America issued a statement in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe ” as they fight to protect their community, their land and their water supply.”

“The AFL-CIO has a proud history of working with oppressed people to gain their rights and worker rights and they need to stake a strong stand on indigenous rights,” Orsinger said. “They have a seal on their headquarters of a black hand and a white hand shaking. It bothers me that they are betraying their history and their moral high ground.”

Activists are hoping to apply enough pressure on the AFL-CIO so the federation finds it politically infeasible to support projects such as Dakota Access. “As many jobs as they may get from this pipeline construction, it is dwarfed by the amount of jobs they will lose elsewhere from the public turning against them,” Orsigner said.

The Dakota Access Pipeline project is a proposed 1,172-mile, 30-inch diameter pipeline designed to connect the Bakken production area in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. The pipeline would transport approximately 470,000 barrels of oil per day with a capacity as high as 570,000 barrels per day or more, which could represent approximately half of Bakken current daily crude oil production.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Sept. 16 ordered Energy Transfer Partners to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline for 20 miles on both sides of the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, a dammed section of the Missouri River near the tribe’s reservation, while the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s appeal of its denied motion to do so is considered.

AFL-CIO to Planet Earth: Drop Dead!

By Norman Soloman - CounterPunch, September 19, 2016

At a meeting with the deputy political director of the AFL-CIO during my campaign for Congress, she looked across her desk and told me that I could get major union support by coming out in favor of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

That was five years ago. Since then, the nation’s biggest labor federation has continued to serve the fossil fuel industry. Call it union leadership for a dead planet.

Last week, the AFL-CIO put out a statement from its president, Richard Trumka, under the headline “Dakota Access Pipeline Provides High-Quality Jobs.” The rhetoric was standard flackery for energy conglomerates, declaring “it is fundamentally unfair to hold union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay.”

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is steadfast against the Dakota Access pipeline: “We will not rest until our lands, people, waters, and sacred sites are permanently protected from this destructive pipeline.”

In sharp contrast to the AFL-CIO’s top echelon, some unions really want to restrain climate change and are now vocally opposing the Dakota pipeline.

Communications Workers of America has expressed solidarity with members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe “as they fight to protect their community, their land and their water supply.”

At National Nurses United, Co-President Jean Ross cites “an obligation to step up climate action to protect public health and the future for the generations to follow us.”

Ross said: “We commend the leaders and members of the Standing Rock Sioux, the many First Nation allies who have joined them, and the environmentalists and other supporters who have participated in the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline.”

NNU points out that “the proposed 1,172-mile pipeline would carry nearly a half million barrels of dirty crude oil every day across four states.” Ross says that such projects “pose a continual threat to public health from the extraction process through the transport to the refinery.”

As for the AFL-CIO’s support for the pipeline, NNU’s director of environmental health and social justice was blunt. “We’re deeply disappointed in our labor federation siding with those that would endanger and harm the land, the water, the lives of the people along the pipeline path and the health of the planet itself in the name of profits,” Fernando Losada said.

He added that the Dakota pipeline is part of “a drive to extract fossil fuel that is untenable for the future of the planet.”

The nurses union is part of the AFL-CIO, but dominant forces within the federation are committed to corporate energy priorities. Losada said that “some elements in the AFL-CIO” have caused a stance that “is a narrow position in the alleged interests of their members for some short-term jobs.”

Compare that narrow position to a recent statement from Communications Workers of America: “The labor movement is rooted in the simple and powerful idea of solidarity with all struggles for dignity, justice and respect. CWA will continue to fight against the interests of the 1% and corporate greed and firmly stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against the environmental and cultural degradation of their community.”

A venerable labor song has a question for the leaders of the AFL-CIO: Which side are you on?

When it comes to planetary survival, the answer from the top of the AFL-CIO hierarchy remains: We’re on the wrong side.

EcoUnionist News #122

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, September 20, 2016

The following news items feature issues, discussions, campaigns, or information potentially relevant to green unionists:

Lead Stories:

Ongoing Mobilizations:

The Thin Green Line:

Just Transition:

Bread and Roses:

An Injury to One is an Injury to All:

Whistle Blowers:

It’s heating up: ‘Unions can play a vital role in the battle for climate justice’

Anabella Rosemberg interviewed by Danny Chivers - New Internationalist, August 2016

Image: a coalition of union members oppose coal exports at an Oakland City Council meeting in July 2016; photograph by Brooke Anderson.

The climate discussion in the union movement has not been easy. We have so many more immediate struggles, from austerity crises to trade unionists being murdered. But about 10 years ago, in the ITUC Congress, we started bringing unions from the Global South to engage on climate with unions from industrialized countries. Those Southern unions described how everything they were fighting for – social protection, health, education – was being undermined by the terrible public costs of climate disasters. This put the discussion on climate in a different perspective. It wasn’t about the union movement ‘going green’, it was a basic issue of international solidarity.

Meanwhile, many root causes of climate change – greed from an unregulated corporate sector, politicians responding to lobbyists rather than citizens, energy privatization – are strongly linked to other social-inequality issues that we are struggling against. So it made sense to bring this issue into our agenda.

A third, more pragmatic reason: this is a discussion about the transformation of key industries such as energy and forestry. If we aren’t part of that discussion, we cannot expect the needs of workers to be taken into account. There’s a slogan: ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’

From Copenhagen to Paris: the union movement raises its voice

The Copenhagen climate talks in 2009 saw the mass international involvement of unions on climate issues for the first time. So – unlike for much of the climate movement, for whom Copenhagen was a low point – for us, those talks marked a beginning. We had a very typical union response: sometimes you lose, sometimes you win, but you keep fighting.

We went to the 2015 Paris climate talks with three key things that we wanted in the deal. One was ambition, because the impact on the majority of workers on the planet is going to be huge if we go beyond two degrees [Celsius of global warming]. The second priority was finance, with the industrialized nations providing funds for energy transition, adaptation and the cost of climate damage in the South. The third was seeing a ‘just transition’ commitment in the Paris agreement.

The Paris deal is clearly insufficient. Politicians have committed to 1.5 degrees but not to any concrete measures to make it happen. On climate finance, the Paris agreement does not contain any figures or targets. On just transition, at least there is recognition, for the first time, of the connection between environmental justice and the need to secure workers’ livelihoods, although only in the preamble, not the main text.

Breaking free from ‘jobs versus climate’

In general, the union movement acknowledges the urgency of the climate issue and salutes the courage of the activists who took part in the May 2016 ‘Break Free’ direct actions at fossil-fuel sites. However, there are also sensitivities. Many of the workers at the sites that were targeted don’t have a choice but to work in that sector; the alternatives aren’t yet there.

Companies and workers are not the same; they don’t have the same interests. If we treat them as if they are, then we are pushing them together and strengthening the companies’ position.

Actions like Break Free have a theoretical commitment to the idea of just transition, but there has not yet been real engagement with workers or unions on most of the occupied sites. No-one came and asked, ‘What do you, the fossil-fuel workers, want as an alternative for you and your communities?’ But that’s a matter of tactics; it’s normal for these kinds of actions, and it does not mean it will not happen later.

Unified in climate action

We are not expecting a massive global mobilization from unions on climate, but we’re seeing local unions taking action, for example in Canada, as part of the climate justice movement, or in Argentina against fracking. In the Philippines, after Typhoon Haiyan, we saw a huge mobilization by trade unions around climate justice and they have participated in actions, including Break Free. In Tunisia, unions are part of the movement asking for environmental justice issues to be enshrined in the constitution.

This doesn’t mean that the whole labour movement is in consensus – there are other unions, generally those that depend on short-term jobs such as construction, which may support fracking or mining if no alternative job proposals are put forward.

Because of the lack of preparation by governments for the transition to clean energy, I think we will see, sadly, an increase in conflict between environmentalists and unions. Not because our objectives are not aligned, but because there is a huge political gap in the commitment made by governments to workers, and, instead of addressing that, they are letting us fight with each other.

A good way to build dialogue is to find common ground on other issues. For example, Greenpeace US is working on electoral reform with unions, NGOs, faith groups and many others. In Europe and Latin America, unions are working with environmental groups to challenge free-trade deals. These kinds of campaigns create a space to build trust, and make it easier then to discuss difficult topics like the climate transition because you are talking to partners, not adversaries.

The landscape is moving, and on climate justice we need to be on the right side of history. In the end, it’s a question of our credibility into the future. Some unions aren’t yet on the right side for understandable reasons, such as fear, or the lack of preparation by governments, or terrible labour rights situations that prevent them from engaging. For others, it’s just self-interest. It’s basically a lack of wisdom and a lack of awareness of where our societies are going.

My hope is that the general trend in the labour movement is going strongly in the right direction. There are a lot of contradictions and difficulties – internal and external – that come with that. But I think the trend is there.

Call in the National Guard to Protect Against Native American People in North Dakota?

By Steve Zeltser - CounterPunch, September 13, 2016

When do unions call in the National Guard to protect workers? It happened this past week in North Dakota where Standing Rock Sioux tribe and members of nearly 200 more tribes from across the U.S. and Canada brought 4,000 mostly Native people from throughout the United States to stop the desecration of their ancestor graves and the threat to their water resources by Dakota Access LLC. Dakota Access LLC is building a $3.8 billion dollar pipeline that would take 500,000 barrels a day through their lands on the way to Chicago. It is being built with 3,000 unionized operating engineers, plumbers, laborers and teamsters along the 1200 mile route. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe saw their ancestors burial grounds being desecrated and were concerned that their water supply would be contaminated in any possible spill going into the Missouri river which runs close to the pipeline.

The company Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) which controls Dakota Access LLC  is owned by Texas billionaire Kelcy Warren. During Hurricane Warren through ETP stockpiled gas to gouge on prices after the hurricane passed and had to pay a $10 million fine for illegal manipulation of the energy industry.

The reaction by the unions to the growing protest was that there needed to be protection for their members so they could do their jobs. Glen Johnson, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers IUOE, said the unions had asked to meet with North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple to” find out what the state intends to do about protesters causing workers to fear for their lives.”

Terry O’Sullivan, general president of LIUNA who makes over $663,000 a year had previously lauded the project “The men and women of LIUNA applaud the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its fair and thorough review of the Dakota Access Pipeline. … For the highly skilled and trained men and women of LIUNA, projects like the Dakota Access are more than just pipelines. They are crucial lifelines to family-supporting jobs,”

IUOE leader Johnson said that the governor might have to ” call out the National Guard, “so we can get through this volatile area. It’s appalling what’s going on.”

“Why isn’t the state protecting these workers from people throwing rocks, chasing them and wearing masks? If they’re not going to do anything and the company has to hire protective security and there are dogs out there, if they get bit, or whatever, hey, reality is reality,” he said. “Unions have supported peaceful protest, and we do it ourselves. When it’s violent, is when the law needs to step in — what, are we all supposed to be vigilantes and take the law into our hands?”

According to reporter Lauren Donovan of the Bismarck Tribune, the National Guard have already been deployed last week and was being used on Highway 1806 to shutdown the road with an information point. Some people were arrested and the action freed up the local police for other duties.

Native American activist Winona Laduke, who was a former Green Party vice presidential candidate, was clear about where the piping should be going. In an interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, Laduke said “Flint, Michigan, has a problem. That’s why everything is eroding in this country. And what we need is those skilled laborers to be put to work, pipelines for people. I’m saying take those pipes that are sitting there in northern Minnesota, and send them to Flint, Michigan.”

Johnson’s support for the use of trained dogs who bit dozens of people including children and even a pregnant women. The frenzy was so wild that some of the dogs were even biting each other. This  raises the question about who Johnson is really representing. The use of dogs to bite civil rights protesters fighting segregation and racism in the south is notorious in US history and his open support for the use of these attack dogs by private security forces raises the question of what some unions would do to “protect” their jobs.

While these same unions and the AFL-CIO refuse to call for an end to the trillions of dollars that the US is spending on 700 bases overseas and at war and spending that money on the direly needed infrastructure in the US they are quite happy to support the use of the National Guard and attack dogs to protect their jobs.

Other unions spoke out in support of the Native peoples and against the threat to their lands. Larry Hanley the president of the Amalgamated Transit Workers Union ATU issued a statement condemning the attacks on Standing Rock Sioux and Opposes Dakota Access Pipeline.

“The Amalgamated Transit Union joins others in the Labor movement in condemnation of the ongoing violent attacks on the Standing Rock Sioux and others who oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline. These attacks by a private security company bring back horrific memories of the notorious Pinkertons, who used clubs, dogs and bullets to break up peaceful worker protests.

“Union members understand that today the greatest threat to jobs, health and decent living standards is climate change. We support the National Day of Action on September 13th, and we urge President Obama to stop construction of this destructive pipeline and keep dangerous fossil fuels in the ground.”

This capitulation to business interests and their agenda for “jobs” of course is not new for the history of business unionism in the US. In Oakland, the California Teamsters Union supported the development of shipping coal into the Port Oakland despite the health and safety dangers particularly in the African American and Latino communities. The ILWU which works the ship and the Alameda Labor Council opposed the coal port and they were successful in stopping it.

EcoUnionist News #121

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, September 13, 2016

The following news items feature issues, discussions, campaigns, or information potentially relevant to green unionists:

Lead Stories:

Ongoing Mobilizations:

The Thin Green Line:

Just Transition:

Bread and Roses:

An Injury to One is an Injury to All:

Trade unions and the climate change fight

By Julie Douglas and Peter McGhee - Briefing Papers, July 5, 2016

We [unions] have to stop running away from the climate crisis, stop leaving it to the environmentalist, and look at it. Let ourselves absorb the fact that the industrial revolution that led to our society’s prosperity is now destabilizing the natural systems on which all of life dependsNaomi Klein

Climate change is perhaps the greatest existential threat humanity has ever faced. Indeed, this year is predicted to be the hottest on record since pre-industrial levels. The signing of the Paris COP21 agreement in March in 2016 behoves all countries to take urgent action to reduce carbon emissions. New Zealand is a signatory to the agreement, which clearly accepts that climate action is not the responsibility of governments alone and that all affected parties have a role in developing a response to climate change. Aside from environmental impacts from climate change there will be significant social, economic and political impacts as well. Work and workplaces, at the centre of the economy and social life, are important sites for responding to climate change. Employment is core to providing a livelihood and prospects on an individual level, and contributing to society as a whole.

There needs to be a tripartite approach to climate action in the workplace. Of the key direct stakeholders (state, employers and unions), unions represent around 18.6 percent of all workers (359,782 members) in New Zealand and therefore also constitutes our largest democratic body. A body of this size which has the structure in place to educate and organise through both the peak union body, the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU), and individual unions, must logically become an important partner in strategic discussions at both a government, industry and firm level.

The union movement in New Zealand has a long history of leading debate and resistance around issues of social justice, from taking a stand against Spain’s fascist Franco to refusing to assist in the loading of ships carrying New Zealand police officers to Samoa in 1929 who went on to kill many Samoans in the Mau movement. With this pedigree of social conscience and history of taking action it should follow that the union movement and its members would again rise and offer leadership to the latest challenge to social order and justice, and indeed potential catastrophic change to the planet.

Not only will jobs, occupations and industries disappear or change but the health and safety of workers will be threatened and more broadly, food and water security compromised. The initial challenge to unions then, is to see these threats as core to union work and why action is imperative to ensure their unions are ready to respond, educate members, and also to work with firms to develop strategies which allow for a just transition to a more sustainable workplace and world.  Unfortunately, such transformation does not appear to be forthcoming.

A recent study we conducted interviewed leaders from eleven of the affiliated unions to the NZCTU (representing 75 percent of all members in affiliated unions). These interviews sought information on what actions, if any, the unions had put in place to respond to climate change, and also the role they saw unions having in climate action and just transition. All of the interviewees articulated a strong personal position of concern about impending climate change and need for action. They all saw the union movement and the NZCTU as important stakeholders and leaders in the action required. However, when looking at the unions themselves the results were sobering. None were in a well-prepared position to face the future regarding climate change. Two had begun to develop some basic policies and plans but did not consider themselves in anyway ready; seven respondents indicated that they personally saw the issue as important but that their unions had done nothing in this area yet and that there were no conversations within the formal structure of their organisation about this issue; and the remaining two union respondents clearly articulated that climate change was not on their union’s radar and there was no indication this was likely to change. Across these unions only two respondents indicated that there had been interest raised by their membership.

This is a fairly bleak outlook for society especially if it places its hope of action on the largest democratic body in the country. Why are unions so unprepared? There are some identifiable reasons, but not excuses, for this. Firstly, we must look at the current socio-political environment unions operate under in New Zealand. As a result of the neo liberal paradigm shift in the 1980s and consequent legislation changes (such as the Employment Contracts Act 1991), union membership dramatically fell, and since 2008 unions have sustained a consistent undermining of rights such as workplace access. The role that unions play in the lives of workers – including their members – has narrowed as a result.

Secondly, unions’ core work is the preservation and enhancement of workers’ wages and conditions. It is for this reason that workers join unions and many of the union leaders we interviewed indicated they were concerned that a shift towards long-term social issues such as climate change could affect membership numbers. The irony being that the continued focus on the short gains of wages and conditions will be pointless if in the middle to long term members’ jobs ceased to exist. That said though, research from the US indicated that union members were more likely to be concerned with environment issues and therefore may well embrace their union engaging with climate change strategies[1]. Despite this finding, it is perhaps unsurprising that none of the unions interviewed had actively surveyed or begun widespread conversations about climate change within their unions and therefore were unaware of their members’ position or wishes on the issue. While it was true that some unions had improved sustainability measures in specific firms and, in one instance, got an organisation to divest in fossil fuel investment, this still stopped well short of a unified approach.

System justification theory postulates that human’s tend to view the wider systems on which they depend in a favourable light. As Johnson notes, upholding the status quo encourages feelings of security, purpose and relatedness through a shared reality. Unions, and their members are no different. They advocate for improved employment outcomes within a capitalist system that rewards self-interest and promotes economic growth as central to human well-being (usually at the expense of the environment). Unfortunately, climate change is a consequence of that same system. Perhaps this explains unions’ reluctance to engage in any meaningful way. To embrace climate change shifts the focus from short-term economic benefits for workers to that of uniting ‘all labouring men and women for a truly different order of things’.[2] Such a move could help unions become truly social democratic movements contributing to the flourishing of all.

[1] Vachon, T., & Brecher, J. (2016). Are union members more or less likely to be environmentalists? Labor Studies Journal. Doi:10.1177/0160449×16643323

[2] Leeson, R. (1971). United We Stand: British Trade Union Emblems (p. 32). London: Adams and Dart.

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