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Labor Unions Rally Behind California’s Zero-Emissions Climate Plan

Robert Pollin interviewed by C.J. Polychroniou - Truthout, June 10, 2021

Robert Pollin, distinguished professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has been spearheading national and international efforts to tackle the climate crisis for more than a decade. Over the past few years, he and a group of his colleagues at PERI have produced green economy transition programs for numerous states. The latest such program is for California, and it is being released today.

The massive study — nearly 200 pages long — shows how California can become a zero emissions economy by 2045 while expanding good job opportunities throughout the state. Nineteen unions have already endorsed the green transition plan, making clear that they reject frameworks that falsely pit labor priorities and the environment against each other, and more are expected to do so in the days and weeks ahead.

In this interview for Truthout, Pollin, co-author with Noam Chomsky of Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet (Verso 2020), talks about the climate stabilization project for California and the national implications of union support for a green economy transition.

C.J. Polychroniou: California has been at the forefront of the climate fight for years now, but the truth of the matter is that its efforts have fallen short. Now, you and some colleagues of yours at PERI have just completed a commissioned climate stabilization project for California. How does the project envision the clean energy transition to take place in a manner consistent with the emission targets set out by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018, and how will it be financed?

Robert Pollin: This study presents a recovery program for California that will also build a durable foundation for an economically robust and ecologically sustainable longer-term growth trajectory. California has long been a national and global leader in implementing robust climate stabilization policies. This includes the 2018 Executive Order B-55-18 by then Gov. Jerry Brown. This measure committed the state to cut CO2 emissions by 50 percent as of 2030, to become carbon neutral no later than 2045, and to produce net negative emissions thereafter. These goals are somewhat more ambitious than those set out by the IPCC in 2018. Our study outlines a program through which the state can achieve its own established goals.

Our study shows how these 2030 and 2045 emissions reduction targets can be accomplished in California through phasing out the consumption of oil, coal and natural gas to generate energy in the state, since burning fossil fuels to produce energy is, by far, the primary source of CO2 emissions, and thereby, the single greatest factor causing climate change. The project we propose is to build a clean energy infrastructure to replace the existing fossil fuel-dominant infrastructure. The clean energy infrastructure will require large-scale investments to, first, dramatically raise energy efficiency standards in the state and, second, to equally dramatically expand the supply of clean renewable energy supplies, including solar and wind primarily, with supplemental supplies from low-emissions bioenergy, geothermal and small-scale hydro power. We show how this climate stabilization program for California can also serve as a major new engine of job creation and economic well-being throughout the state, both in the short- and longer run.

A Program for Economic Recovery and Clean Energy Transition in California

By Robert Pollin, Jeannette Wicks-Lim, Shouvik Chakraborty,Caitlin Kline, and Gregor Semieniuk - Department of Economics and Political Economy Research Institute (PERI); University of Massachusetts-Amherst, June 10, 2021

This study presents a robust climate stabilization project for California. It demonstrates that achieving the state’s official CO2 emissions reduction targets—a 50 percent emissions cut by 2030 and reaching zero emissions by 2045—is a realistic prospect. This climate stabilization project can also serve as a major engine of economic recovery and expanding economic opportunities throughout the state. This includes an increase of over 1 million jobs in the state through investment programs in energy efficiency, clean renewable energy, public infrastructure, land restoration and agriculture. The study also develops a detailed just transition program for workers and communities in California that are currently dependent on the state’s fossil fuel industries for their livelihoods. In particular, we focus here on condi­tions in Kern, Contra Costa, and Los Angeles counties.

The study is divided into nine sections:

  1. Pandemic, Economic Collapse, and Conditions for Recovery
  2. California’s Clean Energy Transition Project
  3. Clean Energy Investments and Job Creation
  4. Investment Programs for Manufacturing, Infrastructure, Land Restoration and Agri­culture
  5. Total Job Creation in California through Combined Investment Programs
  6. Contraction of California’s Fossil Fuel Industries and Just Transition for Fossil Fuel Workers
  7. County-level Job Creation, Job Displacement, and Just Transition
  8. Achieving a Zero Emissions California Economy by 2045
  9. Financing California’s Recovery and Sustainable Transition Programs

Nineteen labor unions throughout California have endorsed this study and its findings.

Read the text (PDF).

To Save America, Help West Virginia

By Liza Featherstone - Jacobin, March 30, 2021

A Democratic swing vote in an evenly divided Senate, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin has already proved to be a significant obstacle to progressive policy. His opposition was a significant reason for Biden’s failure to raise the minimum wage to $15; Manchin also played a key role in shrinking the household stimulus checks, as well as the weekly unemployment checks. He will be a necessary and highly undependable vote as Democrats attempt to address the climate crisis, advance union organizing rights, and counter racist Republican efforts to legislate voter suppression.

However, the infrastructure bill that Biden and the Democrats are preparing to unveil, which is expected to call for $3 trillion in investment in public goods and services, presents an opportunity for West Virginians — and for all of us. Manchin has been championing this legislation, even calling for it to be funded with an increase in taxes on corporations and the wealthy. On this issue, Eric Levitz of New York magazine has convincingly argued, Manchin is actually pulling Biden to the left.

Manchin’s salience puts West Virginia in a powerful position. The state has urgent needs, given the long decline of the coal industry and the double impact of the opioid and coronavirus public health crises. Almost a third of West Virginians filed for unemployment between mid-March 2020 and the end of January 2021.

A report by University of Massachusetts economists with the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), released in late February, proposed a recovery plan for West Virginia, with good jobs and environmental sustainability at its center. The study showed how compatible these priorities really are. The state’s coal industry has spent years successfully demonizing Democrats and environmentalists as job killers. Under recent regimes of neoliberal austerity, there might been some truth to that, but with more generous investment from the federal government, West Virginia can redevelop its economy and lead the nation in fighting climate change at the same time.

PERI found that the struggling Appalachian state could reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and reach zero emissions by 2050 — the targets the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) determined in 2018 were needed in order to avoid irreversible damage to our planet and to human civilizations — while creating jobs and promoting prosperity. The UMass researchers found that $3.6 billion per year in (both public and private) investments in a clean energy program — averaged over the 2021–2030 time period — would generate about 25,000 West Virginian jobs per year. The PERI researchers also analyzed the effect of $1.6 billion a year — also over 2021–2030 — in investments in public infrastructure, manufacturing, land restoration, and agriculture, finding that these efforts would generate about 16,000 jobs per year.

In fighting for such priorities, progressives need resist the pull of what we might call “woke neoliberalism.” Woke neoliberalism functions by using charges of racism and sexism — very real problems! — against initiatives that could help the entire working class. (Remember Hillary Clinton’s, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?”) In the debate over the Biden infrastructure bill, some well-meaning people are falling into that trap, already pitting investment in care work and infrastructure against each other.

The Washington Post reported on Monday, “Some people close to the White House say they feel that the emphasis on major physical infrastructure investments reflects a dated nostalgia for a kind of White working-class male worker,” citing SEIU president Mary Kay Henry’s private admonitions to the White House not to overlook the care economy. Henry said, “We’re up against a gender and racial bias that this work is not worth as much as the rubber, steel and auto work of the last century.” Economists Heidi Shierholz, Darrick Hamilton, and Larry Katz reportedly argued to the White House that investing in care work would create more jobs than investing in infrastructure.

Let’s not do this.

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.

Resilience Before Disaster: The Need to Build Equitable, Community-Driven Social Infrastructure

By Zach Lou, et. al. - Asian Pacific Environmental Network and Blue Green Alliance, September 21, 2020

This report, jointly released by APEN, SEIU California, and BlueGreen Alliance, makes the case for California to make long-term and deep investments in the resilience of its most vulnerable communities.

As California faces devastating wildfires, extreme heat, power outages, and an ongoing pandemic, the need to proactively advance climate adaptation and resilience is more clear than ever. However, these efforts typically focus on improving hard infrastructure–roads, bridges, and other physical infrastructure–to the detriment of social infrastructure, the people, services, and facilities that secure the economic, health, cultural, and social well-being of the community.

Traditional models of disaster planning have also proven deeply inadequate: They are coordinated through militarized entities like local sheriff’s departments and rely upon protocols like evacuating to faraway and unfamiliar sites, sharing emergency alerts in only one or two languages, and requiring people to present identification to access services, thus shutting out many from the support they need.

Through these crises, we’ve seen new models of disaster response emerge. In some places, neighbors have formed mutual aid networks to share their resources with one another, schools provided food to tens of thousands of families each day, and libraries were turned into cooling centers during extreme heat waves. What these approaches have in common is that they are rooted in the existing social and public infrastructure of communities.

This report provides a policy framework for community resilience by building out models for Resilience Hubs and In-Home Resilience. This dual approach to resilience captures the need for both centralized spaces and distributed systems that promote resilience within a community. Importantly, these are not models for just disaster response and recovery. Resilience is built before disaster.

Read the report (PDF).

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.

On The Front Lines: Climate Change Threatens the Health of America's Workers

First U.S. Union-Authorized Climate Strike?

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 2020; images by SEIU Local 26

Above: Thousands of Minneapolis cleaning workers walked off their jobs and struck their downtown commercial high-rises. Among their key demands was that their employers take action on climate change. Quite possibly the first union sanctioned strike in the U.S. for climate protection demands. Credit: SEIU Local 26.

It isn’t easy for unions to strike to protect the climate. U.S. labor law doesn’t make it easy to strike over anything except wages, hours, and working conditions – even over things like climate change that profoundly affect workers and their future. So it was important news when Minneapolis commercial janitors held an Unfair Labor Practices strike this week to protest employer stalling – including on demands that their employers help fight climate change. This is the third in a series of commentaries on The Future of Climate Strikes. For the entire series see here.

On Thursday February 27 thousands of Minneapolis cleaning workers walked off their jobs and struck their downtown commercial high-rises. Among their key demands was that their employers take action on climate change. It was one of the first—as far as I have been able to discover, the very first—union sanctioned strike in the U.S. for climate protection demands.

The janitors are members of Service Employees International Union Local 26. They are employed by over a dozen different subcontractors like ABM & Marsden to clean corporate buildings like IDS, Capella Tower, EcoLab, U.S Bank, Wells Fargo, United Health Group, Ameriprise and many more across the Twin Cities.[1] The workers are overwhelmingly immigrants and people of color. One observer described the meeting authorizing the strike as “a rainbow coalition of immigrants from all over the world and people from every race and religion in the state.” The union provided simultaneous interpretation into Spanish, Somali, Vietnamese, Amharic, and Nepalese.[2]

I wanted to know something about the background to the strike, so I called Steve Payne, who wrote an excellent article about plans for the strike in Labor Notes.[3] He spent years as an organizer for Local 26 and now works for the North Star chapter of the Sierra Club. Much of this commentary is informed by my discussion with him.

In Coronavirus Fight, Workers Are Forging an Emergency Green New Deal

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 2020

This is the first of a series of commentaries on the Green New Deal. It argues that in the face of government and employer failure, workers and communities must take the lead to protect ourselves and each other from the coronavirus and its economic and social impacts. It proposes an emergency program to do just that. Funny – it looks a whole lot like a do-it-yourself Green New Deal.

The coronavirus pandemic threatens all of us. People are scared, and rightly so. But when we look to our government officials and employers, whose responsibility it is to provide protection in an emergency, what do we find? In the words of the National Nurses United – a union whose members are risking their lives every day on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic — “Federal, state, local, and employer efforts to fight the coronavirus” are “outrageous” and “ineffective.”

At least until those in authority get their act together, we need to start protecting ourselves and each other – not only as individuals, but collectively. Call it a “do-it-yourself Green New Deal.”

The core idea of the Green New Deal is to put people to work meeting our needs. So far the GND has been aimed primarily at challenging climate destruction and inequality. But our most urgent need right now is to protect against COVID-19 and the devastating impacts it will have on our communities and our jobs. The government isn’t doing it. Our employers aren’t doing it. So, if it is going to be done the people have to do it ourselves. We can take the core idea of the GND and start applying it right now. That means an “Emergency People’s Green New Deal.”

Let’s start by looking at the emergency needs that have to be met. Then we can look at the human resources we have to meet them. Finally, we’ll look at the social and political process we need to make it happen.

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