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Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS)

Labor unions are still giving Democrats climate headaches

By Alex Nieves - Politico, December 4, 2023

One of California’s most powerful unions is not loosening its grip on oil jobs.

Despite the Biden administration and California lawmakers pouring billions of dollars into new climate-friendly industries like electric vehicles, hydrogen and building electrification, a key player in state politics is still defending fossil fuel interests that provide thousands of well-paying jobs.

President Joe Biden’s investment in clean energy sectors through a pair of massive spending bills — which promise lucrative tax credits for projects that pay union wages — was supposed to speed up the labor transition away from oil and gas. That hasn’t happened in deep-blue California, home to the country’s most ambitious climate policies — and most influential labor unions.

“We believe we’re still going to be working in the oil and gas space for the foreseeable future,” said Chris Hannan, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, which represents nearly 500,000 members across dozens of local unions, from pipefitting to electrical work.

Unions’ longstanding — and well-founded — distrust of the renewable energy industry as a reliable source of labor-friendly jobs is slowing the “just transition” that Biden, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic leaders around the country have pushed.

With federal officials trying to get clean energy funding out as fast as possible ahead of the 2024 election, and California politicians cracking down on the fossil fuel industry, unions’ reluctance to relinquish fossil fuel jobs undermines Democrats’ aggressive climate targets, according to a lawmaker who serves both a union- and oil-rich area of the state.

While the union embrace of fossil fuels is unique to California — one of the few blue states with significant oil production — the struggle highlights a larger question over how states can quickly build massive amounts of clean energy infrastructure without undercutting labor.

Auto Workers Win Key Parts of a Just Transition

By Sydney Ghazarian - Labor Network for Sustainability, December 1, 2023

Through bold strategy and collective action, United Auto Workers (UAW) have won historic gains in their 2023 contracts with the Big 3 Auto companies– gains that turned the tide against an unjust transition to electric vehicles and demonstrated that climate progress and economic justice can and must be won in tandem.

UAW’s ratified contracts with the Big 3 include:

  • Provisions for expanding unionized EV work. The agreement with General Motors includes a commitment to future battery plants being included in the national agreement with UAW – meaning they will be good union jobs. Other contracts include guarantees for lower barriers to unionization at specific battery plants and commitments to the expansion of EV production already being done by unionized workers at existing plants.
  • A 25% wage increase, including an 11% bump in the first year plus restoration of cost-of-living adjustments.
  • An end to wage tiers that kept some employees at lower pay than others — a historic and important win for ensuring that EV work is both high-paying and union.
  • An end to permanent ‘temporary’ employee status, with temps converting to full employment status after 9 months of work. This win will result in thousands of temporary employees who have spent years working at the company being able to reap the pay and benefits of employment status as soon as the contract is ratified.
  • The right to strike over plant closures at all three automakers, which will provide the UAW critical leverage against the Big Three shipping jobs to anti-union states and overseas.
  • Reopening the Belvidere Assembly Plant to manufacture EV batteries and serve as a parts depot — one of the only Big Three plants ever reopened after a closure
  • The Stellantis agreement includes a moratorium on outsourcing, as well as product and investment commitments, giving workers significant leverage over corporate decision-making.
  • Many critical provisions that provide protection for employees during transitions, such as allowing some employees to maintain their seniority from closed or idled plants, transfer rights, and increased moving allowance
  • Many significant investments in providing a safety net for workers during a transition, such as increased investment in retirement, tuition assistance, and a year of healthcare coverage following indefinite layoffs.
  • The contract will expire on April 30, 2028 so that workers can strike on May 1st- International Workers Day. President Fain has called on other unions to align their contract expiration dates, as to maximize their collective power.

The UAW Solidarity Committee– which consists of climate and social movement organizations and is coordinated by the Labor Network for Sustainability– created a brief on the UAW strike outcomes to share with movement partners. You can read more here.

Retired Union Member Explains Why Veterans Should Want Peace

Socialize the Railways!

By Tom Wetzel - East Bay Syndicalists, November 13, 2023

The downward slide of the major (Class 1) American freight railroads in recent years shows how capitalist ownership of the railway system is dangerous and inefficient — and fails to make use of the potential of the railways as a solution to the global warming crisis.

Downward slide has been accelerated over the past decade due to the adoption of “Precision Scheduled Railroading” (PSR). This has no precise definition but the aim is to reduce costs. As in “lean production” management theory, any expense not directly needed for profit is regarded as “waste.” PSR is a cost-cutting strategy that puts short-term profits for stockholders as the controlling priority. To maximize the rate of return, the railroads cut corners on maintenance, constantly work to reduce the number of railroad employees, and actively discourage shipments that are less profitable for them to haul. To keep Wall Street investors happy, they work to maximize short term profit. To enrich stockholders, the rail companies have poured billions of dollars into stock buybacks rather than invest in system improvements.

Auto Workers Win Step Toward a Just Transition

By staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, October 30, 2023

In the on-going strike by UAW auto workers against the auto industry Big Three, one of the central objectives is to win a just transition to climate safe vehicle production for auto workers. At press time the strike continues, but the union has already won significant concessions that will contribute to a just transition. (See next story for more on what a just transition means for auto workers.) 

While collective bargaining is often shrouded in darkness, the UAW has revealed to union members and the public news of what is happening at the bargaining table. In addition to negotiations over wages, hours and working conditions, a central just transition demand has already been met by one of the Big Three.

GM has agreed that all its electric vehicle and battery plants will be included in the UAW master agreement. This puts an even floor under worker conditions and prevents worker-against-worker competition leading to “race to the bottom.” It thereby reduces the incentive for the company to site new EV and battery facilities in low-wage, anti-union states in the South and elsewhere. 

UAW president Sean Fain said, “GM has agreed to lay the foundation for a just transition.” Fain said GM agreed to the concession in response to the union’s threat to extend the strike to some of the company’s more profitable plants. Harley Shaiken, labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “This defines the transition to EVs. Clearly, GM’s concession on the master agreement will positively be matched by Ford and Stellantis.”

Join a Picket Line?

By staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, October 30, 2023

Picket lines are an essential way that workers show their determination and collective power. And they are a key way that others can show their support. Environmental, environmental justice, community, and other supporters have been joining picket lines at auto plants around the country to show their solidarity with striking auto workers.

Not on strike yourself but want to help workers who are? Then a new LNS publication, “How You Can Support Striking Workers: An LNS Guide to Solidarity,” is for you. It will tell you

  • How to get informed about a strike even if you are not a participant
  • How to find out about joining a picket line
  • How to prepare to join a picket line
  • Picket line do’s and don’ts
  • Other ways to support strikers

As the Guide concludes,

When you turn out to support strikers, you are doing more than helping to win the strike. You are contributing to creating new relationships and helping create a movement based on common interests and mutual aid. 

Download a copy of this publication here (PDF).

Freedom School: What Is Climate Justice and Why Are Unions Integral to It?

UAW President: “Use Auto Profits to Address Inequality and the Climate Crisis”

By staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, October 10, 2023

In a September op-ed, UAW President Shawn Fain and Congressman Ro Khanna say record auto profits should be used to address inequality and the climate crisis. 

“The climate crisis and income inequality are the two greatest challenges facing our generation. Both are being determined in the union contract negotiations between the United Auto Workers Union and Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis.”

The electric vehicle transition, they write, “must be as much about workers’ rights as it is about fighting the climate crisis. Forcing workers to decide between good jobs and green jobs is a false choice. We can and must achieve both – and it can start with a fair contract for UAW autoworkers.”

The electric vehicle future must be union made. “We can have both economic and climate justice – and that starts by ensuring that the electric vehicle industry is entirely unionized and that EV jobs come with union standards.”

We will not let corporate greed manipulate the transition to a green economy into a roll back of economic justice. That money must be invested in high-road, green American manufacturing jobs that create broad-based prosperity for working class communities. 

“We’re mobilizing for a new model that puts working people, climate justice and human rights before profit.” 

Just Transition for Auto Workers: The Answer to Auto’s Race to the Bottom

By Jeremey Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, October 6, 2023

Organized labor and the climate movement, often portrayed as opponents, have made an auspicious start toward cooperation in the autoworkers strike. The UAW, eschewing Trumpian blandishments to attack the transition to electrical vehicles (EVs), have instead endorsed the transition to climate-safe cars and trucks. One hundred climate organizations, rejecting the blandishments of auto industry allies that low wages in the non-union South will make EVs cheaper and therefore help fight global warming, have instead signed a letter of solidarity with UAW workers and are organizing to support union picket lines.[1] The purpose of this Commentary is to explain the context of this convergence and to indicate the elements of a “just transition” for the auto industry that can provide a joint program for the labor and climate movements.

As UAW Strike Heats Up, Allied Groups Plan National Day of Action, Activating Members to Rally Alongside Workers

By Public Citizen - Common Dreams, October 2, 2023

Environmental, advocacy, consumer, and civil society groups, including Public Citizen, Labor Network for Sustainability, Greenpeace USA, Jobs with Justice, Sunrise Movement, Democratic Socialists of America, 350.org, Working Families Party, Evergreen Action, and Green New Deal Network, today announced plans for a national day of action on October 7, aimed at supporting striking auto workers and urging the Big Three automakers—Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis—to meet the demands of 150,000 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW).

Participating groups will rally their supporters to advocate alongside UAW members for a fair contract that protects worker rights and prioritizes workers in the United States as the vehicle fleet transitions towards electric vehicles.

“The transition to EVs must not be a race to the bottom that exacerbates harm to workers and communities,” said Erika Thi Patterson, auto supply chain campaign director for Public Citizen’s Climate Program. “We need a just transition to EVs that protects our planet and people. That’s why 130+ groups representing millions of people are ready to partner with UAW in a national day of action to stand with auto workers. The implications of this strike could drastically raise standards across the auto industry and broader supply chain.”

The national day of action, planned for October 7, 2023, will mobilize members and grassroots activists to attend active picket lines where UAW members are on strike, and to join the UAW’s nationwide “community canvass,” where advocates will offer the public informational leaflets about why they support the auto workers in front of Big Three auto dealerships.

“Now is a decisive moment in whether the Green New Deal’s promise of creating millions of good-paying, union jobs will be fulfilled–or not.” said Sydney Ghazarian, a Labor Network for Sustainability organizer who has been coordinating UAW solidarity work. “UAW’s fight for an economically and socially just EV transition is our fight too.”

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