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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).

Reimagined Recovery: Black Workers, the Public Sector, and COVID-19

By Deja Thomas, Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, and Saba Waheed - Center for the Advancement of Racial Equity (CARE) at Work - June 2020

This report highlights the validity of public sector work as a solution in the response and recovery to the Covid-19 pandemic on Black people across communities in Los Angeles County. Covid-19 disproportionately impacts Black workers and communities. History shows that even once a disaster is over, Black workers and Black people across communities continue to disproportionately feel its impact far longer than other communities.

Through the most recent government data and relevant literature, this report demonstrates why and how public sector jobs should be a tool used to address the Black jobs crisis and the recovery from Covid-19, particularly in Los Angeles County.

Download (PDF).

Pandering to the Predator: Labor and Energy Under Trump

By Sean Sweeney - New Labor Forum, February 3, 2017

Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20th 2017 saw unions and activist groups from numerous social movements take to the streets and declare an all-out war of resistance to both his presidency and his agenda.  

As is now clear, some union officials have not only dodged the draft, but have actually joined the opposition. Trump has made it clear that he intends to give full-on support for the further development of fossil fuels. He plans to revive coal, and get behind fracking for shale oil and shale gas. He also plans to approve major infrastructure projects like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. This just happens to be a big part of labor’s agenda also, and agenda that has been largely shaped by the North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU).

A Trump-Trades Confederacy?

Leaders of NABTU have not only openly embraced Trump’s energy agenda, they  quickly warmed up to Trump himself—and some of his proposed appointees. In a pre-inauguration statement, NABTU praised Trump for nominating former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillermen to be Secretary of State. NABTU said, “We believe he will be a tremendous success,” and praised Tillermen’s “resilient and dynamic grasp of both global and domestic policy issues, and a deep and unyielding sense of patriotism for our great nation.” Of this writing, even prominent Republicans are uncomfortable having someone with a pension plan worth $70 million and who owns $218 million’s worth of company stock become the country’s top diplomat.

In another sign of approval for Trump, the Laborer’s union (LiUNA) criticized the outgoing Administration’s decision to remove offshore areas for future leasing. In one of his final acts as president, Obama thwarted oil and gas industry plans to explore and drill in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans. Attacking Obama, the union stated, “LIUNA looks forward to working with the Trump Administration to reverse this and other regressive energy policies enacted by the outgoing President.”  This from a union that just a few years ago was on the cutting edge of the “green jobs” agenda, an active partner in the Blue-Green Alliance, and one of the first US unions to call on the Obama administration to adopt the science-based emissions reductions targets proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Also significant was Trump’s post-inauguration White House meeting with labor leaders on Jan 23rd.  Participants included NABTU President Sean McGarvey, LiUNA President Terry O’Sullivan, Sheet Metal workers’ union President Joseph Sellers, Carpenters President Doug McCarron and Mark McManus, president of the Plumbers and Pipefitters. Progressive unions were, it seems, not invited. McGarvey told the New York Times “We have a common bond with the president…We come from the same industry. He understands the value of driving development, moving people to the middle class.”

Labor Unions and Green Transitions in the USA

By Dimitris Stevis - Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change, February 27, 2019

“In broad terms there are now two camps amongst US labour unions with respect to climate change and renewables (the two not always related). On one side, are those unions that believe that something needs to be done about climate change and that renewables are a good strategy. On the other side are those that are opposed to meaningful climate policy –even as they claim that climate change is a problem.”

This report outlines the deep cleavages with respect to climate policy but also argues that the views of unions are more complex and contradictory than the opposition-support dichotomy. Additionally, it seeks to understand what explains the variability in union responses to climate change and policy. What can account for the contradictions evident amongst and within unions?

Read the report (PDF).

Unions representing 4.6 million workers have joined TUED

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, January 3, 2016

Note: The IWW is not an affiliate of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, or any of its affiliate unions, and this article is posted here for information purposes only:

The final months of 2015 saw a large growth in support for TUED in the US and UK

In the final months of 2015, seven unions representing approximately 4.6 million workers have joined Trade Unions for Energy Democracy.  Five of the unions are from the US and two are from the UK.

Screenshot 2015-10-11 13.39.10In a letter dated October 1, 2015, the General Secretary of the UK union Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, Manuel Cortes, informed TUED that the decision to participate in TUED had been made by the union’s Executive Committee. TSSA is a 22,000 member union representing drivers working for railway companies, shipping companies, bus companies, travel agencies, airlines, call centers, and IT companies in the UK and Ireland.

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On October 7th, the policy committee of the UK’s second largest union, UNISON (1.3 million members) also agreed to participate in TUED. UNISON represents workers in a range of public services and hosted a TUED meeting in London on November 27 prior to COP 21 in Paris.  UNISON’s 2014 Warm Homes Into the Future report has drawn attention to the important role of energy conservation in the residential sector both for reducing energy use and for creating jobs. In a statement on the report, UNISON national officer Matt Lay said, “We need to lead the energy agenda and we are in a key position to achieve this.”

Screenshot 2015-10-11 13.42.22In the United States, the United Electrical Workers (UE) has also joined TUED, by way of a resolution passed at its 74th national convention in August 2015. The UE represents roughly 35,000 workers in companies like General Electric, and also newly-formed worker cooperatives, such as the Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago.

The resolution, “Protect our Planet for Future Generations”, endorsed TUED and other “worker-oriented efforts to address climate change.” The resolution called for “public ownership of the energy industry and for massive investments in renewable energy.”

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Also in October, the US’ largest union, the National Education Association (2.9 million members) joined TUED. The union has been supporting teachers with lesson guides on climate change. Another education union, the Professional Staff Congress, which represents 25,000 faculty and research staff working for the City University of New York, joined TUED in November.

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Education unions from Australia, Romania, the US and the UK are now part of TUED, as is their global union federation, Education International (EI.) At its quadrennial world congress in July 2015, resolutions were passed to make sustainable development and climate change one of EI’s priorities in the coming years.

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In late November 2015, District Council 57 AFSCME joined TUED. The union represents 25,000 workers in schools and community colleges, transit agencies, public works and services, clinics and hospitals, and water and wastewater facilities throughout Northern California and the Central Valley.

Screenshot 2016-01-02 12.20.17

Finally, in early December the 270,000 member union UNITE-HERE joined TUED.  The union represents workers in the US and Canada in the hotel, gaming, food service, manufacturing, textile, distribution, laundry, transportation, and airport industries. At the global level,UNITE-HERE has played a leading role in major campaigns around domestic workers and textile workers’ struggles in countries like Bangladesh. Ashwini Sukthankar,  Director of the Global Campaigns Department, will represent UNITE-HERE on TUED’s Global Advisory Group.

Going on Offense During Challenging Times

By Marilyn Sneiderman and Secky Fascione - New Labor Forum, December 2017; image by Brooke Anderson

Bargaining for the Common Good (BCG) campaigns are expanding and spreading across the country. These campaigns offer important lessons on how unions, racial justice organizations, and other community groups can go on offense and win in these challenging times. The upcoming Janus decision at the Supreme Court, which threatens the membership and financial base of public-sector unions, makes this all the more crucial. In essence, BCG campaigns are when union and community groups together leverage contract negotiations for broader, shared gains.

Far from being new, much of BCG builds on what have been essential elements of building the labor movement from its earliest inception. The “mixed assemblies” of the Knights of Labor (founded in 1869) acted as community of unions working in conjunction with the organization’s trade assemblies. Unions and community groups have been partners in bargaining, budget, and political fights for years. Labor’s greatest battles—from the sit-down strikes of the 1930s to the United Farm Workers strikes in the 1960s, to the Memphis sanitation workers (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees [AFSCME]) strikes—all depended on deep community support that also reflected the values and needs of the whole community.

More recently, Jobs with Justice was founded in 1987 with the vision of lifting up workers’ rights struggles as part of a larger campaign for economic and social justice, particularly in the face of growing attacks on the right to organize and bargain. In 1996, the AFL-CIO through its Department of Field Mobilization launched its Union Cities strategy, working with key Central Labor Councils to reimagine labor’s relationship with community groups. This work included mapping corporate power structures, developing and building an infrastructure for political work, increasing diversity in leadership and activists, and supporting organizing of unrepresented workers in local communities.

Digging a little deeper, however, it is clear that the history of too many labor–community alliances were transactional in nature: “Support us on this campaign and we will support or fund you in some way.” When in fact what went unrecognized are the unified values and needs of community and labor, what’s good for a group of workers is generally also what’s good for the community, and, conversely, organized labor can exercise muscle and leverage access to power for broader shared community interests.

BCG aims to avoid transactional relationships between community and labor by building lasting alignments between unions and community groups, not merely temporary alliances of convenience.

An Open Letter to Developer Phil Tagami

By Ted Franklin - No Coal in Oakland, April 7, 2017; image by Brooke Anderson

On Saturday, April 8, the Alameda Labor Council will sponsor a Labor, Climate & Jobs Forum with plenary and workshop sessions devoted to how Unions are addressing climate and environmental challenges by organizing workers and communities.  Speakers will include Josie Camacho, executive secretary-treasurer, Alameda Labor Council; Kathyrn Lybarger, president, California State Federation of Labor; Cesar Diaz, State Building and Construction Trades Council; and Carol Zabin, UC Berkeley Labor Center Green Economy Program.

The Forum follows the Labor Council’s pathbreaking support for the No Coal in Oakland campaign.  In September 2015, in one of the first actions by any labor council in the United States to oppose a developer’s plans on environmental grounds, the Alameda Labor Council passed a resolution calling on Mayor Libby Schaaf, the Oakland City Council, and the project developers “to reject the export of coal through the Oakland Global project, to not take funds from Utah to secure use of the terminals for coal, and to execute a binding agreement or adopt an ordinance that will bar export of coal from this public land.”

With strong support from Labor, faith, environmental, and community organizations, the Oakland City Council banned the storage and handling of coal in the City of Oakland by adopting an ordinance prohibiting bulk storage and handling of coal within Oakland’s city limits.

The City supported its decision by reviewing extensive evidence of serious local health and safety impacts that would result from locating a large coal export facility in West Oakland as well as disastrous effects on global climate that would result from burning the vast quantities of coal that would be shipped overseas.

Communities Unite to Fight Coal in Oakland

By Eric K. Arnold - Reimagine, March 2016

Coal, once the staple of American industrial production, may be on its last legs. With domestic production showing a long-term decline, the fossil fuel’s days appear to be numbered.

According to the most recent annual report [1] of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2013, U.S. coal production fell below two billion short tons for the first time in two decades; coal mining capacity decreased, as did the average number of coal mine employees, the average sales price of coal, and total U.S. coal stocks. In April of 2015, the EIA projected coal would hit a 28-year low, reflecting significant drops in domestic demand and exports. In August, Goldman Sachs divested itself of its coal holdings; a month later, it issued a gloomy forecast[2] for coal’s future, stating, “the industry does not require new investment,” dashing hopes for a miraculous upturn in the coal market. A report[3] by the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI) noted that 26 domestic coal companies have recently gone into bankruptcy proceedings; and coal’s value on the Dow Jones index dropped by 76 percent between 2009-14 (a period when the overall Dow index went up 69 percent).

According to CTI, domestic energy generation has remained flat for the past decade but energy sources have shifted: coal and oil are down, but natural gas and renewable energy are up. America’s largest coal producers are recording annual losses in the billions of dollars, while Chinese coal demand has slumped and new environmental regulations[4] aimed at significantly reducing air pollution and increasing wind and solar consumption are being phased in by the Chinese government. Additionally, all federal coal leasing is currently under moratorium until a comprehensive review can be completed. As the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) noted[5] in its online magazine, OnEarth, “it would be difficult to overstate the industry’s current distress.”

This is scary news for the coal industry, yet a welcome announcement for environmentalists who have waged national campaigns against coal for decades. These desperate times for coal producers have led to desperate measures. Their last hope, it would seem, is to increase coal’s export capacity by transporting the black gunk through West Coast ports. But even there the pro-coal forces have met with unexpected resistance, as city after city in Oregon and Washington have mounted grassroots campaigns to deliver an emphatic message: “Say no to coal.”

Oregon Canvassers Workers Push for Unionization at Union-Funded Workplace

By Shane Burley - In These Times, November 4, 2014

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.

Seven workers and union activists head toward the office on September 17, just before the morning shift begins, debating how to enter. Should they all parade in together? What if lower management is out front smoking before the shift begins? Should they go in early, or wait until the day’s canvassers are already inside?

They agree to head in together in a show of solidarity, a few minutes before the bell rings. As the workers file in the front door, their union representatives in tow, management declares that outside people are not allowed to enter during business hours.

“Don’t worry, we won’t be long,” says Jonathan Steiner, a rep for the United Campaign Workers, a project of the Industrial Workers of the World Workers. The workers and their union representatives enter and declare there is announcement to be made: They have joined a union and are inviting other workers to join them.

They work at Fieldworks, a get-out-the-vote shop that, with thirty to forty canvassers at a time, is one of the largest political canvassing businesses in Portland, Oregon, and the nation as a whole. They are the latest in a slew of Portland campaign workers to organize with UCW in recent months, from canvassers for marijuana legalization to fundraisers for organizations like the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and The Nature Conservancy.

The complaints of canvassers at Fieldworks sound familiar: A lack of transparency when it comes to decisions about canvassing locations and the organizations they are funded by minimal say in workplace decisions. reports of wage-theft and labor law non-compliance and a lack of a living wage.

Workers have come out publicly as a minority union, meaning that the union is holding membership of less than half of the workplace and are not currently attempting an election through the National Labor Relations Board. Like with other recent UCW canvassing shops, the high turnover rate and temporary nature of the work means that conventional union elections may not be viable. Instead, they chose to come out publicly and begin putting pressure on management with the hope that new recruits would see the power that this organization has in their workplace and would join the fight.

But the minority union stands out in one important respect: Their workplace is funded by unions.

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