Under banners proclaiming “Healthy Planet & Good Jobs,” thousands of trade unionists from 75 local and national unions, highly visible in their red, blue, green, and white union uniforms, joined the People’s Climate March in New York City last September—a quantum leap from labor’s previous participation in climate actions.

At the labor rally before the march, AFSCME District Council 37 executive director Henry Garrido recalled that during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, “Our workers were at the forefront manning shelters, evacuating people, preparing hospital beds, and rescuing people every day.” But Sandy was just a warning shot. “Labor must stand for more than working conditions,” Garrido continued. “We must stand for more than contracts. We must stand for environmental justice—otherwise, we will become irrelevant.” The issue of climate change, he concluded, is “the biggest threat to our humanity.” We can no longer afford to put our heads in the sand: “Today is the day that the human race stood together and said, ‘Enough!’”

The march’s organizers are now working to launch a People’s Climate Movement. They are planning a series of major mobilizations leading up to the Paris climate summit this December. According to Phil Aroneanu of 350.org, activists have started meeting with unions to plan labor-focused events along the way. “It is incumbent on the climate movement to lay out plans that leave nobody behind in the transition to a climate-safe economy,” Aroneanu says.

Meanwhile, labor action on climate change has proliferated. In New York, according to Matt Ryan, executive director of ALIGN (New York’s Jobs With Justice affiliate), “There is a growing surge of labor unions engaging and activating their members and their members’ communities around a climate, jobs, and justice agenda. I see it at CWA, SEIU, the Teamsters, New York State Nurses Association, and many others.”

From the moment New York organizers started planning for the climate march, they saw it as a vehicle for building a labor, justice, and environmental coalition around a green jobs program. After the march, they developed “Climate Works for All: A Platform for Reducing Emissions, Protecting Our Communities, and Creating Good Jobs for New Yorkers.” The 10-point platform, intended to help meet the city’s mandate to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, would put 40,000 residents to work each year making New York’s largest buildings energy-efficient, installing solar collectors on schools, expanding public transit, and being involved in other climate-protecting projects. The plan would link city residents to job opportunities through training programs and address the housing and transportation needs of low-income New Yorkers. It was developed by ALIGN and the BlueGreen Alliance, along with such less-frequent allies as the New York City Central Labor Council, the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, and the national AFL-CIO. The coalition pushed successfully to incorporate climate-justice demands in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s climate-action plan, which pledges to lift 800,000 city residents out of poverty or near-poverty in the next decade.

In California, Climate Workers, a project of the Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project, conducted a tour early this year of fracking-affected communities in the Central Valley for union members and leaders, then organized a Labor Against Fracking contingent for the March for Real Climate Leadership, endorsed by locals from AFSCME, SEIU, UAW, and UNITE HERE. Last December, the California Labor Federation—along with consumer, faith, health, green-business, and environmental organizations and elected officials—participated in a California Climate Leadership Forum. Its core agenda was to protect the state’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act and implement a new law—passed under pressure from environmental-justice advocates—requiring that 25 percent of the money from the state’s cap-and-trade program be spent to benefit low-income, high-unemployment, heavily polluted communities.

After the participation of unions in the People’s Climate March in San Diego, activists from the American Federation of Teachers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the building trades, the nurses, and other unions formed an Environmental Caucus in the San Diego–Imperial Counties Labor Council. Their mission statement proposes to educate members and the public, build alliances with environmental and community groups, promote progressive labor/environmental legislation, and ensure that “labor’s agenda always includes an environmental focus,” and that “labor’s issues are always present in larger discussions of environmental issues.”

In Connecticut, climate and labor activists created the Roundtable on Climate and Jobs, cosponsored by the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network and the state AFL-CIO and joined by a wide range of environmental, religious, and community organizations and unions. The Roundtable, which conducts workshops on climate change at union locals, is developing a state plan for climate-protecting jobs. The Roundtable recruited the state AFL-CIO and a dozen unions to back the People’s Climate March; to work jointly to save the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires utilities to use locally produced renewables; and to block attempts by the state’s electric utilities to reduce incentives for energy efficiency and renewables. After a Roundtable campaign to reboot the state’s climate-action program, this April Governor Dannel Malloy issued an executive order establishing a new 15-member Governor’s Council on Climate Change, which includes a representative from the Roundtable.

Economic-justice groups—including Jobs With Justice, National People’s Action, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the Climate Justice Alliance, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance—are making the economics of climate protection a core part of their work. Some of these efforts have converged in a platform for “Building a Movement for People and the Planet,” just published by the Campaign for America’s Future and National People’s Action. And US Labor Against the War, which played a critical role in getting the AFL-CIO to oppose the Iraq War, is partnering with climate-protection advocates in the labor movement to create strategies for conversion from military to green production. This convergence is connecting globally as well: In June, a Trade Union Climate Summit at the Murphy Institute in New York will bring together union leaders and staff from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, Italy, Norway, Korea, Peru, the Philippines, and Spain.

American workers and organized labor have an interest in addressing climate change and in putting millions of people to work making the transition to a climate-safe economy. But much of labor is still committed to an “all of the above” energy policy that promotes all jobs—even those destroying our climate and future. Can that change?

Historically, many American unions were whites-only organizations, and the AFL-CIO executive council refused to support the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But pressure from African-American union members, leaders of the industrial unions, and perhaps the winds of history led the AFL-CIO to ban racial discrimination in member unions and to support the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. For most of its history, the American labor movement supported restrictions on immigration; but in the late 1990s, as immigrants formed an ever-growing proportion of the workforce, activists began persuading their national unions and the California Labor Federation to call for the repeal of employer sanctions and other anti-immigrant worker laws. Under pressure from unions representing janitorial, garment, hotel, and restaurant workers, the AFL-CIO executive council unexpectedly reversed its long-held position in 2000 and voted for the repeal of employer sanctions and a general amnesty for most undocumented immigrants.

The labor movement has generally supported US wars, but as the Bush administration drummed up its invasion of Iraq, the newly formed US Labor Against the War launched a campaign to have local, state, and district bodies pass resolutions opposing it—and in 2011, the AFL-CIO executive council declared, “There is no way to fund what we must do as a nation without bringing our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan.” For years, many unions opposed single-payer healthcare; then Kay Tillow and her associates in Kentucky organized Unions for Single Payer Health Care, which eventually persuaded 148 central labor councils and area labor federations, 44 state AFL-CIOs, and 22 international/national unions to endorse a single-payer bill sponsored by Representative John Conyers. In 2009, the AFL-CIO national convention reversed course and endorsed single-payer healthcare.

The important lesson of these examples is that organized labor can in fact be changed, but that it takes a concerted effort to challenge the status quo. Climate activists need to become an organized force within organized labor. They can take their cue from US Labor Against the War and Unions for Single Payer Health Care to organize network-style challenges at multiple levels across union boundaries while pushing a common labor program within their own unions. Because many worker centers and other worker organizations, as well as many of the largest unions—including the SEIU, the Teamsters, and the National Education Association—are outside the AFL-CIO, the network will need to extend to all organized workers. The Labor Network for Sustainability, an organization devoted to drawing together workers and environmentalists around a common vision for environmental, economic, and social sustainability, is working to pull together a “convergence” gathering of trade unionists who want to make the labor movement a climate-protection movement and start building a labor path to a sustainable future for the planet and its people.

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Barack Obama won the 2008 election, in part, on a campaign promise to create 5 million green jobs. Organized labor enthusiastically supported a green-jobs program. But the promise was largely ignored until the Great Recession stimulus package provided substantial funding for new automobile technology, residential weatherization, and renewable energy. A recent evaluation shows that the programs funded were effective for both greenhouse-gas reduction and job creation, but that much of the designated funding never got out the door. Not surprisingly, many in organized labor became cynical about the promise of green jobs.

Today, new programs for a worker-friendly transition to a climate-safe economy go far beyond merely promoting some green jobs. A massive new report from the Political Economy Research Institute and the Center for American Progress, called Green Growth: A U.S. Program for Controlling Climate Change and Expanding Job Opportunities, aims to realize the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 40 percent from their 2005 levels by 2035—while creating 2.7 million more jobs and reducing the unemployment rate by 1.5 percent. Green Growth is notable for recognizing that reducing fossil-fuel use will lead to some loss of jobs for workers and communities in fossil-fuel industries, and for proposing specific “just transition” plans to ensure their well-being. (The Obama administration recently took a modest but significant step in this direction with its new POWER+ Plan, which provides “dedicated new resources for economic diversification, job creation, job training, and other employment services for workers and communities impacted by layoffs at coal mines and coal-fired power plants.”)

Working with Ron Blackwell, a former chief economist at UNITE and the AFL-CIO, the Labor Network for Sustainability has developed a Labor Movement Plan to Address Climate Change. It proposes a government-led mobilization on the scale of the economic mobilization seen for World War II and calls for public investment to produce a full-employment economy, whose growth would generate the resources necessary to convert America to renewable energy and provide a just transition for workers, communities, and carbon-dependent regions. Drawing on the World War II experience, it describes the fiscal, labor, and governance policies needed to make this happen. A more detailed follow-on plan is in the works.

These programs vary in how rapid a change they propose. The Climate Works for All plan for New York details about one-third of the cuts necessary to meet de Blasio’s proposed cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. Green Growth aims for the 40 percent reduction over the next two decades called for by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Labor Network for Sustainability plan aims for a far more aggressive target: a 6 percent reduction in greenhouse gases annually, the amount former NASA climate scientist James Hansen says is required to get below the 350 ppm danger line by the end of this century.

Meanwhile, policies for reducing greenhouse gases are taking effect at the state and local level and are starting to create good union jobs on a substantial scale. For example, as a result of California’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, utility-scale solar energy in California has quadrupled since 2010. That required the creation of 10,200 construction jobs paying an average of $78,000 per year and offering health and pension benefits. Most of the construction was covered by collectively bargained contracts or project labor agreements. Contractors contributed $17.5 million to apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship training for electricians, construction craft laborers, ironworkers, carpenters, and operating engineers. Such concrete examples, combined with realistic but visionary plans, is what it will take to make a just, worker-friendly transition to a climate-safe economy credible to American workers.

Of course, the obstacles to such a program should not be underestimated. Beyond the Keystone XL pipeline, there’s a looming division over the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed carbon rule, which has already been opposed by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers as a job-killer. But a strategy of lining up behind the Koch brothers, the fossil-fuel industry, and climate-change-denying Republicans to oppose climate protection is a suicidal dead end for organized labor.

Conversely, environmentalists can bring direct aid to organized labor. When members of the United Steelworkers struck Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and other oil companies on February 1, former AFL-CIO official Joe Uehlein, executive director of the Labor Network for Sustainability, called on environmentalists to support the workers. Groups like the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the Sierra Club, Oil Change International, and Communities for a Better Environment in the Bay Area joined picket lines or issued statements supporting the strikers. As the strike drew to a successful conclusion, union spokeswoman Lynne Hancock noted that “working with environmental groups helps you in your bargaining strength and in improving the work situation for the workers.”

Last year was the hottest on Earth since record-keeping began in 1880, and the 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1997. At some point, climate change will transform American politics as radically as the Industrial Revolution and the atomic bomb. And it will change labor, too. The problem, needless to say, is that in the meantime we go on emitting greenhouse gases that will raise global temperatures for millennia to come. Now that we’ve wasted a quarter-century, an adequate program will look less like the Eisenhower interstate highway system or the Apollo program and more like the mobilization for the Second World War. Fortunately for labor-climate activists, there is no element of American society that will gain as much from such a program as the labor movement, and no force as crucial for bringing it about.

The labor movement’s most essential value is solidarity. Summed up in the hallowed adage “An injury to one is an injury to all,” it’s the recognition that “looking out for number one” doesn’t work, that we will survive and prosper only if we look out for one another. Climate protection is the new solidarity: protecting our brothers and sisters as well as ourselves from destruction.