The Secret Weapon in the Fight Against Climate Change: Worker Power

The Secret Weapon in the Fight Against Climate Change: Worker Power

Strike for Sunshine

To defeat fossil fuel, we need a low-carbon labor movement.


We have a powerful enemy in the form of fossil capital. To defeat it, we need a powerful low-carbon labor movement.

Organized labor has historically played a key role keeping capital in check and pushing for the expansion of public goods. But since the environmental legislation of the 1970s, the right has pitted labor against the environment, driving a wedge between two of capital’s most significant 20th-century challengers. Since then, the right has bludgeoned every proposed environmental action with the threat of lost jobs, even as it guts worker protections. Unfortunately, this has been a winning strategy. The right’s anti-labor politics paradoxically make workers more dependent on the jobs they have and more anxious about the prospect of instability.

Progressives have tried to reassure workers that they won’t pay for environmental protection with their livelihoods. “Green jobs” has been the refrain of environmental policy for years. It was a major slogan of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign: Adviser Van Jones argued that a green jobs program could simultaneously address climate change, income inequality, and racial inequality. Yet Obama’s green jobs policies ultimately consisted of funding for worker training and an effective but temporary home weatherization program.

Ten years later, decarbonization will have to happen much faster. The transition could be brutal for workers in the fossil fuel and related industries—but it doesn’t have to be. Climate action doesn’t have to mean lost jobs—it can mean better work for most people than what’s on offer today. Mere job training, however, isn’t going to cut it. Beyond high-quality retraining and new work in the clean-energy sector, a just transition for labor would transform work more broadly and increase the power of all workers in relation to their bosses, by offering real alternatives to bad jobs and strengthening labor’s right to organize.

To win all this, workers themselves will have to fight for it. That means we need a long-term vision that delivers material improvements along the way, building worker power step by step.

The Green New Deal resolution moves in this direction, calling for job training as well as high-quality union jobs, with comparable wages and benefits for affected workers. What most distinguishes it from previous green jobs schemes is the job guarantee—the idea that the government will provide a job to whoever wants one. The guarantee part is crucial. It represents a commitment to leaving no one behind amid economic transformation and climate chaos. It also dramatically improves labor’s position by raising the floor for bargaining, providing workers with exit options, and tightening the labor market, all of which make it possible to fight harder for further change.

The original New Deal is still the landmark for worker protections and public sector employment in the United States. It shows what happens when the federal government offers people good work and protects their efforts to organize. Today, we need to go beyond the New Deal’s job programs and undertake a deeper economic transition.

That means expanding our understanding of what green jobs are. They tend to be seen as directly related to energy production, whether upgrading the grid or building renewable energy infrastructure. But truly greening the economy requires more fundamental transformations. We argue for expanding the green job framework to include work that is already low-carbon: caring for people and the earth. Labor can remake the world along carbon-free lines—and different kinds of labor can help us live good, low-carbon lives. To win those things, we need labor’s power.

A familiar dynamic has developed around fights to “keep it in the ground,” with workers building oil and gas pipe-lines and indigenous activists organizing to stop them. These fights recall earlier battles, like the 1980s confrontation between loggers and protectors of the spotted owl, which produced the slogan “Are You an Environmentalist, or Do You Work for a Living?” But the dichotomy is a false one. As labor historian Trish Kahle observes, “Environmental protections and labor protections have historically risen and fallen together.” And workers have often recognized that companies that treat the earth badly usually treat their workers badly, too.

Take coal miners. In 1968, Kahle recounts, a mining disaster killed 78 coal miners, leading rank-and-file miner Jock Yablonski to challenge the union’s incumbent president, Tony Boyle. As Yablonski asked, “What good is a union that reduces coal dust in the mines only to have miners and their families breathe pollutants in the air, drink pollutants in the water, and eat contaminated commodities?” He gave voice to a growing sentiment. A year later, 60,000 miners took part in wildcat strikes focusing on safety issues, and 70,000 marched on the West Virginia capital to demand protections against black lung disease. Yablonski narrowly lost the election—and was later murdered by Boyle’s hit men. After his death, a group called Miners for Democracy took up the struggle for health and environmental protections, proposing that miners who lost jobs to regulations be given union work restoring local land and infrastructure.

Yet their power faded as energy giants bought up coal companies and crushed worker militancy. Coal companies have slacked on safety measures and black lung disease has viciously resurged since the 1970s—yet Trump is poised to cut regulations still further. Giant companies blow the tops off mountains and tout the benefits of “clean coal,” even though there’s no such thing.

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of work to be had in the oil and gas industry as US extraction has expanded: Jobs are up 60 percent from 2004 to 2016, despite the recession. Though less than 5 percent of extractive industry workers were union members as of 2018, even nonunionized workers can make good money. There’s a reason workers are skeptical that green jobs will be as lucrative.

Yet an early wave of blue-green alliances laid the foundations for addressing these challenges. In the 1970s and 1980s, Tony Mazzocchi, a leader in the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union, argued for winding down industries that harmed workers, environment, and society while taking steps to safeguard livelihoods. He proposed a revived GI Bill for atomic workers who would be left unemployed by nuclear disarmament and a Superfund for fossil fuel workers. His vision was central to the idea of a just transition on which the Green New Deal draws—an economic transition that doesn’t make workers pay, and that workers will fight for.

The job guarantee is another such idea. It goes back to FDR’s 1944 proposal for a Second Bill of Rights, known as the Economic Bill of Rights, which aimed to give a material foundation to the civil and political rights of the original. It called for the rights to “a good education,” “adequate medical care,” a “decent home,” “protection from old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment,” and a “useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation.”

Its ambitious aims remain a worthy touchstone for the American left. Yet there’s a mismatch between the goods it declares people have a right to—health care, education—and the jobs they have a right to do—in mines, shops, and farms. What about the jobs in hospitals and schools that provide education and health care? The discrepancy is hardly limited to FDR. The archetypal worker has been a man in a hard hat or on the assembly line—not a teacher, nurse, or service worker, even as their numbers have grown. Two decades after the New Deal, the idea of a job guarantee was at the heart of the Poor People’s Campaign led by an increasingly radical Martin Luther King Jr. After King’s death, his political comrade and widow, Coretta Scott King, carried on the fight, articulating a more transformative vision of work. As the historian David Stein observes, she wanted to create “jobs that would serve some human need.” She emphasized health care, education, and quality of life over jobs “created with the profit-making motive.”

Her vision didn’t come to pass. Instead of guaranteeing meaningful work to those without steady employment, the state imprisoned millions of people deemed “surplus” to capitalism’s needs. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore shows, when economic growth began to falter in the 1960s, capitalists and homeowners revolted against their tax rates. The state lost its welfare mandate, but it still had money and capacity. It used them to build prisons rather than schools or public services. Gilmore is clear: “Prison building was and is not the inevitable outcome.” It was a political choice. We can, and must, make a different choice today.

Though Donald Trump boasts about his success in creating jobs, an estimated 16 million Americans are currently unemployed or underemployed. The economist Pavlina Tcherneva suggests that in 2017, around 11–16 million people would have taken advantage of a job guarantee. What kinds of jobs would all those people do?

Under a radical Green New Deal, a job guarantee would offer low-carbon, socially valuable work—and there’s no shortage of that. Every year, Americans do millions of hours of unpaid labor in food pantries and senior centers—including service mandated by courts, schools, or workfare. In the national parks alone, there are over 315,000 volunteers, compared to a mere 23,000 paid staff. Other vital ecological care work is simply not being done at all. We don’t need to make work—we need to pay for it.

The Green New Deal resolution called for “high-quality health care; affordable, safe, and adequate housing; economic security; and “clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and access to nature.” These have often been treated as “add-ons” to the real climate program. But it’s critical to think more broadly about green jobs—to take into account work that’s oriented toward sustaining and improving life, human and nonhuman, in low-carbon ways. Hospitals and schools need to run on clean energy, but care and education are inherently low-carbon work.

The economic question is whether this work can be done profitably. Much of it, we submit, cannot. Eventually, doing meaningful, socially useful work will require a break with capitalism. We can start by drastically expanding the amount of work that’s primarily oriented toward meeting ecological and human needs, not increasing profits.

Job guarantee advocates sometimes assure critics that it would supplement or stimulate private sector employment rather than crowding it out. But frankly, there are some jobs that ought to be crowded out. “Will you not be bewildered, as I am,” the socialist William Morris once asked, “at the thought of the mass of things which no sane man could desire, but which our useless toil makes—and sells?” Work worth doing, Morris thought, had the “hope of rest, hope of product, hope of pleasure in the work itself.” We should crowd out jobs that offer none of these—folding clothes in H&M or flipping burgers made from factory-farmed cattle—especially when their business model relies on wrecking the planet. A job guarantee would give workers options to leave socially and environmentally harmful jobs, and would strengthen the position of workers organizing in the private sector.

Shitty work also takes a toll on your soul. The great modernist writer Virginia Woolf once made a living from odd jobs of the kind then available to women—in her words, “addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in a kindergarten.” It was dull work, and usually poorly paid. “What still remains with me,” she recalled afterward, “was the poison of fear and bitterness which those days bred in me.” Then she inherited £500 a year from an aunt who fell off a horse in Bombay. It wasn’t a fortune—about $40,000 today, a little more than the median individual income. But it set her free. “Watch in the spring sunshine,” she wrote, “the stockbroker and the great barrister going indoors to make money and more money and more money when it is a fact that five hundred pounds a year will keep one alive in the sunshine.”

A colonial inheritance isn’t something to aspire to. But the freedom Woolf experienced should be available to all—and that’s what a job guarantee can offer. In the 1930s, Lula Gordon, a black woman living in San Antonio, wrote to FDR: “I was under the impression that the government or the WPA would give the Physical [sic] fit relief clients work. I have been praying for that time to come.… I have registered for a government job and when it opens up I want to take it.” Gordon had long worked as a domestic servant and had been offered a job cleaning a white woman’s home. Without other options, Gordon wrote, “I have to take the job in the private home or none.” But she hoped for something else. “Will you please give me some work,” her letter concluded. A government job would offer an alternative to the intimate, racialized domination that usually comes with domestic servitude.

Employers know this, too. During the New Deal, Southern politicians protested that Civil Works Administration wages were too high: Southern agriculture relied on black workers who would plow the fields for five cents an hour, which they wouldn’t do if the federal government were paying 40. Indeed, public-sector jobs have long been important in countering the racial discrimination that makes black and other workers of color “last hired, first fired.” A job guarantee could help combat the rampant obstacles to decent employment for formerly incarcerated people. And it would help people escape abuse in families and households, which women, queer, and trans people are most likely to suffer.

The domination of the workplace still keeps most of us unfree. Bosses belittle and sexually harass workers, deny them bathroom breaks and vacation time, steal their wages, and drive them to exhaustion. But under capitalism, you have to work to live, so workers take what they can get. Real alternatives are essential. But today, bosses are richer and stronger than ever.

Today, the Green New Deal’s most prominent labor supporter is Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. She rose to prominence when flight attendants, along with federal air traffic controllers, called out sick a month into the 2018–19 government shutdown, forcing Republicans to back down from demands for a border wall. Nelson has argued that “our federal government must spearhead a national mobilization that…harnesses American ingenuity, creates millions of well-paying union jobs, and saves the planet for our children.” She’s also reminded climate activists to take workers’ concerns seriously.

Labor’s power has always come from its ability to force a halt to business as usual. We need that power more than ever today, because business as usual threatens life on earth.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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