Labor’s War on Global Warming

Labor’s War on Global Warming

Together, unions can force the government to take on the issue of green-collar jobs.


Figuring out how to respond to global warming has been difficult for organized labor. The issue can pit union against union and unions against environmentalists. Now, however, a new alliance is developing around the idea of “green jobs”–the jobs that will be needed to rebuild our economy and drastically reduced greenhouse gasses.

Seemingly from nowhere, “green jobs” have emerged as a key issue in the presidential election. Barack Obama calls for a $150 billion investment in green-collar jobs. Hillary Clinton refers to renewable energy employment as “jobs of the future” that can create 5 million jobs. Even John McCain calls for research and development of green technology, calling it the “path to restore the strength of America’s economy.”

The stealth “green jobs” issue did not emerge from nowhere. Its prominence in the presidential debates results in good measure from the commitment of some, though by no means all, environmental and labor leaders to building an alliance for jobs that fight global warming.

In 2006, the Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers initiated the Blue-Green Alliance under the banner of “Good Jobs, A Clean Environment, And a Safer World.” This “strategic alliance” would focus on “those issues which have the greatest potential to unite the American people in pursuit of a global economy that is more just and equitable and founded on principles of environmental and economic sustainability.”

Linking jobs and the environment, Steelworker president Leo Gerard said, “Secure twenty-first-century jobs are those that will help solve the problem of global warming with energy efficiency and renewable energy.” Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope added, “Our new alliance allows us to address the great challenge of the global economy in the twenty-first century–how to provide good jobs, a clean environment and a safer world.”

As the presidential primaries approached, the Blue-Green Alliance called on all candidates to commit to reducing carbon emissions by 2 percent every year, increasing green-energy based manufacturing jobs by 2 percent and rewriting American trade laws to advance labor and environmental standards.

The politically savvy alliance began organizing in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin–states that would be critical in the presidential primaries–a year before the primaries would be held. Almost all the Democratic candidates agreed to their program, and even John McCain is finding that he must echo it.

The coming-of-age party for this coalition may well be the Blue-Green Alliance’s “Good Jobs, Green Jobs: A National Green Jobs Conference” scheduled for March 13-14 in Pittsburgh. The conference will bring together advocates representing labor, business, the environment and public health; economic and workforce development specialists; investors, scientists and technology experts; and local, state and federal policy makers. Its aim is to launch a nationwide dialogue about “moving our country rapidly toward leadership in promoting a new green economy.”

Participants in the conference include heavy hitters from organized labor, including some who have previously kept away from actions addressed to global warming. Both US labor federations, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, are listed as conveners. So are such unions as the Service Employees, Industrial Division of the Communication Workers, Operating Engineers Local 95, United Food and Commercial Workers and United Steelworkers. It also features groups like the national alliance Green for All, which has been promoting “green-collar jobs” as a way to build a route out of poverty for the most deprived, and the labor-backed Apollo Alliance, which campaigns for energy independence.

Efforts to combat global warming present dilemmas for organized labor. Some unions may face immediate job losses: coal miners may lose jobs when coal power plants are phased out and some auto workers may lose their jobs if high-mileage autos start to be eliminated. Some members of organized labor also fear that carbon regulation could lead to energy shortages and that high energy prices will aggravate economic stagnation and unemployment.

But some unions have an immediate interest in combating global warming. Boilermakers and sheet metal workers, for example, are likely to gain jobs from the expansion of solar and wind energy. Some unions can be hurt by the immediate consequences of global warming–witness those in the hospitality industry in New Orleans.

In the past, organized labor has played an ambiguous role in the global warming debate. Labor unions from Europe, Canada and elsewhere supported the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, in which 172 countries agreed to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, but the AFL-CIO opposed it. The Clinton Administration signed the agreement, but the Bush Administration refused to submit it for ratification.

Unions from much of the world, represented by the International Trade Union Confederation [ITUC], which represents 168 million workers in 153 countries, participated actively in their countries’ efforts to cut greenhouse gases in accord with the Kyoto Protocol, and to ensure that protection of employment and workers rights were included in that process. A few US unions, notably the United Steelworkers, supported the Kyoto Protocol and efforts to cut greenhouses gases in the United States–and argued that doing so could create new jobs. But the AFL-CIO reaffirmed its opposition to Kyoto and rarely if ever acknowledged that global climate change was a significant threat.

Fortunately, all that has begun to change. At the end of 2006, the AFL-CIO formed a new Energy Task Force and began to engage with the issue in new ways. Its 2007 report, Jobs and Energy for the 21st Century, acknowledged that “human use of fossil fuels is undisputedly contributing to global warming, causing rising sea levels, changes in climate patterns and threats to coastal regions.”

According to Bob Baugh, head of the AFL-CIO’s energy task force, “Over the past year, the AFL-CIO’s position on climate change has moved much closer to the ongoing efforts of the ITUC.” Twenty US trade unionists joined the ITUC delegation to the global climate change conference in Bali–a first. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney told the UN Summit on Climate Risk last month, “The global labor movement is proud to have been among those who called for decisive action at Bali…. Global warming means global depression, food and water shortages and drowned cities. I have stood in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward and seen that future.”

The change in organized labor’s approach to climate change, however, has yet to be fully realized at a policy level. As Bob Baugh notes, “The ITUC has called for aggressive targets for cutting carbon emissions…. the AFL-CIO has concerns about the level and timing of some of the specific ITUC recommendations with respect to emissions targets.”

This disagreement is not trivial. The ITUC has strongly backed the greenhouse gas reduction targets established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose scientists recently received the Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore. In a statement prepared for the Bali conference, the ITUC urged governments “to follow the IPCC scenario for keeping the global temperature within two degrees C and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent by 2050.” It further urged developed countries to use as a benchmark the EU’s commitment to a 30 percent cut below 1990 levels by 2020.

The AFL-CIO, in contrast, has been actively lobbying against such limits on greenhouse gases. For example, in a letter to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works last November, the AFL-CIO condemned the “overly aggressive Phase 1 emissions reduction target,” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, in the proposed Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act.

A few unions like the Steelworkers have supported the changes that climate scientists say are necessary. SEIU supported the national “Step It Up” demonstrations, which received massive participation from American youth. Now it’s time for the AFL-CIO, Change to Win and individual unions to consider their responsibilities to their members’ future–and the planet’s.

If what matters most is “to know what game you’re playing,” global warming promises to be history’s most radical game-changer. While it is an unmitigated disaster, it also provides an incentive to face up to problems that the country has been avoiding for generations. It underlines the necessity to reconstruct the economy on the basis of our common needs, including our need to save the ecosystem, rather than just individual greed. It provides an opportunity to address synergistically the problems of jobs, poverty, destructive metropolitan growth patterns and corporate irresponsibility. Global warming provides labor with an opportunity to become the advocate for all those who would gain from a new social economy.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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