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.