Elon Musk Will Not Help Lead a Climate Leap

Elon Musk Will Not Help Lead a Climate Leap

Elon Musk Will Not Help Lead a Climate Leap

Los Angeles activists are fighting for climate justice, but, at nearby Tesla, green jobs aren’t good jobs.


The finger snapping started at an unlikely moment, in a session called “benchmarks for racial and economic justice.” OK, not an obviously inspiring name. But as the ambitious political demands popcorned around the room, the energy surged, and the snapping reached a crescendo.

  • “End corporate welfare as we know it.”
  • “Get the combustion engine off the roads within 10 years.”
  • “A massive expansion of public housing, built on the principle of development without displacement.”
  • “All 5,000 diesel trucks servicing the port upgraded to locally manufactured electrics, financed by a new public bank.”

As the afternoon sun danced in the courtyard fountain of the Audubon Center at Debs Park, 60 movement leaders from across the city—and from a sparkling spectrum of causes—gathered to share their wildest dreams of a different Los Angeles. This was the founding meeting of a new coalition, gathered to draft a document called the “L.A. Leap Manifesto”: a vision for a carbon-free city by 2025. Over two days, a clear picture emerged of a city that values all of its residents, as well as the natural systems—water, soil, air—that we all depend upon to thrive. No one and no place to be treated as disposable.

As Los Angeles City Councilmember Paul Koretz aptly put it in his kick-off for this historic gathering: “The record heat, hurricane and wildfire seasons show we are living in a climate emergency of shocking proportions we never expected so soon. Yet the answers can create jobs, save us money, make our neighborhoods cleaner and healthier, and transform the economy. It’s time for a true climate-justice mobilization starting right here in Los Angeles…and it’s time for all of us across the city to set aside our differences, find commonalities, and do it now, for all of our sakes.”

Faith leaders caucused with trade unionists. Food-justice and zero-waste evangelists brainstormed with housing activists fighting oil drilling in city neighborhoods. Physicians and environmental-justice advocates hatched plans with Tongva elders. What united us was a shared belief that as we make the deep changes required to battle the climate crisis, we have a once-in-a-century opportunity to build a much fairer, more inclusive society at the same time. “LA was built on oil; it was built on inequality. We have an opportunity to create a new economy right now,” as Martha Dina Argüello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility–LA, put it.

Yet underlying the excitement was also a current of fear. Because in recent months there have been vivid examples of the opposite phenomenon: responses to climate change that actually deepen and exacerbate existing inequalities—between migrants and citizens, rich and working poor, workers and employers.

A case in point was playing out a half-day’s drive up the coast from where we gathered, at the Tesla plant in Fremont, California. Imagine the high-tech green future from every sci-fi film you have ever seen, and you can pretty much picture the factory. Ten thousand workers move through gleaming white spaces, welding sparks popping under the coordinated lurch of bright-red robot arms—all in the service of making pollution-free cars that run on the power of the sun.

Except there is one big problem: As one Tesla worker told a Guardian reporter a few months ago, “Everything feels like the future but us.”

The Fremont workers make well below the national average for autoworkers, and they live in one of the most expensive areas in the country. For those with families, this futuristic job doesn’t even pay a living wage. Moreover, as Tesla has faced huge pressure to meet production targets for the more affordable Model 3 sedan, there have been ubiquitous reports of workplace injuries, punishing hours, and inadequate pay.

When workers began a union drive back in February, Elon Musk, Tesla’s messianic CEO, reacted poorly. First he sent a frantic evening e-mail to the factory’s staff promising “a really amazing party” instead—while also dangling “little things” like “free frozen yogurt stands” throughout the plant.

When that didn’t work, things got ugly, culminating in news a few weeks ago that hundreds of employees (possibly as many as 1,200) had been abruptly fired. Tesla blamed low performance, but refused to provide anyone with their latest performance reviews; pro-union workers said they had received only glowing ones and suspected that the purpose of the firings was partly to snuff out the union drive. (The company denies this and insists the worst problems have already been resolved.)

What’s clear is that something is badly amiss at American’s flagship “green jobs” workplace. And that’s a big problem, because climate action will never pick up the momentum this crisis demands if workers like those in the Fremont plant are treated like serfs in the gleaming future.

We co-founded The Leap one year ago as an attempt to build broader coalitions to confront the climate crisis. We did it because, as the movement slogan goes, “to change everything, it takes everyone.”

But we also did it because it has become very clear that a big part of what blocks momentum for urgent, life-saving climate action is the fact that so many status-quo “green” policies are patently unjust: carbon taxes and renewable-energy programs that hike prices for the working poor while letting polluters off the hook; cap-and-trade schemes that give green cover to polluting industries in low-income communities of color; hydro, solar, and wind projects that are situated on the lands of Indigenous peoples but without their participation or sharing in the profits. And much more.

Debates about migration and border policy, meanwhile, consistently fail to acknowledge the role that climate destabilization is already playing in forcing millions from their lands and exacerbating conflict—or to ask the question of what big polluting countries like the United States owe to the poorer ones that are bearing the brunt of climate disruption.

As coalitions like the Climate Justice Alliance have been arguing for years, with so much injustice in the green-policy sphere, is it any wonder that that the mainstream climate movement has so far proved too small, and too homogenous, to full confront the fearsome power of the fossil-fuel lobby?

The Tesla case is particularly telling because it is highlights a much larger problem with trying to paper over these challenges with the shiny promise of “green jobs” for all. As Jon Barton, an SEIU deputy director, said at the Debs Park meeting: “We can’t ask folks to give up a unionized refinery job paying $100,000 a year for a non-union one installing solar panels paying less than half. That’s not a just transition.”

Which is why the recent Leap gathering spent much of its time digging into what it would take to make sure that green jobs are good jobs. After all, union members have reason to fear the phrase “just transition.” Those have traditionally been the last two words they heard before getting laid off, shuffled into humiliating retraining programs for more precarious service jobs.

And it’s not only union members who need justice in the transition to a new economy beyond fossil fuels. In Los Angeles, the black and brown folks being poisoned by industrial emissions in their neighborhoods—whether from oil drilling, battery recycling, or trucking corridors—are also the workers in those industries. They deserve not just clean air and water but also better-paying, more secure jobs in clean energy, manufacturing, and the vast project of building new transit and housing for the 21st century.

It’s tempting to imagine that men like Elon Musk can save the planet for us, that we just need to unleash the power of their innovation and wait for the magic. But as the workers in Fremont well know, the quest for profit very often comes at the expense of people—even when the product is green.

If we want the future to be fair, then we are going to have to design it that way, and fight for it. That’s the vision behind Leap Los Angeles. A city that looks like the future—with the people who have for too long been treated as if their lives and lands don’t matter showing us exactly how to get there.

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