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Global Labor Institute Brings Together Labor and Climate Justice Movements

December 4, 2010

In a rare meeting just outside of the official United Nations Climate Change Negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, leaders of the labor, climate and environmental justice movements came together to discuss the role of social movements in pushing the global negotiations forward.

McKibben, Barlow, Sweeney at COP 16Organized by ILR’s Global Labor Institute, the Dec.4 discussion, “Building a Global Trade Union and Climate Justice Alliance,” featured prominent U.S. climate leader Bill McKibben, founder of, and water rights activist Maude Barlow, president of the Council of Canadians. Two well-known trade union leaders also spoke at the 125-person gathering. They were Joaquim Turco from the Central de Trabajadores de la Argentina and Roger Toussaint, vice-president of the Transport Workers Union, based in the United States.

“We must push to more aggressively educate our ranks and incorporate environmental justice demands not only into our contract negotiations connected to the health, safety and opportunities of our members, but into our work to build strong coalitions standing together with broader communities,” Toussaint said. For Toussaint’s remarks, please download this PDF.

COP Cancun 12-04-2010At the GLI sponsored event, Amy Goodman, host of award-winning news program “Democracy Now!” interviewed McKibben, who said, “We are going to need to build a movement that is big enough to really exert some power. I don’t know whether we can do that as we haven’t done it yet. The oil industry and their friends in the U.S. government are winning most of the battles, but we are going to keep trying.”




Video footage of the interview can be seen at:

“From a trade union perspective, the Cancun Agreements were successful on two fronts,” says GLI Director Sean Sweeney who moderated the panel. “While it only made modest gains in terms of the actual negotiations, it re-legitimized the crucial role the United Nations plays in the negotiations process. The final text also included language on just transition and workers’ rights.”

Sweeney and Global Labor Institute colleagues Jill Kubit and Lara Skinner accompanied more than 200 international trade unionists at the UN climate talks in Cancun. Trade unions have official recognition as a civil society group within the negotiations and have worked hard to ensure that the interests of workers and unions are reflected in a fair, ambitious and binding final agreement.

The Global Labor Institute also organized two workshops at the International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) World of Work Pavilion on low-carbon, sustainable transportation and transitioning to a decarbonized energy economy. At the International Forum on Climate Justice in Cancun City, the GLI sponsored a global trade union roundtable, on the links between the economic crisis and the climate crisis. The roundtable brought together trade unionists from more than 30 countries to discuss global trade union policy and the prospects for a Global Green New Deal. Finally, along with the Blue-Green Alliance and U.S. Climate Action Network, GLI organized a strategy meeting of U.S. unions and environmental group to discuss their 2011 priorities and possibilities for joint action.

The GLI team was among 24 faculty, staff and students sponsored by Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future to attend the U.N. climate negotiations.

“The next step for the labor movement, especially in key countries like the U.S., is to work hard between now and COP 17 Durban to build the conditions in-country for a fair, ambitious and legally-binding agreement to be signed”, said ILR Extension faculty member Lara Skinner and this, she says, will require the U.S. being much more ambitious about its emission reduction targets and timetables.

The GLI will organize a series of labor-climate justice events throughout 2011 in the lead up to COP 17 in Durban, South Africa. Assistant Director Jill Kubit said, “The December 4 meeting in Cancun shows the potential for an “inside-outside” strategy. After Copenhagen, there is a strong sense that something very different will need to happen if a binding agreement is to emerge from the Durban talks.”