Cornell University

November 25 2008

Labor and climate change movements poised

Economic crisis and election hasten alliance, say former president of Ireland and others at Cornell's Global Labor Institute

The world economic crisis and Barak Obama's impending presidency have created an unprecedented opening for mobilizing change that could reverse environmental damage and create decent jobs, too.

Leaders from labor and environmental groups and the international development community meeting at Cornell University's Global Labor Institute in Manhattan Tuesday agreed that the potential to ally the labor and climate change movements has never been stronger.

The institute is part of Cornell's ILR School, which focuses on work, employment and labor policy. This year, the Global Labor Institute collaborated with the United Nations and other international organizations in creating the globe's first comprehensive Green Jobs Report.

From left, Barbara Shailor, AFL-CIO international affairs director, and Mary Robinson, chair of Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative and former president of Ireland. Photo by Clark Jones.Mary Robinson, who served as Ireland's president for seven years, was the meeting's featured speaker. 

"Framing a way forward," she said, is largely dependent on putting "decent work at the center of the national and international agendas."

Obama "has to do that if he's going to pull this country and the rest of the world out of this deep economic crisis," said Robinson, chair of Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative. The mission of the New York-based organization is "to put human rights standards at the heart of global governance and policy-making and to ensure that the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable are addressed on the global stage."

Robinson, who also served as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, was joined at the meeting by domestic union leaders, environmental group leaders, a representative of the Norwegian government, Cornell faculty and others. 

Barbara Shailor, director of international affairs for the AFL-CIO, said many feel that now is the world's best chance for a unified labor movement. "You have this moment of hopefulness – in Obama."

Now, she said, "we have to figure out concrete steps."

The first might be strategizing the approach to the proposed Employee Free Choice Act, perhaps the biggest labor issue in 30 years, she said.

Obama is expected, by many, to sign the proposed legislation into law in 2009. Many in the business sector oppose the act, which would change the way unions organize workers. It would allow workers to form unions by signing up a majority of employers, rather than holding a secret-ballot election.

Next year, Obama is also expected by many to sign an economic stimulus package that includes creating green employment and jump-starting a transition to a low-carbon economy.