Allies Across the Globe

International labor leaders meet to discuss climate and energy
International labor leaders meet to discuss climate and energy
Thursday, October 17, 2013

Worker Institute associates gathered with international trade unionists last week to discuss the urgency of tackling climate change and the role unions can play in a sustainable and equitable energy transition.

"Addressing climate change will require a rapid transition to renewable energy," said Sean Sweeney of the Worker Institute.

"The energy transition we need is not happening fast enough. Fossil fuel use is expanding globally and governments need to take charge of the transition. Unions understand this and are making their voices heard," he said.

Unionists from more than 20 countries were joined by 60-plus academics, trade union leaders and representatives from New York-based organizations at the event, held at the 32BJ Service Employees International Union headquarters. 

Hosted by 32BJ SEIU, the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) and Local 3 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the event opened with a speech from Lenore Friedlaender, assistant to the president of 32BJ. She acknowledged the group's diversity, saying, "We have people here from around the world dedicated to a more sustainable future."

Lara Skinner, Worker Institute associate director, said, "The climate and energy crisis is one of the most important social issues of our time. It is critical that workers and the labor movement play a leading role in addressing the climate crisis and advancing a transition to a low-carbon, sustainable energy system in a way that protects workers and communities."

Attendees heard from international leaders who also expressed the urgent need for labor unions to lead the transition to renewable forms of energy. Maite Llanos of the Central de Trabajadores de Argentina said, "Unions need to rebuild ourselves to show society that we are organizations that can face this challenge."

Josua Mata of the Alliance for Progressive Labor in the Philippines added "The labor movement is the first and last line of defense for everybody."

Michael D. Langford, president of the Utility Workers Union of America, said, "We have to work with allies across the globe because the challenge lies not just within the confines of the United States."

Union leaders from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, South Africa and Trinidad and Tobago were in New York to discuss an initiative launched by the Worker Institute at Cornell and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung-New York.

Called Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), the initiative helps workers' organizations and trade unions develop and promote solutions to energy and climate crises in a way that addresses energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people and the repression of workers' rights and protections.

The group's inaugural retreat was held last week at The Pocantico Center of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in Tarrytown.

At the retreat, leaders discussed topics related to advancing energy democracy. Topics included labor's resistance to privatization of the energy system, efforts to unionize the renewable energy sector and alternative organizational models and financing mechanisms to support a democratic, equitable energy transition.

Anastasia Romanou, a climate scientist with NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, presented findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report.

President Cedric Gina of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa said he appreciated the Worker Institute at Cornell's outreach to international unionists. "We appreciate the opportunity to come and learn."