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Labor Leading on Climate Initiative

Union woman worker wearing a hard hat and standing in front of solar panels

The Labor Leading on Climate Initiative advances knowledge, policies, and practices to enhance the role of labor and working people in addressing the environmental and climate crises.

Labor in the Time of Trump

Labor in the Time of Trump Cover

Building a Pro-Worker, Pro-Union Climate Movement

Lara Skinner

Addressing climate change requires a major transformation of our economy. Most green­ house gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels, and we burn fossil fuels to drive our cars, heat and power our homes, produce food, transport goods, and so much more. ­ Every sector of our economy relies on fossil fuels to some extent, and, as a result, transitioning to a sustainable, low-­ carbon economy is­ going to require a lot of change—­ and the change has to happen quickly.

The climate science community agrees that, to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to cut our emissions drastically. In some cases, addressing climate change means entire sectors of the economy, and their associated jobs,­ will go away. In 2017, several automakers, including General Motors, Volks­wagen, Volvo, and Jaguar Land Rover, committed to transitioning their production completely to electric vehicles by the early 2020s. That means we ­ will make far fewer combustion engines and all the related component parts that accompany them. This is akin to the early 1900s, when mass production of the Model T revolutionized transportation and caused the decline of the ­ horse and buggy. Yet, just as the new automobile industry created thousands of new manufacturing jobs, so ­ will the transition to a sustainable, low-­ carbon economy. The questions at hand are­ whether this transition ­ will happen quickly enough to stave off the worst effects of climate change and ­ whether the new jobs ­ will be good jobs that ­ will build the­ middle class of the ­ future or bad jobs that ­ will serve to increase in­ equality in the United States.

Responding to climate change and transitioning our economy away from high-­ carbon activities pre­ sent a number of challenges for ­ unions, especially ­those connected to the energy sector. This chapter outlines approaches to three major tensions that must be addressed to build a pro-­ union climate movement. First, I describe the jobs-­ versus-­ environment debate that has pitted workers against environmentalists. Second, I discuss the dynamics of ensuring that new energy jobs are good, ­ union jobs. Third, I describe the challenges of implementing “just transition” for workers who are displaced as we move away from fossil fuels. I outline ­ these strategies for building a pro-­ worker climate movement by drawing on con­ temporary cases of ­ unions’ climate activism, mostly using examples in New York State. In ­ doing so, I examine the challenges that responding to the climate crisis pre­ sents for the ­ labor movement and explore how ­ these challenges can be overcome.

We cannot gloss over or trivialize­ these tensions. Acknowledging and addressing ­ these challenges is essential to enable the ­ labor movement to engage positively in the strug­gle to stop climate change and create dignity at work. In fact, the dual crises of climate change and in­ equality of wealth and power are two of the greatest challenges of our time, and, by creating good jobs while addressing climate change, we can address ­ these challenges si­mul­ta­neously. Put another way, climate change impacts working ­ people first and worst, and the environmental degradation we are experiencing, including climate change, is inextricably linked to a political-­ economic system that degrades workers and the environment alike. The solutions are linked.

Crafting a pro-­ worker, pro-­ union climate agenda opens up impor­tant opportunities for the ­ labor movement. With the tremendous amount of work that needs to be done to build a low-­ carbon economy, this could be an opportunity to expand ­union membership dramatically. Labor’s leadership on climate change also opens up opportunities for ­ labor to build alliances with other social movements, including the growing climate and environmental justice movements, which I argue is impor­tant to beat back attempts to weaken ­ unions and transfer wealth and power from working ­ people to the political-economic elite.

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