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A New Labor Environmentalism for Green Jobs

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Kim Kelly has emerged as one of the smartest journalists working on the labor movement. Here, she’s trying to think through the disconnect between the labor movement and the Green New Deal:

That some workers are feeling left behind and have already witnessed firsthand how institutional neglect can ravage working-class communities is a familiar concept to me. When then-New Jersey governor Chris Christie approved a new natural gas pipeline project that would snake through the pristine wilderness of the Pine Barrens, the South Jersey nature preserve where I grew up and my entire family still lives, my first thought was of my dad: He’s been a union construction worker since he was 18, and chances were he’d be called to work on the pipeline, if it ever made it out of the courts.

The thought of him digging up his beloved Pinelands broke my heart, but he remained stoic at the prospect. After all, he needed the money to cover bills and care for my disabled mother; as much as he loves those woods, his hands would be tied.

Make no mistake: The coal miner and pipeline worker know about the environmental costs of their labor, but when faced with the choice of feeding their kids or putting down their tools in the name of saving the planet, the pressures of capitalism tend to win; their choice is made for them. That is why it’s so important to dismantle the structures that force these impossible decisions and offer instead real, equitable alternatives to those whose livelihoods depend on industries that harm the earth.

While many in the labor movement were disappointed in the AFL-CIO energy committee’s stance, and many individual unions have endorsed the Green New Deal, it’s not hard to see why some union members in certain industries would be wary of any big shifts. Job-retraining programs have had mixed success in areas like Appalachia, where coal miners have found new lines of work thanks to grassroots community efforts, but have also been the victims of botched schemes like “coding boot camps” run by clueless outsiders. Studies have shown that retraining miners to work in the renewable energy industry would be both cost-effective and financially viable for the workers themselves, but efforts like these require institutional support (and funding) to really make an impact. Theoretically, the Green New Deal would supply said resources, but what if we didn’t have to wait for the government to finally, fitfully pass an inevitably watered-down version of someone else’s vision?

OK, although I don’t have a lot of confidence in the labor movement to actually have the capability or the leadership or the thinkers to make this happen, but bear with it for a second. What Kelly is thinking here is for the AFL-CIO to start their own green job training program.

Few labor leaders deny that some kind of action needs to be taken, but it’s time to pick up the pace.

The framework is there, should we choose to use it. By funneling resources to local union affiliates in coal- and oil-producing areas like Appalachia, Texas, North Dakota, Alaska, and New Mexico, and engaging with frontline communities, the AFL-CIO could get ahead of whatever’s coming next — whether that’s the passage of the Green New Deal, or, perhaps more likely, the continuing death of the coal industry. The union leaders were right to worry about the future, but their vision is too clouded by oil to see the burning forest.

Others in the movement have already stepped up. The Labor Network for Sustainability was launched by labor veterans (including former AFL-CIO employees) to support workers and communities in building “a just transition to a climate-safe and equitable economy”; their current project, Making a Living on a Living Planet, seeks to strengthen the relationship between labor and environmentalism.

The BlueGreen Alliance, a group of labor unions and environmental organizations, advocate for “clean jobs, clean infrastructure, and fair trade” via research, public policy, advocacy campaigns, and education. Their membership combines union heavyweights like the United Steelworkers, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters (UAPP), and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), with venerated environmental institutions like the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), making it clear that many unions want to make climate change action a priority.

Association of Flight Attendants-Communication Workers of America president Sara Nelson’s own industry is grappling with both the causes and effects of climate change. In a recent interview with In These Times, she addressed the need to build support for the Green New Deal, and renewable energy in general, emphasizing the need for a holistic approach. “We must recognize that labor unions were among the first to fight for the environment,” she said, “because it was our workspaces that had pollutants, our communities that industry polluted.”

“We need to build a broad coalition,” she continued. “And to do that we can’t start from a position that assumes opposition. If we bring everyone to the table, recognize the efforts to date, draw on the expertise from each affected field, and mobilize a united effort, then we can create allies where we otherwise might have had enemies.”

I’m not necessarily 100 percent on board here for a couple of reasons. First, Kelly notes that the AFL-CIO gives a lot of money to political campaigns, which she implies isn’t a good use of that money, but I simply can’t agree with that for the precise reason that there is zero evidence that organized labor can win if they don’t have politicians on their side. But that’s an argument we can have. I do think these are good ideas, by and large. The biggest problem is the labor movement’s leaders themselves. These are people who are too scared of digital media to actually hire young people to develop smart and savvy digital campaigns and let them do what they do. The average age of an AFL-CIO union president is probably around 65 and much of the leadership around them is also pretty old. There are also pretty huge cultural divides that can’t be handwaved away. It’s been very easy, for instance, for the Laborers to gin up hatred of environmentalists using hippie-bating tactics. There’s a lot of question about who leads this green transition and how it actually happens. And while I love the idea of unions getting involved in laying the groundwork of policy throughout the nation and starting their own innovative programs, there’s not a lot of evidence they have the capability or really even the resources to do this.

All of this aside, we do need to be thinking about what a future labor movement looks like that recognizes the reality that climate change will disproportionately effect the working class in really terrible ways. The details may have to be worked out and maybe it’s a long way from becoming reality, but we absolutely need more people like Kelly trying to think through these issues and articulating a better labor movement.

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