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When the AFL-CIO Attempts to Prove That It Will Not Lead the Workers’ Movement of the Future


Yes, the headline to this piece is a bit too confrontational. But c’mon existing private sector unions:

In a letter last week to Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the lawmakers who introduced a resolution last month detailing the key components of their plan, members of the AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee said it could not support a proposal that did not address their concerns.

“We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered,” wrote Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

The Green New Deal resolution, as proposed by Markey and Ocasio-Cortez, calls for the federal government to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions with a “fair and just transition” for all communities and workers, including by creating millions of high-wage jobs, health care and housing for all, a sustainable environment and enormous infrastructure investments.

Yes, it is true that the Green New Deal plan was not created in consultation with organized labor. But at this point, why should it? What would they add except support for fossil fuels?

In their letter to Markey and Ocasio-Cortez, Roberts and Stephenson called the Green New Deal “not achievable or realistic.” They urged the lawmakers to include labor in conversations related to climate change, but they said such work shouldn’t impinge on other priorities such as infrastructure.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) tweeted the letter and added, “I agree with the AFL-CIO.”

Markey fired back on Twitter: “We will continue to work and partner w/ @AFLCIO, who is right to say that ‘doing nothing is not an option.’ But until Republicans say that climate change is real, caused by humans, and demands action now, the only people they are in agreement with are Big Oil and the Koch brothers.”

Well, nothing like giving honest brokers who support unions like John Barasso cover!

There are a number of problems here. First, many of the unions behind this are dying. The UMWA is effectively a pension fund at this point. Yet, because of its history, it plays an outsized role in these politics. Second, these are unions who have not organized the new economy at all. They have nothing to gain out of a Green New Deal if they don’t organize the new workers and most of them are not set up to do so. This a labor movement looking into the past, nostalgically reminiscing about what was once and what will never be again. This is the kind of economic nostalgia Donald Trump effectively taps into, one that goes along with a racial nostalgia that turns the perceived 1950s into an idealized politics that has even more power because it can never be recreated.

The idea that the labor movement–or a large piece of it anyway–would reject a plan that would, at least theoretically, create millions of new jobs, is absolutely terrible. But because it doesn’t create new jobs in the sectors that unions have currently organized, they oppose it. This reminds me of how the AFL-CIO sought to limit the impact of progressive legislation in the 1970s, such as the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, because they felt it would limit their ability to negotiate better lives for their own members. And while unions, at least as presently constructed in the United States, are not organizations designed to fight for the entire working class–their members pay dues to protect themselves after all–it is hardly surprising that for many, many people involved in progressive movements, unions are an obstacle, not an ally. Meanwhile, private sector union rates are in the toilet, with little chance of improving. Sometimes, you don’t have to wonder too hard why this is the case.

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