(Image: Creative Commons / Creative Action Network)

Making a living on a living planet

On Labor Day 1940, American workers faced the aftermath of the Great Depression, with mass unemployment persisting and a divided labor movement facing a renewed counterattack from corporate America. They were barely becoming aware of an even greater threat, one that would determine the future of their country and their labor movement: the threat of Nazi armies mobilizing for war.

On Labor Day 2014, American workers face the lingering results of the Great Recession, with unemployment still at historic highs, burgeoning inequality, and attacks on the very right to have a union. But, like workers in 1940, we are being pressed by another threat, one that will far overshadow our current problems if we do not take it on.

Today the American labor movement — like the rest of American society and like labor movements throughout the world—is being forced to grapple with global warming, climate chaos, and climate protection strategies. The future of labor’s growth and vitality will depend on its ability to play a central role in the movement to build a sustainable future for the planet and its people.

Climate change changes everything: Everything about how we organize society, how we conduct politics, even how we think of progress. For us in the labor movement, it must change how we envision the role of an organized labor movement in society. 

Society will change—either through the effects of climate degradation or through a colossal struggle to avert it. Labor has to decide whether to fight the transition to a climate-safe society or to help lead it. 

It is in the self-interest of the trade union movement to become a part of the solution to the climate crisis. Climate change is the real job killer and poses a serious thereat to jobs in every sector. This means supporting a just transition away from a carbon-based economy toward a carbon-neutral economy. The stakes are way too high to do otherwise.  Our society is transitioning before our eyes to a sustainable future, and the struggle for this transition is intense, with the forces of capital arrayed against us. 

Change is never welcome, and for good reason.  Working people, and communities, have always been the road kill on the path of change.  Our nation, our society, has never provided a just transition for working people.  This must change. If working people are to support climate protection, then climate protection must mean a way to make a living on a living planet.

Labor is rightly concerned with our society’s growing inequality. Indeed, American workers face two great crises: global warming and the resulting climate chaos, and the crisis of income inequality and the crushing deficit in family supporting jobs. The good news is, we can solve these two crises with the same set of policies—creating jobs by making the transition to a climate-safe economy.

Labor movement and environmental movement

There have never been more compelling reasons for the labor and environmental movements to work together.  Global warming and the resulting climate chaos poses a real and present danger to work and working people. The destinies of these two movements are truly intertwined.  Yet today the obstacles to collaboration are greater than perhaps ever in history.  These two movements are not succeeding on their own. They would benefit immensely from a shared vision; but they remain far away from achieving that vision. Over the past 40 years these two movements have worked together, and they have fought against one another.  They have formed coalitions around mutual interests, and have offered aid in certain struggles.  Today not only are they divided over a host of issues both national and local, but a fissure has opened up within the labor movement over global warming.  There’s little disagreement on the importance of the issue, but sharp disagreement over what to do about it.  There’s only one problem with simply letting this disagreement play out the way such issues have in the past: The timeline to disaster science tells us we’re already on. And the climate fight may not be won without labor.

Unfortunately, many proposals for climate protection are not labor-friendly. Those in organized labor who are skeptical about climate protection efforts identify genuine problems in the policies proposed by environmentalists. They point out that the closing of coal-fired power plants, for example, will lead miners, truck drivers, and utility workers to lose their jobs — in many cases, the only well-paid union jobs in their localities.  They argue that projects like the Keystone XL pipeline will provide jobs for workers who are suffering from historic rates of unemployment.  They maintain that a prosperous economy depends on cheap and abundant energy—so that restrictions on fossil fuel energy could well lead to economic catastrophe.  And they point out that restrictions on fossil fuel energy are likely to lead to rising prices for the energy to heat our houses, run our appliances, and drive our cars—price increases that will hurt workers and the poor most and further increase our society’s unjust economic inequality. 

Much in this critique is valid.  But criticizing the weaknesses in mainstream climate policy proposals is not a strategy for combating climate change. Labor needs to propose a climate protection strategy of its own—one that realistically protects the livelihood and wellbeing of working people and helps reverse America’s trend to greater inequality while reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the speed scientists say is necessary to reduce climate catastrophe. A strategy designed to provide full employment and rising living standards by putting millions of people to work on the transition to a climate-safe economy could transform the politics of climate by shattering the “jobs vs. the environment” frame. And it could provide a common platform around which climate protection advocates at every level of the labor movement could rally.

The future of labor

Organized labor’s approach to climate change has been primarily employment based. Unions like the green job gains from climate protection measures; but they fear the potential job losses from phasing out carbon-fueled industries. This should not be surprising since unions are organized primarily to look after the specific employment interests of workers.

Even the most far sighted trade union leaders have a very difficult job: They must represent the immediate interests of existing members, some of whom may face job losses in the transition to a low carbon economy, while keeping in mind the longer term economic, social, and ecological concerns.

But a narrow focus on the short term has led some unions to neglect the longer-term effects of climate change on jobs, workers, and their communities and the action needed to address them. Unless labor develops a full-fledged response to climate change, it is likely to be left by the roadside in what will be the pivotal challenge of the 21st century.

All workers, no matter what industry they work in and no matter what harm their industry may do to society, deserve union representation.  But in an age of global warming and climate disruption labor can no longer advocate for every possible job regardless of its impact on the world around us. Instead we need to seek jobs that help build a livable future while protecting workers against being the victims of change.

Joe Uehlein is Founding President and Executive Director of the Labor Network for Sustainability, the former secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department, and former director of the AFL-CIO Center for Strategic Campaigns He spent over 30 years doing organizing, bargaining, and strategic campaign work in the labor movement.


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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission