Some International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) locals have already started experimenting with these kinds of programs in California, and the AFL-CIO itself has a long-running relationship with the environmentally focused Sierra Club. Even AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, a former coal miner, has spoken about the need to take “bold, comprehensive action to fight climate change,” and advocated for funding investments in technology to help workers build a more sustainable economy.
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.”
At this point, those who are determined to take action to address the climate crisis need all the allies they can get. Time is running out for all of us, but at a faster pace for the poor and working class. Now, as ever, any real change is going to begin at the grassroots level, but labor leaders also need to take concrete steps toward alleviating the chaos to come by investing in workers’ futures, instead of wasting time boosting spineless politicians. Right now, our future is in flames, and some of those politicians are standing on the hose.