Can the Climate Movement Break Free From the 'Jobs vs. Environment' Debate?

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Can the Climate Movement Break Free From the 'Jobs vs. Environment' Debate?

(Facebook / 350)

For two weeks this May, organizers across 12 countries will participate in Break Free 2016, an open-source invitation to encourage “more action to keep fossil fuels in the ground and an acceleration in the just transition to 100 percent renewable energy.” Many of the month’s events — pulled together by 350.org and a slew of groups around the world — are set to take place within ongoing campaigns to shut down energy infrastructure, targeting “some of the most iconic and dangerous fossil fuel projects all over the world” with civil disobedience.

The Break Free site’s opening page invites viewers to “join a global wave of resistance to keep coal, oil and natural gas in the ground.” And that’s where some unions have taken issue.

The United Steelworkers, or USW, this week released a response. “Short-sighted and narrow-focused activities like 350.org’s ‘Break Free’ actions,” they write, “make it much more challenging to work together to create and envision a clean energy economy.” Three of the locations targeted — in Pennsylvania, Indiana and Washington — are USW-represented refineries. The union argues that, despite record growth in renewables, the economy will continue to be reliant on fossil fuels for some time. “Shutting down a handful of refineries in the United States,” they say, “would lead to massive job loss in refinery communities, increased imports of refined oil products, and ultimately no impact on global carbon emissions.” Rather, refineries and their workers should be brought into the clean energy economy.

The statement ends arguing that, “We can’t choose between good jobs or a healthy environment. If we don’t have both, we’ll have neither.” In more familiar terms, Breaking Free — for the USW — sounds like a case of jobs versus the environment.

While similar releases are standard fare for other unions, the 30,000-member USW is one of the country’s most progressive — even when it comes to environmental issues.

“People assume that because we’re an industrial union that our leadership doesn’t care about the environment,” Roxanne Brown told me. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Brown is the assistant legislative director at USW, and emphasized the union’s long history of work on environmental issues. The USW hosted a conference in support of air pollutant regulations in the late 1960s, early on rejecting the kind of weaponized jobs versus environment rhetoric that has cropped up around the Keystone XL pipeline and other extraction fights.

In 1967, former president I.W. Abel said that, “We refuse to be the buffer between positive pollution control activity by the community and resistance by industry,” and advocated for unions to play a strong role in determining environmental regulations.

“If you do not participate, the standards may well be determined not by the breathers of air in the community, but by those who have a vested interest in the industrial facilities,” he added.

Just last spring, the USW enlisted the support of green groups in their six-week, nationwide strike, each arguing that unsafe refineries posed a threat to workers and communities alike. “The workers are like canaries in the mine,” USW spokeswoman Lynn Hancock told me last year. “They can see what’s going on and what happens before something tragic happens.” Groups like the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Communities for a Better Environment and even Divest London turned out to support on both sides of the Atlantic.

Where unions and greens coalesced around confronting rampant workplace safety issues in refineries — the kind that caused disasters like the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010 — the former see cutting off fossil fuel supplies as an existential threat. Brown didn’t have any illusions about the fact that coal, oil and natural gas would be phased out eventually. Unlike Break Free groups, though, she thinks the government should provide incentives and investments in R&D to make sure they’re used in “the cleanest and most efficient ways possible.”

As recent studies find that some 82 percent of fossil fuels must remain buried to avert catastrophic global warming, keeping them in the ground doesn’t sound like such a radical demand. To meet the dangerously modest 2 degree Celsius goal outlined in the Paris Agreement signed last week, it’s a bare minimum. The issue, in this case, may not be that Break Free is too ambitious in its anti-extraction plans. It may not be ambitious enough — either in the scale at which it plans to shut down the industry or how it plans to transition over to an economy not fueled by coal, oil and natural gas.

Of course, there’s no mandate on any one initiative to arrive at a fully-formed program for a just transition off fossil fuels. But organizers may do well to see bringing unions like the USW to the table as a strategic boon, not by giving up on calls to keep fossil fuels in the ground, but by working with unions on fleshed-out plans for phasing them out entirely.

“The just transition message loses a lot of its strength if you’re not thinking about how to make those jobs on the other end high-road and high-wage,” Brown said. The vast majority of the renewables and manufacturing jobs are non-unionized, and the patchwork, “boom and bust” nature of incentives offered to solar and wind turbine companies means that jobs in the industry can leave nearly as quickly as they come.

In 2013, the USW worked with the governor’s office in Pennsylvania to attract Spanish wind turbine manufacturer Gamesa to the state, on the grounds that the facility would employ steelworkers. The steel being used to make the blades produced at the Fairless Hills site, moreover, came from USW shops in Illinois and Indiana.

“It was so beautiful to see this whole supply chain come together to make this final product by the clean energy sector made by steelworkers,” Brown told me. But once a federal tax incentive for wind power (the Production Tax Credit) expired, the company left the state and put over a thousand union workers out of a job.

The USW and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have each attempted to organize the renewables sector, but faced pushback from companies. There have been, according to Brown, “Very real attempts to deter organizing campaigns. They engage in the same practices that traditional manufacturing facilities engage in. They hire the same anti-union consultants to come in and keep the union out.”

Organized labor, on the defensive in the United States after 40-plus years of neoliberal assault, is understandably shy about saying no to any projects which could provide jobs for their members; just over 11 percent of U.S. workers are represented by unions. But as oil markets face an uncertain future, “the end of oil as we know it” will hit fossil fuel workers — not executives — first. With the fossil fuel industry and union density each crumbling, convincing labor to let go of a largely unionized industry will be an uphill battle.

Still, labor is no monolith. There are sharp divides among unions over the climate and the future of fossil fuels. There are also plenty of potential allies. Some unions, mainly in the building trades, have poured money and staff time into stopping green group’s efforts. Others have waded more cautiously, signing onto events like the 2014 People’s Climate March on the strict condition that it not take a stand on infrastructure projects like the Keystone XL. Unions like National Nurses United and the Communications Workers of America, on the other hand, have been outspoken about their support for the climate fight. And projects like the Labor Network for Sustainability and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy — a coalition of international unions — outline and argue for a holistic transition away from fossil fuels.

A unionized renewables sector is just one piece of building a just and low-carbon economy, to be complemented by retraining programs and a bolstered public sphere with funding for such things as public housing and universal childcare. Proposals like the Leap Manifesto in Canada, Britain’s One Million Climate Jobs campaign and National People’s Action’s “Long-Term Agenda to the New Economy” here in the states all present promising models, both for a transition plan and cross-movement organizing efforts with buy-in from unions and environmentalists alike.

A growing, green industry born of the United States’ hostile labor climate is unlikely to produce steady and well-paying jobs without a fight — not to mention a cross-movement plan beyond shutting down individual infrastructure projects. Breaking Free from fossil fuels can also mean breaking into a more sustainable economy.

Kate Aronoff

Kate Aronoff is an organizer and freelance journalist based in Philadelphia, PA. While in school, she worked extensively with the fossil fuel divestment movement on the local and national level, co-founding Swarthmore Mountain Justice and the Fossil Fuel Divestment Student Network (DSN). She is currently working to build a student power network across Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff

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