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Labor Confronts Global Warming

The reality of global warming and its catastrophic consequences are today beyond debate. But American labor is caught in an internal stalemate among those who fear job loss from efforts to deal with global warming, those who have not considered global warming an important union issue, and those who see the climate crisis as a call for immediate action and an opportunity for sustainable economic development. Labor will confront critical issues related to the control of global warming to which it must respond at the bargaining table and in the public policy arena. Indeed, organized labor plays a critical role in funding and supporting progressive political action in the United States. Resolving this conflict constructively is a crucial step in developing a new American politics that will do what is necessary to reduce greenhouse gasses - a necessity that is just as important for working people as for everybody else.

EPA Workers Blow the Whistle

It's not every day that employees risk the wrath of their superiors to blow the whistle on acts of public irresponsibility. So it must have been something important that led union representatives for more than 10,000 workers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to petition Congress to take immediate action against global warming. Their warning should serve as a clarion call not only to the Congressional committee to whom it was addressed, but to American workers and their unions. They wrote:

"We, the undersigned, are Presidents of 22 Local Unions representing over 10,000 United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) environmental engineers, environmental scientists, environmental protection specialists and support staff. We are writing to protest the lack of progress in addressing global warming."

They argued that "voluntary and incentive-based programs to encourage the reduction in GHG emissions are not enough." Congressional leaders must "support a vigorous program of enforcement and reduction in GHG emissions." The petition added a peculiar-sounding plea:

"We request that Congress mandate that U.S. EPA inform the public about their 'right to know' regarding the current technology that is available to control carbon emissions from coal-electric plants under review [and] allow U.S. EPA's scientists and engineers to speak frankly and directly with Congress and the public regarding climate change, without fear of reprisal."

Jeff Ruch, Executive Director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which helped publicize the effort, helps explain the peculiar request:

"Professionals working for the Environmental Protection Agency are protesting being ordered to sit on the sidelines while we face the greatest environmental challenge of our generation," stated, noting that the petition began among agency staff. "Under a new Congress, perhaps the scientists at EPA can begin to directly communicate with their true employers - the American public."

In Denial

This extraordinary act of worker and union responsibility comes in response to a historic irresponsibility on the part of American business and the American government.

Early in 2007, the AFL-CIO weblog published an article headed "Exxon Mobil Secretly Funds Efforts to Deny Global Warming" by Managing Editor Tula Connell. It quotes a new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists revealing that Exxon "gave $16 million to 43 ideological groups between 1998 and 2005 in an effort to mislead the public by discrediting the science behind global warming."

According to the weblog, the report found the company "has adopted the tobacco industry's disinformation tactics, as well as some of the same organizations and personnel, to cloud the scientific understanding of climate change and delay action on the issue." Exxon

"funded an array of front organizations to create the appearance of a broad platform for a tight-knit group of vocal climate change contrarians who misrepresent peer-reviewed scientific findings; attempted to portray its opposition to action as a positive quest for 'sound science' rather than business self-interest; used its access to the Bush administration to block federal policies and shape government communications on global warming."

The efforts to prove that global warming isn't happening, or that it isn't the result of human actions, or that its effects will be negligible, or that nothing can or should be done about it, have now all been discredited. More and more people in the U.S. and worldwide are heeding the clarion call issued by the EPA workers. Yet few labor trumpets have so far joined that call.

The Ambiguous History of Labor and Global Warming

The majority of union members, like the majority of Americans, undoubtedly want action on global warming. But the US labor movement has particular structural problems that make it difficult to confront broad social issues like global warming.

One the one hand, since the days of Samuel Gompers, founding president of the AFL in the 19th century, U.S. unions have represented particular groups of workers - first workers in the same craft, then increasingly workers in the same industry. On the other hand, the federation of unions - the AFL, the CIO, and more recently Change to Win - have in principle represented the interests of workers as a whole.

This dual function produces a tension at times that has blocked action on key issues.

A long standing tradition of organizational solidarity has sometimes meant that the immediate sectoral interests of member unions has trumped broader class interests. It's a genuine conundrum. After all, the reality is that workers join unions to protect their jobs and immediate economic interests and unions join federations to further their organizational interests through mutual support. American labor's position on global warming has been a tragic case in point of a failure to resolve this tension.

Most Americans want action on global warming and they want it fast. A new poll by Yale University Center for Environmental Law and Policy shows that 83% of Americans see global warming as a serious problem and some 70% think the government is not doing enough. The release of UN reports, including one this past week indicating that we are already experiencing the impacts of global warming, will likely add to calls for action.

The way we live and work will change radically in the coming years either as a result of action or inaction. Corporations are already launching well publicized "business friendly" approaches to global warming. Now, labor must develop a coherent response that meets the specific needs of its members at the bargaining table and the general needs of its members as human beings confronting a potentially catastrophic event. Labor must stake out a position if it is to remain a vital social and political force. Tackling the tension between the specific sectoral interests of unions and their more general class and social interest is the essential first step in that process.

Put "global warming" and "climate change" into the AFL-CIO website's search engine and what you discover is the story of labor's past involvement with the global warming issue.

Two recent entries indicate labor's growing concern with global warming. One describes a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists exposing Exxon Mobile's borrowing of tobacco-industry tactics to confuse the public about the threat of global warming. The other describes the recent formation of a "Blue-Green Alliance" between the Steelworkers and the Sierra Club to press for a labor-friendly environmental agenda.

But search further back and a far less environmentally-friendly history emerges.

In February, 1997, as negotiations began for what came to be known as the Kyoto Protocol, the AFL-CIO Executive Council issued a statement on the "U.N. Climate Change Negotiations."

"We believe the parties to the Rio Treaty made a fundamental error when they agreed to negotiate legally-binding carbon restrictions on the United States and other industrialized countries, while simultaneously agreeing to exempt high-growth developing countries like China, Mexico, Brazil and Korea from any new carbon reduction commitments. . . . The exclusion of new commitments by developing nations under the Berlin Mandate will create a powerful incentive for transnational corporations to export jobs, capital, and pollution, and will do little or nothing to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon. Such an uneven playing field will cause the loss of high-paying U.S. jobs in the mining, manufacturing, transport and other sectors.

"Carbon taxes, or equivalent carbon emission trading programs, will raise significantly electricity and other energy prices to consumers. These taxes are highly regressive and will be most harmful to citizens who live on fixed incomes or work at poverty-level wages. . .


"The AFL-CIO Executive Council further urges that in the ongoing negotiations to amend the Rio Treaty on climate change, the United States insist upon the incorporation of appropriate commitments from all nations to reduce carbon emissions; and seek a reduction schedule compatible with the urgent need to avoid unfair and unnecessary job loss in developed economies. The President should not accept and the Congress should not ratify any amendment or protocol that does not meet these standards."

Subsequent actions by the AFL-CIO's Executive Board reaffirmed opposition to the Kyoto Agreement.

Jobs vs. Carbon?

The union opposition to Kyoto reflects the tendency of the American labor movement to represent narrow sectoral interests, rather than the interests of workers as a whole. It was spearheaded by a coalition of unions called United for Jobs and the Environment.

The UJAE describes itself as a "partnership" of unions. It lobbied, and continues to lobby, against the Kyoto agreement and against environmental legislation in the U.S. that it considers unfavorable to labor. While its concern with the possible negative impact that measures to reduce greenhouse gasses might have on the employment of miners and other workers is entirely legitimate, it has made little effort to explore ways that a "just transition" might protect them. And while its desire to include all countries in a global agreement reducing greenhouse gasses is laudable, keeping the United States out of the Kyoto protocol is hardly an effective way to encourage other countries to engage in international climate control cooperation. It's hard to ignore the alignment of its position with mining, electrical, and other energy companies.

The twists and turns in the language of the most recent AFL-CIO Energy Task Force statement on "Jobs and energy for the 21st Century" indicate the difficulty the Federation's is having coming up with a common policy on global warming. It acknowledges the scientific evidence that fossil fuels are contributing to global warming. It calls for "balanced measures" to combat global warming. Its only positive suggestion for combating global warming is to target revenues from any auction of carbon permits to finance "improvements in technology that will allow clean energy to be produced at prices close to what consumers pay for energy from conventional sources, and to encourage deployment of this technology in manner that promotes domestic production and jobs for American workers."

The Energy Task Force statement emphasizes, however, that "The Federation opposes extreme measures that would undermine economic growth, harm particular sectors, or placing ourselves at a disadvantage to other nations." And it argues that any mandatory tradable-permits program should initially seek only to "gradually slow the growth in greenhouse gas emissions" and should contain a "safety valve" cost cap "to protect the economy." Further, "U.S. efforts to address climate change should be conditioned on similar actions by U.S. trading partners and developing countries."

Which Side Will Labor Be On?

It is difficult to find on the AFL-CIO website any significant expression of concern about global warming and its impact on working people either in the U.S. or around the world. Nor have we been able to find any indication that the Executive Council has endorsed positive alternatives to combat global warming.

A search of "Global Warming" on the Change to Win website produces only the message "Sorry, your search was empty!" Asked about global warming, Change to Win's Andy Stern, however, has said, "I think the air we breathe and the water we drink and whether the world we live in is going to sustain itself is a big union issue." SEIU recently sent out emails encouraging people to participate in the nationwide "StepItUp2007" actions April 14th calling for an immediate cut in carbon emissions and a pledge for an 80% reduction by 2050.

Some unions, however, are now seeking an approach to global warming that reflects the needs of all workers, indeed all people, for protection against this menace. For example, a number of unions are working with the Cornell Global Labor Institute on a "North American Labor Assembly on Climate Crisis: Building a Global Movement for Clean Energy" May 7 and 8, 2007 in New York City. Trade union sponsors and endorsers currently include:

  • 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East
  • Canadian Auto Workers (CAW)
  • United Federation of Teachers (UFT) Local 2
  • United Steelworkers of America (USW)
  • American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
  • California Faculty Association
  • International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Local 805
  • Social Service Employees Union Local 371
  • American Federation of State City and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)
  • International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU)
  • International Union, UAW
  • United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE)

The conference would provide a great opportunity for organized labor to seize the high ground on an issue that will reshape the workplace as well as the daily life of people all over the world in the coming decades. So far, neither the AFL-CIO nor Change to Win has even listed the conference on its website, let alone put its muscle behind it - or any other effort to address global warming. But officials representing the AFL-CIO and SEIU have recently joined the panels. With Democrats making global warming a central issue in the new Congress, now is the time for a dramatic response.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Tim Costello

Tim Costello

Tim Costello was an American labor and anti-globalization advocate who started his career as a truck driver, driving fuel trucks and as a long-haul trucker. He was one of the founders of the North American Alliance for Fair Employment (NAAFE), a network of organizations opposed to the use of temporary workers. In 2005, Costello co-founded Global Labor Strategies to foster the formation of international alliances opposed to the lowering of working standards and wages resulting from globalization. Tim died at age 64 in 2009 of pancreatic cancer at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Brendan Smith

Brendan Smith

Brendan Smith is an oysterman and green labor activist.  He is co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability and Global Labor Strategies, and a consulting partner with the Progressive Technology Project. He has worked previously for Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — both as campaign director and staff on the U.S. House Banking Committee — as well as a broad range of trade unions, grassroots groups and progressive politicians. He is a graduate of Cornell Law School.

Jeremy Brecher

Jeremy Brecher

Jeremy Brecher is a historian, author, and co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability. His book, "Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival," or free download at his personal website. His other books include: "Save the Humans? Common Preservation in Action" (2020), "Strike!" (2020), and, co-edited with Brendan Smith and Jill Cutler, "In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond" (Metropolitan/Holt).

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