Labor Goes to Bali

This week trade unionists from around the world will travel to Bali for the December 3rd launch of negotiations for a successor to the Kyoto Protocol limiting greenhouse gasses. It will include delegates from such U.S unions as the Electrical Workers (IUE), Mine Workers, Service Employees, Boilermakers, Steelworkers, Communication Workers, Transport Workers (TWU), and UNITE HERE garment and textile workers. It will also include the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council as well as such labor-oriented groups as the Blue-Green Alliance, the Cornell Global Labor Institute, and the Labor Research Association.

The Kyoto Protocol was signed by 172 countries - not including the U.S. The AFL-CIO, which then represented the great majority of all U.S. unions, opposed the Kyoto protocol. What will be the stance of American labor toward an even stronger version for the future?

The devastating realities of climate change, and the scientific consensus around its cause and cure, are shifting the global political climate. In Australia, Prime Minister John Howard is defeated by the Australian Labor Party partly because of his intransigent opposition to effective action on global warming. Rightwing French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy visits Washington and lectures George Bush on his failure to address the global warming crisis. Rupert Murdoch announces his papers will go green. A major power company cuts back on new plants because they would contribute to global warming. It remains to be seen whether this trend will also change American labor.

The attitude of U.S. unions may be critical to how well the world addresses the crisis of global warming. Despite its waning power, labor retains a critical position in controlling energy legislation in Congress. According to the highly respected Congressional reporting of Congressional Quarterly, lawmakers in Congress view support of the AFL-CIO as "essential" to passing any climate change bill. James Grumet of the nonpartisan National Commission on Energy Policy says, "If you don't have organized labor, you can't get something through" Congress.

The international labor movement has responded valiantly to global warming. It has taken a strong stance in support of international and national limits on greenhouse gas emissions. In a statement prepared for the Bali meeting, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC, successor to the ICFTU) noted the tangible impacts of climate change for millions of workers' communities and workplaces, including droughts, floods, and diseases. And it put the issue in a broad historic frame:

"History will judge us by how we exercise the conscious options that we still have within our reach. Will we truly face up to this monumental challenge? Trade unions want everyone to accept this challenge together, in solidarity and common action."

They add:

"As trade unionists, we are confident that Bali will mark the beginning of a new and more ambitious process of social change, where our collective hearts and minds must aspire to save our planet, on the basis of solidarity and mutual respect."

Equally important, the ITUC has strongly backed the greenhouse gas reduction targets established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose scientists recently received the Nobel Peace Prize. The ITUC states, "Securing a new Post-2012 Kyoto Protocol is the most important challenge the world community faces." It urges governments at Bali "to follow the IPCC scenario for keeping the global temperature within 2 degrees C and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 85% by 2050." And it urged developing countries to use as a benchmark the EU's commitment to a 30% cut below 1990 levels by 2020.

The ITUC recognizes that both global warming and the efforts to combat it will have serious impacts for many groups. In a tone rarely heard from any quarter in the U.S. debate on global warming, it calls on governments and society to show "solidarity with those who are most vulnerable" around the world. According to the ITUC:

"Such solidarity first of all means countering global warming and its effects on the most vulnerable. Trade unions consider the best way for developed countries to exercise solidarity with developing countries is by cutting their own emissions in order to limit further suffering and irreversible changes, and by creating the means for other countries to participate in reduction efforts."

In another theme little heard in U.S. discussion, the ITUC says that trade unionists "believe climate justice cannot be achieved without gender justice." Climate change "is not gender neutral. Women are generally more vulnerable, representing the majority of the world's poor and powerless." It points out that the 2004 Asian Tsunami killed four times as many women as men.

Among the vulnerable groups that need to be protected are workers and communities in both developed and developing countries who may lose jobs as a result greenhouse gas limitation policies. But the ITUC explicitly rejects union efforts to protect jobs by impeding efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses. Instead, it proposes "Just Transition" policies focused on training and education programs for workers in the energy-intensive sectors, combined with economic diversification of areas where plants are expected to close. "Transition mainly implies helping workers to incorporate new job opportunities, to build social protection systems and promote significant economic diversification."

While calling for research on new technologies, the labor report emphasizes that "technological progress alone will not be sufficient to challenge climate change. A vast societal change, focused on behavioral changes and citizen commitment is needed."

Nor is it necessary to wait for new technologies to begin cutting greenhouse gasses. "Technology is already available today to avoid a carbon intensive future but needs to be deployed on a large scale" through currently available technologies for energy saving, and energy efficiency, and investment in clean, green, and sustainable energy sources.

How is the American labor movement preparing to respond to the international labor movement's call to accept the challenge of global warming "together, in solidarity and common action"? The American labor movement includes diverse unions, two federations, and multiple voices - some of which have outspokenly called for vigorous action on global warming.

But what is the position of the AFL-CIO, the most powerful purveyor of labor's views? One indication is its recent letter to Senator Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate committee considering the Lieberman-Warner "America's Climate Security Act."

The AFL-CIO condemned as "an overly aggressive Phase I emissions reduction target" the bill's proposal of a 15 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2020. The EU, in contrast, has already committed itself to cutting emissions 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 - a figure global labor advocates as a benchmark for developed countries in the post-Kyoto agreement.

The AFL-CIO statement also condemned the Lieberman-Warner legislation's "unequivocal commitment to achieving a 70 percent national emissions reduction below 2005 levels by 2050." The ITUC (along with the hundreds of climate scientists who just received the Nobel Peace Prize) is calling unequivocally for an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

While the submission indicates that the Federation's concern is "preserving robust growth," its fire is directed particularly at what it calls "auto-related and coal-related amendments." For example, it criticizes an amendment by Senator Bernie Sanders that would limit a subsidy for high-mileage vehicles ("advanced technology vehicles manufacturing incentive") to vehicles that get at least 35 miles per gallon. If corporate PR Machiavellis wanted to trick labor into portraying itself as a "special interest," could they do better than maneuvering labor to call for "anti-global warming" subsidies on vehicles that aren't even getting 35 miles to the gallon?

The international labor movement's approach to global warming could provide an alternative to the divisive, high-energy-sector driven approach that still seems to be determining AFL-CIO policy. Nothing could do more to rescue American labor from its public perception as a "special interest" than taking a stand on the broad interest of working people worldwide and in the U.S. - including its own members -- in combating global warming.

American unions face a historic change that is undoubtedly affecting the views of their own members as well as those of the general public. An Associated Press-Stanford University poll recently asked a sample of Americans "If nothing is done to reduce global warming in the future, how serious of a problem do you think it will be for the world . . .?" 59 percent answered "very serious" and another 20 percent answered "somewhat serious." Only 8 percent answered "not serious at all."

Are some of four-fifths of Americans who think global warming will be a serious problem in labor unions? You bet.

--Jeremy Brecher, Brendan Smith and Tim Costello

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