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The Green New Deal Just Won a Major Union Endorsement. What’s Stopping the AFL-CIO?

"If you believe in something, you gotta be willing to fight for it."

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten greets a crowd of striking teachers in Grand Park on January 22, 2019 in downtown Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images)

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten greets a crowd of striking teachers in Grand Park on January 22, 2019 in downtown Los Angeles, California. (Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images)  

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the second largest teachers’ union in the country, passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal at its biennial convention at the end of July. The Green New Deal, federal legislation introduced in early 2019, would create a living-wage job for anyone who wants one and implement 100% clean and renewable energy by 2030. The endorsement is huge news for both Green New Deal advocates and the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States. The AFT’s endorsement could be a sign of environmental activists’ growing power, and it sends a message to the AFL-CIO that it, too, has an opportunity to get on board with the Green New Deal. But working people’s conditions are changing rapidly, and with nearly half of all workers in the country without a job, the leaders of the AFL-CIO and its member unions may choose to knuckle down on what they perceive to be bread-and-butter issues, instead of fighting more broadly and boldly beyond immediate workplace concerns.

The AFT endorsement follows that of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), National Nurses United (NNU) and the Maine AFL-CIO—all of which declared their support for the Green New Deal in 2019. And while local unions have passed resolutions in support of the Green New Deal, the AFT, NNU and AFA-CWA are the only national unions in the AFL-CIO to endorse the Green New Deal. (SEIU is affiliated with another labor federation, Change to Win.)

Yet the AFL-CIO has remained resistant. When Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) introduced the Green New Deal legislation in February 2019, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters, “We need to address the environment. We need to do it quickly.” But he also noted that, “We need to do it in a way that doesn’t put these communities behind, and leave segments of the economy behind. So we’ll be working to make sure that we do two things: That by fixing one thing we don’t create a problem somewhere else.”

Where Trumka has been skeptical and resistant, some union leaders in the federation have been more forceful in their opposition; many unions with members who work in extractive industries, including the building trades, slammed the legislation. Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, wrote a letter to both Markey and Ocasio-Cortez on behalf of the AFL-CIO Energy Committee that said, “We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families. We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered.”

But with 80,000 members today, UMWA is more of a retirees’ organization than a fighting union—and at roughly 1.6 million members, the AFT is one of the largest unions in the country. Its endorsement is “the most high-profile labor endorsement of the Green New Deal since SEIU last summer,” according to Will Lawrence, director of strategic partnerships at the Sunrise Movement. The AFT’s support for the Green New Deal, coupled with the writing on the wall for the fossil fuel industry, could mean a crisis for the AFL-CIO. Trumka has so far straddled the line between the federation’s conservative and progressive members, giving a nod to the importance of climate change while also affirming the importance of fossil fuel jobs. But Trumka plans to step down at the AFL’s convention in 2021, and whoever wins the election to be his successor will determine whether the largest federation in the labor movement goes all-in on the fight against climate change, or maintains one foot in the door and one foot out, balancing between the new world and the old.

This fork in the road is complicated by the fact that both the labor movement and the entire country are in crisis, with millions unemployed and all eyes on the presidential election in November. Trumka favors Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL (and his second in command) as his successor. But Sara Nelson, president of AFA-CWA and one of the early endorsers of the Green New Deal, also has her eyes on the leadership position. Although neither have officially announced their candidacy, it’s been reported that both have been privately vying for support.

Nelson’s support for the Green New Deal may hurt her if she decides to run. Sean McGarvey, the president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, the labor federation of the building trades unions and a member of the AFL, said, “She’s aligned herself with a plan that would eliminate half of the AFL-CIO’s jobs. That’s not going to work real well.” But Nelson told In These Times, “Climate change is directly in our workplace. Turbulence is on the rise. Our schedules, our work, our lives are totally disrupted every time there’s a major weather event. Some have tried to have us believe that this is an attack on jobs and on our way of life, but we know that if we don’t get out in front of something, the crisis will become so great and people will be desperate for a resolution, and that resolution won’t be one that works for working people.”

Nelson believes deeply in a just transition for workers whose industries would be shuttered in an attempt to bring carbon emissions down. The term “just transition” is often used in conversations about climate change as a way to secure workers’ livelihoods if and when their industry is phased out. And while this term is more often heard in the environmental movement now, the idea was developed in the labor movement by Tony Mazzocchi, a lifelong trade unionist and an elected leader in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW). In Mazzocchi’s words, a true just transition would give workers in extractive industries “a new start in life” by providing financial support and opportunities for education and re-training.

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Many environmental groups like Sunrise Movement and Climate Justice Alliance have used the term in their literature and their campaign planning, but union workers have often expressed concern that their job security and livelihoods are not a true priority. After all, environmental groups often wage campaigns against pipelines or refineries without consulting the unions or their members first. While to environmentalists, union work has sometimes meant environmental destruction, to union members, environmentalism has meant financial destruction.

But according to David Hughes, treasurer of Rutgers AAUP-AFT and professor of Anthropology at Rutgers-New Brunswick, extractive industry workers' standard of living is already threatened regardless of the proposed Green New Deal legislation. Hughes told In These Times that the country is already on the cusp of an energy transition away from fossil fuels. “We have an economic disaster and a complete collapse of the price of oil, coal has been collapsing, gas is not in good shape. So now solar and wind are competitive, even without subsidies. The economic case for fossil fuels has evaporated—those jobs are not going to be here for much longer.”

Although most union members have no interest in being re-trained for another career, fossil fuel workers and their unions are particularly protective of their jobs. Refinery workers can make up to six figures without a college degree, and there are very few jobs with comparable wages in non-extractive industries that these same workers could easily be hired for. Further, these workers have a right to be suspicious: Barack Obama campaigned on creating 5 million green jobs, but it’s unclear how many new green jobs were actually produced. There are some new green jobs, of course, but the vast majority are non-union, and the wages reflect that: Solar panel installers make between $30,000 and $50,000 per year.

Yet, numerous union members—workers in non-extractive industries—are serious about the Green New Deal, and AFT members who worked to pass the resolution are calling for more than tacit support: They intend for the endorsement to be a tool with which to organize their fellow members and to guide their work moving forward. This is precisely what the members of Rutgers AAUP-AFT have been trying to make happen. Hughes, who is also the chair of the Rutgers’ Climate Crisis Committee, raised the issue of supporting the Green New Deal at an AFT Executive Council meeting in 2019, before SEIU endorsed. No endorsement came out of it, but a committee, the Climate Task Force, was formed with the backing of the Executive Council. The task force has three main priorities: Form a relationship with Sunrise Movement and other environmental groups, create green schools campaigns, and organize with other unions to encourage them to support the Green New Deal. Hughes told In These Times, “What you do when you're working in a sector that's collapsing is you figure, what's the strategic moment for my union to try to jump onto a ship that's not sinking? If we get Biden elected, and we pass Green New Deal legislation, it will be the moment to jump. If we miss that moment, we’ve got nothing.”

But faculty like Hughes, along with teachers and nurses, already have green jobs—and will keep them, Green New Deal or not. While there have been hiring freezes at major universities, AFT members have been mostly unaffected by all of the job losses created by Covid-19. Construction workers, many of whom have just experienced a difficult few months without work, are understandably wary about potentially gambling with their jobs. But Keon Liberato, President of Local 3012 of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters, is looking forward to the passage of the Green New Deal. He’s a trackman who works on railroads in the Philadelphia area, and he told In These Times that “even if you don’t care about climate change, even if you have a more narrow interest, there’s a ton of money in the Green New Deal for the building trades, for infrastructure.” 

The Green New Deal’s focus on investing in high-speed rail could mean significant potential work for electricians and rail workers like Liberato. The legislation also calls for “repairing and upgrading the infrastructure in the United States,” which means fixing bridges and roads, retrofitting buildings, and updating sewage and water systems. And the AFT’s green school buildings campaign will need the support of building trades unions, like electricians, plumbers, roofers, and boilermakers. All of this infrastructure work means more union jobs—but only if the labor movement acknowledges the true magnitude of climate change and decides to play a leadership role in fighting it. John Braxton, Co-President Emeritus of AFT Local 2026, who contributed to AFT’s recent resolution, told In These Times that “unions don’t want to be told what to do, and they’d also like to believe it’s not going to be as big of a problem as it is. But we’ve got to make contingency plans that provide protections for every worker, and we need to do it now. Why would labor argue with that?”

Labor’s current focus is getting Joe Biden elected, who, according to his ads, has the “most ambitious” climate plan of any major party’s presidential nominee ever. His platform includes achieving net zero emissions no later than 2050, conserving 30% of the country’s lands and waters by 2030, and making a federal investment of $1.7 trillion in the fight against climate change. He promises to “fulfill our obligation to workers… who powered our industrial revolution and decades of economic growth” by securing coal miners’ pensions and benefits. And he also promises to “put people to work by enlisting them to help fight the pandemic, including through a Public Health Jobs Corps.” But unlike the Green New Deal legislation, his platform has no explicit promise of a job for all who want one. It also makes no mention of fracking or a drastic reduction in fossil fuels, perhaps because his climate advisors may support fracking. Braxton says, “What we need to do is pressure Biden into a Jobs for All program, and the green is not in the headline, but it’s incorporated into it. The environmentalists will read the fine print, and maybe labor can look at it and say, this is what we need.”

Because of our current political climate—a pandemic that has already killed over 160,000 people in the United States, millions out of work, and a president and Senate that seem to despise working people —unions may be less willing to lead in the fight against climate change. After all, the climate crisis may feel less urgent than the unemployment crisis, or even contract negotiations over wages and benefits. But for the faculty, teachers and paraprofessionals who make up the AFT, leading in the fight against climate change is paramount. And to get the rest of the labor movement on board, Nelson has some advice: “If you believe in something, you gotta be willing to fight for it.”

Mindy Isser

Mindy Isser

Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.

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