Guest Post: Labor and Climate Activism

Author Joey Cherney is a 2019 Summer Law Clerk for CDP. He was a union organizer from 2014-2017 with Service Employees International Union. He was also a research assistant for the Clean Slate Project at the Harvard Labor and Worklife Program, a two-year initiative to reimagine labor law and strengthen worker rights.


As movements for social justice grow in strength and number, the Right has become nervous. In 2017, Oklahoma passed the first of what would become a slew of laws criminalizing protest—the bill’s sponsor even said on the floor of the Oklahoma House that he was inspired to author the bill by the Standing Rock protests of 2016 and 2017.

Prominent among these anti-protest efforts are so-called “critical infrastructure” bills, which increase penalties for entering property containing anything from pipelines to telephone poles. Even worse, they levy massive fines on any organization that “conspires with” activists who are charged with trespassing, a broad and indefinite term intended to have a chilling effect on movement-based groups. As of this post, 8 states have new critical infrastructure laws. Conservative lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, have introduced such bills in 17 more.

The Oklahoma legislation didn’t just serve as inspiration—it became a model, quite literally. The shadowy corporate lobbying group known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) adapted the language into a “model bill,”with which it then lobbied sympathetic lawmakers around the country. As recently as May 2019, the model bill passed the Illinois house with bipartisan support. Surprisingly—and for many activists, frustratingly—among the bill’s supporters were trade unions.

Labor and the transition to renewable energy

Long considered an anchor of progressive politics in the U.S., unions are not the monolith they are often imagined to be. The majority of rank-and-file union members, especially in the public and service sectors, have often been on the right side of history, while the conservative and capital-friendly leadership, particularly of trade and industrial-sector unions, has hesitated or outright rejected causes such as civil rights and environmental protection.

The past is prologue, and trade union leaders today seem happy to side with business against environmentalists, civil rights advocates, and Indigenous rights activists. While service-sector unions, such as Service Employees International Union, fight for a $15 minimum wagefor all workers and for common-good climate change mitigation provisions in their contracts, trade unions fight for a handful of permanent jobsand billions of dollars in corporate profits.

Now, as then, this mismatch of priorities—the renunciation of coalition partners in favor of an unholy alliance with labor’s natural opponents—is symptomatic of trade and industrial-sector unions’ larger failure to take the lead on social issues. In doing so, Labor relegates itself to marginal relevance and a hemorrhaging membership, which is now at a depressing 6.4% in the private sector and 10.5% overall. Contrary to their current (failing) strategy, if trade and industrial-sector unions were to take the lead on climate justice activism, they could rejuvenate their membership, build strength through coalitions, and, perhaps most importantly, help ensure that there is a livable world to work in. Labor’s failure to take the lead is partly its own fault, but partly the fault of prevailing progressive policy preferences.

Fossil fuel industry jobs versus renewable energy jobs

The common union refrain that fossil fuel jobs are relatively good jobs is actually true, insofar as pay and benefits are concerned. An entry-level mineworkermakes $7,000 more than the average solar installer, with union benefits, to boot. That is hard to argue with in a place like rural North Dakota, where the cost of living has skyrocketed thanks to the oil boom.

The common neoliberal response is that these jobs are dying anyway. Besides, the argument goes, nobody can possibly want to work on an oil rig or in a coal mine, with all of the attendant physical maladies and risk of death. This response exemplifies the urban elite’s ignorance of the needs of the working class—a worldview based on the assumption that sacrifices need to be made by those least able to afford them, because fossil fuel workers are the ones who “chose” to work in a dying industry. Meanwhile, though neoliberal politicians may still pander to mineworkers, they also fight the reforms that would most enable liberation from the golden handcuffs of (perennially threatened) government guarantees for coal miners. Such reforms could, in turn, cause a labor shortage in oil and coal that could slow extraction.

Trade unions do understand that fossil fuel jobs are better precisely because more of these workers are unionized, but somehow fail to make the next logical conclusion: unions can grow their membership back from near-extinction by unionizing the new sustainable energy sector. True, they face stiff resistance from the same neoliberal elite arguing that government benefits are too expensive: the leaders of the sustainable energy revolution, for instance, are notoriously anti-union. But aggressive new organizing has always been at the core of labor’s power—or, indeed, of any movement’s power. Rank-and-file activists engaging in direct action, not corporate collaboration, won every major labor reform we take for granted today, including the 8-hour workday and the passage of the National Labor Relations Act. For a contemporary example, the West Virginia Teacher Strike of 2018 was technically illegal but won raises the teachers hadn’t seen in years, and inspired more “wildcat” teacher strikes across the country. If trade unions want to ensure good jobs for their members, they should take a cue from public and service sector unions and get back to the (admittedly hard) work of organizing new unions.

Is job training an answer?

Switching jobs is stressful, all the more so if you are forced back to school and emerge from your training program without the job security or benefits you had before. Since the vast majority of the American workforce is comprised of at-will employees, it is hard for most of us to imagine what kind of a change we are asking of unionized fossil fuel workers who currently enjoy relative security in their positions. Nonetheless, these fossil fuel jobs will inevitably disappear, and sustainable energy jobs are a logical replacement.

Job training has always been a cornerstone of neoliberal economic policy. After all, in a rapidly changing economy, workers’ skillsets are in need of near-constant updating—or so the refrain goes. Contrary to received wisdom, however, job training programs in the United States have completely failed. Moreover, specialized skills are not even a necessary prerequisite to employment in many occupations. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this back in the 1960s, reminding us with his demand for “Jobs First, Training Later” that, historically, people were trained on the job by their employers. But the problem has only gotten worse: companies have realized over the past few decades that, in a hypercompetitive job market driven by workers’ lack of job security and masses of unemployed workers, they could force the costs of training onto workers and the government. In such an economy, it is inevitable that many workers will become saddled with privatized public debt in the form of student loans, with no guarantee of employment, in a lower-paying job than they previously had.

Some unions, such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, have helped workers transition to clean energy jobs by offering training programs themselves. These programs are excellent for those who get in; the problem is that union coffers are dwindling so much that the programs may not exist much longer. Furthermore, through these programs, the cost of transition still falls on workers, and on all taxpayers, rather than on the technocrats and capitalists forcing the switch. Even under the Green New Deal recently proposed by progressive leaders in Congress, the government would not create public employment—a direct investment in the working class that avoids employers taking a cut—or use its regulatory powers to force employers to shoulder the cost of job transitions; instead, publicly-funded job training for a private workforce would become yet another corporate subsidy.

Labor and climate resistance

By airing these concerns, trade unions are identifying and resisting important flaws in our political economy, however maladaptive their resistance may be. But they do not stop there. Instead, they often support the anti-protest bills discussed above, essentially drawing battle lines between labor and one of the most important social justice movements of our time. The president of the AFL-CIO even went on record suggesting that climate-based direct action doesn’t work, rehashing conservative talking points often leveled at the climate justice movement: if climate change is driven by global and systemic factors, what could individual protests possibly accomplish?

The reality is that nonviolent resistance, particularly civil disobedience directly targeting a problem, works. From Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930 to the Extinction Rebellion protests in London this past April, history has shown repeatedly that direct action is one of the most powerful tools at activists’ disposal.

For labor to argue the contrary is dangerous as well as inaccurate. In our existing economy, investing money always results in more personal wealth than working for a wage, and because of this, workers will never be able to fight bosses on the bosses’ terms (i.e., through spending money). Instead, unions’ only real tool is their ability to disrupt production; the single most effective labor action throughout history has been the strike. It is the act that disrupts the sole purpose for a corporation’s existence—profit.

Strikes, however, are difficult to pull off. Historically, they were punishable under criminal conspiracy laws. Today there may be fewer criminal penalties, but the structural barriers are manifold. First, companies have legal backdoors to replace their entire striking workforce. Second, asking workers to forgo pay and benefits for extended periods of time is a big demand. Finally, automation means that capital can often continue production without the entire workforce present. On top of all of this, employers will often seek sanctions to cripple a striking union’s finances. While unions have obtained carve-outs for “legal labor actions” in critical infrastructure bills, the ease with which employers convince judges to fine unions and issue injunctions prohibiting worker actions render these carve-outs meaningless. Trade unions allying with ALEC to pass “critical infrastructure” anti-protest bills are essentially advocating for yet another million-dollar tool to break union solidarity and power.

In fact, as far back as 2012, when “critical infrastructure” was primarily in the news because of alleged terror threats, commentators called the International Longshore Workers’ Association strike a threat to “critical infrastructure” because stopping work at ports would slow the economy. Such an accusation hearkens back to the days when unions were considered criminal enterprises. Criminalizing climate and Indigenous rights activists foreshadows a return to those days for labor, unless labor joins with other movements to fight back.


How can we reconcile union fears of job loss on the one hand, and the urgency of climate change on the other? Perhaps more importantly for trade and industrial-sector unions, how can they lead on a just transition to a green economy? The answers are different in urban and in rural areas.

New York State offers an excellent example of union leadership on climate change in an urban area. In 2017, after three years of research and collaboration, the Worker Institute and key New York unions authored a report advocating for a “climate jobs program.” In essence, the report lays out the ways in which the state could induce the building, energy, and transportation sectors to create jobs and meet ambitious climate goals through public works. Labor didn’t stop at a report, however—instead, unions put their political power behind it, resulting in a climate jobs initiative that could create 40,000 new jobs. Key to this initiative is a Project Labor Agreement, which ensures common union policies such as “prevailing wage” provisions that prevent employers from underpaying non-union and union employees alike.

Often lost in the discussion are rural communities, especially those which depend entirely upon less-than-climate-friendly jobs. These communities, too, could transition in a way that preserves job prospects and benefits, and in the decentralized fashion that is often more politically appropriate to those communities.

For example, rural areas where corporations have determined that expansion is insufficiently profitable have long had to meet their energy needs through electricity cooperatives. Such cooperatives rarely produce their own power, meaning they are beholden to the power companies they contract with. If these contracts were nullified, communities could finance construction of local, renewable energy, creating construction jobs, and that financing could include the costs of retraining energy-sector workers, ensuring those jobs are not lost. This could actually be an easier project for unions to undertake, as the cooperatives are run by boards of the local consumers that the cooperative serves. Such board members are likely to be more receptive to community-based energy reform than the corporations who have these communities in a monopolistic stranglehold. Unions could thus organize their members to reform the laws that keep local energy arrangements beholden to coal companies, lobby local cooperative boards, and, ultimately, create the momentum to organize the retrained workers into new unions.

Coal miner unions have led on environmental issues in the past. They can do so again, but joining hands with the corporations pushing anti-protest bills is not the way. Instead, trade and industrial-sector unions should engage in robust member education and organize for integrated climate jobs plans. At the same time, progressives must concretely address the union concern that workers, not the robber barons, will shoulder the cost of transition from fossil fuels if we don’t change our economic system. In doing so, progressives can make it easier for trade unions to rejoin the broader movements fighting for a just world. The interests of trade unions, environmentalists, and movements for racial, gender, and Indigenous justice align, but we must all understand one another if we are to build real strength and make real change.

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