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Too Many Labor Leaders are Failing to Make the Case for Action in Face of Growing Climate Catastrophe

New York, NY – Working men and women, including more than 900 Amazon employees based in Seattle, Washington alone, figure to play a key role in Global Climate Strike actions Sept. 20-27 — but the true power of the labor movement is not being brought to bear because many labor leaders are still not treating climate change like an emergency. 

That’s the assessment of Amalgamated Transit Union [ATU] Vice-President Bruce Hamilton who says workers, in general, “are not going to go out on strike over climate of any kind or what they see as a kind of abstract thing.”

“It’s got to be related to their jobs — which climate is — but labor leaders have not made that case,” Hamilton tells LaborPress. “We have not put a convincing narrative out that shows why it’s in workers’ interests to engage in this fight and why climate change is really the biggest jobs killer — and it affects working people more, and more adversely, than any other group.”

Longtime SEIU organizer and Labor Network for Sustainability member Bill Ragen says looming fallout from climate change is “going to be a mess — not just for the polar bears, but for everybody — and the poorer you are, the more working class, the worse you’re going to get it.”

“I think labor leaders need to understand this affects us directly — whole industries are just going to be completely reconfigured,” Ragen says. “There’s no way electricity production, for example, is not going to be completely transformed, same with transportation.”

The 35,000 United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union has already endorsed the Green New Deal and is supporting Global Strike Actions happening Sept. 20-27. General President Peter Knowlton believes the Global Climate Strike will generate a lot of discussions about the climate, put pressure on politicians and labor leaders alike, and, ultimately “move the ball forward.” 

But, Knowlton is cognizant of the persisting doubts many in the labor movement have about the validity of a “just transition” to a new green economy.

“Workers involved in the fossil fuel industry have to be taken care of — they cannot be shunted to the wayside like usually happens when workers are laid off,” he says. “And they have to be taken care of in very robust and equal ways. And workers in marginalized and frontline communities need to be a significant part of the additional jobs that will be created as a result of the Green New Deal.”

The 14-page Green New Deal resolution that New York Congress Member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [D-14th District] and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey [D-MA] introduced earlier this year, specifically demands “high-quality union jobs that pay prevailing wages” and calls for “protecting the right of all workers to organize, unionize, and collectively bargain free of coercion, intimidation, and harassment.”

Presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders’ [I-Vt] Green New Deal promises the creation of 20 million new jobs while “prioritizing fossil fuel workers who have powered our economy for more than a century and who have too often been neglected by corporations and politicians.”

The Sanders plan also guarantees the following: five years of a worker’s current salary, housing assistance, job training, health care, pension support, and priority job placement for any displaced worker, as well as early retirement support for those who choose it or can no longer work.

“I’m hopeful that we can avoid the worst [of climate change] and that labor can begin to flex its muscle to that end,” Hamilton says. “We need to join the call for a Green New Deal and pass some legislation that’s going to start changing things — not putting carbon in the atmosphere and the other fossil fuels.” 

For that to happen, however, Hamilton says, “It needs to be brought down to the shop floor level.”

“We need to be organizing at every workplace for the kind of bargaining that really makes it clear that all of our jobs are in great jeopardy if we don’t start fighting climate change together,” he says.

In January, Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants, advocated a general strike to end a grinding government shutdown that deprived some 800,000 federal workers of their paychecks.

“In order to create change the first step is defining the problem for the masses and the urgency of fixing it,” Nelson says. “Collective action is an effective way to draw attention to an issue, inject it into the popular narrative, and demonstrate what people are willing to do to force a political will for solutions.”

The 2 million-strong Service Employees International Union [SEIU], is supporting the Global Climate Strike Sept. 20-27 and participating in 12 flagship cities. 

“SEIU is proud to support the courageous students and young people across this country who are taking action for climate justice, SEIU President Mary Kay Henry says. “We join our voices to their demand for an end to the corporate greed that is both polluting our planet and holding working people in poverty. As we fight for Unions for All, we will build the power to hold polluting corporations accountable and win climate justice for all, no matter where we are from or what color we are.”

Nick Braña founder and director of Movement for a People’s Party [MPP] — one of the groups helping to plan Global Climate Strike actions Sept. 20-27 — is optimistic about the strike’s impact on labor leaders.

“When you see young people in their teens, high school students or college students in their 20s getting into intersections and putting themselves on the line, demonstrating that level of sacrifice — I think it can jar society in a way to take a look at why is it that people are making that level of sacrifice. And I’m hoping it does that with labor as it does with the rest of U.S. society,” he says.

This week, 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg told “Democracy Now” Host Amy Goodman that worker participation in the Global Climate Strike means a lot, saying it is “incredibly important to show that this is not just for children — it’s for everybody. What we are doing, we are striking to disrupt the system.”

Hamilton says some ATU locals around the country will, in fact, be joining Global Climate Strike actions Sept. 20-27 and that he hopes hotel workers in Las Vegas — site of the ATU’s convention later this month — strike in support, too. 

Says Hamilton, “We’ll join them if they do.” 

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