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How the Labor Movement is Fighting Climate Change

J. Mijin Cha

At a panel discussion this morning, labor leaders stressed the importance of climate change to their members work and health. Organized by the Murphy Institute at CUNY and the Worker Institute at Cornell University, the heads of the Canadian Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, 32 BJ SEIU, and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance came together with James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, to discuss how the labor movement can shape an effective climate strategy. The discussion was a compelling example of how to broaden and diversify the climate movement, the need for which we discuss here.

The steps taken by the labor movement to address climate change help break the tired (and false) dichotomy that we have to choose between protecting the environment and creating jobs. The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union represents workers that work in the tar sands and refineries and is one of the strongest voices in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. Part of their opposition is that the pipeline would export jobs out of Canada but part of the opposition is based on the damage to communities and the environment:

No one with any brains would say there should be unfettered [tar sands] expansion in Alberta or Saskatchewan. That’s crazy,” said CEP President David Coles at a demonstration against Keystone XL last year. “Our members live and work there. They gotta breathe the air. They gotta be there after the stuff is pumped out of the ground.

The last point is one that is often ignored. Workers are also community members. The workers in coal mines and tar sand pits have to breathe the toxic air emitted and live in communities scarred by the mining. The taxi workers are concerned about auto emissions because they are one of the communities most exposed to air pollution. Instead of pitting the two interests-- workers and the environment--against each other, successful climate measures will bring them together.

Workers are also an essential element of the transition to a low-carbon economy. Training existing workers in low-carbon methods can result in huge energy and cost savings. SEIU 32 BJ represents building maintenance workers and runs a program to train building supers in energy-efficiency measures. Originally intended to train 1,000 supers, the program has now trained 3,000 supers in ways to decrease energy and water use. Nearly 80 percent of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings and energy savings from buildings is the lowest-cost method for decreasing emissions. Plus, the efficiency measure can save buildings as much as $230 million per year in operating expenses.

There is still much work to be done and not all unions are embracing the climate challenge as much as the ones highlighted here. But, in the past, it would have been inconceivable that workers would raise environmental concerns against a project that could create jobs. Adapting to climate change and transitioning to a low-carbon economy is going to be a substantial undertaking. Workers will be fundamental to both efforts and a clear example of how climate change is far from just an environmental issue.