Organizing to Win a Green New Deal

The labor movement has to be central to winning a Green New Deal and reversing climate change. Recent labor victories show how we can do just that, from the ground up, and quickly.

System Change, Not Climate Change / Flickr

Demands for real climate justice got a welcome boost recently as youth walked out of schools worldwide on March 15, urged to go “on strike” by sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden. Images in mainstream and social media exploded with pictures of young people marching into plazas across the world, confronting intransigent elected officials and speaking truth to power. Youth have always brought two essential ingredients to social movements: moral compass and an exciting, unique form of energy. Their vision is bold, and they are uncompromising. But to halt and reverse the carbon economy, save the planet, and create a future with jobs that youth will look forward to requires far more power and a serious strategy.

In the US, discussions about the climate crisis of late have fixated on the Green New Deal proposed by Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey. Headlines have alternated between descriptions of the resolution’s big vision and more skeptical assessments of its prospects — including from important potential backers: “AFL-CIO criticizes Green New Deal, calling it ‘not achievable or realistic,’” reads one recent headline. The backdrop to the debates raging in the first quarter of 2019 have been a nonstop series of extreme storms predicted by climate scientists since the 1980s. So-called bomb cyclones hit the Midwest, massive rainstorms battered California after a devastating wildfire season, and killer tornadoes hit the South, with crops being wiped out. People are dying because of the lack of preparation in dealing with the crisis.

And while the recent letter from the AFL-CIO criticizing the GND may seem like a willful refusal to face the scale of the crisis, we need considerably more than a bold vision to get labor to come out swinging for the Green New Deal. It simply doesn’t matter that everyone on the Left rejects the divisive frame of jobs-versus-environment — the Left has yet to prove it can move from rhetoric to reality about green jobs.

To win, it’s crucial that we heed advice from union organizer Nato Green. In a recent article about how public service unions like the one he works for, local SEIU 1021 in California, can — and must — negotiate for climate justice, he wrote, “Any seasoned union campaigner worth her salt loves a contract fight because it has a hard deadline that focuses everyone’s attention—expiration and a strike threat. Climate science gives us a new deadline and an opportunity to show that we’re up to the task. We have 12 years.”

Green is certainly right that good union organizers love a contract fight. If we take the twelve years outlined in the recent IPCC report as our deadline for drastically cutting carbon emissions, what’s a credible plan to win by 2030?

For people serious about winning really hard fights — and there are virtually none more difficult than tackling the fossil fuel industry — making a plan starts by doing comprehensive power structure analysis and building a real war room. This is indeed a war, one that so far has been won by the Koch brothers and their ilk. Our side needs to get used to the military language because what we’ve been doing — being polite and going to big orderly marches — isn’t saving the planet or creating a fair and just economy, and it’s wishful thinking to imagine otherwise. War rooms are physical spaces where people with necessary experience and fortitude brainstorm, plot, and plan what it will take to win. They plan backwards from the world as it actually exists, facing the challenge of organizing a set of messy actors who are too easily divided-and-conquered and too infrequently able to hold the focus on that which unites us — which is much more than survival.

The climate war room discussion will need to deal with a key reality: We are now stuck with courts that will rule against the planet and workers for another thirty to forty years. People in the US don’t yet feel the reality of losing the Supreme Court to the right wing, because the newly solidified majority hasn’t yet had time to overturn everything that it eventually will.

Losing the SCOTUS balance makes major shifts in strategy necessary. During the past forty years, environmental groups have relied on advocacy, mobilizing, and legal strategies instead of doing the much harder, more powerful work of building a mass movement. The result has been an environmental movement with little in the way of a popular base, easily scapegoated as elitist, and thus lacking the power needed to win.

Fortunately, there is one key strategy that has a track record of actually winning the hardest fights in our history, even in spite of hostile courts: organizing. Real organizing. Organizing may seem too slow for a fight we need to win in the very immediate future. But in fact, recent victories show that it’s possible to build serious power from the ground up in far less time than the Green New Deal’s 2030 deadline requires.

Three recent examples include the incredible victories waged and won by educators in Chicago, West Virginia, and Los Angeles. In all three cases, smart, progressive, motivated workers with the future of public education at stake transformed moribund, do-nothing, organizations into unions capable of leading and winning all-out fights in which the opponents were strong, and the odds were stiff.

In West Virginia, it took less than one year for a transformation that created a crisis powerful enough to literally flip a trifecta Republican, hard-right, fossil-fuel-beholden legislature on its head. All-out strikes can produce that kind of influence. Many of the educators who led the strike are the daughters and sons of coal miners who built on the legacy of miners’ strikes.

In Chicago and Los Angeles, where the educators faced the other kind of power structure that needs to be confronted on climate — the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party — it took each union four years to shift completely from top-down and do-nothing to bottom up and do-everything-well. Each faced real deadlines, and each met them. War rooms and a return to the fundamentals of organizing were key.

If part of the power-structure analysis / war-room planning discussion is about what hasn’t been working and what won’t (such as the courts and big marches). and what has been working (such as massive 100 percent all-out strikes with active support from the community), are there examples in the climate-justice world that might inform what winning looks like? One important example is a recent three-year endeavor in New York, starting when unions sat down in 2014 to do something serious about climate change.

According to Vincent Alvarez, the president of the New York City Labor Council, the official body of the largest regional organization of the AFL-CIO in the country, “We took a look at the frustrating discourse and inaction on climate issues that was taking place in Washington, D.C., and decided that we wanted to get something done on the ground that tackled the climate and inequality crises. We wanted to build a program that could start actually making measurable improvements in building a more resilient climate, addressing the dual crisis of climate change and inequality.”

Alvarez explains that rather than focusing on the 10 percent of the issues that are divisive — such as the Keystone pipeline and fracking, the issues that have garnered the most media attention in the climate fight thus far — it makes more sense to start with the 90 percent of the issues that environmentalists and unions can easily agree on, including infrastructure, public transportation, energy production. Before we can address the 10 percent that divides us — of course we must — environmentalists need to demonstrate, with real actions, that they can help win high-quality union jobs in these three sectors. In the absence of concrete evidence that we can actually produce “shovel-ready” alternatives to pipelines, the fossil fuel lobby will drive division.

Lara Skinner, the executive director of the Worker Institute, who has been driving the New York State union climate jobs initiative, says that establishing a union-only working group on climate was central to making progress. Skinner, like many unionists who care deeply about climate change, spent several years wracking her brains trying to bring environmentalists and unionists together. The fight to block the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in the late Obama years made headlines but blew up a lot of good organizing work, leading to tensions and fissures in a budding blue-green movement.

The fossil fuel lobby dug into the protests against the Keystone pipeline, using it as a wedge issue to turn workers against environmentalists who seemed to be out for their jobs. Environmentalists played into the fossil fuel lobby’s messaging by arguing, in lengthy diatribes, that there were fewer jobs at stake in the KXL fight than the industry claimed. But that wasn’t the point.

Coming off a massive recession that had hammered the working class — wiping out savings, pensions, 401Ks, the value of people’s homes, and, bringing new construction to a standstill — high-paying unions jobs were hard to come by. Debating exactly how many workers would lose those jobs played right into the bosses’ hands: environmentalists seemed willing to accept job loss as collateral damage.

Instead of nitpicking how many workers would keep suffering the effects of the recession, the environmental movement should have doubled down on lifting up the many infrastructure projects in states along the pipeline route and pushed back with “shovel-ready jobs” as a real alternative. But as some doors were closing because of the divisive nature of the fight, others opened.

A few months after the height of Keystone dissent, Hurricane Sandy hit. According to Skinner, Sandy “drove home to union members in New York City how serious the issue was. And Irene had hit upstate New York, and everyone was realizing how unprepared we were for what’s coming.” The storms created an opening for a new conversation that Skinner and her team realized had to be a union-only discussion about climate change.

Environmentalists pay lip service to green jobs, but in practice consistently fail to recognize that committing to winning high-quality, union jobs is essential to effective collaborations with unions. So, in 2014, a group of New York unions whose members were hit hard up and down state by Sandy decided to start a process to educate themselves about the climate crisis. They formed a working group that included unions key to the solutions: in the energy, transport, and infrastructure sectors, as well as the public service unions. They committed to meet once per quarter and to start by educating themselves by bringing in climate scientists to better understand the threats.

As part of their self-education, the unions took a delegation from New York to Denmark last summer, hosted by Danish unions. According to Alvarez, “It was really important to get beyond the discussion and witness first-hand and meet with unionized Danish workers in the manufacturing plants, to see how the transition to wind power was experienced by and embraced by the Danish union workers.”

In just three years, the working group produced a groundbreaking report co-authored by Skinner, titled “Reversing Inequality, Combatting Climate Change: A Climate Jobs Program for New York State.” The report — comprehensive, smart, with buy-in from all key unions — should serve as a blueprint for what ought to happen right now state by state and nationally. The unions quickly transitioned from the report to action, using union power to secure a huge victory: New York will get half its total energy needs met by renewable offshore wind power by 2035.

The agreement they won, worth $50 billion so far, will be done with a union jobs guarantee known as a Project Labor Agreement, or PLA. And the coalition is just getting started. There’s no other state, let alone a big one, that has a concrete plan to reduce by half its reliance on fossil fuels that fast. It happened because, as Skinner says, “Unions educated themselves and got really clear on what we need to seriously get to scale on green jobs.” Green jobs plans must be driven by the people who will do the work.

A real war room to win the Green New Deal must start with unions doing what unions did in New York: take initiative, be dead serious about the issue, educate themselves, and use their own knowledge and power to scale up and make a credible plan to win. Unions in New York did not sit around complaining, waiting to be invited to some half-assed policy table where everyone talks past one another and nothing much gets done, while opponents continue to drive wedges that leave lasting damage. The deal happened in New York precisely because the unions had the power to shift public subsidies — that’s taxes — into a deal that enabled them to meet both scientific standards for emissions reduction and the good unionized wage and benefit standards that union members expect and are willing to fight for. Both are key to shifting the economy at the pace and scale needed.

How will we pay for it? Christian Parenti has recently pointed out that corporations are currently sitting on $4.8 trillion in cash — a subset of $22.1 trillion they hoard. That money could be used to quickly shift the economy to a robust unionized green economy, one that can reproduce a dignified quality of life for workers of the future and end the destructive jobs-versus-environment debate.

But to access that money, it takes real power and know-how — the kind of power that unions in New York still have, along with a few other major states. To rebuild union power elsewhere, the environmental movement will have to stand up and fight alongside them — really fight, not just talk about green jobs. That means actively throwing their support behind workers’ right to strike and actively backing workers.

That kind of organizing and the power it builds will be necessary to raise taxes on the rich (versus just talking about it) and make progress on shifting federal subsidies away from fossil fuels and toward a safe, resilient economy that works for humans and our planet. And it will be necessary to quickly rebuild the environmental movement by shifting away from what’s now clearly a losing strategy of litigation and advocacy, towards building a real base of mass support and the power that comes with it.

To actually institute a Green New Deal means rebuilding a robust public sector. A robust public sector means a future filled with good jobs for women and people of color. But the right-wing attacks on what’s left of the public sector and its unions are going to continue with no end in sight. It’s not too late for environmentalists and all progressive allies to decide to really stand with workers and their unions — but there’s no time to waste. Good unions understand best how to run a hard fight with a serious deadline. It’s time for the 2030 war room — now.