We’ve Hit Another Climate Dead End. Only Worker Power Can Turn Us Around.

Joe Biden’s climate plans bit the dust, just like Barack Obama’s. But workers are showing us how to organize for climate action where it counts.

Even as our planet’s meltdown was becoming more obvious by the year, climate legislation in the United States took a brutal blow in 2021, as it did in 2009. (Woodleywonderworks / Openverse)

Democrats win control of the White House, Senate, and House. In the new president’s first year, he announces a climate bill with fanfare: it’s America’s plan to lead the world again. The largest environmental NGOs cheer and hope with bated breath. Then, against broad corporate opposition, the climate bill dies in quiet misery, never given a Senate floor vote, and our planet keeps cooking faster toward disaster.

That’s the story not only of Joe Biden’s climate failure in 2021, but also of Barack Obama’s in 2009. The biggest difference between the two scenarios is that the 2009 bill met failure even with sixty Democrats in the Senate, undermining the idea that Joe Biden’s bill would have passed if only we had put a little more elbow grease into electing Democrats.

Pushed by Green New Deal activists on the campaign trail, Biden proposed a climate law with a few feints in the Left’s direction. Abandoning 2009’s focus to make a federal “cap-and-trade” market for climate pollution, Biden’s Build Back Better budget instead planned public payments for corporations to build cleaner energy and transit infrastructure, paired with expanded social spending. A few programs for cleaning up toxic sites and special grants to poorer, less white cities gestured toward environmental justice, even though they fell far short of Green New Deal visions to guarantee universal, tangible benefits like housing and transit. By packaging climate measures in $3.5 trillion in federal spending, Biden’s plans were trumpeted by some progressive commentators as a “a watershed in US economic doctrine,” poised to end austerity’s reign.

But at heart, the 2021 climate bill stuck with the most basic neoliberal strategy: to use government to “unlock substantial private capital,” as bill advocates at the World Resources Institute put it plainly. By November, after right-wing Democrats had whittled down the bill for months, the most generous climate measure left was an extension of hundreds of billions in tax cuts for private clean energy companies.

No Change Without Conflict

Over and over, Biden promised “good union jobs” would spring from his “clean energy revolution.” However, his climate policies left workers’ power as an afterthought in nearly every way.

Aside from one tax cut for US union-made electric cars and a boost to union construction training halls, Biden’s climate proposals set no labor terms on the private companies who would get billions to build a cleaner future. Meanwhile, the infrastructure bill passed in November will fund far more polluting highways than rails or solar panels, but most of its work will at least be covered under a “prevailing wage” law that boosts pay and favors unions on public construction. Democratic leaders bargained that they could push for union jobs or clean energy, but not both at once.

In the end, all the bargains couldn’t keep Biden’s climate bill alive, although a few scraps might be revived this year. By basing their climate strategy on corporate subsidies, little executive action, and no new help for workers to organize, Democratic leaders hoped to fight climate change without conflict with corporations. Instead, fossil fuel companies and tech titans like Apple and Amazon stayed united with the Chamber of Commerce to kill the bill.

Although more workplace actions and legislative threats might push dirty and clean capital to split on climate, the problem is that they’re increasingly one and the same. The country’s two largest renewable energy companies each own a larger share of fossil power plants, while international oil giants are moving aggressively to get in on clean energy and its public subsidies. Meanwhile, the fossil fuels still in the ground are worth as much as half of all other global wealth. It’s fantasy to imagine capital will decide to leave all that potential profit alone without one hell of a fight.

As Biden’s climate bill inched closer to failure, many socialist climate writers saw it coming. In Jacobin, Matthew Huber called out the law’s null efforts on union power, universal benefits, or public ownership of energy, which might have rallied working-class support. Like sociologist Theda Skocpol, who argued Obama and environmental NGOs doomed the 2009 climate bill by focusing on insider lobbying and failing to “engage Americans,” Huber argued that, once again in 2021, organizing “a mass popular base for the legislation was never contemplated” by Biden and his advisors.

True as that seems, we face an even deeper problem. There’s no base just lying in wait to fight for the right climate policy. After a half century of bosses’ onslaught on unions and public welfare, coupled with car-driven suburbanization, the US working class has become dangerously isolated and disorganized.

Pro-worker climate policy might someday earn the support of a powerful working-class army, but first, we have to help bring that army into existence.

Shop Floor Strategy and Solidarity Campaigns

During the last two decades, US climate activists have cycled through tactics, but our strategy has largely remained the same: winning public attention to shift the government’s hand.

Like many thousands, I helped lobby legislators, build local sustainability projects, and disseminate climate science, and I joined the grand marches and photo ops. Blockading dirty energy, the most immediately effective of the tactics, still only lasted as long as we could woo the government not to violently evict us. Though at times we won media attention and fostered long-term organizers, it’s time to acknowledge this strategy did little to develop a mass climate politics and build the leverage we need. By 2021, we were barely more ready than in 2009 to force unwilling capitalists to clean up their act.

Instead of imagining ourselves as the enlightened vanguard leading the general public, serious climate activists need to get tight with the specific part of the public that could win. In a disorganized society, the workplace is an exceptional place to organize.

Not only does it bring diverse people together on the job, but those workers have their hands on crucial levers of the economy, even if they don’t know it yet. If they were to unite and pull the lever down — by going on strike, for example — segments of the economy would grind to a halt and capitalists’ profits would suffer. That potential gives this segment of the population enormous power to influence capitalists’ behavior.

There are plenty of real-world examples showing how workers can build power for a climate transition. The United Steelworkers (USW), a major union of oil refinery workers, is demanding to slash climate pollution from their workplaces as part of their national labor contract fight this year. They could strike to win that aim. Since the 1970s, Australian union construction workers have often declared “green bans,” refusing to build environmentally destructive projects, a tradition started by socialists in the union. In the last few months, German autoworkers fighting to keep their jobs in the electric car transition have built alliances with climate activists to raise pressure on the boss and government alike.

By committing to work long term on the shop floor in powerful sectors, climate activists could help their coworkers step up and lead the fight for a transition. Even from outside the workplace, climate activists can wage strike support and labor solidarity campaigns to help workers win, build lasting relationships, and learn what pro-worker climate politics really means.

More union jobs in the climate transition won’t be enough to build a united working-class movement so long as who gets those jobs remains determined by race and gender. Construction jobs in particular stand to boom with clean energy and transit work. Nationally, just 4 percent of construction workers are women, and few sectors are as split between well-paid, disproportionately white union workers and heavily Latino and undocumented nonunion workers. Union campaigns to organize and include across these divides are another place where rank-and-file activists could contribute from within.

Electoral and policy campaigns, especially with strong unions behind them, can also do crucial work to shred the barriers to a united working class. Labor, socialist, and feminist activists in Portland, Oregon, won a universal childcare ballot measure last year; by lightening the family care work unequally forced on women, it offers real freedom, and could make the uneven hours of construction work more possible. Across the country, unions, socialists, environmentalists, and anti-racist movements have come together to elect Green New Deal champions and fossil fuel foes — at their best, building independent organizations or local working-class parties that last.

Climate transitions themselves can and should build working-class power to push the transition further. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, an area long dominated by agribusiness and anti-union politicians, some construction unions have doubled in size with solar and high-speed rail work during the past decade. To win more public work, these building trades have formed alliances with the region’s working-class Latino and environmental justice activists to sweep key local elections. The glue that makes the alliance stick is local unions’ track record in, and future commitment to, including long-excluded workers in their ranks. Following their solar jobs boom, although still defensive of oil drilling at the state level, California building trades have turned into uniquely powerful advocates for the state’s renewable energy mandates. That’s the kind of virtuous cycle we need to fight for everywhere.

Even as our planet’s meltdown was becoming more obvious by the year, climate legislation in the United States took a brutal blow in 2021, as it did in 2009. If we want to avoid yet another déjà vu, then organizing in workplaces, with unions, and in working-class electoral fights is our clearest path. It will never be too late to avoid worse warming — and to organize where it counts.