Labor and Climate Must Unite. That’s Easier Said Than Done.

The idea that the labor and climate movements must unite for a Green New Deal is more popular than ever. To get it done, we'll need to take the threat of job loss seriously, finding and uplifting commonalities between climate goals and worker self-interest.

Representatives of the New York State Nurses Association calling on Congress to pass climate legislation on April 7, 2021 in New York City. (Michael Loccisano / Getty Images for Green New Deal Network)

A lot can happen in five years. In November 2018, newly elected congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) joined youth activists from the Sunrise Movement in a dramatic sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office to call for ambitious action on climate change. AOC followed this up in February 7, 2019, when she and Representative Ed Markey introduced legislation for a Green New Deal. The Green New Deal has become a common feature of our political lexicon and widely embraced within progressive activist circles. It’s easy to forget that the concept was entirely unfamiliar to most people half a decade ago.

Billed as a jobs program as much as a climate plan, the Green New Deal seeks, at least rhetorically, to unite the labor and environmental movements, often unfortunately at odds, by demonstrating the potential for good jobs to be created in the process of a transition to clean energy.

The Green New Deal’s rise in popularity corresponds to the growing consensus that serious action is needed on climate change. But cementing the alliance between climate change activists and the workers in manufacturing and energy production, those who will be most affected by an energy transition, has proven to be complicated to say the least. While there are many local-level examples of labor unions embracing clean energy jobs, many workers remain (justifiably) anxious and skeptical about the possibility of carrying out an energy transition in a way that protects their livelihoods.

Todd E. Vachon’s new book, Clean Air and Good Jobs: US Labor and the Struggle for Climate Justice, explores the challenges and dynamics at play in building a labor-climate movement that can successfully win a pro-worker clean energy economy.

A founding president of the Graduate Employees Union, UAW Local 6950 at the University of Connecticut, Vachon has been a participant in national and state-level labor-climate coalitions. Relying on interviews with activists, his own observations, and source analysis, he paints a picture of the current state of the labor-climate movement and how activists within it are thinking through the myriad challenges ahead.

The book does a good job of giving a historical overview of the origins of the labor-climate movement and clarifying the major structural factors that make a pro-labor energy transition so daunting. The numerous featured interviews with labor-climate activists give readers a window into how trade unionists are thinking through these issues and the process of moving the needle in the broader labor movement.

However, too often Vachon frames the issue in ways that are unhelpful for building the kind of labor-focused coalition that he promotes, at times repeating unproductive shibboleths that have become dominant in the left-wing environmental movement. Additionally, while Vachon highlights many positive and inspiring examples of labor-climate coalitions, a more detailed analysis of how these successful projects were built and sustained is necessary to help organizers looking to replicate these models in their specific contexts.

Fragile Alliances

Vachon traces the early roots of labor-environmental alliances, emphasizing that there is a historical basis for this work. He highlights that the United Steelworkers union supported the first federal Clean Air Act in 1963, while in the early 1970s the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) under its visionary leader Tony Mazzocchi launched a strike against Shell Oil with health and safety as a core issue.

Organizations like the OSHA Environmental Network and Environmentalists for Full Employment were initiated by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO)’s Industrial Union Department. In the Pacific Northwest during the 1990s, timber workers and environmentalists united around the demand to stop overcutting forests. For workers, this practice led to layoffs and the closing of sawmills.

The more recent wave of labor-environment activity was propelled forward by Hurricane Sandy in late 2012. New York City public sector workers in transit and health care were confronted with the most extreme effects of the storm, which ignited greater concern around the issue of climate change. Unions like Transit Workers Union Local 100, New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) District Council 37 have increasingly devoted resources and attention to the climate movement. But still, while progress with labor has been significant and measurable, there can be no denying that the fossil fuel–driven economy remains firmly entrenched.

Helpfully, Vachon identifies five major intertwined pillars of support for the “fossil fuel regime:” the fossil fuel industry, fossil fuel–using industries, individual consumers, politicians, and fossil fuel workers and their unions. He correctly observes that there can be no meaningful challenge to the fossil fuel industry without “some form of challenge to the underlying free market ideology” that underpins our entire economic system. Additionally, the book cites structural factors to explain the overarching “Jobs vs. Environment” dilemma that labor is often caught in.

Especially in the United States, the lack of a quality social safety net exacerbates the fears and consequences of job loss. When health care is tied to employment and higher education is prohibitively expensive, the threat of losing a good union job is a threat of economic and social ruin. Referencing the work of Marxist scholar Erik Olin Wright, Vachon astutely observes that when capitalists control the investment that is crucial for job creation, they can credibly frame their interests as being identical with society’s as a whole.

Vachon uses a “labor-climate spectrum” that places unions by industry on the basis of their tendency to support a “Jobs vs. Environment” framing or a progressive “Clean Air and Good Jobs” framing. Factors like public statements by union leaders, union resolutions, and congressional testimonies are used to determine this placement.

Not surprisingly given the structural factors cited above, the author found that unions representing workers in extraction, building trades, and manufacturing were located much more in the “Jobs vs. Environment” spectrum. Unions with a membership in health care, transportation, and the service sector more often embraced the “Clean Air and Good Jobs” framework.

Clean Air and Good Jobs is peppered with interviews with members of unions across this spectrum to explore why and how the various unions take the positions they do. It is in how the author chooses to frame the causes of these divergent perspectives within the labor movement that the issues begin.

Framing Issues

Vachon relies heavily on the dichotomy between “business unionism” and “social unionism” to explain the different ways unions have approached the energy transition challenge. In his schema, business unionism consists of a narrow focus on wages and benefits, along with a perspective that views the company’s interest in making profits as aligned with the goal of union. On the other hand, social unionism is the practice of fighting for broader social issues at the bargaining table and on the behalf of the entire working class.

These terms and concept can be useful, illuminating real differences in the ways unions approach bargaining. But often in reality the lines are more blurred, and there can be a tendency on the Left to overemphasize this distinction. After all, isn’t the project of lifting workers out of poverty and providing security — yes, in the form of “bread-and-butter” things like wages and benefits — a social justice issue?

In the public sector, which Vachon places on the more progressive “Clean Air and Good Jobs” spectrum, there is often an organic overlap between the “business” and “social” demands in a way there isn’t in many manufacturing/industrial contexts. So while teachers’ unions certainly fight for smaller class sizes because it’s better for students’ learning, they also do it because it’s a key quality of life workplace issue for members. Municipal unions want public services funded because it’s good for the broader public, but also (and maybe even primarily) because it’s the prerequisite for the economic stability of their members.

Any union knows that it can never lose sight of taking care of the basic economic interests of their members. At times, in his stridency against business unionism, Vachon appears to expect that workers in the fossil fuel industry will evade this basic principle despite demonstrating an understanding of the economic dilemmas they are faced with.

“Newer unions,” writes Vachon, “are more likely to support climate protection measures. These unions are more likely to display the characteristics of social movement unionism, including greater diversity, participation in coalition work, and an expanded goal orientation.”

But one must ask: Are these unions able to take these stances because they practice “social movement unionism,” or is it because their members are not directly affected? To use teachers’ unions as an example once more, it would be hard to imagine them supporting the expansion of charter schools with a progressive curriculum when it means the loss of jobs for their members. Here again, while their opposition to privatization is indeed a broader social issue, it primarily stems from the imperative of self-defense.

The activists within manufacturing unions interviewed in Clean Air and Good Jobs display a more nuanced understanding of these dynamics. As one participant from a national level labor-climate organization observed, “Either we’ve got leadership that is overwhelmed by other issues, leadership that is not all that aware of the issue of climate change, and of course, we also have some leadership that is very fearful and is worried that their members are gonna lose jobs.”

The book also tends to give too much space to rhetoric that appeals more to the activist subculture of the climate movement than the working-class majority not currently bought into the project. This rhetoric can paint a confusing and contradictory picture of the coalition that needs to be built.

For example, Vachon makes frequent reference to “frontline communities,” which he defines as “rooted in Indigenous, African American, Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander, and poor white communities on the front line of the climate justice movement.” It would appear that he is describing the entire multiracial working class. Instead of lumping everyone into the “frontline communities” heading, it would be more helpful to speak of the working class, and then think about specific communities in the context of concrete campaigns to address climate change.

While the book often skillfully critiques the insensitivity of the mainstream environmental movement to the issues of workers, its embrace of a segment of the Left’s environmental framing and rhetoric leads Vachon down the same path on occasion.

When discussing the task of uniting unionized industrial workers facing job loss with poorer communities experiencing the effects of climate change, he writes:

Environmental justice community members often remind labor activists that the white workers who face unemployment as a result of decarbonization have at least had the opportunity to benefit economically for generations from the fossil fuel jobs that nonwhites have been systematically excluded from and disproportionately affected by in the form of negative health consequences as a result of pollution.

The climate movement needs to do some serious rethinking and soul-searching about this perspective. It’s hard to imagine talking to a coal worker whose town has been destroyed or a laid-off oil refinery worker forced to work at Walmart into old age, reminding them that they should be happy that at least they can remember the good old days, and expect them to still be on our side. Such an approach is at odds with a truly worker-driven clean energy transition.

A Just Transition

The topic of a “just transition” is prominently featured in Clean Air and Good Jobs, as it should be. The term was first popularized by OCAW president Mazzocchi as a way to describe how workers in industries vulnerable to job loss could be made whole.

Vachon does important work in explaining the history of attempts at just transitions and why unions are so skeptical of this phrase today. Trade adjustment assistance programs that were mounted by the federal government in the latter decades of the twentieth century were often underfunded and badly administered. While the overall idea is certainly pro-worker, it is critical that climate activists today understand how the term lands among many actually existing workers.

Richard Trumka, former president of the AFL-CIO, described just transition as “just an invitation to a fancy funeral.” One of the interviewees from a national-level transportation union explained, “It has such a bad meaning to so many working people, especially in the US.”

Vachon lays out three kinds of just transition frames: protective, proactive, and transformative. But here, again, the author falls into the trap of creating artificial dichotomies where they are not necessary or helpful.

The “protective” frame simply focuses on protecting the most vulnerable workers in a defensive way; Vachon uses Mazzocchi’s “superfund” for workers in extractive industries as an example. The “proactive” frame is more forward-looking and ambitious, with more public investment toward an energy transition and involvement from labor. Finally, the “transformative” model encompasses systemic change in the form of democratic socialism or the total reorganization of the economy.

While it’s helpful to think about various levels of transition, it’s better to think about these frames as existing on the same spectrum. Their realization is determined by labor’s power in society and the broader political context, not by the degree of willpower or the ideas in peoples’ heads.

For example, the establishment of a “protective” superfund for workers is predicated on the idea that there will be an energy transition in the future. So if a union pursues such a defensive measure, it shouldn’t be viewed as a representation of their end goal, but rather as a necessary first step toward a worker-centered energy transition.

Often the book refers to how unions in the fossil fuel industry use the “no skin in the game” or “equity” argument against other unions calling for a transition. This argument essentially posits that it is easier for other unions to call for a transition when their members are not directly affected by job loss.

Vachon critiques this argument, saying that it “fails to acknowledge that climate change is a threat to all working people and that there should be a greater solidarity to protect all workers and future generations from the devastating effects of unmitigated climate change.”

While this is true in a broad sense, we have to acknowledge the basic principle that the workers most affected by the transition need to have the biggest voice and receive the most consultation. This “nothing about us without us” sentiment is always afforded legitimacy by progressives when it comes to other constituencies, and it should be here too.

Readers of Clean Air and Good Jobs will get important background about the origins of the term “just transition” and how trade unionists are unpacking its problems. But again, the deployment of artificial dichotomies between different kinds of transitions feels overly academic and unhelpful for understanding how we can bring a truly just transition into being.

The Path Forward

Perhaps the most important part of Vachon’s book deals with how we should move forward, and examples of how unions are partnering with the climate movement in productive ways.

For readers new or unfamiliar with the labor movement, Vachon provides a useful window into the process of moving resolutions within local unions and state labor federations. This is often an important step in building political support within unions, and the participant interviews reveal the contentious debates on climate that can play out.

Smaller, local-level victories that are mentioned in the book will hopefully generate ideas for organizers that they can take on in their areas. In addition to inspiration, these examples also instill a sense of optimism that it is possible for labor to get behind clean jobs, and it is in fact already happening.

One of the more important developments Vachon explores is the program released by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in April 2021 for a just transition. “Preserving Coal Country” details a vision to provide a robust safety net for displaced miners that includes family health care coverage, tuition for bachelor’s degrees, and targeted infrastructure rehabilitation in coalfield communities.

Additionally, in May 2021 the UMWA and the Union of Concerned Scientists released a joint statement acknowledging that serious action is needed on climate change, outlining ways that fossil fuel workers can be taken care of in the process.

While Vachon’s book highlights several good campaigns and initiatives, it would have been useful to go into more detail about how these coalitions were organized and sustained. For example, in September 2021, Illinois passed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, an ambitious climate victory with virtual universal support from labor. The book mentions this bill, but exploring the mechanics of this campaign would have been invaluable for activists looking to replicate it in their areas.

More attention could also have been given to the work of the Climate Jobs National Resource Center, which has been instrumental in the building of many successful state-level labor-climate coalitions.

When it comes to climate solutions, Vachon seems to automatically reject certain strategies that are hotly debated within the labor movement, namely nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (CCS). Nuclear energy is a heavily unionized sector and critical source of carbon-free energy, and dismissing it out of hand is perilous for both the climate and workers. And a nuanced debate is developing about the possibility of targeted deployment of CCS and public models of ownership.

Toward the end of the book, Vachon writes, “Labor as a whole has often not been a friend of the climate justice movement . . . which is unfortunate because, unlike the mainstream environmental movement, the climate justice movement has espoused a pro-worker stance since its inception.” But espousing pro-worker sentiments is different from effectively being able to build a labor coalition and not alienating workers in practice.

Readers new to the issues around labor and climate will learn a lot from Clean Air and Good Jobs. Nevertheless, many of the common tropes that appear in the book need reexamining, as they risk further separating the climate movement from a base in the trade union movement and making impossible the very coalitions this book advocates for.