Humans have created an existential crisis. It’s up for grabs who will live, how and where, which species will survive, and how the big decisions are made.
No exaggeration—we are in the eleventh hour.
Fossil fuel companies, banks, and all those who profit from these industries have exacerbated the warming of our planet, creating a climate disaster.
The climate study released by the United Nations this past October brought scientists to a common understanding that time is not on our side. We must act with great urgency, not at the edges of the crisis, but at its center.
Labor has a choice. We can stay in our narrow lane and focus only on the wages, hours, and working conditions of our current members—though climate change is already harming working conditions in many industries and eliminating jobs in others.
Or we can be part of organizing a movement with young people, elders, communities of color, indigenous people, environmentalists, and public health advocates to change the rules of the game for the benefit of all people.
In Washington state, labor joined with these allies to push a ballot initiative that would have been a game-changer. We were defeated by the fossil fuel companies this time, but we believe that our coalition can and must prevail.
IF EARTH WERE A BANK...
Participating as an AFL-CIO representative at the Paris climate talks in 2015 was eye-opening. Though a historic accord was reached, the carbon reduction commitments made by nations fell far short of the accord’s laudable goals.
At the alternative People’s Climate Summit in Paris, a young transit worker named Clara said, “If the planet were a bank, we would have already saved it.”
Clara identified an ugly truth. Corporations and their political servants will do anything to protect their economic power, even if it spells the end of the world.
Since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016, the world’s 33 largest banks have financed another $1.9 trillion in fossil fuel projects.
Their goals are to profit from fossil fuel as long as they can, to leave as few fossil fuel assets in the ground as possible, and to be compensated for those that are left in the ground.
To succeed, they have to keep people divided on the extent of the problem, and on how quickly the transition away from fossil fuels can be practically accomplished.
They pit global North countries against the global South. They pit building trades against public sector workers.
They pit white workers against workers of color. They pit communities against immigrants and climate refugees. They pit deindustrialized areas against more prosperous ones.
Those in power sow doubt, anger, and confusion to prevent working people from understanding our common interests and building the power necessary to create a sustainable future.
Climate disaster poses history’s ultimate divide-and-conquer moment. The question for organized labor is, “Do we fall for it again?”
WE CAN’T DO IT ALONE
No student of history would question labor’s strong record of struggle to make workers’ voices heard. But our history of participating in other social movements has been uneven.
It’s time to be honest. Unions on our own are not strong enough to solve climate change and economic inequality.
Isolated bargaining-table victories and limited promises from “electable” politicians won’t deliver solutions or justice.
Fortunately young people, communities of color, and indigenous people from around the world are calling for a revolution in the way we make decisions about fossil fuels, our planet, and our communities.
By joining this movement, labor can help to give those most affected a voice in shaping the future. It will also increase their interest in joining unions.
The best way to represent our current and future members is by joining the climate justice movement and making demands at every level, from the streets to the bargaining table to the legislative floors. That’s the only way our collective power can grow fast enough to face the crisis.
Transitioning away from fossil fuels to a renewable clean energy economy is a huge undertaking. Such a transition without a plan could be highly disruptive to workers’ jobs and standards of living.
That's why we need a “just transition”—one that gives income, benefits, and job security to dislocated fossil fuel workers. It also means training and job opportunities for those most impacted by carbon pollution by virtue of where they live.
But workers and labor leaders are often skeptical of false promises that leave them high and dry.
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts has said, “I have never seen a ‘just transition.’” While this is not surprising, it is criminal. We have let the coal companies plunder the environment and toss miners’ health, jobs, and pensions onto the slag heap. We have at best offered insufficient retraining dollars for jobs that mostly don’t exist in coal country.
We can do better. We can define and build a just transition.
Last year in Washington state, unions joined tribes, environmentalists, and a coalition of 60 organizations of color to bring an initiative to the people that would have lowered carbon emissions, improved health outcomes, and created labor standards to increase jobs, income, and equity.
Initiative 1631 defined a just transition as empowering unions, organizations of color, tribes, and environmentalists to direct over a billion dollars a year into creating thousands of quality jobs.
These jobs would pay prevailing wages, hire locally, use apprenticeships, buy clean (using materials with the lowest carbon production and transportation content), and respect tribal sovereignty.
A third of the investment would be directed to communities most affected by carbon pollution: those bordering refineries, industrial areas, and large-scale industrial farming.
I-1631 would have maintained the wages, health benefits, and pension contributions for dislocated fossil fuel workers within five years of retirement. Workers with fewer than five years of service would receive wages, health care benefits, and pension credits based on those years.
Workers with more than five years would get a maximum of five years' wage replacement, health care coverage, and pension contributions as well as wage insurance for another five years if they took jobs paying less than they had previously earned. All dislocated fossil fuel workers not close to retirement would also be eligible for two years of job-linked retraining benefits, peer counseling, and relocation assistance.
Over time I-1631 would have fashioned a just transition that left no worker or community behind while creating good jobs, a clean environment, better health, and income equity.
Unfortunately, Initiative 1631 was defeated by oil companies that dumped $31.5 million into a campaign against it. Never have corporations spent so much in Washington state to defeat an initiative so worker- and community-friendly.
IT’S A STARTING POINT
Labor shouldn’t oppose the Green New Deal, the proposal in Congress to save the planet by creating millions of new green jobs. Opposing it would put us at odds with young people and allies all around the world. It would make us irrelevant.
The Green New Deal is not a fully worked out plan. It’s a framework. Labor and community together will breathe life into the Green New Deal and make it real. We can build in our expertise about jobs and labor standards.
The transition is inevitable, but justice is up to us. Either we can choose to build an economic transition together, for the benefit of us all, or the banks and the fossil fuel industry will build the transition in their image.
Time is not on our side. We need to act decisively—now.
Jeff Johnson is the former president of the Washington State AFL-CIO. A version of these remarks was delivered at the Labor Network for Sustainability conference in June.