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Under banners proclaiming “Healthy Planet & Good Jobs,” thousands of trade unionists from 75 local and national unions, highly visible in their red, blue, green, and white union uniforms, joined the People’s Climate March in New York City last September—a quantum leap from labor’s previous participation in climate actions.

At the labor rally before the march, AFSCME District Council 37 executive director Henry Garrido recalled that during Superstorm Sandy in 2012, “Our workers were at the forefront manning shelters, evacuating people, preparing hospital beds, and rescuing people every day.” But Sandy was just a warning shot. “Labor must stand for more than working conditions,” Garrido continued. “We must stand for more than contracts. We must stand for environmental justice—otherwise, we will become irrelevant.” The issue of climate change, he concluded, is “the biggest threat to our humanity.” We can no longer afford to put our heads in the sand: “Today is the day that the human race stood together and said, ‘Enough!’”

The march’s organizers are now working to launch a People’s Climate Movement. They are planning a series of major mobilizations leading up to the Paris climate summit this December. According to Phil Aroneanu of, activists have started meeting with unions to plan labor-focused events along the way. “It is incumbent on the climate movement to lay out plans that leave nobody behind in the transition to a climate-safe economy,” Aroneanu says.

Meanwhile, labor action on climate change has proliferated. In New York, according to Matt Ryan, executive director of ALIGN (New York’s Jobs With Justice affiliate), “There is a growing surge of labor unions engaging and activating their members and their members’ communities around a climate, jobs, and justice agenda. I see it at CWA, SEIU, the Teamsters, New York State Nurses Association, and many others.”

From the moment New York organizers started planning for the climate march, they saw it as a vehicle for building a labor, justice, and environmental coalition around a green jobs program. After the march, they developed “Climate Works for All: A Platform for Reducing Emissions, Protecting Our Communities, and Creating Good Jobs for New Yorkers.” The 10-point platform, intended to help meet the city’s mandate to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, would put 40,000 residents to work each year making New York’s largest buildings energy-efficient, installing solar collectors on schools, expanding public transit, and being involved in other climate-protecting projects. The plan would link city residents to job opportunities through training programs and address the housing and transportation needs of low-income New Yorkers. It was developed by ALIGN and the BlueGreen Alliance, along with such less-frequent allies as the New York City Central Labor Council, the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, and the national AFL-CIO. The coalition pushed successfully to incorporate climate-justice demands in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s climate-action plan, which pledges to lift 800,000 city residents out of poverty or near-poverty in the next decade.

In California, Climate Workers, a project of the Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project, conducted a tour early this year of fracking-affected communities in the Central Valley for union members and leaders, then organized a Labor Against Fracking contingent for the March for Real Climate Leadership, endorsed by locals from AFSCME, SEIU, UAW, and UNITE HERE. Last December, the California Labor Federation—along with consumer, faith, health, green-business, and environmental organizations and elected officials—participated in a California Climate Leadership Forum. Its core agenda was to protect the state’s landmark Global Warming Solutions Act and implement a new law—passed under pressure from environmental-justice advocates—requiring that 25 percent of the money from the state’s cap-and-trade program be spent to benefit low-income, high-unemployment, heavily polluted communities.


Economic-justice groups—including Jobs With Justice, National People’s Action, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the Climate Justice Alliance, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance—are making the economics of climate protection a core part of their work. Some of these efforts have converged in a platform for “Building a Movement for People and the Planet,” just published by the Campaign for America’s Future and National People’s Action. And US Labor Against the War, which played a critical role in getting the AFL-CIO to oppose the Iraq War, is partnering with climate-protection advocates in the labor movement to create strategies for conversion from military to green production. This convergence is connecting globally as well: In June, a Trade Union Climate Summit at the Murphy Institute in New York will bring together union leaders and staff from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, India, Italy, Norway, Korea, Peru, the Philippines, and Spain.

American workers and organized labor have an interest in addressing climate change and in putting millions of people to work making the transition to a climate-safe economy. But much of labor is still committed to an “all of the above” energy policy that promotes all jobs—even those destroying our climate and future. Can that change?

Historically, many American unions were whites-only organizations, and the AFL-CIO executive council refused to support the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. But pressure from African-American union members, leaders of the industrial unions, and perhaps the winds of history led the AFL-CIO to ban racial discrimination in member unions and to support the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. For most of its history, the American labor movement supported restrictions on immigration; but in the late 1990s, as immigrants formed an ever-growing proportion of the workforce, activists began persuading their national unions and the California Labor Federation to call for the repeal of employer sanctions and other anti-immigrant worker laws. Under pressure from unions representing janitorial, garment, hotel, and restaurant workers, the AFL-CIO executive council unexpectedly reversed its long-held position in 2000 and voted for the repeal of employer sanctions and a general amnesty for most undocumented immigrants.

The labor movement has generally supported US wars, but as the Bush administration drummed up its invasion of Iraq, the newly formed US Labor Against the War launched a campaign to have local, state, and district bodies pass resolutions opposing it—and in 2011, the AFL-CIO executive council declared, “There is no way to fund what we must do as a nation without bringing our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan.” For years, many unions opposed single-payer healthcare; then Kay Tillow and her associates in Kentucky organized Unions for Single Payer Health Care, which eventually persuaded 148 central labor councils and area labor federations, 44 state AFL-CIOs, and 22 international/national unions to endorse a single-payer bill sponsored by Representative John Conyers. In 2009, the AFL-CIO national convention reversed course and endorsed single-payer healthcare.


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