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Want a Green New Deal? Organize labour!

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Hundreds gather in San Francisco with the youth led Sunrise Movement. Photo: Peg Hunter/Flickr

There are a number of ecosocialist responses to the Green New Deal, converging for the most part around the recognition that though it is not the Green New Deal most of us would prefer, it is the opportunity to move the paralysis of the climate change movement very far in the right -- left -- direction that our times so desperately need.

This is a series of essays in six voices, from longtime activists who participate in the North American ecosocialist network System Change Not Climate Change. Each was challenged to make their point in 500 words or less. It was intended as a constructive contribution to the wonderful storm of discussion that the Green New Deal has opened up. Read the full series here.

Labour's skepticism is the elephant in the room confronting organizers fighting for a Green New Deal ambitious enough to avoid catastrophic climate change. The Washington Post reports that the entire coal industry employs about the same number as the ski industry, yet some labour leaders continue to treat the necessity of terminating this industry as a problem that has no solution other than carbon-capture technology that may never exist.

The Markey-Ocasio-Cortez Green New Deal resolution in the U.S. is only a broad sketch of goals for a stream of legislation that needs to be enacted beginning in 2021. Nothing like it can be passed without a militant working-class movement demanding rapid transformation of society to address the existential threat of climate change. That movement cannot possibly be built without earning the confidence of working people that rapid decarbonization of our economy will be accompanied by programs that safeguard their well-being.

The resolution includes numerous provisions aimed at improving life for the working class:

  • creation of high-quality union jobs that pay prevailing wages, hire local workers, offer training and advancement opportunities, and guarantee wage and benefit parity for workers affected by the transition;
  • a guaranteed job with family-sustaining wages for anyone who wants one; and
  • strengthening and protecting the right of all workers to organize, unionize, and collectively bargain free of coercion, intimidation, and harassment.

Despite the commitment to these demands in the Green New Deal, some national union leaders have adopted an openly hostile stance. Terry O'Sullivan, president of the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA), tweeted that the Green New Deal "threatens to destroy workers' livelihoods, increase divisions and inequality, and undermine the very goals it seeks to reach" and called for a climate program that would promote nuclear energy and natural gas as bridge-fuels.

Green New Deal proponents ignore LIUNA's antagonism at our peril. Organized labour has a way of sticking together when unions claims that jobs are threatened. Thus, as LIUNA goes, so go the Building Trades Unions and, without formidable agitation from below, so goes the still politically potent American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). We celebrate some unions representing nurses, transit workers, and government employees for supporting dramatic climate action. But members of these unions have no fear of losing jobs and are not the target of manipulative campaigns that pit climate action against economic security.

Lobbying the U.S. Congress to enact a Green New Deal will accomplish little if we cannot organize the working class to join the fight. Ironically, despite their hostility, the building trades unions have some of the greatest opportunities for growth in a radical Green New Deal. But even if the building trades close ranks against the Green New Deal, there are tens of millions of workers to organize -- at the workplace and in community struggles for social and economic justice. Organizations like Labor Network for Sustainability and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy are reaching out to rank-and-file labour activists as well as progressive union leaders to promote labour's key role in the climate movement. If climate activists join their efforts, we may find that labour's tipping point is within reach.

Ted Franklin is an activist in Oakland, California. After joining Liberation News Service as a radical journalist for a four-year stint 50 years ago, he became a press operator, got fired for union organizing, co-founded Inkworks Press (a union printing and publishing collective), and worked as a union lawyer for 22 years. In recent years, he has organized with System Change Not Climate Change, Democratic Socialists of America’s Ecosocialist Working Group, and No Coal in Oakland, a grassroots group that has fought construction of a coal export terminal in Oakland for the past four years.

This article was first published on Resilience.org.

Photo: Peg Hunter/Flickr

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