The state of play on labor and environmental issues is stark. Our national economic policy over the past thirty years has resulted in:
- The deepest economic decline since the Great Depression, which now appears to be not just a single crisis but a continuing period of global depression, mass unemployment, and growing inequality;
- A climate crisis that poses an existential threat to the human future, combined with a multitude of other environmental threats that will make our environmental and economic future unsustainable;
- An erosion of democratic accountability of governments and of the capacity of governments to individually and collectively manage the global economy and the environment.
While all these problems are widely recognized, so far there has been little success in putting the world on an alternative path that is sustainable economically, socially, and environmentally. Neither the labor nor environmental movements have been able to institute fundamental reforms or move their agendas forward in any large scale or impactful way. And, despite frequent cooperation on discrete issues, the two movements have failed to coalesce around a shared vision for the future. Even when their positions converge, their collaborations tend to be transactional and seem to come out of different intellectual playbooks.
LNS Executive Director Talking About the Origins of LNS
There have been numerous efforts to bridge the divide between the labor and environmental communities ““ including coalition work through the Blue-Green Alliance and new frames for public works investment and workforce development through “green job” initiatives. But, despite these best efforts, it has been difficult to develop robust and resilient common cause between the two movements.
The Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS), along with partners in labor and the environmental community, propose a hypothesis: It is not enough to “build bridges” across the movements through individual legislative initiatives or investment projects. At best, these lead to short-term success on a discrete issue and when coalitions break down, they spiral into a competition for resources, and at worst, provide cover for environmentally destructive policies and offer a false sense of doing good.
Instead, LNS and our partners believe we need to be far more ambitious. We need to look beyond the cramped rules of the current economy and come together to construct a shared vision for the future of the economy from the ground up. Only then will we be able to work together to construct a path toward that future.
This will not be easy to accomplish. The challenges of climate change and income inequality will require both movements to reconsider basic assumptions about how the modern economy works, and be open to new ways of measuring and defining their long-term goals. But there is a growing appetite for such a conversation in both movements and an intellectual starting point for such a discussion in the work of leading labor and environmental leaders, activists, and thinkers at all levels of the movement.
Our goal is to take advantage of these growth points to take a critical step: to bring people and ideas from each movement and at all levels together in a series of structured conversations with the goal of building and articulating a vision for a progressive economic agenda to build a just and sustainable economy.
LABOR NETWORK FOR SUSTAINABILITY
Launched in 2010, the Labor Network for Sustainability is playing a critical role in building the strong, broad movement that is needed to advance strategies for a transition from a world with an economy, society, and climate in crisis to one that has a sustainable future. LNS is dedicated to helping labor realize its self-interest in becoming a central player in the movement to address climate change, economic instability and political deadlock, and to build a sustainable future for the planet and its people. We break new ground, clearing the way for unions and others in the labor movement to engage in climate issues. We are also educating the environmental movement about the importance of engaging in jobs issues, and paving the way for climate campaigns to include jobs programs. We are pushing the envelope of what is possible both for labor and for the environmental movement.
The labor and environmental movements need to work together. Shifting economic paradigms and challenging current norms will require collaboration. Breaking through the free market narrative and pro-corporate policies that dominate the national agenda will require a compelling, progressive vision for the future of our economy that embodies the needs of people and the planet. Passive neutrality or outright conflict between the labor and environmental movements will waste resources, distract from the real challenge of taking on corporate power and big campaign spending, and splinter the political alliances needed to overcome the status quo.
That is not happening now, and both sides share responsibility for the divide. The major environmental organizations have generally focused on particular issues and policies for protecting the environment, but have tended to shy away from the deeper institutional changes needed for decent work and livelihoods for workers. Under assault by aggressive employers, American trade unions have focused largely on protecting past gains rather than on a strategic response to the economic and environmental challenges they face. Both movements suffer the loss of effectiveness resulting from the gap in their perspectives.
We need to break the “environment versus jobs” deadlock. There is a baseline disconnect between the labor and environmental movements about how to measure the health of the economy, and the quality of our lives. Many environmentalists traditionally have held to a “no growth” or “steady-state” economic policy that urges less consumption. The idea is to stay small, stay local, and limit consumption and output. Many in the labor movement, in contrast, have traditionally held that growth is essential to creating good jobs for working people and, more importantly, that all growth, no matter which industry or form, is good. The idea is production, production, production. There have been decades of effort to break this deadlock, and yet the two movements continue to face a deep conflict.
To break that deadlock, we need new ideas, a new path forward, and a shared vision for the American economy. If the answer is not “no growth” and if it’s not “any growth” either ““ then what is it? To move forward on an economic and political agenda that will lead to a just economy and sustainable planet we need to take the deadlock head on, challenging conventional wisdom in both movements and developing a shared vision for the economy. Both movements share the need for a transformational strategy that can move from an “environment vs. jobs” deadlock to the scale and scope of social change necessary to address both economic and climate catastrophe.
The only way to grow something new is to learn from each other and begin a dialogue ““ in earnest ““ about the future. This will require an understanding of the current economic challenges facing both movements and a sustained commitment to build something new together. This won’t happen spontaneously ““ there needs to be a structured process to establish a shared understanding of the challenges in front of us and then a formal means to produce a shared economic agenda.
We have already begun. Last year, the Labor Network for Sustainability brought together two of the most respected thinkers from the two movements to seek creative ways to overcome the divide. Ron Blackwell, former Chief Economist of the AFL-CIO and James “Gus” Speth, professor at Vermont Law School and former Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, discovered an extraordinary convergence between their views. While attitudes about economic growth have been a core area of division between the labor and environmental movements, both Blackwell and Speth emphasize the necessity of moving beyond “growth” as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to “development” that provides continuous improvement in living standards within the carrying capacity of the global environment.
The process is underway. LNS, in collaboration with Kalmanovitz Initiative at Georgetown University, recently convened a conference at Georgetown which brought together high-level participants from labor and environmental movements and allies for a frank conversation about the difficult times faced by ordinary workers and the dire environmental prospects we all face. Meeting participants walked into the session with a conviction that our communities should and could unite behind a common vision of a new economy that is good for working families and for the planet. And, at the end of our conversation, the group found unity in a joint statement that outlines a framework for broader consensus between the two movements. Twenty-seven labor and environmental advocates and experts signed on.
Through this project, LNS and our partners seek to provide a forum in which policy makers, as well as organizers and campaigners, from each of our movements can seek to broaden and deepen the basis of our solidarity and coordinated struggles. As we proceed, we will also identify and pursue strategic opportunities around concrete issues and projects to be pursued in a second expanded phase. The conversations will be rooted in a simple rationale:
- Our ambitions have been too small. We need to look beyond the short-term debates and develop a big, joint vision for the future of the economy.
- Neither the labor movement nor the environmental movement can change the trajectory of the economy on its own. We are stronger together.
- Both movements need to get beyond the “growth versus no growth” debate and that requires each side to revisit underlying assumptions about how the economy should work.
- Both movements need to grow a joint vision for a just and sustainable economy together, through sustained dialogue. To begin, these conversations initially need to be between individuals, independent of their institutional commitments, but could grow into more formal commitments from their organizations.
- In the absence of a powerful mutual vision for the future, these movements will continue on a conflicted path, diverting resources to short term fights, confusing political allies, and allowing corporate interests to dominate the national economic agenda.
- It is possible – and even likely – that the two movements can develop a joint economic vision that is transformational, sustainable, and just.
- Ultimately LNS and our partners hope to build a new culture of dialogue, cooperation, and shared vision between the labor and environmental communities.
LNS, in cooperation with our partners, will be running a series of structured conversations, hosted at Georgetown University, that will build a new culture of dialogue, cooperation, and shared vision between the labor and environmental communities — and advance our thinking about what a new economy should look like. The success of the project will be measured by the extent to which it articulates a new frame that both labor and environmental movements can use to reconstruct their own approaches to the future of our economy and jump-start a conversation within both movements about these issues.
Participants will include:
Economists: Labor economists and ecological economists are not often in the same room. They share a discipline but their expertise tracks them into different policy debates and institutional structures. They need to come up with a common understanding of the economic theories driving their work and the real world problems to which they are trying to respond. In addition, we have a lot to learn from the growing conversation around “new economics,” a vision for a “shared economy.”
Leaders and activists: Participants in the environmental, labor, and democracy movements have been coming up with local solutions to respond to people’s needs and community interests. We need to connect these local, smaller-scale efforts into the national dialogue and learn from activists’ innovations and experimentation. For example, environmental justice activists have deep experience at the crossroads of class, social justice, and the environment. But that constellation of community interests is rarely reflected in the national debate.
Institutions: Movements depend on institutions to sustain them and formalize their demands in government policy and corporate practice. Labor unions, national environmental organizations, and think tanks are the transmission belt into broader policy conversations, political institutions, public education, and funding streams and they need to be at the table to ensure the economic theory meets their real world needs.
Academics and researchers: Last fall, LNS and the Kalmanovitz Initiative hosted the director of a Canadian institute called “Work in a Warming World (W3). Carla Lipsig-Mumme, the director, made a compelling case for bringing climate and labor researchers together through networks and research projects to assess the impact of climate change on work and working people. Too often academics in these disciplines look at the world through one lens or another and fail to analyze work and climate change as a dynamic, integrated issue. This process would engage academics looking at work and the environment and encourage cross-disciplinary dialogue and understanding. LNS launched a companion project for the US (W3US) which has now merged into this labor and environment economics project.
The process will include a series of small and large group meetings over the course of the first year. The small groups would give cohorts of participants the opportunity to get deep into a subject matter or strategy discussion and share insights across disciplines and movements. The small groups would then re-engage the large group, identifying helpful points of departure for a productive dialogue and providing expertise to the larger group. For example, labor and ecological economists would meet to learn from each other and make their disciplines more transparent to each other, identify areas of convergence, and then re-engage and inform the larger group.
Topics will include:
- actions at the national, state, and local levels to reduce America’s climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions (among the states where we are currently engaged are KY, MD, CT, MI, and CA);
- dramatically reducing reliance on fossil fuels; dramatically scaling up wind and solar;
- economic policies like tax credits and subsidies to implement these goals; healthy and safe jobs in such areas as clean energy, transportation, modern infrastructure, and new agriculture practices;
- revitalization of America’s cities and towns through a focus on environmental quality, locally committed enterprise, community solidarity, and strong democracy;
- massive retrofit projects for all buildings, starting with public buildings; waste management transformation away from incineration to new recycling models like that recently instituted in San Francisco;
- support for the reform of America’s politics to reverse the growing ascendancy of money power over people power;
- opportunities for decent work, living wages, and continuing self- improvement; and
- new ways of measuring our health as a society ““ like the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) in Maryland and elsewhere.
Outcomes of the first phase of this work will include:
- Developing a joint vision statement about the future of the economy.
- Identifying a set of strategic objectives for organizing around these issues.
- Enlisting key leaders in both movements around a joint strategy and campaign.
- Convening a conference built around these ideas and materials.
- Building an open-source network of experts and activists from our respective movements to help guide coordinated work going forward and to develop an educational program to more effectively reach deep into the base of each movement and the public at large.
During Phase II we will pursue selected strategic objectives identified during phase one for advancing understanding, cooperation, and collaboration among labor groups and environmental groups on building a path toward an economy that is sustainable – environmentally, socially, and economically.
Activities during Phase II may include:
- Development and dissemination of tools for organizing, including popular education materials in print, web, video, workshop, webinar, and other media and targeted to the interests and concerns of labor, environmentalists, and other particular constituencies.
- Training and connecting the dots for key leaders, organizers, and activists in both movements on how to integrate sustainability and justice concerns and constituencies and follow up with ongoing consultation on means of follow-up implementation.
- Support for on-the-ground innovative projects that connect communities and connect local efforts with national policy-makers.
- A print and/or web-based book and/or essay collection that lays out the comprehensive analysis developed by the project.
Both our environment and our economy are in crisis, and our ambitions have been too small. If we continue to work within the same paradigm, we face a grim future. If, on the other hand, we can engage the best thinking of the labor and environmental movements within a framework that allows and encourages reflection, self – criticism, experimentation, and learning; look beyond short-term debates; learn from on-the-ground organizing where change is happening; and develop a big, joint vision for the future of the economy, we can set a different path.
In this project, LNS, along with Georgetown and other partners, seeks to provide a forum in which policy makers, as well as organizers and campaigners, from each of our movements can seek to broaden and deepen the basis of our solidarity and coordinated struggles.
That is why are beginning an earnest a dialogue on how to realize an America where the true and actual priorities of economic and political life are sustaining people, place, and planet; where social justice and solidarity are prized; and where peace, communities, democracy, and nature all flourish. We believe it is possible to build a new economy and a new politics.
Many of the needed answers are already at hand, and others can be found. Our nation can realize a future that is equitable and ecologically balanced, but to do so we must build a movement supported by a broad base of citizens committed to transformative change. We will work together towards these ends.
What People Are Saying About LNS
“The Labor Network for Sustainability is helping build a vision for the labor movement that sees beyond the bargaining table. They understand that the lives and livelihoods of workers depend on addressing the climate crisis, and that now is our best “” and possibly last “” chance to build a more just and sustainable society.” David Bonior, Chair of American Rights at Work and former Congressman (D-MI)
“We need a world that works, in every sense of that word. But it can’t work unless we pay attention to both what science demands and what regular people need. That’s where the Labor Network for Sustainability is playing such a crucial role”“it’s a reality check for everyone involved in the fight for the future.” Bill McKibben, Founder 350.0rg
“I am excited to see the network take shape. There is tremendous promise here. In the end labor and environment rise or fall together. We both face the same issue: the need for strong government action to sustain people, jobs, communities and nature. We need a sustaining economy.” James Gustave Speth, Professor, Vermont Law School and former dean of Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
LNS is a project of Voices for a Sustainable Future which is dedicated to bringing together non-traditional constituencies to achieve a sustainable future for the planet and the people on it. To learn more about VSF visit:www.voicesforasustainablefuture.org