[by Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith]

What does the future hold for the relationship between environmentalism and organized labor? Judging from the highly-publicized controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline, America might appear to be entering a new era of conflict over environmental protection versus jobs. But in a recent speech to the UN Investor Summit on Climate Risk, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka opens the way for expanded labor-environment cooperation around climate protection. Trumka argues that addressing the climate crisis is the way to address the jobs crisis. He calls for a new dialogue between labor and environmental movements based on that frame. Yet he also repeats some of the arguments and allegations that have fuelled labor-environmental conflict in the past. How should labor activists who care about climate and environmental advocates who care about workers respond?

The climate threat
President Trumka begins with a forthright statement of the climate threat. “Scientists tell us we are headed ever more swiftly toward irreversible climate change – with catastrophic consequences for human civilization.” And far from being a threat only in a distant future, “Climate change is happening now.” That demands action: “The carbon emissions from that coal, and from oil and natural gas, and agriculture and so much other human activity – causes global warming, and we have to act to cut those emissions, and act now.”

While the AFL-CIO has gradually accepted the reality of man-made global warming, this represents a far more forceful statement of the severity of the problem and the urgency of action. However, the AFL-CIO still has not endorsed even the minimal targets for carbon reduction proposed by the world’s leading body of climate scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), let alone the reduction of carbon in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million that America’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen, says is necessary to prevent those “catastrophic consequences for human civilization.” Having recognized the reality of the threat, it’s time for the AFL-CIO to endorse the cuts in carbon necessary to forestall them.

Climate jobs
President Trumka poses the question whether the climate threat is something we should disregard in the face of our global economic problems. Again his position is forthright: “Addressing climate risk is not a distraction” from solving our economic problems. Indeed, it is critical to the solution. “Every factory and power plant, every home and office, every rail line and highway, every vehicle, locomotive and plane, every school and hospital, must be modernized, upgraded, renovated or replaced with something cleaner, more efficient, less wasteful.” That means “retooling our world.” And that means there is plenty of work to be done. “If we are going to rebuild, restore, modernize or replace everything we inherited in just 30 years” we need “the skill and effort of all of us.”

Trumka recognizes that this will not happen simply through current market forces. “By themselves, capital markets will not properly incorporate climate risk and reward into pricing investment opportunities.” Investors need “government policies to make sure that critical investments get made – investments in building retrofits, in high speed rail and the smart grid, in carbon capture and sequestration.”

Trumka does not discuss what kind of economic tools may be required. Such a discussion should certainly be part of any proposed labor-environmental dialogue.

While “putting a price on carbon” is necessary, both labor and environmental movements need to recognize that it is not likely to be adequate. Trumka observes that “not since World War II” have Americans “faced an equivalent national challenge.” But that challenge was not met by letting companies that failed to shift to war production to buy “permits” that exempted them from such responsibilities. It was met by a combination of economic planning, public investment, and national resource allocation. The government contracted with corporations to produce for wartime needs or met them itself; nonessential production was curtailed; and resources were allocated to the war effort. The result was the greatest investment in production the world had ever seen and the creation of millions of jobs. That is the kind and scale of effort that will be necessary for “retooling our world.”

Trumka says “we as a nation must return to the work of passing a climate bill.” But to be effective in protecting the climate or creating jobs, such a bill will need to be far different from the climate bills that emerged in Congress in 2009. For one thing, those bills largely exempted the largest carbon polluters from making serious reductions in their emissions. For another, they relied on “cap and trade” incentives to encourage companies to make carbon-reducing investments. They did not provide for the necessary public investment in new infrastructure that is necessary to move to a low-carbon economy. And they did not provide for a just transition for workers and communities impacted by climate policies. Although as Trumka notes climate legislation is currently blocked by the domination of climate deniers in Congress, labor and environmentalists need to start a dialogue now on such a new approach so that a powerful coalition can be drawn together for legislation that offers real solutions to both our climate and our jobs problem.

A just transition: A matter of justice

President Trumka points out that “too often, we have failed to consider who bears the cost of change and ensure that change is managed fairly and respectfully.” He calls for “those who care about climate change” to “engage with the people whose livelihoods are tied up with carbon emissions.” Any other approach is “fundamentally unfair.”

“We must ask ourselves, ‘How well does this pathway serve the least, the hardest to reach, the most likely to be left behind.’ Places like West Virginia and the Ohio Valley must come first, not last.” In short, we need a “Just Transition to a low carbon-emissions economy.”

It is entirely appropriate for organized labor to pose environmentalists the challenge of making a “just transition” to a low-carbon emissions world. But such a transition will inevitably impact some of those whose livelihoods are “tied up with carbon emissions.” Organized labor needs to develop a strategy for protecting the livelihoods of people that is compatible with changing the jobs they do.

A just transition: A political necessity for climate protection
President Trumka says “we are not acting fast enough” in response to the climate crisis, and he asks why that should be when “tens of millions need work, when investors have billions in cash parked making almost nothing and the risks of doing nothing are mounting?”

He says an important part of the answer lies in the fact that many people see climate protection as threatening their jobs and economic wellbeing. In many places “there is fear that the ‘green economy’ will turn into another version of the radical inequality that now haunts our society – another economy that works for the 1% and not for the 99%.” He asks “why, in an economy without an effective safety net, would the good men and women of my hometown [Nemacolin, PA] and a thousand places like it surrender their whole lives and sit by while others try to force them to bear the cost of change.”

Dealing with their concerns is essential for climate protection. “Addressing climate risk” is a path that is only open “if it is a path to an economy that works for the 99% who seek good jobs, economic security and healthy communities – not just in New York, but in Nemacolin, and in countries around the world, from Australia to Poland to South Africa to China, countries that face the same issues and share the same climate with you and me.”

To get there, Trumka calls for “those who care about climate change” to “engage with the people whose livelihoods are tied up with carbon emissions.” Investors, companies, workers, environmental activists, governments – need to be part of this dialogue. “Any other approach to addressing climate risk is not just fundamentally unfair, it simply won’t work in our democracy.”

President Trumka is the son and grandson of coal miners, and was the president of the United Mine Workers Union before becoming president of the AFL-CIO. So it is not surprising that he puts the issues of coal front and center. His main theme is right on target: The basic principle that those who work in coal producing and using industries should not pay the cost of a socially necessary transition. But there are a number of factual and analytical issues that need to be looked at with a critical eye.

Trumka says that Mayor Bloomberg advocates that we stop burning coal “this afternoon” and “cut the power in the U.S. grid by 50 percent.” He adds, if we did, “He’d be reading handwritten memos by candlelight this evening.” Bloomberg did indeed give the Sierra Club a $50 million grant to campaign to move “beyond coal.” What the Sierra Club is calling for, however, is not an instant shutdown of all coal-fired power plants but a planned closing of at most a third of the nation’s oldest coal-fired power plants by 2020.

A thoughtfully planned transition from coal to other forms of power has been the basis for labor-environmental cooperation in phasing out coal-fired power plants in places like Centralia, Washington and Madison, Wisconsin in ways that cut emissions while protecting workers. Labor-environmental-community dialogue is required to develop such plans for a worker-friendly transition beyond coal. But the only concrete proposal Trumka advocates for coal is to assure that companies that commit to retrofits to reduce mercury and sulfur emissions will have time enough to complete them.

A just transition for coal miners
Part of the environmental-labor dialogue needs to be a far broader approach to the wellbeing of coal-related workers and communities.

Trumka speaks eloquently about the role of coal in his hometown of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, where his father and grandfather were coal miners. He says that when folks in Nemacolin hear the slogan “End Coal,” it sounds like “a threat to destroy the value of our homes, to shut our schools and churches, to drive us away from the place our parents and grandparents are buried, to take away the work that for more than a hundred years has made us who we are.”

However, the traditional mining that Trumka describes is steadily becoming a thing of the past. In Appalachia the accessible coal seams have almost all been used up. Instead, in Appalachia coal is increasingly produced by techniques like mountaintop removal that devastate the environment but create few jobs. Meanwhile, most of the industry has shifted to the West. Wyoming produces nearly three times as much coal as West Virginia, yet Wyoming employed fewer than 6,000 coal miners. The United Mine Workers Union, which once had half a million miners on its rolls, has only 86,000 members, many of whom are retirees or are not even miners. There are fewer than 50,000 underground miners left in the US. It is the coal companies pursuing profits, not environmental protection, that is destroying the way of life in Nemacolin. In fact, the coal companies are already “ending coal” as the Trumka family knew it. After operating nearly 70 years, the coalmine in Nemacolin shut down production in 1986.

This is not to argue that coal miners and their communities should have to bear the burden of climate protection – that, as Trumka points out, would simply be unjust. But the way to provide them a decent future is not to perpetuate the use of coal-fired power plants. Instead, it is to develop a serious plan for a just transition. Labor should join hands with environmentalists and local communities to demand:

  • Massive public and private investment in renewable energy and energy conservation in declining coal regions like Appalachia.
  • A redevelopment strategy like that used for military bases that have been closed under the Base Closing Commission.
  • A “GI Bill”-style retraining program, including full college education or its equivalent, for those who have lost employment due to climate protection policies.
  • Retirement with good pensions and full medical benefits for all for whom such retraining is not an appropriate solution.

These are demands on which organized labor and “beyond coal” advocates can join hands. They should be part of the national policy of both. Equally important, in every community where there is a possibility that coal plants will be shut down, there should be a labor-environment-community alliance to promote just transition policies.

The future of the dialogue
President Trumka closed by proposing that “all of us sit down together on the basis that we live on one planet, and that we share a common humanity that requires respect for each others’ families and communities. In particular we need dialogue between environmentalists and workers and communities about the future of coal. About what the global labor movement calls a Just Transition to a low carbon emissions economy.” He added, “The AFL-CIO is ready to host that dialogue.”

The Keystone XL pipeline divided the labor movement itself and divided it from its crucial environmental allies. To rebuild that alliance will take just the kind of dialogue that Trumka has called for. Furthermore, Trumka’s speech articulated a superb frame for such a dialogue. But realizing the objectives of that frame will require both labor and environmentalists to rethink some established positions and develop more effective solutions – and to do so in dialogue with each other.

There is a “grand bargain” to be made here. Let organized labor put its full weight behind the targets, timelines, and action plans necessary to prevent “irreversible climate change” with its “catastrophic consequences for human civilization.” Let the climate protection movement put its full weight behind the targets, timelines, and action plans necessary to end today’s devastating mass unemployment by putting every available worker to work realizing those action plans. Let us mobilize our human and material resources the way we did to fight World War II and to rebuild Europe with the Marshall Plan. The result will transform the politics of climate – and the life prospects of the 99%.

Let the dialogue begin!