[By Joe Uehlein] Thousands of trade unionists and seventy-five local and national unions participated in the Peoples Climate March in New York in September — a quantum leap from any previous labor participation in climate action. Climate protection has become a critical concern for many in organized labor. Conversely, cooperation with organized labor has become a critical need for the climate protection movement. Yet organized labor can be difficult and confusing for climate protection advocates — and even for union members themselves — to navigate.

The Labor Network for Sustainability has just made available a set of tools called the “Labor Landscape Analysis” to provide the necessary background for those inside and outside the labor movement who want to be a part of labor’s transition to becoming a central player the movement to create a sustainable future for the planet and its people. It includes profiles of the climate politics of 38 unions, federations, and other labor organizations; a strategic “guided tour” of organized labor for labor and climate activists; a review complete with a half century historical timeline of labor-environmental engagement  of the past, present, and future of cooperation and conflict between labor and environmental movements; and five case studies revealing how labor has changed positions on important public policy issues such as civil rights, the Iraq war, single payer health care, globalization and immigration.

Here are some of the takeaway lessons.


Though they are often not fully articulated, workers and their unions have strong reasons to support climate protection:

  • the universal interest in protecting our planet that workers share with all people
  • the threats of climate change to their own workplaces and the resulting economic devastation and job loss – climate change is the real job killer
  • the positive interest of specific unions and groups of workers in more and better jobs
  • the negative interest of specific unions and groups of workers whose jobs are threatened
  • the interest of the labor movement as a whole in its overall social role and its alliances with other social groups
  • the exponentially increasing cost of climate protection if we wait
  • the jobs and other benefits to labor as a whole from pursuing a pathway to sustainability

These can provide the basis for labor’s transition to sustainability.


Organized labor’s approach to climate change has been primarily employment based. Unions like the green job gains from climate protection measures; but they fear the potential job losses from phasing out carbon-fueled industries. This should not be surprising since unions are organized primarily to look after the specific employment interests of workers.

A big stumbling block is that protecting the climate will require not just adding solar, wind, and other sources of clean energy, but sharply reducing the use of fossil fuels that emit climate-destroying greenhouse gases. Many unions, and the AFL-CIO, support the expansion of renewable energy, but they also promote an “all of the above” energy policy that guarantees still more catastrophic climate change. That includes such extreme forms of fossil fuel extraction as natural gas fracking, tar sands oil, and deep off-shore oil drilling. It includes expanded use of coal, often justified as advocacy for “clean coal” that has been subject to “carbon capture and storage” (CCS) – something that has so far proven impossible to create at commercial prices and that will in all likelihood remain far more expensive than renewable energy. It includes expanded nuclear energy, despite its unsolved problems of radioactive waste, catastrophic Fukushima-style meltdowns, and far greater cost than renewable energy.

Fortunately, there is a growing awareness that there is another, better way to provide the jobs we need: Re-tooling the energy and transportation infrastructure and retrofitting existing buildings to make them more energy efficient can both save the planet and create a new sustainable economy that will benefit all. Creating jobs through climate protection is a central part of a labor’s self-interest.


While unions often represent workers across a range of industries, it is still possible to group most unions according to the core constituencies that they represent. The 57 unions that belong to the AFL-CIO and the several that don’t, including the giant National Education Association (NEA) and those in Change to Win, can be put on a rough continuum based on their immediate exposure to climate change mitigation policies. Those most impacted tend to be most active on climate change issues.

On one end of the continuum are unions involved in energy production like the United Mineworkers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and Utility Workers which represent power plant workers, and the members of building trades unions who construct and maintain the energy infrastructure. Next are the transportation unions—rail, ports, trucking, airlines—that are impacted by energy prices and potentially by shifts in transportation policies to reduce carbon emissions. Further along the continuum are manufacturing unions that depend on cheap energy and/or that manufacture the components of the existing or emerging energy infrastructure. Until recently least likely to be involved were unions in the public, service and education sectors that tended to view themselves as less directly affected by climate change mitigation efforts. But now these unions are often leading labor on climate.

While there is a strong correlation between policy impact and activism on climate issues, some highly impacted unions have been relatively silent, while some service sector unions have been more active. The Amalgamated Transit Workers (ATU), Service Employees (SEIU), and Laborers (LIUNA) for example, have endorsed the greenhouse gas emissions reductions called for by climate scientists. The Communications Workers (CWA) has participated in climate actions like the large national Climate Forward rally February 17, 2013 in 2013. A wide range of local, state, and national unions endorsed the September 21, 2014 Peoples Climate March at the climate summit at the United Nations in New York.

Labor organizations that are emerging among new constituencies, such as the National Domestic Workers Alliance, are often expressing strong concern with climate change. The same is true of other unions that have a significant number of young people, minorities, and immigrants — constituencies that polls and organizing experience indicate strongly support climate protection. These groups will be an important part of the future of organized labor.

The range of approaches to climate among different sectors of organized labor has implications for strategy to affect labor’s approach to climate protection. For unions in mining, construction, and manufacturing whose members might be adversely affected by climate protection policies it is crucial to focus on positive jobs alternatives and on fighting for a just transition that protects their members against adverse effects. Even if they want to act on climate, they have a duty to represent the job interests of their current members.

For all unions it is crucial to recognize that their members, their organizations, and their futures are deeply affected by climate change. Their members’ health and well-being are already being affected by global warming. The public budgets on which public sector unions depend are being ravished by floods, wildfires, droughts, and other climate change effects, and this budget devastation will continue to increase. Their members’ jobs and daily lives are on the line.

Asserting that unions in education, health care, and other services have a direct and legitimate interest in climate protection will be a key element of deepening the labor movement’s engagement in climate action. These groups are sometimes regarded as marginal to labor’s climate policy. They are sometimes disregarded as having “no skin in the game.” Indeed, some unions have even been denigrated by other unions for advocating climate protection on the grounds that it might curtail jobs. Tragically, some unions have even accused other unions of violating the principle of solidarity among workers because they opposed projects that might produce some jobs but at the cost of accelerating destruction of the climate.

The threat of global warming requires a different concept of solidarity, one which recognizes the common interest of all workers in climate protection. That concept gives all unions a legitimate role in shaping labor’s climate policy. But it also gives them an obligation to protect the livelihoods and well-being of any workers who might be adversely affected by climate protection policies through a just transition to a climate-safe economy. And it emphasizes labor’s traditional role representing the interests of its members’ communities, and labor’s role as a central player in the movement for social good.


Crucial to winning labor support for climate protection is the idea of a “just transition.” It is a basic principle of fairness that the burden of policies that are necessary for society—like protecting the environment—shouldn’t be borne by a small minority who happen to be victimized by their side effects. Protecting workers and communities from the effects of socially and environmentally necessary economic change is often referred to as a just transition.

A just transition is a matter of elementary justice—it is unfair that workers who happen to work in jobs that need to be eliminated to achieve a social good should bear the burden of that change by losing their jobs. Insisting that climate protection policies protect the current and future livelihoods of workers and communities they affect is a prerequisite for addressing labor about climate. Climate protection advocates should insist from the outset that part of any transition away from fossil fuels includes protection for the impacted communities and the wellbeing of workers whose jobs may be threatened.


Labor matters in the fight against climate change. It has enough political clout to help or hinder the passage of meaningful climate change legislation. And unions can act on their own to reduce the carbon emissions in their workplaces and communities. Here are some actions unions can take — and that a variety of unions are already taking:

  • Articulate a vision of organized labor as a leader in a broad climate protection movement promoting a just transition to a climate-safe world
  • Define global warming and climate change as the real job killers
  • Develop and promote worker-friendly climate strategies that define climate-protecting jobs and protection for affected workers as a central part of climate protection
  • Make effective climate protection policies, including legislation, treaties, regulation, and public investment, part of their political agenda
  • Use their political clout to support those policies
  • Educate members and the public on the realities of global warming and what needs to be done to protect our future
  • Pressure employers to go green, for example by making climate protection a bargaining issue
  • Provide recruitment, apprenticeship, education, and training to develop the workforce skills necessary for a transition to a climate-safe economy
  • Reduce the carbon footprint of their own buildings and operation.
  • Collaborate with environmental allies by such means as rallies, demonstrations, lobbying, and media
  • Promote climate protection in the AFL-CIO and state and local labor councils by such means as passing resolutions, sponsoring educational programs, and participating in activist events
  • Join campaigns for a transition to low-carbon energy and against carbon polluters
  • Initiate international tours and delegations to share strategies for climate protection with unions in related industries in other countries
  • Divest union pension funds from fossil fuel corporations and invest them in the transition to a climate-safe economy. Because it’s smart investing, and in the public good.

Climate change changes everything: Everything about how we organize society, how we conduct politics, and how we envision our role as trade unionists in society. All workers, no matter what industry they work in and no matter what harm their industry may do to society, deserve union representation. But in an age of global warming and climate disruption labor can no longer advocate for every possible job regardless of its impact on the world around us.

Today we must nourish a fundamental change in the relation of organized labor and the working class to sustainability and climate change. In the past, organized labor has undergone enormous changes in its relation to civil rights, immigration, gay rights, war, and other contested issues. In each case a strategy that combined grassroots organizing, direct action, and eventually power shifts at the highest levels turned the labor movement from a drag on progress to a leader of desperately needed social change. Today’s desperately needed shift to effective climate protection will no doubt require a strategy combining action from below and action from the top. Throughout history labor has played a critical role in many movements for social good. Labor will do so again in the movement to build a sustainable future for the planet and its people.

Our society is transitioning before our eyes to a sustainable future, and the struggle for this transition is intense, with the forces of capital arraying against us. Whether this transition is fair and just remains an open question. The path to future growth for organized labor lies in its ability to become a central player in the movement to build a sustainable future for the planet and its people, and this means supporting a just transition away from a carbon-based economy toward a carbon-neutral economy. And the climate fight may not be won without labor.

[Joe Uehlein is Founding President and Executive Director of the Labor Network for Sustainability, the former secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department, and former director of the AFL-CIO Center for Strategic Campaigns He spent over 30 years doing organizing, bargaining, and strategic campaign work in the labor movement.]