[By Joe Uehlein and Jeremy Brecher]

Step by step the American labor movement is increasingly recognizing and responding to the threat of climate change. While the AFL-CIO never supported the Kyoto or Copenhagen climate agreements on the grounds that they were bad for jobs and the American economy, it “applauded” the Paris climate agreement as a “landmark achievement in international cooperation” and called on America to “make the promises real.” It was a further step in recognizing the threat of climate change and the need to address it when the AFL-CIO and several of the country’s largest unions recently formed a superPAC called “For Our Future” with the environmental advocacy organization NextGen Climate, which describes itself as an organization that “acts politically to prevent climate disaster and promote prosperity for every American.” [1] NextGen was founded and is largely funded by Tom Steyer, one of America’s largest political donors.

According to a front-page article in the New York Times, [2] the immediate purpose of the For Our Future PAC is to turn out large numbers of voters to defeat Donald Trump in key battleground states. In the longer term it aims to build a national infrastructure that will serve the goals both of labor and of NextGen Climate. According to Sky Gallegos of NextGen, its goals are “preventing climate disaster and promoting prosperity.” It will “help elect progressive leaders who are committed to a just transition to a clean-energy economy that will benefit working families across the nation.”

The new PAC was discussed at the latest AFL-CIO executive council meeting in March. Despite some internal opposition, the AFL-CIO decided to go along with the plan. Three of the country’s largest unions, AFSCME, the AFT, and the NEA all agreed to join and kick in money. In an interview, Mr. Steyer said it was “highly likely” other unions would join the effort. “This is really an attempt to mobilize working families around key issues in battleground states,” he said. [3] The new PAC represents a big step forward for cooperation between the labor and climate protection movements.

Seven building trades unions, however, issued a blistering letter to Richard Trumka attacking the agreement. They assert that “the AFL-CIO has now officially become infiltrated by financial and political interests that work in direct conflict to many of our members.” The letter is signed by leaders of the operating engineers, plumbers, elevator constructors, roofers, laborers, plasterers, and heat and frost insulators. Although the New York Times says the agreement “enraged members of the nation’s biggest construction unions,” several important construction unions, notably the IBEW, did not sign the letter.

The Times characterized this as a “rift between labor and environmentalists.” It is much better understood, however, as an effort by a small group of unions to retain their veto power within the AFL-CIO.

The seven unions that signed the letter represent about 1,656,000 members. (The letter was also signed by North American’s Building Trades Unions, a department of the AFL-CIO but not itself a union.) The unions that have joined the For Our Future PAC represent more than five million members. The AFL-CIO represents about 12 million members. [4]

It would be difficult from the letter for an outsider to understand the unions’ substantive concerns. The main hint is the statement, “We are not climate deniers and have merely sought to ensure that the employment prospects of our members are not negatively impacted in any economic and energy transition.” It rather obscurely notes that “you are well aware of prior splits within the labor federation at the behest of outside organizations over employment opportunities for union members in the fossil fuel industry.” While personal attacks are made on Tom Steyer, no particular acts or policies are alleged.

Another letter from LIUNA president Terry O’Sullivan indicates more forthrightly the content of the complaint. Tom Steyer and allies, he says, “oppose an all-of-the-above energy policy.” His vision of “leaving oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels in the ground kills jobs, drives up energy costs, and threatens to strangle our economy.”

In the past, unions that advocated an “all of the above” energy policy and advocated for oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels (not to mention nuclear energy) controlled AFL-CIO policy. However, trade unionists – like other Americans – have become more and more aware of the threat of climate change and the necessity to confront it. As a result,  the hold of  fossil fuel advocates on labor’s climate policy has seriously eroded. Their attack on the alliance with NextGen may represent a last ditch attempt to hold their fort against the rising tide of history.

The cost of such a power-play may be high, both for these unions themselves and for all workers. The Times notes that “among rank-and-file workers, Mr. Trump could well outperform Mrs. Clinton with the unions that signed on to the letter.” Trump favors so-called “right-to-work” laws and opposes a federal minimum wage increase, among many positions detrimental to unions.

The building trades letter complains that the AFL-CIO has been “infiltrated” by anti-labor interests. But they are in no position to make this charge with clean hands. LIUNA and the Building Trades Council forged a partnership with the oil and gas industry in 2009 to develop North American energy sources called the Oil and Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee (OGILMC). Sean McGarvey, President of the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, is President of the OGILMC and Jack Gerard, President of the American Petroleum Institute, is Secretary-Treasurer. [5] McGarvey is a signer of the building trades letter to Trumka. The API has been a major financial sponsor of building trades conferences. [6] The building trades leaders portray their letter as in part a result of questions from “partners that employ thousands of our members.”

The New York Times noted that, “As manufacturing has declined, power has flowed away from the unions representing factory and construction workers and toward public- and service-sector workers,” including the unions that formed the alliance with NextGen Climate. The building trades letter indirectly reflects this perception. It says that “a growing trend within the Federation seems to consistently minimize the importance of Building Trades jobs.” They say that they are saddened that “the labor movement we have fought for and supported over a century” seems to have “lost sight of its core mission and has moved away from us.”

O’Sullivan’s letter states that “our primary responsibility as union leaders is to our members.” No one could disagree with that. But the entire history of the labor movement has been a dialogue over what that actually means. O’Sullivan articulates one pole of that dialogue: “Forming a super PAC” together to support “a broader political agenda” is “a politically bankrupt betrayal of the union members who elected us to represent their work place interests first, last, and always.”

This view disregards many of the most important roles that the labor movement has played in meeting their responsibility to their members. First, unions – including LIUNA itself – have always addressed worker interests far beyond the workplace. Indeed, LIUNA’s current legislative agenda advocates such non-workplace goals as “passing comprehensive immigration reform.”

More broadly, unions historically have recognized that many of the most important interests of their members are shared with other workers and indeed many other members of the public. Education, civil rights, equality, global security, and many other matters are crucial needs and concerns of workers. Unions and labor federations have addressed such broad working-class and citizen-concerns since the very beginning of the labor movement and nearly all unions continue to do so today.

Climate change has been a divisive issue for labor. But organized labor has overcome internal resistance to take a stand on critical issues before – including non-workplace issues that its members share with other members of the public. Unions that once excluded African Americans from membership became advocates of civil rights. A labor movement that supported employer sanctions for hiring immigrants became advocates of immigrant rights. Unions that opposed single-payer healthcare became its advocates. An AFL-CIO that supported every U.S. war up to and including the war in Vietnam came to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. None of these changes happened without internal struggle, and without overcoming internal factions that resisted them. But all of them made labor stronger in the long run – and thereby benefitted the members that unions represent. The great majority of unions that accepted the alliance with NextGen Climate should proudly defend it as a way to express this historic tradition of meeting their members’ needs by addressing the most pressing needs of society.


[1] https://nextgenclimate.org/about/

[2] Jonathan Martin, “Rift Between Labor and Environmentalists Threatens Democratic Turnout Plan,” New York Times, May 16, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/17/us/politics/democratic-turnout.html?_r=0

[3] Brody Mullins and Melanie Trottman, “Some Big Democratic Party Backers to Pool Spending to Support Hillary Clinton and Others,” Wall Street Journal, May 12, 2016 http://www.wsj.com/articles/some-big-democratic-party-backers-to-pool-spending-1463083688

[4] “List of trade unions in the United States,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_trade_unions_in_the_United_States

[5] http://boldnebraska.org/liuna-partners-with-anti-union-forces-afp-alec-koch/

[6] http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/16720/frack_till_you_drop