Photo: Taken Aug. 24, 1992, Harold Wilkins, 69, of Florida City walks through the rubble of what was once his home. Used with permission through Creative Commons, courtesy of Florida Memory.

Cynthia Hernandez, the Executive Director of the South Florida AFL-CIO, recently gave a presentation on South Florida unions initiative to address climate change to a LNS videoconference, Cynthia can be heard 14 minutes from start time.

Cynthia says, “Miami and South Florida are ground zero for sea level rise. Also for hurricanes. We also have a crippled infrastructure. We are the next Puerto Rico.”

In 2016, the AFL-CIO Labor Council in Miami realized:

we needed to have a conversation around the impact of climate change, not just on our members, but on our communities. So we realized that we could no longer ignore the fact that climate change is having an impact on all of us. We also wanted to get ahead of climate change policies and think about where new organizing opportunities were arising as a result of climate change.

So in 2017 the Council began to build “a labor and community coalition to address climate change,” to “find solutions through organizing campaigns and a policy lens to build worker power in South Florida.” The coalition included AFSCME Florida, SEIU, International Union of Operating Engineers, South Florida Building Trades, United Teachers of Dade, and community partners who were working on climate change.

Photo taken Oct. 24, 2005. A parking lot on board Naval Air Station Key West, Fla., is flooded after being hit by Hurricane Wilma. At 6:30 am EDT, Hurricane Wilma made landfall near Cape Romano, Florida as a Category 3 hurricane. Used with permission through Wikepedia Creative commons, courtesy of U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Cmdr. Brian Riley.

An important step was to conduct a survey of union members “to identify he most pressing climate issues their members were facing.”

View survey »

Here are a few important findings:

Workers who work outside “noticed that heat waves were getting hotter and hotter,” which was difficult “for someone who work long hours directly in the sun.”

For transit workers and others paid by the hour, “during natural disasters their hours were getting longer and longer,” but also “their work was being disrupted” so that “many of them would be unable to work, and therefore lose pay.

Longshore workers at the Port of Miami were without work at the Port of Miami during the last hurricane season because the Port was closed. After several days the Port was reopened, and workers were having to work longer hours to make up their lost time.

Because South Florida and Florida is a tourist economy there has been a sharp decline in employment during hurricane season because there were fewer and fewer visitors booking hotels and coming to Florida.

When the interviewers talked to teachers, “many of them identified children as the most severely impacted by natural disasters.” Many children from low-income neighborhoods of color depend on the two free meals they receive at school, which are breakfast and lunch. “Unfortunately when schools are closed, as they were last year for a two week period, often these children go hungry.” Also, “teachers were directly impacted because the school year was extended, so they had to work two more extra weeks at the end of their season.” Teachers also noted that classrooms and schools were damaged because of the weather.

In the construction industry union members “are extremely impacted by heat.” In addition, “They lose work because of flooding.”

Many workers reported unsafe working conditions during hurricanes; hospitals, for example, were “not being adapted to extreme weather conditions.”

Workers often have to “work excess hours” without “time to look after their own homes.” Many folks were living in evacuation zones; “they were still forced to go in work.” Many “had to leave behind their homes, their families,” and “many of them actually refused to go in to work because they had to take care of their homes or because they were in evacuation zones and became climate refugees.” Their unions were able to get their jobs back.

The bottom line of the survey of South Florida union members: An overwhelming 80% of our survey respondents said that they were worried about climate change affecting them personally.”

The coalition recently held a retreat to organize a campaign around these issues. “Public school bus drivers have begun to test the temperature readings on school buses.” Soon agricultural workers will start taking temperature readings in the fields. The coalition has also developed “a curriculum and workshops on the basics of climate change in South Florida” and is sharing it with unions and their members. And it helped coordinate the September 8 People’s Climate Movement march in South Florida.

Download Cynthia’s synopsis »