By Laura Bray, LNS Young Workers Listening Project

Last month, I presented research from the LNS Young Worker Listening Project (YWLP) at the annual conference of the Southern Sociological Society. The presentation, titled “Laboring through the Storm: Young workers, climate change, and the pursuit of meaningful work,” explored how the climate crisis is shaping the meaning of work for young workers.

Through interviews with young workers organizing at the intersection of labor and climate, we found that climate change has disrupted both the meaning (e.g., self-fulfillment and purpose) and security (e.g., health and safety, fair wages, and long-term stability) that people expect work to provide. Some young worker organizers we talked to chose to pursue careers that they believed could “make a difference” in the climate crisis and saw this as an essential component of “meaningful work.” Yet many doing mission-driven work encountered organizational barriers that prevented them from enacting meaningful change in the way they had hoped. Even for those doing work without an explicit climate focus, we found that management inaction to address climate impacts meant that work failed to support their mental, physical, and financial wellbeing.

For young worker organizers, the failure of work to provide either security or meaning in the face of climate change has led them to embrace unionism as a “shelter from the storm.” Part of their enthusiasm for the labor movement is the belief that unions can meaningfully intervene in the climate crisis in a way that other institutions cannot. They also found security in unions through a sense of solidarity and community, as well as higher wages and greater workplace protections.

Look for the forthcoming YWLP report, “Earth is a Hot Shop,” to read more about these findings!