Today the American labor movement””like the rest of American society and like labor movements throughout the world””is being forced to grapple with climate change and climate change mitigation.  Organized labor’s approach to climate change is primarily employment based.  Unions like the green job gains; 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.  Couple things to keep in mind:

But a narrow focus on the short term has led some unions to neglect the longer term effects of climate change on jobs, workers, and their communities and the action needed to address them.  Unless labor develops a full-fledged response to climate change it is likely to left by the roadside in what will be the pivotal challenge of the 21st century.

There are compelling reasons workers and their unions should be concerned about climate change.  They include:

“¢    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

“¢    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

Labor has come a long way in the last two years.  Today, almost all unions have a “green jobs” focus.  Both national labor federations and many individual unions recognize the threat of climate change and call for policies to address it.  The AFL-CIO has even established a Center for Green Jobs to promote green jobs, establish appropriate job standards, and help train workers to fill them.

But on the difficult question of transitioning away from existing high carbon energy sources and industries labor faces big challenges.  Indeed it is important to remember that even the most far sighted trade union leaders have a very difficult job:  They must represent the immediate interests of existing members, some of whom may face job losses in the transition to a low carbon economy, while keeping in mind the longer term social and ecological concerns.

Labor matters in the fight against climate change. Even in its weakened condition, it retains enough political clout to help or hinder the passage of meaningful climate change legislation.  It will be up to activists inside and outside of the labor movement to help make clear labor’s stake in climate protection.  That task begins with a clear understanding of the complicated dynamic around climate change in the labor movement.

While unions are bargaining opponents of their employers over wages and working conditions, they have a long tradition of building alliances with them over public policy issues that affect growth in their sectors.   This too often leads unions to follow the narrow self-interest of their industry instead of developing independent positions representing the interests of labor as a whole.  A recent, and striking, example is the UAW’s long alliance with the big car companies in opposition to strong fuel economy standards ““ a policy which contributed not only to carbon emissions but to the current crisis in the American auto industry.  Such shortsighted sectoral alliances can be a significant obstacle to drawing labor into the climate change fight.

But there are grounds for optimism. Although labor’s response has often been confused and contradictory, there is a growing awareness that 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.  One illustration of that change is the UAW’s support (along with ten auto companies) for the new, more stringent fuel economy standards proposed by President Obama in May, 2009.

Meeting the challenge posed by climate change will require some wrenching changes in the way we live and work.  Navigating those changes in ways that result in a more sustainable, more just, society will require changes in public opinion, government policy, the economy, and technology.  Change in the labor movement is part of that process:  Labor can serve either as an accelerator or as a brake on the process as a whole.

[The extended version of the LNS briefing paper on Labor and Climate Change is available here]