Transportation is the second biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions after electricity generation.  The US transportation system alone produces more greenhouse gasses than any country in the world except China. About one half of the transportation emissions comes from commercial transportation””trucks, planes, ships, rail, and buses. The other half comes from private automobiles.

Serious efforts to combat climate change will include changes in the transportation and logistics industries that will have major impacts””both positive and negative””on employment in key industries. Unions representing transportation workers in trucking, rail, ports, busses, mass transit, and airlines will have to address these changes. The 2008 spike in fuel prices provided a harbinger of the kind of changes that could occur. Airlines and trucking companies cut back; rail traffic and mass transit ridership increased; logistics industries sought new efficiencies in an economy increasingly dependent on complex global and national supply chains.

Union density in the transportation industry is much higher than in the economy as a whole. Overall almost 25% of all transport workers are unionized, compared with 7.4% of the entire private sector. Seventy-four percent of railroad workers are unionized; 50 % of airline workers belong to unions; density in local trucking hovers around 20%. Some sectors however, such long distance trucking, are virtually non-union.
As is often the case in the US labor movement, non-transport unions also have pockets of membership in the industry. For instance, some of the craft unions of the building trades such as the Sheet Metal Workers, the Boilermakers, and the IBEW represent workers employed in those crafts by railroads.

A variety of unions representing transportation workers have weighed in politically on the stimulus package and its provisions for improvements in the transportation infrastructure, such as high speed rail. But the most active union””and the pivotal union on climate change issues””is probably the Teamsters Union.

The Teamsters have been losing union density in the trucking industry for years, but over the last decade some of these loses have been offset by new organizing and mergers with existing unions in rail, airlines, ports, and buses. As a result, today the Teamsters is much more a general transport union than it has ever been.

In transportation there has long been a competition for scarce public and private funding for infrastructure maintenance and development among trucking, railroads, airlines, and shipping/ports. This sectoral competition has the potential to pit Teamster union members in different transportation sectors against each other.

The Teamsters seek to avoid these conflicts by casting themselves as a “supply chain union,” that is, as the representative of workers at every link of the global supply chain from ports to distribution centers to rail to trucks to the final customer.

This rebranding has been accompanied by new thinking on creating intermodal systems that maximize efficiencies, and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The union believes that an efficient intermodal system could actually increase employment in sectors where the union has a presence. The big loser would be the inefficient over-the-road long distance trucking sector which is non-union and generally consists of very low wage, high turnover jobs.

Supporting this kind of big systemic thinking should be a key aim of climate change advocacy. It should be noted also that the Teamsters have demonstrated a rare capacity to take the long view even when it seems to conflict with some of the union’s short term interests.  For example, after being an enthusiastic supporter for years, the Teamsters pulled out of the coalition in support of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Union president Hoffa said:

“Global warming is for real. Air pollution is killing people and making our children sick. And you know what? We share some of the blame. In the past, we were forced to make a false choice. The choice was: Good Jobs or a Clean Environment. We were told no pollution meant no jobs. If we wanted clean air, the economy would suffer and jobs would be sent overseas. Well guess what? We let the big corporations pollute and the jobs went overseas anyway. We didn’t enforce environmental regulations and the economy still went in the toilet. The middle class got decimated and the environment is on the brink of disaster. Well I say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! No more false divides. The future, if we are to prosper as a nation, will lie in a green economy….”

The UAW is a manufacturing union, but its fate is deeply tied up with transportation policy. Half of the greenhouse gasses emitted in transportation are from private automobiles.

In the post-war period up to the 1950s the UAW attempted to pressure the big car companies to produce smaller cars. But the union was consistently rebuffed by the companies that jealously guarded their management prerogatives. Over time the union dropped its efforts to influence product development.  Instead for decades the UAW aligned itself with the big carmakers fighting against mileage standards. As a result, the UAW was perceived as part of the problem and not part of the solution and this contributed to the lack of public support for the union when the car companies collapsed.

The collapse of the American automobile industry and the announcement of new fuel economy standards by the Obama administration could be a game changer for the UAW. If it is to survive, the union will have to reposition itself on fuel standards and low carbon technology generally and this may offer opportunities for future alliances with climate change activists.  It has taken some steps in this direction, such as supporting higher fuel efficiency standards and proposed climate legislation.