Over the past couple of years, the American labor movement has become an enthusiastic supporter of expanding “green jobs” that fight global warming. But policies to reduce carbon emissions to levels scientists say are safe have been a harder pill to swallow. Now, in a significant breakthrough, three significant unions have come out for the science-based emissions targets called for by the IPCC.

As 250 international union delegates arrived in Copenhagen for the global climate summit, a statement by the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and a joint statement by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) called for a 25 to 40 percent reduction on 1990 levels for developed countries by 2020.

Sean Sweeney, director of the the Cornell University Global Labor Institute, who worked with the US labor delegation to be fully engaged in the UN process at the Copenhagen conference, said:

The statements are a clear sign that U.S. unions want to bring scientific necessity into alignment with job creation and green economic development. Many other unions are also moving in this direction. Engaging with unions overseas has also helped U.S. unions to see support for climate protection is also an act of international solidarity.

Unions and targets

Both union statements gave support to the more limited climate protection measures proposed by President Barack Obama on the eve of the Copenhagen summit. They also endorsed the climate legislation introduced by Senators Kerry and Boxer. But they argued that reductions to address the climate emergency must go substantially further. They noted that President Obama’s commitment of 17 percent reduction on 2005 levels is only 4 percent below 1990 levels, which have been widely used as a benchmark in international scientific discussions.

The SEIU-LIUNA statement points out this means extreme, perhaps impossible reductions will be necessary later to meet the targets science says are necessary.

To reach an 80% reduction by 2050, the scientific consensus, with an only 4% reduction by 2020 means that there must be a 76% reduction over the last three decades or roughly 25% per decade. We find it difficult to justify backloading this obligation in a way that shifts the burden of reducing carbon emissions from ourselves to our children and grandchildren. Accordingly, we would support more aggressive carbon emission reduction policies.

It said that “an aggressive and science-based approach to emissions reductions” is “absolutely necessary” for “achieving a sustainable environment.”

Until now few if any US unions and neither of the major labor federations, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, have supported specific emission reduction targets or even gone on record for the principle of making the reductions called for by scientific consensus. This is largely because only a few unions with a direct stake in the issue, notably in the energy and manufacturing sectors, have opposed such measures.

Their stand brings these three unions in line with the position of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), an organization that represents national union federations with membership of 175 million workers in 155 countries. It organized the international trade union delegation to the Copenhagen conference and strongly supported the IPCC targets.

An article published by the BNA reported that the AFL-CIO had issued its own position paper at the Poznan climate talks supporting ITUC concerns for “decent work, green jobs, industrial regeneration, border adjustment mechanisms and worker adjustment mechanisms” but failing to indicate support for the targets and timetables at the core of the ITUC position. The BNA reported that, “U.S. labor unions balked at backing ITUC’s position, given fears that deep cuts would ‘devastate’ heavy manufacturing in the United States as well as the coal and steel industries.”

Labor’s traditional approach to climate policy was largely shaped by industries in the manufacturing and energy sectors. That is likely to change, however, as a result of the changing sectoral center of gravity with organized labor. According to a recent study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, barely one union member in ten works in manufacturing. An even smaller proportion work in fossil fuel production.

Today the overwhelming majority of union members are in services and the public sector. But they have barely begun to weight in significantly on climate policy. If the new statements by the transport, service, and laborers unions are any indication, they are likely to favor stronger climate protection with more stringent emission reductions. This reflects not only the interest of their members in a livable world for their children, but the fact that the great majority of potential green jobs are in the building, transporation, public, and service sectors.

Why targets matter for green jobs

Both statements emphasized that emissions reduction targets were important to the green jobs agenda. According to the SEIU/LIUNA statement, “A clear science-based target will drive a massive increase in the generation of green jobs, pubic mass transit, renewable energy, green manufacturing, energy-efficient construction and building retrofits, as well as in other sectors.”

The statement went on to describe strong targets as critical to provide incentives for creating green jobs. “The more ambitious the target, the stronger the political signal to private investors and innovators who wish to serve the green economy.”

It also argued that absence of strong targets could have the opposite effect.

A weak target slows green job growth, serves as a drag on the global effort, and will not serve climate stability over the long term. Jobs that conserve energy, fight sprawl and congestion, and retool and re-equip our industries according to green and sustainable principles are the wave of the future for the US and with world.

The TWU statement adds that a science-based approach to emissions reductions will be good for our economy and for working families. “With the US suffering over 10 percent unemployment and falling living standards, we need to fulfill the promise of green jobs sooner, not later.”

The statements called for a “just transition” to the green economy to provide full protections for workers negatively impacted by climate policies. The TWU statement notes that the transition to a low carbon economy must be pursued in a way that is “fair to workers and supportive of impacted communities.” According to the SEIU/LIUNA statement, “Workers in energy intensive industries should not be asked to shoulder a disproportionate burden.”

Why union positions matter

Union positions can make a big difference on climate legislation. Coal and manufacturing unions have played a significant role in provisions in current legislation that are favorable to their industries. CQ says AFL-CIO support is essential to passing any climate change bill; Jason Grumet, director of the National Commission on Energy Policy, says, “If you don’t have organized labor, you can’t get something through.” Strong union support for science-based target could play a significant role in strengthening current legislation.

The US will also face an enormous number of climate related policy decisions in the near and more distant future, ranging from what provisions should be in international treaties to national policy on fuel efficiency standards to sidewalks and bicycle lanes for local streets. Organized labor can be a significant player in all of them. It can also play a big role in how those policies are actually implemented in industries and workplaces. And it can help educate its sixteen-and-a-half million members about what climate change means for them and their children and what has to be done about it.

The SEIU/LIUNA statement concludes,

Our nation stands at the threshold of a dramatic transformation toward a clean, green and sustainable economy. Ambitious reduction targets for 2020 and beyond can help drive this transformation.

The new union statements supporting science-based targets could be the start of a significant trend that could put organized labor in the forefront not only of the green jobs movement but also of the broader movement to protect the climate. Support for targets and strong policies to implement them will position labor as a progressive social force and a leading player in the emerging movement for sustainability. According to Joe Uehlein, former director of the AFL-CIO Center for Strategic Campaigns and a founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability:

This is an opportunity for all of labor to step up to the plate for what science says is necessary to protect the planet. That’s what we have to do if we want our society to be sustainable. That isn’t only good for the planet ““ it’s good for labor.