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September 17, 2013

Will Closer Partnership Between Labor and Greens Help Build Both Movements?

Labor climate youth 3Photo: Earth Beat Radio

At last week’s AFL-CIO convention, the quadrennial gathering of representatives of 55 unions representing some 11 million members, delegates passed several resolutions that could benefit people and the planet by strengthening both the labor and environmental movements.    Are these initiatives just words on paper, or do they reflect the power of a growing partnership to build both movements by bringing together young workers and climate activists, building stronger grass roots coalitions, and working together to reclaim our democracy? 

The Convention Resolutions include

o   A pledge to build stronger partnerships with community allies such as the “environmental community” and the “student and young worker community,” with an emphasis on building these relationships at the state and local levels.

o   A commitment to Rebuild our Democracy.

o   Support for youth-oriented strategic initiatives and partnerships to help build a just economy for all generations.

o   A call for a more inclusive labor movement that will make it easier for any worker to organize.

Sounds great, but what does this mean in practice?  Here are just a few examples.

Labor/Climate Youth Partnership-- PowerShift ’13:

We all want to leave a sustainable world to our children and grandchildren, yet many young workers see bleak futures for themselves, not only because of massive debt and insecure work or no jobs at all, but because the burning of fossil fuels is pouring climate-disrupting carbon pollution into the atmosphere at a rate that threatens life on this planet.  The Sierra Club is a partner in a conference called PowerShift, an annual gathering of more than 10,000 youth climate activists which will be held in Pittsburgh from October 18-21. This year, organizers have joined with the labor movement to expand the agenda to feature issues impacting young workers, and will welcome a sizeable young worker contingent.   Organizers hope that working together in this way will lead young activists to a deeper understanding of both climate and worker issues, with the potential to create a shared vision for an economy that is good for workers and the planet they inhabit. 

Washington State Waterfront Partnership

A growing labor/environmental coalition in Washington state is showing how working together more closely benefits both movements.  Labor and environmental activists in Bellingham have come together as the Blue Green Waterfront Coalition.  Coalition members, which include the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, Bellingham Jobs with Justice, Resources and Futurewise, are advocating together for sustainable redevelopment of the downtown Bellingham waterfront development, which is an EPA Superfund site.  The coalition is pushing for 1) a high level cleanup that includes not just industrial sites but surrounding land and water, and 2) development of a sustainable working waterfront.  The Coalition’s demands include living-wage jobs, the right to unionize, habitat protections, and accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists. 

Reclaiming our Democracy—the Democracy Initiative

The AFL-CIO and other labor, racial justice, immigrant rights, and voting rights organizations have joined with the Sierra Club, the Communications Workers of America, the NAACP, and Greenpeace to build the Democracy Initiative.  As Sierra Club Executive Director Mike Brune recently said, “our seemingly separate problems are linked -- and so are their solutions.”

The Democracy Initiative was formed in response to a political climate where, owing to the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United decision, wealthy corporate polluters and union-busters like the Koch brothers wield unprecedented and corrosive influence in the corridors of power. DI’s immediate goals include supporting voters' rights, combating voter ID laws, and curbing aggressive use of the filibuster in the United States Senate. Its real purpose, though, is to restore fairness to our democracy.

Although we may never be able to outspend the union-busting corporate polluters, we do outnumber them.  Through the Democracy Initiative, the labor and environmental movements are showing our awareness that, to build a fair economy and end climate disruption, we must use our people power to reclaim our democracy.

Blue Green Alliance Initiatives:

The Sierra Club co-founded the Blue Green Alliance in 2006 with the United Steelworkers. Since then, the BGA has grown to include fourteen organizations representing some 15 million members.  It is the nation’s leading institution for labor-environmental collaboration.  Key BGA initiatives to help workers as we heal the planet include supporting the carbon reduction goals of the President’s climate action plan by building resilient communities to prepare, protect and prevent the impacts of extreme weather events related to climate disruption, andrepairing America’s crumbling infrastructure to reduce the carbon pollution driving climate disruption.  For example, at last week’s AFL-CIO convention, BGA unions discussed an initiative for repairing our country’s aging natural gas pipeline distribution system.   Repairing urban gas distribution pipes, without expanding capacity, could provide jobs, enhance safety and reduce fugitive methane emissions– a greenhouse gas that, pound for pound, is over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the EPA

Each of these initiatives reflects a growing recognition within both the labor and environmental movements that in order to help working families, protect our climate, and build a more sustainable and just society, we must act together strategically.  As Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, recently said about the growing collaboration between the labor movement and other grassroots groups: "It takes all of us working together to get it done." 

--Dean Hubbard, Director, Sierra Club Labor Program

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