NEW YORK — Climate change is a labor issue. A large and growing section of world labor now agrees that fighting global warming and building sustainable economies with good jobs for workers go hand in hand.
“Don’t think this will come about without a fight. It will be the defining struggle about the future direction of the global economy,” Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers (USW), told an unprecedented North American Labor Assembly on Climate Crisis here last week.
Ten U.S. international unions and Cornell University sponsored the May 7-8 meeting. Over 200 trade union activists from around the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean joined scores of environmental and community activists in the two-day conference, held at the United Federation of Teachers headquarters and conference center. It was also attended by an additional 50 trade union and environmental activists from elsewhere around the globe.
The conference was part of a remarkable series of labor conferences taking place around the world on climate change. The series began with the First Global Trade Union Assembly on Labor and the Environment in Nairobi, Kenya, in January 2006. Next were regional trade union conferences in San Paulo, Brazil, and in Johannesburg, South Africa, also in 2006.
A central theme throughout this North American conference was the importance of global labor initiatives and alliances with environmental movements. Dave Foster, executive director of the Blue Green Alliance, a partnership of the USW and the Sierra Club, spoke about their experiences. Foster, a former district director of the Steelworkers, said the Blue Green Alliance is just a beginning, a core around which they hope to help build global blue/green coalitions that can challenge transnational corporations on climate change, unfair trade and sustainable development.
A wide variety of speakers from labor and the environmental movement participated in a string of interesting roundtable discussions on a broad spectrum of topics, including “Can Green Jobs Drive Reindustrialization,” “Energy Efficient Buildings and Job Creation: A Strategy for Union Growth” and “Beyond Kyoto: How Can Labor Shape the Next Global Agreement?” Many speakers blasted the Bush administration for government inaction and denial on climate issues and for the war in Iraq, calling it “one of the greatest environmental disasters of our time.”
In that light Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in a plenary keynote, warned of “new wars over scarce global resources that only bold action can stop.” Sanders argued for the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act that he introduced with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Roger Toussaint, president of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union in New York, spoke of the need for greener mass transit. He also strongly argued that climate change is a racial and class issue. “Pollution runs downhill,” he said.
Toussaint warned against too much emphasis on individual solutions. “Yes, we must all do our part, but it is basically a political and policy struggle,” he said. “Workers and the poor have the least ability to make personal green choices. Yet we suffer the greatest impact.”
Toussaint added that strong unions, not good intentions, are among the best ways to regulate business. “Capital has ways of using these issues to their own ends,” he said.