In 2023, organized labor became vital to the climate movement
Matt Rourke/AP

The year 2023 was marked by symbiosis between the labor and climate movements. Workers across industries and geographies loudly declared that a world in which their safety and well-being are disregarded is even more dangerous to them and to others in a time of energy transition and climate crisis. After decades of hesitancy, several major unions recognized an urgent need to organize those who will do the hard work of decarbonizing the nation’s economy. It doesn’t hurt that public sympathy, and policy, have grown friendlier toward them. As a result, calls for a just transition rattled union halls and corporate offices as organized labor enjoyed one of its most active years in recent memory and environmental organizations, long uncertain about where unions stood, found new allies.

“The choices and solutions are not really gonna work unless labor is involved with them,” said Dana Kuhnline, director of Reimagine Appalachia. It works with union leaders and environmental grassroots groups to bring good jobs to coalfield communities that need them. “I think that’s a lesson climate activists really have to take to heart.”

The reality of a warming world was a central concern for UPSAmazon, and airport workers who demanded, and in many cases won, concessions protecting them from extreme heat. But the biggest gains were made by the 150,000 members of the reinvigorated United Auto Workers, or UAW, who made a just transition a key demand in one of the most high-profile strikes of the year. Though the union’s primary demands concerned wages and sick days, no small amount of negotiating focused on the looming transition to electric vehicles. Workers wanted to ensure the factories that would make that happen for Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis will be union shops, with wages and benefits equal to those provided at traditional auto factories. Forty years of internal organizing brought UAW to a place where it was willing and able to address energy transition, whereas, in previous years, its leaders had gotten fidgety at the idea.

Autoworkers were right to be concerned. Many of the sectors making decarbonization happen are not unionized (this is particularly true of Asian and European automakers with factories in the United States). Salaries also run lower on average than those paid by fossil fuel industries, where good pay and benefits were hard won, often with union contracts written in the blood of workers from more contentious times. Yet many workers in those fields remain hesitant about the coming changes — California oil workers, for example, have been far less supportive of policies supporting the energy transition. That’s why many labor experts considered it a big deal when UAW overwhelmingly approved a contract that will deliver higher wages, assure its members a role in the EV transition, and possibly lead toward greater unionization of the auto sector.

“The UAW strike showed the vision a lot of people have been looking for,” said J. Mijin Cha, an environmental studies professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “The way you have power is through money or through people. We’ll never have as much money as the fossil fuel industry, so we need people.”

It’s also given a public face to work that’s happened all year in meetings and negotiations between unions, climate activists, public officials, and employers. In many of the nation’s fossil fuel communities, clean energy projects — often buoyed by federal incentives that require employing union workers — have embraced organized labor. In West Virginia, for example, the United Mine Workers and United Steelworkers signed contracts with battery factoriesSolar Holler, which will install photovoltaic panels throughout the state, is working with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to create apprenticeship pathways and a measure of long-term job stability.

Labor leaders and climate organizations are jumping at the possibility that a skilled workforce with a strong training pipeline could bring jobs to struggling fossil fuel communities. Union involvement, they said, will ensure that those jobs remain local, as opposed to going to an out-of-state contractor, and offer competitive wages.

“Our main concern is local hire, and getting the people that have been affected by this economic transition from coal,” said Beau Hawk, with a labor coalition called Labor at the Table. It strives to represent labor interests and ensure funding from the Inflation Reduction Act and bipartisan infrastructure law is spent in the communities where it’s most needed. He said the organization hopes to build a solid apprenticeship infrastructure and ensure long-term job security that will buoy communities in which the instability of the fossil fuel industry has left wide gaps.

Environmental organizations became vocally supportive of labor this year, with Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and others supporting the UAW’s calls for a just EV transition and vaunting union contracts in the energy transition space as they advocated for climate policy.

“We need both movements to create pressure and we need legislative changes to really capitalize on that,” Cha said.

As the excitement of the year winds down, Cha says, the only way to codify labor’s victories is to increase funding to the National Labor Relations Board and integrate labor standards into the green energy buildout. While the IRA heavily encourages using unionized labor for federally funded infrastructure projects, incentives are not the same as mandates. Michigan has taken some steps in this direction, with Governor Gretchen Whitmer signing a policy package that created an energy transition office and guaranteed union jobs for clean energy workers.

Without such action, Cha said, many trade unions — representing many of the carpenters, welders, electricians, and other laborers who are sorely needed in the race to build the infrastructure of the energy transition — may not trust the renewables industry to provide for them.

Meanwhile, United Auto Workers is setting its organizing sights on 13 automakers that have so far been resistant to union campaigns. Even as the UAW announced its win last month, Toyota factories in Kentucky and Alabama had already raised their base wage to $28 per hour. A nascent union drive has started at Tesla, a notorious union-buster. Hyundai, which operates electric vehicle battery plants in the South, has said it will raise factory pay beginning next year. Solar workers in New Jersey, fed up with unstable, seasonal labor and low pay, asked the UAW for help. “These are the jobs of the future,” the effort’s leaders wrote in an op-ed. They vote on their union this week.

On Monday, UAW president Shawn Fain visited Chattanooga, Tennessee, to support a renewed campaign at Volkswagen, where two failed unionization attempts cast doubt on labor’s chances with foreign automakers in the South. Thirty percent of VW employees have signed on, a move reportedly met with intimidation by the company, and Fain delivered a letter to management indicating it is on notice for illegal union-busting. That’s in line with the tough and ambitious tone the UAW has taken this year.

“We may be foul-mouthed, but we’re strategic,” Fain said in October. “We may get fired up, but we’re disciplined. And we may get rowdy, but we’re organized.”

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Katie Myers
Katie Myers

Katie Myers is a Climate Solutions Fellow at Grist.