Calling All Union Members

Teachers, construction workers, nurses, miners, frycooks—you have an indispensable role to play in the passage of the Green New Deal. Here are five concrete steps to take.

It’s no secret that the American labor establishment is ambivalent about the rising prospects for climate policy change. After battling environmental activists throughout the 2010s over a series of tar sands pipeline projects, unions from carbon-loving industries are balking at the prospect of a Green New Deal, even as the resolution bends over backwards to address their concerns. The AFL-CIO’s energy committee decried the flexible resolution as “unrealistic” and threatening “immediate harm to millions of our members and their families.”  Construction union LiUNA had even harsher words, calling the GND “the sails of fantasy” and its backers’ approach to inclusive coalition-building “exactly how not to enact a progressive agenda to address our nation’s dangerous income inequality”.  In the fossil fuel sector, unions like Mine Workers of America cheer the demise of even modest climate regulations such as the Clean Power Plan, insisting beyond all evidence that carbon capture and storage technology is a viable alternative to renewable energy. Given these union leaders’ stunning obstinacy, even as the climate left dangles gigantic carrots in front of their faces—full severance pay, a job guarantee, project labor agreements, unionization mandates—it would be easy to write them off as inevitable foes.

Such a dismissal, of course, would be gravely mistaken. While the electoral and lobbying influence of unions has waned, they still play a key veto role inside the Democratic Party, and have enjoyed a revival over the past two years as public sector workers found their voice against the devastating Supreme Court decision Janus and endless austerity enacted at the state level in places such as West Virginia and Oklahoma. More to the point, labor unions represent our best hope for organizing the emerging majority-minority working class who must play the central role in a political realignment around a new, low-carbon social compact which emphasizes social equality and economic fairness. Any movement which does not address the concerns of labor—particularly the building trades—is surely doomed.

This article, however, is not yet another paean to the importance of centering a just transition. That genre is well-established. Lord knows that staffers and strategists at 350.org and Sunrise and Ed Markey’s offices have internalized the previous paragraph, and are already tearing their hair out day and night over how to get labor on board. Outside groups like these can surely have some positive impact; see for example, the successful efforts towards a consensus recently won in Maine. But after years of neoliberal environmentalists betraying unions, a lot of distrust has built up which frankly will not be worked out within the short timeframe we have left to avert a two-degree plus warming scenario. In order to really move the needle, pressure on locals and internationals alike will have to be applied from within.

If you are a union member, listen up—this is where you come in. While American labor unions have organizational structures that are notoriously less democratic  than their European counterparts, motivated rank-and-file members can still have a huge impact—particularly when local or international leadership does not have a strong position on the issue one way or another. In those instances, leadership will often defer to their carbon-loving colleagues when mulling endorsements, thus why letters like the one AFL-CIO’s energy committee sent out can be so needlessly pernicious. If the prospect of moving your international’s position on such a complicated and contentious issue seems grim, don’t worry: locals often matter the most in swaying elected officials on the issues because of the central role they play in endorsements and fundraising within the local Democratic Party ecosystem. For example, my union in California—UAW 2685—could play a significant role in pushing the climate policy positions of state and federal legislators in a more ambitious, pro-worker direction. In states with less climate-friendly Democratic congressional delegations—say, Ohio or Michigan—leveraging locals through rank-and-file activism is even more important.

So what can rank-and-file union members practically do to successfully “work from the inside”? While the precise answer to this question will depend on the context, here are some general guidelines.

Step 1: Assess the landscape

What kind of union are you in? From LiUNA to National Nurses United, the American labor movement is more diverse in sector and political orientation than ever, even amidst dwindling union membership. While the Building Trades Unions (NABTU) are notorious opponents of climate action, for example, many unions in the public and health sectors such as SEIU and NEA have long histories of successfully championing environmental legislation. Within a given union, moreover, locals can have wildly varying perspectives: UAW 2103, for example, which represents workers of the Sierra Club, has a very different outlook than its sisters in the industrial Midwest.

Understanding your union’s political history vis-a-vis climate policy, therefore, is an important first step towards becoming an effective internal player on the issue. What stances has the local taken in the past? What does the executive committee think? Do they roll with what the international is saying and doing, or do they go it alone? In cases where your local is more climate action friendly, passing a Green New Deal resolution may be relatively easier—but building caucus support at the international level will almost certainly be an uphill battle, as even sympathetic internationals will face pressure from their carbon-intensive comrades to oppose ambitious action (or at the very least remain neutral). In cases where your local is more skeptical, assessing who in rank-and-file membership and leadership is supportive and who is likely to be a headache is of the utmost importance.

Before going public with your support for a GND, try taking the temperature of these parties, asking for their opinions from a position of neutral curiosity. Doing so will allow you to find allies and identify opposition early on, reducing the likelihood of encountering nasty surprises later on during the resolution endorsement process. Assessing the landscape will also allow you to identify the reasons for opposition in order to address them effectively. Rather than writing climate action skeptics off, it’s important to gauge the source and depth of their commitments. Are they just parroting what they heard from Richard Trumka or Terry O’Sullivan in press releases or on the news? Are they unshakeable in their belief that reducing emissions will be necessarily ruinous for working people, or might they be persuadable when the entire vision of project labor agreements and mandated unionization is laid out in front of them? Anticipating the response to your intra-union activism before it even begins is a crucial element of success.

Taking the temperature of your local will also allow you to build essential trust among potential allies. Before you make any big or rash proposals, become a regular attendee at local membership and steering committee meetings, when possible. Doing so will make you known to the leadership and reduce concerns that you are a plant or “outside agitator,” rather than a rank-and-file member concerned in good faith about the climate crisis’ attack on workers and the need for a just transition. Be clear about your intentions when pressed—the worst thing you can do is misrepresent yourself and be accused of trickery or deception later on. As with all forms of organizing, strong relationships are key.

Step 2: Reach out to just transition support groups for training and advice: Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS), BlueGreen Alliance, etc.

Of course, assessing the landscape itself—let alone acting with the intel you pick up—seems like a daunting task, particularly if you’ve never been particularly active in your local before. Fortunately, you don’t have to go it alone: there now exists a strong network of support organizations committed to building strong relationships between environmental activists and unions, steering both parties in an ambitious, pro-worker direction on climate policy. These organizations—particularly TUED and LNS (or the IWW’s Green Unionism caucus, for the more radically inclined)—have staff with decades of experience who are deeply invested in supporting rank-and-file union members in their efforts to shift their local and international leadership in a progressive, pro-climate direction.

Depending on where you live in the country, these staff may also have insight on the history of labor climate politics in your locale, and help you identify potential allies, adversaries, and prudent courses of action. In addition to providing tailored advice on how to proceed, these organizations have a wealth of online resources that offer further training and advice. If you are thinking seriously about moving on this, it would be wise to reach out.

Step 3: Form a local committee.

Most union locals have an organizational structure that provides for the establishment of committees which address certain topics pertinent to the union and its interests. In most cases, those within the local rank-and-file will seek permission from the local’s leadership with a description of why the committee is sought—see, for example, this printout from the Communications Workers of America (CWA)’s international on how to establish a Women’s Committee on the local level. Given the fact that local leadership may be skeptical of the Green New Deal, it’s best at this point for the theme of the proposed committee to be broad and not beholden to the GND in particular: instead, center it around the need for a just transition to a zero-emissions economy in general. Most union leaders—whether they support the GND or not—understand that the climate crisis and energy transitions will inevitably bring significant changes to the American economy in general and unions in particular. With the proper framing, therefore, getting a climate-focused committee established shouldn’t be too difficult—particularly if it’s staffed by rank-and-file members on a volunteer basis (like you!).

Once approved and established, this committee can serve as a crucial organizing node for climate activism in your union local. Aside from being a place where rank-and-file who are in favor of aggressive climate action can congregate, it can also serve as a way of raising awareness of the climate crisis among local members, as well as a forum for those who are worried that the GND or similar emissions-reduction policies will inevitably be a jobs-killer and therefore worth opposing unconditionally. Remember: your job is to build trust amongst union leadership and members, helping them to understand how they might claim ownership over the terms of the GND in particular and a just transition in general.

Step 4: Pass a local endorsement of the GND resolution.

Once you have built up or gleaned majority support for the GND among local membership, a key next step you can take is to pass a resolution at the local level that constitutes an endorsement of the Green New Deal—see, for example, this resolution passed by the Massachusetts-based SEIU Local 509. The union local itself isn’t the only relevant unit which can endorse the resolution: local labor councils and state chapters may also be a good option, depending on the distribution of GND support and the organizational structure of the union in question. Determining the best venue in which to push forth a resolution is a process that takes a lot of time and outreach.

Getting local labor units to endorse the Green New Deal is shaping up to be a contentious process. In order to succeed, you will need to either get leadership on board from the get-go or otherwise mobilize a majority of the local rank-and-file to pressure leaders into supporting the resolution. If your union is particularly protective of carbon interests, both of these routes will seem particularly daunting. It is absolutely crucial, then, to identify your base of support amongst membership early, building relationships that will give supporters the security and confidence to speak out in favor of climate action. Teaming up with those in nearby locals who are also interested in advancing climate action is a great way to trade advice, build rapport, and offer mutual support as you battle the obstinacy of entrenched carbon interests in the union establishment.

Step 5: Lobbying the international, electoral work, workplace actions, and beyond

Perhaps you find yourself in a local which has a proud history of supporting climate action, and may even already endorsed the Green New Deal. Congratulations! Yet, this is only the beginning: labor-climate activists are only just starting to envision what might come next. One line of work is clear: almost no internationals, from the carbon-grubbing International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) to the climate action-curious American Federation of Teachers (AFT), have signed onto the Green New Deal resolution put forth by Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Your international almost certainly hasn’t (although all fingers are crossed for SEIU—stay tuned). It is incumbent upon pro-climate locals, therefore, to form caucuses with their like-minded cousins which can challenge the stubborn attitudes of international leadership. Because the terms of and organizational pathways through which these caucuses are formed vary so much from international to international, I can offer no general advice here: LNS and TUED are likely to know much more about the particulars of yours.

Another avenue for intra-union climate activism is the electoral work locals regularly find themselves engaged in. Since unions are often key endorsers and donors within Democratic primaries for Congress—and since the ambitions of Congressional Democrats will shape global climate politics for decades—pressuring your local to give consideration to candidates’ positions on climate policy is particularly important. On the state level, many governments that have recently come under consolidated Democratic control are considering ambitious new legislation, while others partially or fully controlled by Republicans are considering withdrawing support for renewable energy. In these contexts, union climate activists can play a decisive role by steeling the spines of Democratic legislators—or by mitigating the voice of pro-carbon unionists in the lobbying process.

One final avenue mentioned here is direct action in the workplace itself. This may mean participating in a general strike—one is happening around the world on September 27th—but strikes only represent one small set of the possibilities. In many cases, climate action can be baked into collective bargaining agreements themselves, as when companies agree to reduce their emissions in a “bargain for the common good” similar to that advanced by vanguard unions such as the United Teachers of Los Angeles. In other cases, taking climate action is coextensive with improving workplace conditions: consider, for example, how regulations that set caps on point-source pollution can reduce greenhouse gas emissions while bolstering worker safety and health. Such an approach can pitch climate action as a means of benefitting workers both in the short as well as long term. As the adverse effects of climate change on workers themselves become more widely known, unions’ perception of the beneficiaries of climate action will shift from the public at large to their members in particular.

If all of this seems far-removed from your current life in the union, don’t be discouraged. Most members feel disengaged—after Act 10, for example, the primary mode of engagement my Wisconsin public school teacher parents have with their union is annual solicitations to buy insurance. Yet, as the New Republic’s brilliant profile of Sara Nelson reminded us this week, every labor activist begins as a disengaged novice (I certainly am). If you are reading this website, you understand what is at stake in the climate crisis and feel obliged to “get involved” in the political struggle to stop it.  For many of us, our unions seem like an odd place to start, particularly if we work in a sector seemingly far-removed from fossil fuels. Yet our status as union members gives us a credible voice both within the labor movement and the Democratic Party: political agency few ordinary people in this country still enjoy. As national leadership takes positions on climate that endanger the interests of all workers, it’s time to raise a little trouble.

Johnathan Guy is a graduate student at UC Berkeley studying wealth inequality, social relations, and decarbonization. He is active in Sunrise Movement and the Democratic Socialists of America. He tweets @johnathanjguy.


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