February 10, 2023
Vincent Collins (PhD Candidate, Political Science, York University)
Endless dire headlines about the threat of climate collapse highlight the high stakes of the moment we are in. At the same time, the mudslinging and polarization seen in mainstream politics is relentless and risks derailing progress to tackle climate change. Therefore, one could be forgiven for thinking that hope is waning or non-existent when it comes to our path out of this crisis. However, away from the silos and echo chambers of mainstream politics, something interesting is occurring on the ground that offers the potential for major climate action. And labour is leading the way.
To overcome the climate crisis, we need swift political action. So, what will force governments to take this action? When asked what people can do to fight the climate crisis, climate justice advocate Bill McKibben quipped, "The most important thing an individual can do is be a little less of an individual and join together with others in movements large enough to make change." I want to expand on this idea to argue that in this moment of intersecting crises of climate, racism, and inequality, the best thing we can do is join a labour union, organize, and collectively build worker power to pressure governments to take action.
Why labour unions? Crucially, labour unions have leverage to force concessions from states through their unique ability to withhold their labour via strike action. The labour movement can bring capitalist production to a halt in order to demand concessions from the state. Collective bargaining is also a key tool which has been used to ensure environmental considerations and climate action is secured in the collective agreement, such as pushing the employer to take action on reducing emissions and implementing workplace environmental policies, or environmental regulations in the supply chain. These strategies have been employed successfully to build coalitions with environmental and other social movements, such as the example of union leader Tony Mazzocchi who is believed to have conceptualized the Just Transition after seeing firsthand the damage that polluting industries were having on his community. His union's fight ultimately resulted in the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970.
One contemporary example of labour securing climate action by building power and using this power to pressure governments is Climate Jobs New York (CJNY). Unique in that it was propelled by a policy and research initiative at the Worker Institute at Cornell University, the organization brought together labour unions in New York to determine how climate action could deliver good unionized jobs. This laid the grounds for the labour coalition, which, with the support of the Worker Institute, produced a report outlining what building a decarbonized society in New York would entail, and quickly got to work mobilizing and campaigning on a plethora of climate actions, ultimately securing hard-fought victories.
The labour coalition won a union jobs guarantee for an offshore wind project that will deliver half of New York's energy needs by 2035. They did this by building power across key sectors such as the building trades and then they campaigned, strategically targeting then-governor Andrew Cuomo who was in a tight primary race with progressive Cynthia Nixon. This approach is being widely heralded as a success and has already spread to other states in the U.S. For example, Connecticut passed legislation to guarantee prevailing wage and benefits are provided to workers on clean energy projects. This unique and transformative organizing has the potential to act as a blueprint for securing climate action elsewhere and highlights the impact labour can have when it leads on climate.
Despite the promise of labour, it is important not to paint a romanticized picture of the challenges ahead. Often seen as a blocker of climate action, the labour movement's role as an important site of such action has frequently been overlooked. And to be clear, some labour unions are guilty of blocking climate action, particularly those in the fossil fuel industry. Some have bought into, or fuelled, the environment versus labour debate, which pits workers against the environment rather than recognizing the significant role of labour in decarbonizing our economy.
Furthermore, the current trajectory of low-paid, precarious jobs in the so-called green economy has workers worried for their future. Unions need to deliver victories and demonstrate that governments, when pushed, can act in the interest of people. Bringing workers along in their decarbonization efforts, and following through with good, unionized climate jobs are steps in the right direction. The challenges are substantial, but labour has proven it can lead in a crisis and must again lead by being proactive in securing climate action.
As the old adage goes, "The cause of labour is the hope of the world." Except maybe now, the cause of labour is the hope of a just and decarbonized world.