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Unions Are Finally Learning to Love The Green New Deal

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Though some American labor unions like the auto workers and public employees supported the original Earth Day protests in 1970, since then organized labor has often been indifferent or antagonistic to environmental and climate concerns out of fear that any action would cost them jobs at the very moment that unions are declining.

Fossil fuel executives and lobbyists have fanned this fear, telling the powerful unions in the building and industrial trades—the laborers, pipefitters, plumbers, electricians, and carpenters – that a shift to renewable energy would throw them out of work, even though the opposite is true. Executives of the American Petroleum Institute have worked diligently to disarm unions by paying for safety and training programs, sponsoring their conferences and meals, providing talking points, and ramming home the view that fossil fuels are essential for jobs and for the American economy.

Despite these efforts, union attitudes are steadily changing, as seen clearly at a recent national gathering of more than 240 union leaders in Chicago. The event was the brainchild of Joe Uehlein, who retired from serving as the Secretary Treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Division fifteen years ago in order to found the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS). (Disclosure: I am a former board member of LNS)

Uehlein had participated in previous efforts to bring labor and environmental leaders together, such as the Blue-Green Alliance and the Apollo Project, which failed to achieve their objectives because of their top-down caution. For years Uehlein and his small staff have instead been painstakingly building a bottom-up approach — visiting local and national leaders, listening to their fears and hopes, building bridges, pointing out the immense benefits that rebuilding America’s energy system would have for workers, and organizing “convergences” of leaders from across the labor movement.

Today unions are no longer locked into resistance to action; indeed, some have already endorsed the Green New Deal. One dynamic new leader, Sarah Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, explained that the climate crisis was already harming her members through increased turbulence, on-the-job injuries, and lost income through rising weather delays. “The Green New Deal is the moonshot of our time,” she declared forcefully, “We cannot allow the idea that labor is opposed to addressing climate change to continue to exist.”

Many other union leaders in the room agreed, including those from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which had also endorsed the Green New Deal. The SEIU is the second largest union in America, with nearly 2 million members working primarily in three industries: health care, public services, and property workers (janitors, security officers, and food service employees).

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Thanks !

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