This World is Our World

Unions roll up their sleeves to fight for climate justice

Volume 115, No. 7July, 2015

John O'Connor
John O'Connor

John O’Connor

When Local 802 musicians led the labor contingent of the People’s Climate March last September, they were part of an event that sparked an already growing mass movement to pressure the leaders of this country and the rest of the world to get serious about carbon emissions, which are heading us on a collision course with climate disaster. One of the main emphases of labor’s participation in the climate march was the fact that the results of catastrophic events caused by the warming of the planet – such as Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy – affected working people in detrimental ways far more than they harmed the one percent who profit from the continued use of fossil fuels.

Since that momentous day, trade unionists and community activists have been working to build a movement of working people to fight for what has become known as climate justice. Several working groups and coalitions have sprung up to address myriad related problems and to find solutions from different angles. As an example, the Alliance for a Greater New York (or ALIGN), formerly the New York chapter of Jobs with Justice, has put a great deal of their resources into a project called Climate Works For All. This project is predicated on the fact that poor and low-income residents of New York City will be the hardest hit by climate change because of political, physical and financial factors. The project has resulted in a 10-point plan that would create jobs, reduce the city’s carbon emissions and adapt to climate changes – both changes that are here now and changes that are on their way in the future. In February, the coalition – which includes the New York City Labor Council and the New York City Environmental Alliance – assembled at City Hall to demand that former Mayor Bloomberg’s city-wide sustainability plan, called PlaNYC, be updated to address the inequality at the heart of climate change.

Last year's People's Climate Change March in NYC was the largest climate march in history. Photo: Annette Bernhardt via

Last year’s People’s Climate Change March in NYC was the largest climate march in history. Photo: Annette Bernhardt via

The group has called on the city to:

  • Reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050
  • Combine career building and training programs that would lead to 40,000 jobs each year to retrofit large buildings and make them greener
  • Install solar panels on schools
  • Increase public transportation
  • Reduce the city’s carbon emissions in other ways

A broader coalition called the People’s Climate Movement NYC includes many of the activists – including labor leaders – who helped organize last September’s People’s Climate March. The task of this group is to formulate a structure to carry on the work and find a way for the disparate groups to work together to decide priorities. The group meets monthly and its goals include not only fighting climate change head on but also organizing and creating grassroots processes that build consensus and are inclusive, bottom-up and effective. The group has drafted a vision statement that ups the ante on Bloomberg’s plan, calling to reduce carbon emissions in New York City by 100 percent by 2030.

On top of this, every two months, unions from around the world engage in a web-based conversation about energy, climate change and related issues. This initiative is coordinated by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy and has been facilitated in New York by CUNY’s International Program for Labor, Climate and Environment. Unions from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Greece, India, Korea, Norway, Philippines, Spain and the United States report about climate change efforts in each country as well as work together on initiatives like a global moratorium on fracking. The group has also focused on organizing protests leading up to the U.N. Climate Change Conference that will take place in Paris in December. The challenge of this conference will be to find a way to keep the commitment world leaders made five years ago to limit the warming of the planet by 2 degrees Celsius. Leading scientists have warned that world temperatures will far exceed that if we don’t quickly wean ourselves from oil, coal and fracked gas.

The mission of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy is “to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis,” according to its web site. The group warns: “The power of fossil fuel corporations has made it practically impossible to protect the health and safety of workers and communities, and union representation is under attack across the globe. Despite more energy being generated every year, energy poverty remains a serious global issue – 1.6 billion people, or 20 percent of the world’s population, do not have regular access to electricity. It has become increasingly clear that the transition to an equitable, sustainable energy system can only occur if there is decisive shift in power towards workers, communities and the public.”

Another labor initiative is the Labor Network for Sustainability, put together chiefly through efforts of Joe Uehlein, the former secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department. One of its projects is called Making a Living on a Living Planet, which is dedicated to strengthening relations between the labor and environmental movements. As with the other groups described above, the emphasis is on climate justice and sustainability. The group, which includes both U.S. and Canadian labor and environmental leaders, has convened three times and has focused on solutions and strategies.

It is clear to see that the People’s Climate March last September has created great momentum to press for action to avert climate disaster. The labor movement has added a strong voice to this momentum, reminding activists that solutions must include a vision that moves closer to an equitable world. This means a change away from our current economic system, which profits the few and obstructs the road to environmental sustainability with continued profiteering from fossil fuel use. As many have pointed out, the crisis before us changes everything.

Members who are interested in getting involved should contact me at (212) 245-4802, ext. 110 or

John O’Connor is the recording vice president of Local 802 and the supervisor of the union’s organizing, jazz and single engagement departments.