Labor Notes: A Green Transition Is Inevitable, But Justice Is Up to Us

Humans have created an existential crisis. It’s up for grabs who will live, how and where, which species will survive, and how the big decisions are made.

No exaggeration—we are in the eleventh hour.

Fossil fuel companies, banks, and all those who profit from these industries have exacerbated the warming of our planet, creating a climate disaster.

The climate study released by the United Nations this past October brought scientists to a common understanding that time is not on our side. We must act with great urgency, not at the edges of the crisis, but at its center.

Labor has a choice. We can stay in our narrow lane and focus only on the wages, hours, and working conditions of our current members—though climate change is already harming working conditions in many industries and eliminating jobs in others.

Or we can be part of organizing a movement with young people, elders, communities of color, indigenous people, environmentalists, and public health advocates to change the rules of the game for the benefit of all people.

In Washington state, labor joined with these allies to push a ballot initiative that would have been a game-changer. We were defeated by the fossil fuel companies this time, but we believe that our coalition can and must prevail.

If Earth were a bank…

Participating as an AFL-CIO representative at the Paris climate talks in 2015 was eye-opening. Though a historic accord was reached, the carbon reduction commitments made by nations fell far short of the accord’s laudable goals.

At the alternative People’s Climate Summit in Paris, a young transit worker named Clara said, “If the planet were a bank, we would have already saved it.”

Clara identified an ugly truth. Corporations and their political servants will do anything to protect their economic power, even if it spells the end of the world.

Since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016, the world’s 33 largest banks have financed another $1.9 trillion in fossil fuel projects.

Their goals are to profit from fossil fuel as long as they can, to leave as few fossil fuel assets in the ground as possible, and to be compensated for those that are left in the ground.

To succeed, they have to keep people divided on the extent of the problem, and on how quickly the transition away from fossil fuels can be practically accomplished.

They pit global North countries against the global South. They pit building trades against public sector workers.

They pit white workers against workers of color. They pit communities against immigrants and climate refugees. They pit deindustrialized areas against more prosperous ones.

Those in power sow doubt, anger, and confusion to prevent working people from understanding our common interests and building the power necessary to create a sustainable future.

Climate disaster poses history’s ultimate divide-and-conquer moment. The question for organized labor is, “Do we fall for it again?”

We can’t do it alone

No student of history would question labor’s strong record of struggle to make workers’ voices heard. But our history of participating in other social movements has been uneven.

This post originally appeared on Labor Notes. Read the rest of the article


Jeff Johnson is the former president of the Washington State AFL-CIO. A version of these remarks was delivered at the Labor Network for Sustainability conference in June.