The Greening of the Labor Movement

By GREGORY N. HEIRES

The New Crossroads

Thousands of union members participated in Sunday’s People’s Climate March, which is believed to be the largest demonstration by environmental activists ever to take place in the United States.

National, statewide and local unions played a big role in organizing the New York City march, and unions contributed significant resources to guarantee its success.

A New Movement?

Green activists are hopeful that the march marks the beginning of a movement that will unite a broad alliance of labor, community and traditional environmental groups dedicated to protecting the environment. Unionists who marched say the demonstration shows that the decades-old division between environmentalists and labor over the issue of jobs is finally breaking down.

“I would hope that a new movement will grow out of this,” said Jon Forster, a vice president of District Council 37, the largest public-employee union in New York City. Forster, who heads the union’s newly formed Climate Change Committee, worked with the 70 unions that helped organize the march.

“Building new community alliances is important, not only for creating jobs to but also to address social justice issues,” he said. “Climate change discriminates. Hurricane Sandy hurt the city’s minority and poor communities disproportionately.”

“This is really a class issue,” said Joshua Barnett, who works for the New York City Pubic Housing Authority. “The communities of New York City are unequally affected by asthma and pollution. The highest percentage of garbage dumps, sewage treatment plants and lead paint are in poor communities.”

Labor activists gathered for a lively rally at Broadway and 57th Street before the march kicked off in the late morning. Organizers estimated 350,000 workers, parents and children, human rights and peace advocates, youths, students, people of faith, politicians, celebrities and community activists participated the march, which filled dozens of blocks and extended over 2 miles until the demonstrators gathered between 34th and 38th streets for a block party.

Union leaders and rank-and-file members underscored how climate change is an existential issue for workers.

“Our members work and live in the coastal cities of the East of the United States,” said Hector Figueroa, who is the president of Local 32BJ, which has 145,000 members, who work in the city’s buildings as cleaners, maintenance laborers, security officers, window cleaners, building engineers and doormen. “They all are at risk with climate change.”

As noted by Figueroa, buildings account for a significant part of the city’s gas emission and electrical output. The local, an affiliate of Services Employees International Union, set up a training program for its supervisors to make the buildings they work in more environmentally friendly by conserving water and using electricity more efficiently.

Henry Garrido, an associate director of DC 37, which is an affiliate of the American State, Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, recalled how Hurricane Sandy devastated the union’s downtown headquarters, which was closed for nine months because of damage. Many DC 37 members were among the thousands of residents displaced by the hurricane.

But while DC 37 members were direct victims of the storm, they also were on the frontlines in helping residents, Garrido said.
EMS workers tended to people injured in the storm. Members in the public hospitals evacuated patients. Social workers and clerical employees ran shelters. And mobile libraries became outposts to help residents of storm-ravaged communities charge their cell phones, learn about emergency services, and find shelter and shower facilities.

The Profit-Motive Leads to Environmental Devastation

Some unionists expressed little hope that addressing climate change is possible without significant political and economic changes.

Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents professors and other staff in the city’s public universities and colleges, said that because “capitalism cannot solve the climate problem,” it is up the unions to be a leading force in advocating the public policy and economic changes that are needed to deal with environmental problems.

“It’s our for-profit system that will lead to the devastation of our planet,” Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, president of the New York State Nurses Association. She recalled that the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was unprepared for Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It was up to public employees like nurses and community activist groups like Occupy Sandy to come to the aid of residents in the first week after the storm, she said.

Stanley Sturgill, a retired underground coal miner from Kentucky, was one of the speakers at the People’s Climate March press conference in the morning.

“We have already lost thousands of jobs,” Sturgill responded when asked about the historic rift between labor and environmentalists over the issue of jobs. His observation suggested that with the decline of traditional industry, the union movement is better off focusing on creating green jobs and other employment.

Organizers of the march pointed out that 20 percent of the world’s electricity now comes from clean energy sources. Uruguay, Norway and Germany have adopted carbon-free policies. In May, Germany reached a landmark when nearly 75 percent of its peak power demand was met by renewable sources of energy.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency seeks to cut carbon dioxide emissions of coal plants by 30 percent by 2030. Nearly 200 coal-fired plans have closed in the United States.

More than 1,500 organizations organized the People’s Climate March in New York City. On Sunday, more than 2,700 marches took place around the world.

The People’s Climate March was timed to pressure world leaders who will gather this week at the United Nations for a climate summit. The meeting will set the groundwork for the Paris United Nations Climate Summit in 2015, when world leaders are supposed to sign a new international climate treaty.

Fight Corporate Greed by Creating Green Jobs

“In New York City, labor can help create new programs to protect our infrastructure, protect the environment and develop alternate sources of energy,” said Juan Fernandez, president of DC 37’s Local 154, whose members include human rights workers. The city’s big public sector—with engineers, scientists, public health workers and emergency services workers—is uniquely qualified to help the city become safer by adopting green policies and projects to help protect the infrastructure of the local economy, according to labor activists like Fernandez.

“Labor is always on the frontline when there is a disaster,” said Jeremy Sanders, president of Zoological Employees Local 1501, whose members include workers at the world-famous Bronx Zoo. “We are going to be on the ground when the next disaster hits. Without the public employees, the city would grind to a halt.”

“We have to fight greed and create green jobs,” said Natasha Isma, who heads a committee of young activists in Local 1549, which represents city clerical workers.

“We need more environmental-friendly products. We have to protect our children and our children’s children. If we don’t act, we’re not going to have any planet left.”