One of the quieter stories to unfold in the early days of this new administration is a tale of two labor movement approaches.
The first emerged from a meeting between Trump and a dozen labor leaders just after the Inauguration. An ecstatic Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, called it “by far the best meeting I’ve had.” The other approach will be marching on Washington, D.C., in April, backing an agenda that runs counter to just about everything Trump has done.
Maria Castaneda, secretary treasurer of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, believes in this second approach. “We have to be part of a resistance movement, an opposition movement,” she tells me. “We all have the same enemy.” Castaneda’s union represents more than 400,000 workers in hospitals, pharmacies, and home health services around the country.
The divide between the two camps is, of all things, the climate. This spring, the various SEIU locals and the international will partner with a handful of other unions and a slew of green, faith, and racial justice groups on the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the building trades aligned with Trump will try to move ahead with construction on the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, the latter of which NASA scientist James Hansen has dubbed the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.”
For Sean Sweeney, director of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, the split is anything but surprising.
“The building trades have always been closer to their contractors than to the rest of labor,” says Sweeney, citing the longstanding agreements those unions hold with construction firms to secure contracts, including from pipeline builders like TransCanada and Energy Transfer Partners. Such relationships—and an obligation to provide work for their members—have also led the trades to partner on policy pushes with bodies like the American Petroleum Institute, the fossil fuel industry’s lobbying arm.
Given the likelihood of national right-to-work legislation and aggressive cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, both unions and the climate movement are now facing existential threats. Neither have anything to gain from collaborating with Trump. The solutions to surviving may require a split in the house of labor. For progressive unions, it’s also a chance to lead.
The ties between blue-collar unionists and green activists are much stronger today than ever. In the first phase of opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, getting any labor unions to sign on was an uphill battle. As late as 2014, labor involvement in the first People’s Climate March that year meant making no fossil-fuel-related demands at all, to avoid alienating unions with members in extractive industries.
Contrast that with today. Shortly after indigenous groups began fighting the Dakota Access pipeline in the spring of 2016, several unions voiced their full-throated support. Before long, SEIU and its two million members joined the fold. “Our government must make the needed investments into building a new clean economy, including a just transition of workers from the fossil fuel workforce,” an SEIU statement announcing the decision declared.
And though the leadership of the building trades was still on the opposite side, signs of dissent shone through in the rank and file. In Madison, Wisconsin, LIUNA-City Employees Local 236 unanimously passed a statement of support for the Standing Rock Sioux.
This year’s People’s Climate March, set for April 29, features an ambitious slate of demands with union backing: a $15 minimum wage; public investments targeted at working class communities and communities of color; and a transition away from fossil fuels, aimed at limiting temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
Paul Getsos, the national coordinator for this year’s march, says in the aftermath of the 2014 march labor leaders saw “an opportunity to build a movement,” across not just blue-green lines, but also with faith, racial, and environmental justice groups. Now, with more trust built, the groups are more closely united.
“There are some labor union leaders, like Mary Kay Henry, like Héctor Figueroa, like George Gresham, who understand that climate is an issue that connects all of us,” Getsos says. “Their members are impacted by climate change.”
Castaneda calls Hurricane Sandy an “eye-opener” on climate change for many unionists. The 2012 storm displaced tens of thousands of people in New York and New Jersey, including many union members.
“They saw how it impacted them as workers and as part of the community . . . their homes and personal property. Their children were dislocated from schools,” she says. “The only thing they had were the clothes on their backs.”
Patients being moved from storm-damaged hospitals created havoc, creating staffing debacles in several facilities. Hospital staff were made to work mandatory overtime and extended shifts.
This was not an experience that anyone wants to repeat.
Besides the threat posed by climate change, there are also opportunities. There are plenty of jobs and union contracts to be had in the transition away from fossil fuels.
Several building trades unions, like the IBEW and United Steelworkers, already represent workers in the solar and wind sectors, many of whom also take jobs building pipelines. Clean energy created more electrical generation jobs in 2016 than the oil, coal, and natural gas industries combined. Job creation in the clean energy sector is occurring twelve times faster than the rest of the U.S. economy.
Yet union density in these sectors remains relatively sparse, and wages tend to fall well below those offered in the extractive industries, where some workers take home six figures for less than a year’s work. The sector is dominated by big private-sector firms like Sunrun and SolarCity, and whatever union labor is done tends to involve already-unionized utility workers, who—while under contract—don’t swell labor’s ranks.
Not all green jobs are good jobs, and motivating workers to buy into the transition away from fossil fuels will mean being able to match or exceed the pay and benefits that come with pipeline and refinery jobs. For that, $15 an hour won’t cut it.
The fact that carbon-intensive jobs pay living wages at all is thanks to decades of labor militancy in the extractive industry, dating back to pitched battles like those at Matewan and Blair Mountain. Ensuring good union contracts for clean energy workers may prove a similarly difficult battle—especially in the age of Trump.
That work is already starting to happen. Employees at Tesla’s 5,000-plus-person Fremont, California, factory, the state’s largest manufacturing employer, have begun talks to join the United Auto Workers. With production associate jobs starting at just $17 an hour, Tesla employees make well below Alameda County’s $28 living wage for an adult and one child.
In a recent Medium post, Tesla worker Jose Moran noted that he and his co-workers frequently work more than forty hours a week, on a factory floor that is often harried, short-staffed, and prone to workplace injury. “Just as CEO Elon Musk is a respected champion for green energy and innovation,” Moran wrote, “I hope he can also become a champion for his employees.”
Musk, in reply to questions from a reporter at Gizmodo, sniped back, calling Moran’s representations “morally outrageous.”
With its first mass-market car set to start selling at $35,000, Tesla alone will not fuel America’s transition off fossil fuels. But organizing in Tesla plants could open the door to collective bargaining at one of the country’s largest solar manufacturers: SolarCity, now owned by Tesla after a November merger. The company received $750 million in New York state funds to build a flagship “gigafactory” in Buffalo, though what the jobs there will look like remains to be seen.
According to Tesla’s own estimates, it would take 100 such factories to take the world entirely off of fossil fuels. That could mean potentially hundreds of thousands of jobs and a boon for the economy at large—including, potentially, the labor movement.
But there is no path to a low-carbon future without massive public investment, the kind now virtually unthinkable in the Trump Administration. With the building trades drifting toward Trump, unions like SEIU, National Nurses United, and the Communications Workers of America (to name just a few) could form the backbone of not just a progressive labor alliance, but a revitalized left that puts low-carbon workers at its center.
“Progressive unions know that progressive labor can be used to help anchor a social movement committed to social, economic, and climate justice,” Sweeney says. “There’s a lot of thinking being done on that subject.”