Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘global warming’

“Hardhats vs. Hippies”: How the Media Misrepresents the Debate Over the Green New Deal

Wednesday, June 26th, 2019

A recent Politico article about the Green New Deal resolution put forward in February by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) features many grumblings from blue-collar union members about the potential economic disruption and the loss of jobs—even though the resolution calls for union rights and a federal jobs guarantee for workers. The article opens with Robbie Hunter, the president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, which represents 450,000 construction workers and apprentices, who is leading a union-led advocacy campaign called #BlueCollarRevolution. A drastic shift away from oil industry jobs in California, Hunter contends, could “export our jobs, while doing nothing for the end game, which is the environmental.”

The Green New Deal resolution calls for an economy-wide mobilization to achieve a national transition to a zero-carbon future within a decade. The proposal has sparked a vibrant conversation in Congress and throughout the country, resonating with grassroots environmental groups and challenging lawmakers to start talking seriously about decarbonization. Yet despite massive public support, the resolution was predictably stymied in Congress, and has faced skepticism within the Democratic Party and labor movement. Nor has the resolution been greeted with universal praise by the Democratic Party or labor unions. But while some unions express reluctance to hop on the green bandwagon, there’s more to the story than “environmentalists versus blue-collar workers.” Organized labor does not speak with a single voice on climate policy, though the whole movement has deep stakes in the politics of decarbonization, as working-class people’s lives and livelihoods  are most vulnerable to climate change.

Jessica Levinson, a law professor who serves on the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, warns in the Politico piece that the Green New Deal “really divides the Democrats on a fault line, which is more of the elites against the working class Democrats who are concerned about losing their jobs.” The article suggests that 2020 presidential hopefuls should be wary of alienating the working-class base—a segment that lost many voters to Trump in 2016, particularly white, working-class voters—by pushing too hard for the Green New Deal.

So a policy agenda intended to address an existential crisis for the world’s environment is framed within the familiar dichotomy between burly blue-collar construction men and tree-hugging liberal elites. It’s a classic American trope that hearkens back to the faux populism of Nixon’s “hardhat” marches against “hippies” during the Vietnam War. Nevermind the fact that the labor movement today is driven by workers in the service industries, women, people of color and immigrants. The media regularly flattens the labor movement into a one-dimensional depiction of a Fordist industrial laborer, frozen in time.

The supposed blue-collar backlash campaign comes in the wake of signs of internecine friction between national labor leaders and pro-green lawmakers. In March, Cecil Roberts, the international president of the United Mine Workers of America, and Lonnie Stephenson, the international president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, wrote to Congress on behalf of the energy committee of the AFL-CIO, arguing that the Green New Deal was “far too short on specific solutions that speak to the jobs of our members,” and “ma[de] promises that are not achievable or realistic.” Around the same time, AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka—who briefly sat on Trump’s “business advisory council”alongside multinational CEOs before resigning in embarrassment—told reporters that although he acknowledged the urgency of tackling the impending climate crisis, lawmakers should not “leave segments of the economy behind.”

The Politico article follows a number of reports of labor groups chafing at the sweeping goals of the federal Green New Deal resolution, as well as the “Green New Deal Los Angeles,” lamenting the lack of detail about how fossil-fuel dependent industries and workers will be affected. The friction over the resolution does speak to an understandable wariness of the plan’s soaring ambitions. The expansive targets, along with a lack of concrete plans on how to achieve its benchmarks, have stirred fears of unrealistic expectations, and workers have reasonable concerns about whether promises of green jobs will really materialize. With so much at stake, organized labor has a reasonable interest in safeguarding members from potential economic turbulence.

But contrary to Politico‘s depiction, skeptics hardly amount to massive working-class opposition to the Green New Deal. The media coverage centers on labor’s fear that workers won’t be provided a fair share of the deal’s achievements. The same question of social equity can be applied to any number of progressive policy proposals that the 2020 presidential candidates have touted, such as Medicare for All or a federal jobs guarantee.

More importantly, though building-trades workers may fit Trump’s image of working-class America, they are not representative of labor or the working class as a whole when it comes to green issues. The future of labor will be helmed by service workers, women, immigrants and people of color. Accordingly, the Green New Deal or other strong climate change policies have won endorsements from SEIULos Angeles County Federation of Labor and National Nurses United, along with various locals like New York State Nurses Association and American Federation of Teachers – Oregon. A survey released by Data for Progress this month found that “union membership is one of the factors most highly correlated with support for Green New Deal policies as well as the Green New Deal framework as a whole.”

Backing the Green New Deal is a way to extend union support for working people beyond wages and benefits, because the Green New Deal is a social contract to form the foundation of a sustainable economy. From a practical standpoint, as a dwindling labor movement strives to remain relevant to the working masses, there simply is no bigger bread-and-butter issue than our land, air, water and health. Globally, affluent countries with higher union representation tend to have lower greenhouse gas emissions than less unionized countries.

Working-class migrant communities and communities of color may have a first-hand understanding of how climate volatility affects their work—be they an immigrant nurse whose hometown in the Philippines is facing intensifying typhoons, or a Los Angeles teacher whose students miss school when dirty local air leaves them struggling to breathe. As part of a global proletariat, their struggles reflect the even longer-term challenge of climate justice: seeding a carbon-free future for the global economy. The struggle for climate justice extends beyond the Green New Deal resolution; the ultimate goal is to link the entire world in a compact to decarbonize and to refocus development and industry on sustainability and social equity, rather than profit.

It is shortsighted for the media to present labor’s skepticism toward the Green New Deal as akin to the far-right’s climate skepticism. Globally, a consensus is crystallizing on the left: There is no future in which workers are not on the frontline of climate-driven social transformation, either as survivors, or as agents of change.

Putting the concept of climate justice into practice requires braiding environmental and labor agendas into a unified “just transition”—a comprehensive set of social welfare protections for the workers and communities most impacted by climate policy. As Sara Nelson,  president of the Association of Flight Attendants, has pointed out, “Labor has never seen an actual ‘just transition.’” To engage labor with the Green New Deal, Nelson told In These Times last month, policymakers and activists must “make labor central to the discussion, including labor rights, labor protections and labor expertise. … Let’s recognize and engage the infrastructure and experience of the labor movement to make this work.”

By listening to workers, we’d perhaps discover that even the #BlueCollarRevolution might be surprisingly amenable to a climate justice agenda. Robbie Hunter himself wrote in March about a green project he could get behind: He urged the state to invest in building clean mass transit, pointing out that, “Having built most of California’s utility-scale solar and wind generation, we who work in the building and construction trades think it’s time to get real about our ambitious climate goals.”

Despite the media’s insistence that environmentalism remains the province of the privileged, blue collars and green priorities may overlap more than they know. All we need to do is treat Green New Deal like any other labor contract: get everyone around the table and start talking.

This article was originally published at In These Times on June 18, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

Polar Vortex Shows How Incarcerated Workers Are Bearing the Brunt of Extreme Weather

Friday, February 1st, 2019

On January 28, an image of Cook County Jail prisoners shoveling snow went viral after it was posted on the  La Villita community Facebook page and then shared by the Chicago Community Bond Fund. The city of Chicago was preparing for an arctic blast and the prisoners were seen working in cold temperatures wearing orange jumpsuits. Thousands of people shared the image and expressed concern about the well-being of the prisoners. This scenario is yet another example of how incarcerated workers—toiling for little or no pay—are on the frontlines of extreme weather.

Predictably, the office of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart sought to exonerate itself in the press. “The situation was entirely and intentionally misrepresented,” said Cara Smith, chief spokesperson for Dart’s office. Smith claimed the prisoners were actually wearing insulated jumpsuits, that there was a warming van nearby, and that prisoners were not allowed to work if the temperature dropped under 20 degrees. Numerous news outlets reported Smith’s quotes without digging into their veracity, even though she presented no evidence.

Smith admitted that prisoners were only paid $2 for the work assignment, in a jail where at roughly 2,700 people are incarcerated simply because they can’t afford to pay their bond. Smith sought to justify the nothing wage by claiming the prisoners were doing work as part of a vocational job training program called RENEW. Yet, as Sharlyn Grace, co-executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, put it to The Chicago Tribune, “I don’t think that anyone is seriously suggesting that shoveling snow is a skilled form of labor that’s going to lead to job opportunities upon release.” Prisoners have little-to-no access to the press, and reporters often make no effort to contact them, so it’s no surprise that none have been quoted on the subject.

The latest example at Cook County Jail certainly isn’t the first time that prison labor has been used to respond to or prepare for extreme weather, nor is it the first time that such a controversy has made national headlines. In 2015, Think Progress reported that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority had used volunteer prison labor to shovel snow in Boston when the windchill was negative 25 degrees. The prisoners were paid $3 to $4 a day for their efforts, while non-prisoners doing the same work were paid $30 an hour.

After deadly wildfires hit California this past fall, more than 2,000 prisoners were used to help fight them. While the prisoners fight fires through a vocational program offered by the state, they’re incentivized by earning time off of their sentences and they’re only paid $2 a day and an additional $1 an hour if there is an active fire to fight. While the prisoners could use the work to reduce their sentence, once released, they often aren’t allowed work as firefighters due to their record of incarceration. In California, the job can legally be deniedto almost anyone with a criminal record.

Global warming is making wildfires, like the ones in California, more extreme.  “You warm the planet, you’re going to get more frequent and intense heat waves. You warm the soils, you dry them out, you get worse drought,” Michael Mann, an atmospheric science professor, told PBS last August. “You bring all that together and those are all the ingredients for unprecedented wildfires.”

Additionally, many scientists are now also connecting intense cold waves to the warming of the Arctic, which means that prisoners working in the cold could also technically be on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Prisoners have very little protections, are at great risk of exploitation, and details about their conditions are often scarce.

Panagioti Tsolkas, the coordinator for the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, tells In These Times that he also sees the intersection of climate change and mass incarceration in the wake of environmental disasters. “After hurricanes here in Florida, prisoners got called out to help with relief efforts,” he says.

While prisoners are being used to mitigate climate disasters, they’re among the most vulnerable to their impacts. Incarcerated people are often housed in prisons that experience extreme heat without air conditioning. A 2017 report from The Marshall Projectfound that four out of five people held in Texas prisons lack air conditioning. In 2014, state prisoners at Wallace Pack Unit in Grimes County sued their prison after a number of incarcerated people died as  a result of the extreme heat. Four years later, a settlement was reached, and the prison was required to provide air-conditioning.

In 2018, the Texas Inmate Families Association compiled reports from prisoners’ relatives and found that at least 30 Texas prisons had inadequate heating after freezing temperatures hit the state during the winter. Last year, the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons helped organize a prisoner strike in the state of Florida. The prisoners said one of their intentions was to “expose the environmental conditions we face, like extreme temperatures.”

Last summer, prisoners organized a nationwide strike across 17 prisons to highlight poor conditions and labor practices. Among their demands was an “immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.”  The 13th Amendment abolished slavery but contains an exemption that allows involuntary servitude as part of a criminal punishment. Chicago’s minimum wage is set to increase to $13 an hour this summer, and the prisoners who shoveled snow this week lag far behind.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 1, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria
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