In 2023, unions will become the core of the climate movement

This story was originally published by Grinding and appears here as part of the Climatic desk collaboration.

Last year was marked by a symbiosis between the union and climate movements. Workers across industries and geographies loudly declared that a world where their safety and well-being is ignored is even more dangerous for them and others in a time of energy transition and climate crisis. After decades of hesitation, several major unions recognized the urgent need to organize those who will do the hard work of decarbonizing the country’s economy. It doesn’t hurt that sympathy and public policies have become friendlier toward them. As a result, calls for a just transition shook union halls and corporate offices as unions enjoyed one of their most active years in recent memory and environmental organizations, long unsure about unions’ position, found new allies.

“The options and solutions won’t really work unless the workforce is involved in them,” said Dana Kuhnline, director of Reimagine Appalachia. Work with union leaders and grassroots environmental groups to provide good jobs to mining communities that need them. “I think that’s a lesson that climate activists really need to take to heart.”

The reality of a warming world was a central concern for UPS, Amazon and airport workers who demanded, and in many cases obtained, concessions that protected them from extreme heat. But the greatest advances were made by the 150,000 members of the revitalized United Auto Workers, or UAW, which made a just transition a key demand in one of the most high-profile strikes of the year. Although the union’s main demands concerned wages and sick days, a large amount of negotiations focused on the impending transition to electric vehicles. Workers wanted to ensure that the factories that will make this happen for Ford, General Motors and Stellantis are unionized shops, with wages and benefits equal to those provided in traditional auto factories. Forty years of internal organizing brought the UAW to a place where it was willing and able to address the energy transition, whereas in previous years its leaders had been uneasy about the idea.

Auto workers were right to be worried. Many of the sectors that make decarbonization possible are non-union (this is particularly true of Asian and European automakers with factories in the United States). Salaries also run lower on average than those paid by fossil fuel industries, where good wages and benefits were hard-won, often with union contracts written in the blood of workers from more troubled times. However, many workers in those fields remain hesitant about the coming changes: California oil workers, for example, have been much less supportive of policies that support the energy transition. That’s why many labor experts called it a big deal when the UAW overwhelmingly approved a contract that will generate higher wages, ensure its members a role in the transition to electric vehicles and possibly lead to greater unionization of the auto sector.

“The UAW strike showed the vision that many people were looking for,” said J. Mijin Cha, a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “The way you have power is through money or through people. “We will never have as much money as the fossil fuel industry, so we need people.”

The work that has been carried out throughout the year in meetings and negotiations between unions, climate activists, public officials and employers has also been given a public face. In many of the country’s fossil fuel communities, clean energy projects (often driven by federal incentives that require the employment of union workers) have embraced organized labor. In West Virginia, for example, the United Mine Workers and the United Steelworkers signed contracts with battery factories. solar crywhich will install photovoltaic panels across the state, is working with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to create apprenticeship pathways and a measure of long-term job stability.

Union leaders and climate organizations are seizing the possibility that a skilled workforce with a strong training pipeline could create jobs for struggling fossil fuel communities. Union involvement, they said, will ensure those jobs remain local, rather than going to an out-of-state contractor, and will offer competitive wages.

“Our main concern is local hiring and getting people who have been affected by this economic transition off coal,” said Beau Hawk, who belongs to a labor coalition called Labor at the Table. He strives to represent labor interests and ensure that funds from the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill are spent in the communities where they are needed most. He said the organization hopes to build a strong learning infrastructure and ensure long-term job security that boosts communities where the instability of the fossil fuel industry has left large gaps.

In 2023, organized labor became the core of the Climate Movement. #UAW #EnergyTransition #ClimateCrisis #LaborUnions

Environmental organizations openly supported workers in 2023, with Sierra Club, Greenpeace and others supporting the UAW’s calls for a just transition to electric vehicles and boasting union contracts in the energy transition space while advocating for climate policy.

“We need both movements to build pressure and we need legislative changes to capitalize on that,” Cha said.

Cha says the only way to codify labor victories is to increase funding for the National Labor Relations Board and integrate labor standards into green energy development. While the IRA strongly encourages the use of union labor for federally funded infrastructure projects, incentives are not the same as mandates. Michigan has taken some steps in this direction: Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a policy package which created an energy transition office and guaranteed union jobs for clean energy workers.

Without that action, Cha said, many unions — representing many of the carpenters, welders, electricians and other workers who are so needed in the race to build the infrastructure of the energy transition — may not trust the manufacturing industry. renewable energies take care of them.

Meanwhile, the United Auto Workers is setting its organizing sights on 13 automakers that have so far resisted union drives. Even as the UAW announced its victory last month, Toyota factories in Kentucky and Alabama had already raised their base pay to $28 per hour. An incipient union campaign has begun in Tesla, a notorious anti-union. Hyundai, which operates electric vehicle battery plants in the south, has said it will raise wages at factories. starting next year. Solar workers in New Jersey, fed up with seasonal, unstable work and low wages, turned to the UAW for help.

“These are the jobs of the future,” the leaders of the effort wrote in a opinion article.

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