How the climate crisis affects labor unions

New York — It was billed as a breakfast seminar, but nearly 300 people from the labor movement showed up at New York’s Murphy Institute on Jan. 17 to hear presentations on the climate crisis and how it affects unions. Everybody there believed that global warming was the root cause of Superstorm Sandy’s devastation and more such storms are likely.

The damage is less and less visible two-and-a-half months after the storm dumped millions of tons of water into New York City subways, tunnels, stores and homes. But subway workers still have to throw switches and set signals by hand because the Metropolitan Transit Authority has to keep the system rolling and doesn’t have the billions needed to fix the damage. Janitors and building supers weren’t working when many big buildings in lower Manhattan lost their network connections; some are still out.

Many workers in New York lost their homes. Those living in  high-rises lost power, elevator service, water, heat. Some for days, others for weeks. There were some terrifying incidents during Sandy’s surge. The winter issue of the Transport Workers Bulletin, published by TWU Local 100, has a story of how the workers at Stillwell Terminal had to use ladders to climb the structure or get to the roofs of their dump trucks after water reached some workers’ chins.

James Hansen of NASA, an internationally respected climatologist, discussed the science and data of global warming and gave estimates on how fast the world’s oceans are heating. While global warming has been indisputably scientifically established, the existence of tipping points — when the climate has changed so much it can’t be mitigated — is still an issue.

Hansen talked about the disappearance of ice from the Arctic Ocean.  He pointed out that it was not just the extent of the ice pack, which was the lowest on record this past September — easily tracked by satellite imaging — but also its thickness, which is harder to measure. Surveys indicate it’s also decreasing rapidly. That means the Arctic Ocean is rapidly heating up, which influences the release of methane, a very potent greenhouse gas, from melting permafrost.

Hansen proposed that a stiff tax on carbon would put market pressure on companies to begin serious mitigation efforts.

Green needs before corporate greed

Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the NY Taxi Workers Alliance, pointed out that her members come from countries like Bangladesh that are severely affected by rising sea levels produced by global warming. They would prefer to drive hybrid vehicles, which save them $15 to $25 a day in fuel costs — and also produce less pollution and carbon — but fleet owners persuaded New York’s billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg not to require hybrids.

Hector Figueroa, president of Service Employees 32BJ, pointed out that many of his members not only were personally affected, but lost wages when their buildings were shut down after the storm. He urged a campaign to force politicians to adopt a policy of remediation, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, rather than just limiting or capping its production. He also wants his members trained to work in sustainable, green buildings.

David Coles, president of the Communication, Energy and Paper Workers union (CEP), one of the largest Canadian private sector unions with 160,000 workers, made it clear that he personally doesn’t think the environmental problems facing North America and the world can be solved under capitalism.

He focused his talk on “tar sands,” more precisely bitumen sands, that major oil companies want to export from northern Alberta to the U.S. via the Keystone XL pipeline. The way this deal has been structured, said Coles, it kills Canadian jobs, violates the treaty rights of the First Nations (the preferred name of Indigenous peoples of Canada), harms the environment and delays the transition from carbon-based to sustainable energy sources. For all those reasons, CEP opposes Keystone XL and asks unions in the U.S. to call on President Barack Obama to halt it. (For Coles’ talk, see Jan. 18 Monthly Review.)

Coles also said CEP supports the Idle No More movement of the First Nations and is part of Blue Green Canada, an alliance of labor, environmental and civil society organizations. He quoted a statement that a leader of the Quebec student strike made at PowerShift, the 2012 conference of 1,000 youth in Ottawa Oct. 26-29, which CEP endorsed.

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois told PowerShift: “The problem is not [personal] consumption; it is our economy and production. Our system is broken on a systemic level. … Without radical change we will be faced with extinction. Resistance in these times is not an option. It is a duty.”

This labor movement forum indicates that unionists feel the current system for managing our environmental/climate problems is untenable. How this dissatisfaction will work out in the concrete work of the unions is yet down the road.

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