DNC Chair Tom Perez reversed an agreement to ban accepting money from the fossil fuel industry that created a firestorm of protests, we speak with Janet Redman, climate change director at Greenpeace

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. Good to have you all with us. I’m Marc Steiner.

Should the Democrats take fossil fuel money? What do you think? It’s a question that has gripped that party for a while. Two months ago, the Democratic National Committee voted to support not taking money from the fossil fuel industry. Then last Friday, in what appeared to be a secretive move, DNC Chair Tom Perez presented a resolution that the Democrats would, quote, “Support fossil fuel workers,” and will accept donations from, quote, “employers’ political action committees.” However, what they thought would be a quiet vote on a Friday the news hasn’t followed too much, overlooked by the press, turned into something very different. There were people in the room like Christine Pelosi- yes, the daughter of the House majority leader herself- who began tweeting it out, and it became a firestorm among many Democrats.

Well, over 900 Democrats, diverse candidates, have taken a no fossil fuel money pledge, and the Dems had agreed not to take fossil fuel money. But not now. So where does that take them? To sort this out, we talk with Janet Redman, who is the climate campaign director at Greenpeace joining us from the Bay Area in California, in Northern California that would be, somewhere there. And Janet, welcome. Good to have you with us.

JANET REDMAN: Thanks for having me.

MARC STEINER: So this is interesting. I mean, I think that we’ve been talking a lot about this divide inside the Democrats. And this really kind of, to me, pinpoints some of their internal struggle over where to go and how to get there. I mean, what, are your initial thoughts on this? And were you aware that they had taken the pledge not to take fossil fuel money in the first place?

JANET REDMAN: Yeah, I hd been aware that the DNC had passed a resolution about two months ago not to take political action committee money, so PAC money, from the fossil fuel industry. Which makes a ton of sense. That lines up better, lines up well with their 2016 platform, which has a number of really, I think, interesting promises and policy positions around climate change and energy. For example, they opposed drilling off the coast of the Atlantic and Alaska in that platform. They talked about moving to 50 percent electricity quickly, and then 100 percent renewable energy by mid-century. It talked about reducing oil consumption, talked about environmental justice and the impacts of climate change on communities of color, low-income communities who are hit first and worse.

So it was an incredible platform, which, of course, the fossil fuel industry has had a hard time with. So it makes a ton of sense to me that unfortunately, moving away from taking fossil fuel contributions would have helped them be able to pass policies that support the platform that the DNC has been talking about. My guess is that what happened is that some outside the DNC, probably in executive boardrooms of energy companies. And there was nervousness in the fossil fuel industry that perhaps elected officials are getting out of the fossil fuel industry’s grasp. And I think this is a clear indication that in fact we’re talking about PAC money, we’re talking about big dollar donations, not just donations from workers.

I think it’s really important to notice, as you mentioned, in the resolution that was recently passed and the policy that was recently passed on Friday, that we’re not just talking about worker contributions. We’re talking about contributions from the unions, but most importantly from their employers’ PACs. So that, again, is fossil fuel industry money that we’re talking about putting at the heart of this matter.

MARC STEINER: So let me take a different tack for this. Some of the articles have mentioned, I think that there’s, it is about the fossil fuel industry and the power of the Exxons of the world. It’s clear that that’s a piece of this, a huge piece of this, obviously. That’s still where many people make their money. And it’s a powerful, powerful corporate interest. However, the other side of that is the part of what fueled the Democratic Party for a long time are unions, and trade unions. This was made out to be a trade union move. And even though it may not be fully one, it seems to me it is one to an extent, in that a lot of workers- and well-paid workers, whether they’re in the steelworkers union or the ironworkers union, wherever they might be. Some of those jobs are in the fossil fuel industry. And those unions historically have had this split between, there’s been a split between the environmental activists and union community, because unions are saying fine, you want solar? They make no money. I’m making $32 an hour. What do you expect me to do, not feed my family? So to me there’s something else at work here beyond just the power of that industry.

JANET REDMAN: Well, I think, I think there is something else at work, and I think you’ve noted it. What’s, what’s happening right now is, I think rightfully so, a real concern within the union movement, particularly among unions who have members that are represented represented from the fossil fuel industry and related industries. So certainly there’s there’s concern that- I think there’s a recognition climate change is real. It’s here, it’s happening. One of the clear solutions to the climate problem is to move off of fossil fuels. There are two ways of doing that. We can do that in a way that’s planned, in a way that’s responsible, in a way that we start and manage phaseout early and with lots of support for workers and communities, who are both impacted by the benefit from the fossil fuel industry. And there’s another way of doing that, which is to pretend that it’s not happening, that the shift away from fossil fuels is not inevitable, which I think, in fact, we see that it really is, if we care about our survival. And to dig our heels in.

And I think that’s clearly what some parts of the union community are doing. I think it’s, I think it’s a shame. I think it’s in some ways a disservice to the community of workers for the DNC to, instead of be getting behind policies that will incentivize jobs in the renewable energy sector being good jobs and being high-paying jobs and being unionizable jobs, instead they’re moving back to taking money from the fossil fuel industry, and in fact changing the rhetoric, which we have seen out of the last Democratic National Committee’s platform, which said we’re moving back, it says, on all of the above. We’re supporting an all the above energy mix. So that means bringing back in nukes, bringing back in, quote-unquote, clean coal, carbon capture, and storage. So really moving away from their commitments to the renewable energy sector.

I think what’s most important here is that the DNC is really tone deaf to the shift in this country. What people are asking for are bold moves from elected officials and from candidates. I think right now in climate change that means moving away from fossil fuels. But I think with respect to workers’ rights that means really getting behind policies that enable unionization of sectors that are growing. Right now the renewable energy sector is growing. That’s where the future of work is. Not just unions themselves, but the elected officials should be getting behind the kinds of policies that make those jobs good jobs, not pretending that they’re not going to happen.

MARC STEINER: So let me pick up on that point for a moment. I might just stay with the unions just for a minute here. I mean, I think that one of the- we’ve had conversations here where we’re broadcasting from in Maryland between the steelworkers and environmental activists, and about to announce something there. But one of the things that steelworkers want, let’s say for example, is for states to sign a labor peace agreement allowing them to organize workers, whenever plants, or solar facilities, or manufacturing facilities that may make wind turbines, wherever that is. And I think there’s always, there’s been this disconnect, I think, between a lot of activists on the environmental front and union workers and union organizations just around this issue.

So the question is, how does a bridge get built? Because clearly you’re right. I think that, you know, the future is about getting away from fossil fuels. We have to get away from it. You have to build a new clean economy, a new clean energy world. But the question is how we get there, and how you unite to get there. And what the DNC did does not take us there. What does?

JANET REDMAN: Well, I think that’s an incredibly good point. And I think- please don’t construe my comments earlier-.

MARC STEINER: No, I do not. I just want to probe it even further.

JANET REDMAN: Absolutely. Yeah, I think there’s room for both sides. I think this is, this is critical. I think it’s absolutely critical that the new job, new jobs in the new energy sectors are unionized. And it’s also critical that the environment community gets behind those asks for worker protections, workers’ rights. And to be perfectly honest, the environment community has had a hard time seeing that as a priority. I think it’s been to the detriment of our climate work, it’s been at the detriment of our environmental protection work. And in fact, I think that’s- what we’re seeing right now is a callout for that.

There are plenty of ways we can, the environment community can step forward. I think it’s around areas like electric vehicles, and making sure that all electric vehicle manufacturing plants are unionized, are unionizable. Making sure that state-level policies are reflecting union workers’ abilities to organize. These are basic human rights that are actually detailed internationally, and even here in the United States. But I think having the environment community name them and stand behind them is critical, and having the government community stand with and behind union members when, even in the fossil fuel industry, when the fossil fuel industry is treating workers badly.

I think what’s most important for the environment community to do is understand that workers are people. These are people’s jobs. And workers in the fossil fuel sector have helped build prosperity here in the United States. So I think it’s really important for folks in the environment community not to be vilifying the workers in the industries, and instead to reflect the fact that everyone’s looking for good work. Everyone’s looking for work that keeps them healthy. Everyone’s looking for work that makes their kid’s future better. I think that’s an important place for all of us to be starting from, and then think about what are the ways we build a clean energy economy together that respects workers’ rights, and actually moves us to that energy system that we need to protect our future.

MARC STEINER: So, very quickly, how do you think this whole idea- I think we can spend an entire conversation, which we should, talking about the Green New Deal, and why that’s so hard to make part of a serious platform and change in America that respects what workers need, and fights for a clean environment, and builds a clean energy industry in America. But it’s something that hasn’t gotten a lot of play in the press, and it seems to me that would be almost ideal in terms of how you bridge this, build this bridge.

JANET REDMAN: I mean, that’s it. We’re talking about- we have a real need, here. Our bridges are crumbling. Our water infrastructure, as we know, is poisoning people at this point. Roads are falling to pieces. We have a massive infrastructure problem. We can solve that by putting people to work doing it. In fact, we’re going to see, because of the locked-in effects of climate change, we have to move some of our infrastructure away from coastlines, away from places that are flooding. So we have a huge infrastructure job to do, and that’s millions of jobs.

I think what we need to understand right now is that we need those to be public sector jobs; jobs that are unionizable. Unfortunately, right now the rhetoric nationally has moved toward privatization of those kinds of jobs, private sector jobs, which are harder to unionize and don’t have the same kind of public responsibility, public accountability that public sector jobs have. I think a smart thing that the environment community could do with labor is to get behind the idea that infrastructure jobs need to happen now, and those need to be public sector jobs, not private sector jobs.

MARC STEINER: So finally, very quickly, where do you think this takes the Democratic Party, given this vote that just took place and the reaction to it?

JANET REDMAN: I think we’re going to see some really strong pushback from members of the Democratic Party, who are a growing groundswell calling for progressive policies, progressive candidates. I think candidates who are smart in either party should be taking this no fossil fuel money pledge and showing, really showing their chops as climate leaders to say no more fossil fuel infrastructure, no more money from the fossil fuel industry polluting our politics. The shift to 100 percent renewable energy has to happen quickly, and those have to be through good jobs that are high paying and that respect workers rights.

MARC STEINER: Well, Janet Redman, thanks so much for joining us today. I look forward to a number of conversations with you over the next couple of weeks. Take care. I appreciate you joining us.

JANET REDMAN: Thanks so much for having me. Pleasure to be with you.

MARC STEINER: Take care. And I’m Marc Steiner here for the Real News Network. Good to have you with us. We’ll be talking soon. Take care.

Janet Redman

Janet Redman currently works with Oil Change USA, and is the policy director at Oil Change International. Previously, Janet was the director of the Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies, and co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, where she provided analysis of the international financial institutions' energy investment and carbon finance activities. Her studies on the World Bank's climate activities include World Bank: Climate Profiteer, and Dirty is the New Clean: A critique of the World Bank's strategic framework for development and climate change. She is a founding participant in the global Climate Justice Now! network.