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At the first Designing A Green New Deal conference, labor and environmental organizer Jane McAlevey explains what strikes, war, and globalization have to do with climate justice.

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This story was produced as a part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

JANE MCALEVEY: We need to have a wicked embrace right now of what it means to build progressive, radical trade unions in this country again. And that’s crucial to how we’re actually going to get to a Green New Deal.

DHARNA NOOR: Climate organizers are thinking big. And the prime example is the Green New Deal, the umbrella term for plans to decarbonize the American economy in a decade and create millions of jobs and center frontline communities as we do so. 1400 people gathered in Philadelphia on Friday at a conference called Designing a Green New Deal to talk about how to make all of that happen.

After the conference, we caught up with one of the speakers, Jane McAlevey. She is a union organizer and an environmental organizer. We chatted about these movements and how to think big and about jobs and about war and about raising expectations as temperatures are rising. Here’s our interview.

JANE MCALEVEY: I think it was a really important conference. The energy was really good, the intersection of people was really good. And I think what the organizers of the conference were trying to do was actually do that, to make sure that we were not isolating environmentalism from anti-racism, from stopping war to… Like they actually were explicitly trying to bring together different strands of the progressive movement. And I think that that is part of what the appeal is, for me, of the Green New Deal in general. If we do it right, it can actually be a really big tent, but also really specific in terms of what we need, but big in terms of actually bringing the voices in and addressing affordable housing, workers and trade union rights, and obviously the climate crisis. And I think all of those are urgent.

DHARNA NOOR: Obviously you’re somebody with a long history in both the labor movement and the environmental movement. And I think this is sort of the most emphasis we’ve seen, in the climate movement at least, on jobs. I mean, the Green New Deal’s sort of tagline is: “A plan to decarbonize the American economy and create millions of good jobs.” What is that like for you, as somebody who has such a long history in both of these movements?

JANE MCALEVEY: We have to get way better at how we talk about jobs. Like frankly, the evil guy in the white house talks about job creation, the business elite talk about job creation. Plutocratic, politically elite Democrats have been promising job creation since they began moving factories out of the United States in the 1970s to places where workers have no rights in huge numbers. So as the sort of strategic–I call it strategic union busting, is what I call globalization–as they began to move jobs out of the country, the promise they made every time they shut a factory down was like, “Don’t you worry, we’re going to create a good job and we’re going to retrain you, and you’re going to get a good job.” And it’s a lie. And it’s been a series of lies for like 45 to 50 years. So language matters right now. The messaging matters in the war of ideas.

So to me, every time we talk about this we have to say and mean that every single worker who is in a fossil fuel related job is going to hold the standards they currently have in their existing union; which means literally the wages, the benefits, the pension, the health care. Although again, as I said last night, I hope Medicare for All solves the healthcare problem, but we have to be way more specific about that. Because what’s happened in this country is that people went from having good unionized jobs in the manufacturing sector to having really crappy jobs where they went from $45 an hour to $15 an hour. Which for someone who had $45 an hour, $15 is not a good solution; in fact, it’s a really bad solution. So for us to raise the expectation for American workers that actually the Green New Deal is going to be not just better for their kids’ future, but better for them in the immediate sense, like paying the bills.

DHARNA NOOR: How do you ask people to raise their expectations when right now it seems that even basic needs can’t be met? Like how do you ask somebody who’s sort of been beaten down by the gig economy, who’s getting paid less than they have before, who’s fighting just to get basic benefits; how do you ask someone in that kind of position to raise their expectations? And then in the climate movement too: How do you ask someone to raise their expectations to something like this massive Green New Deal when–you know folks, I think feel frustrated because not even like cap and trade could pass.

JANE MCALEVEY: I’d start by number one, what’s just happened in California with AB5, which actually is going to mandate that Uber and Lyft–even though they’ve already said they’re going to continue to be lawbreakers… But we just passed sweeping legislation in California. So we know that when we apply the best of our thinking and the maximum power to a fight, we actually can win. And so, I think one thing that’s important is to talk about recent examples of success. And by the way, also in New York state there’s been a series of victories–including one I wrote about–that took place in New York state where we’re actually doing just what I said. Where the building trades actually committed, got involved, and said, “Let’s actually be part of the solution of the problem,” and threw down. And at the end of it, there was enough power to shift the public subsidies from fossil fuel to wind energy. And there’s a huge transition in New York that’s happening now because in fact, people understood the way to do this is to say we’re going to guarantee the same wage, just benefits, et cetera.

So I think it’s important to come up with immediate examples of where, when we apply our best thinking and our biggest power, we can win. And we’ve been seeing this in the educational strikes too, right? I mean, people in Los Angeles… If you said to teachers in Los Angeles even just two years ago, “You’re going to build so much power; you’re going to contractually reduce classroom size; you’re going to end the blight on your school campuses; you’re going to force the school district to plant green grass so that low income kids of color in Los Angeles can play outdoors in green spaces,” people would have said, “That’s hard for me to believe. I don’t believe it.” They’d have been skeptical, cynical. And then they won, right? So I think as an organizer, first we have to start by asking people, “If you could change three things about your life, what would it be?” And then the second thing would be “Great, and then let’s walk you through the plan to do it by using examples of where workers are winning.”

DHARNA NOOR: That sort of brings me to a point that you made yesterday on your panel. You talked about the importance of strikes in achieving the many things that we got during the New Deal period and the importance of strikes now; what strikes could mean now to get those same kinds of wins in the environmental space, in the labor space. Talk a little bit about why that’s the case, and what strikes mean and why they’re so important.

JANE MCALEVEY: Yeah. I think there’s several important points about strikes. The first is starting with the power structure analysis right now in the United States. It’s bad for our side–and I mean everyone but the super political elite. Everyone but the 1% is not in good shape right now in terms of the power analysis in this country. So if you look at the Supreme Court, which is captured and gone; if you look at, obviously, the super right-wing Republican in the White House; in the Senate a weak defensive; a weak, not very strategic Democratic Party in the House, scared of their own shadow. And then you’ve got at the state level, you have an incredible number of right-wing state governments that look a lot like Washington right now.

So if you combine what’s happening at the state level, the federal level, and the Supreme Court, and then rigged election rolls where everything looks like Stacey Abrams’ election in Georgia where… We know Stacey Abrams won, but somehow Brian Kemp, who was running for office for secretary of state and controlled the election… With this kind of political setup and no immediate solution, people say, “Well, we just need Citizens United.” I’m like, “How are you going to overturn Citizens United? Cart before the horse, people.” There’s one solution that ordinary working people have today, and that’s massive strikes. And that was the same solution we had in the 1920s-30s, and it’s what got us to the original New Deal; massive, serious, strategic by geography strikes where American workers took high risk, and it paid off for them. And today, American workers need to take high risk, and have it pay off.

And by the way, I say American because it matters. Because we’re in this country right now, but it’s a global movement and there’s a global crisis. And it’s no different than what workers around the world have to do also.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. And as you said before, of course the workers’ struggles and workers’ movements in this country are inextricably linked to the rest of the world because of globalization. Climate change is obviously a global crisis. Do you think that there’s enough conversation and enough sort of grappling with the implications of the climate crisis on the rest of the world; and how to sort of account for the rest of the people on the world who aren’t living in this nation?

JANE MCALEVEY: I mean, I don’t think there is yet. I think you hear–even if you look at who’s getting the attention right now, the presidential debate… I think there’s really maybe actually two, a couple of candidates who are even raising the question of militarization and the cost of it. Certainly Sanders is raising it loudly, that we need to take money from the military industrial complex and move it into how we afford things like the Green New Deal as well as Medicare for All. So I think last night on the panel that we were on, we were trying to figure out how to bring more of a discussion about internationalism. And the truth is there’s so many basic things to cover first–like what are the tensions, what are the barriers, how do we overcome them–that we didn’t quite get there. But for as brilliant as the original resolution was that Markey and AOC started this dialogue with in January, the one piece I think that needs a little attention is internationalism.

But I would say like as a union organizer, our approach–our strategy, if we’re smart when we win generally–is to do what we call “going to the biggest worst first.” It’s like a slogan among the organizers. It’s like you’ve got to go to the biggest worst first. So in some ways, the U.S. is the biggest worst because we’ve walked away from every single serious climate treaty internationally. So this may be the one moment where I feel like we actually do have to lead. We lead on so much bad stuff; we have to lead on something good. But we have to do it with internationalist thinking in mind so that we’re not displacing problems to other parts in the world. And we are discussing climate and trade unionism and a better life for all workers on the planet; if we can save the planet by making sure we’re talking about all workers across the world.

DHARNA NOOR: Absolutely. And all workers across the planet, including obviously… You know, it’s not like people in the Global South don’t have jobs, are not workers. And often, people in the Global South are obviously hit first and worst by these sorts of climate crises.

JANE MCALEVEY: So I think we can use the example of some of the very earliest work I did when I became a full time paid organizer. I went to work for Earth Island Institute, which is a major conservation organization founded by David Brower, who was the first real executive director of the Sierra Club. Well, I’m talking about way before I was born. And by the time I met David, he was older. He had set up something called Earth Island Institute. And he understood that militarization was an environmental problem. He also understood that nuclear energy and nuclear power were environmental problems.

So he was already way ahead of his time in terms of people in the environmental movement grappling with the issues that are sometimes the third rail inside the environmental movement, like the question of nuclear war. So I was hired to help co-direct a project called The Environmental Project in Central America. And literally, our mission was to bring delegations of environmentalist from all levels of the environmental movement in the United States into Central America, in particular into Nicaragua under the Sandinistas at the time. That was when the Sandinistas I think meant something really positive, not like today.

But our job was to bring delegations of environmentalists into central America and eventually Latin America to educate them about the explicit links between U.S. military policy, not just U.S. foreign economic… Like, literally how did military policy and economic policy coming out of the United States lead to environmental destruction in the rainforest in Latin America. And we did that, and we were actually really successful. We wound up getting Friends of the Earth; a bunch of the mainstream environmental organizations began taking positions against U.S. foreign military policy because they, for the first time, understood the direct connection between if we’re attacking democratically elected governments in Latin America who are actually trying to bring up the lives of most of the country, that that was actually putting downward pressure on the rainforest. And we’re seeing the same thing, by the way, in Brazil right now.

So I think we can do it, borrowing from how do we educate the environmental movement? How do we educate the trade union movement about some of the climate stuff? How do we educate the environmental movement about the urgent need to really deal with the trade union question much better than it is? How do we bring militarization and internationalism into it? Where’s the money going to come from? I think we have a super bloated military budget and we’re creating foreign wars that are completely useless and are benefiting no one. So I think the money is there, so I think we have to just be deliberate and explicit about the education.

DHARNA NOOR: And the Pentagon is the world’s largest institutional…


DHARNA NOOR: Exactly. So with all of that being said, obviously all of these struggles are linked. Of course, there’s no way to really separate militarization from the labor movement, from the climate movement. And if we want any of these things to get better, it seems we have to start somewhere and then build out.

But there has been some people who have kind of said like, “OK, in the scope of the Green New Deal, it’s already so hard to get climate policy passed. Why would you even open it up to something like a federal jobs guarantee or trying to shrink the military budget? How are you ever going to get anything passed if you’re taking on everything at once?” What’s your response to people who say that this is too ambitious? Is this like a political goal to make the, the Green New Deal and climate policy more generally more popular because people like jobs or is it like you can’t actually physically do something like this without taking on all these problems at once?

JANE MCALEVEY: No, no. You can’t. The thing is: housing jobs, clean water, the environment, good schools, they’re inextricably linked. And I think the better the progressive movement gets about how do we link them together… The right-wing is really good at driving the ideas debate. And I think it’s not very complicated to say if a trade union wins a substantial wage at work, but then the workers’ housing is demolished to make room for super rich people, that’s a problem. It also means it’s going to bear down on the kids’ public school because you’re going to have to move out of the school district that they’re in. These are not hard to link together. And I think to say that every single ordinary person in this country deserves a unionized, high paying job, if we go back to this simple idea, this is what we’re doing. Go back to the simple idea that the New Deal created what was the American Dream; flawed because not everyone was in it exactly.

But we made tremendous progress actually on that, and many more people actually did reach and achieve the American dream in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s, until the right-wing attack on trade unions began. So the American Dream was your kids do better than you. You have the right to home ownership; you can get a house and afford a mortgage. You can have a one parent working household. Now, it was gendered back then, but I think today… Like I’m all about can we go back to one person working and recognize that raising kids is actually a full time job? I just want more men doing it.
But none of this is new. We just have to get more comfortable. And I think that the right is so aggressive that people cower too easily to them. I’m happy to have a debate with any of those SOBs about why this is an integrated approach to fixing the solution of misery among a lot of American workers.

DHARNA NOOR: Absolutely. I guess I’ll finish up by asking you where your eyes are in the country, in the world right now. What are some models that you think are really working, some movements that you think are really working? And where should we be looking to learn, and take those sorts of lessons and bring them in to work for the Green New Deal or labor movements or otherwise?

JANE MCALEVEY: Every successful strike since 2018, which would be the hotel strike by UNITE HERE; the strike of the Stop & Shop workers in New England; every single education strike; there’s a lot of smaller strikes happening that people aren’t seeing that are also winning. In the healthcare sector there’s lots of individual hospitals where nurses and healthcare workers are going on strike. So the first place–

DHARNA NOOR: Here in Philadelphia where we are today?

JANE MCALEVEY: Yes. So the first place is to look at successful strikes. Because a successful strike by definition means that you’ve created the kind of unity and participation that we need in America right now. So that’s one.

And then secondly, I think, look at the states like California where we’re actually winning. We’re actually moving forward on progressive ideas in the state legislature. And I think in 2020 there’s an incredibly important initiative to look at, where we are trying to solve the problem of how to refund the public sector, which is frankly urgent. It’s urgent for the Green New Deal. So if we’re looking at models of things we need to do, we have to be able to fund the public sector, create a robust public sector that’s unionized, which we know right now is the best source of jobs for women and women of color and people of color in general in America. So it’s like to refund the public sector is an anti-racist and anti-sexist project inside of a larger project.

And in California there’s going to be a ballot initiative in November of 2020 called Schools and Communities First. And that’s an effort by a bunch of the progressive trade unions to say it’s time to make corporations pay their fair share of taxes. So I think there’s a lot of good examples to look at right now. But I would start with all the strikes are workers are winning, because they’re by definition creating high participation and unity and supermajorities. And that’s what you need to knock some really bad people out of office and to try and fight like hell and have a chance at winning the Green New Deal.

DHARNA NOOR: Can I just ask you briefly why the private sector is incapable of this? Why is it so important that this work happens with an expansion of the public sector?

JANE MCALEVEY: I almost feel like the market is a total failure. I mean, the “idea” of the market-driven ideology that has by force consumed the country for the last 45 years has been an absolute failure. I mean, look at the conditions of frankly abject misery and then something just above that like total exhaustion. Every worker’s tired, every worker’s exhausted. No one has time off, no one can deal with childcare, no one can pay their bills, and 60% of Americans are in debt. Like not only do they not have any savings, they’re in debt; 60%. I think every time someone talks about the idea of the market, we just need to say 60% of Americans not only have no savings, they’re in debt as a result of the right-wing neoliberal project going on in this country.

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Jane McAlevey is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. Before academia, she worked for 20 years an organizer in the labor and environmental justice movements. She is a regular contributor to The Nation magazine, which chose her book, "Raising Expectations and Raising Hell" (Verso 2012), as the "most valuable book of 2012."