Can Environmentalists and Labor Unions Unite?

Baltimore union organizers and environmentalists team up to examine policies that would promote a sustainable future for workers and the planet

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Story Transcript

DHARNA NOOR: Should we fight for labor rights, or against climate change?

DONALD TRUMP: We are putting our great coal miners back to work.

ROBERT POLLIN: In 50 years we can’t be burning oil, coal, and natural gas.

MICHAEL MANN: The number of lives that will be lost because of the damaging impacts of climate change … in the hundreds of millions.

DHARNA NOOR: Some organizers think we can and must do both.

MUSTAFA SANTIAGO ALI: We know that when we talk about the opportunities that exist around a new clean economy, we are talking about the creation of over 5 million jobs that are estimated by 2040.

DHARNA NOOR: At the Baltimore People’s Climate Movement’s new energy and economic future town hall, union organizers and environmentalists examined how coalitions can save jobs and the planet.

NABEEHAH ARIFAH AZEEZ: When we work in silos and work on a single issue, then it allows you to be accountable in one area, but not accountable in a different area.

DHARNA NOOR: Moderated by The Real News Network’s Khalilah Harris and Marc Steiner, panelists addressed the challenges with job creation and sustainable industries.

JIM STRONG: A solar farm and a windmill doesn’t really create a lot of jobs after the installation.

NABEEHAH ARIFAH AZEEZ: A lot of union supporters and union workers are afraid when we talk about closing down a plant or an incinerator, because real people work there, and real people provide for their families. So how do we transition those people into jobs that help to save our planet?

JIM STRONG: The average wage in a fossil fuel job is around 35-36 [dollars] with benefits. The average wage in a clean energy is around 20-21 [dollars].

DHARNA NOOR: And explored solutions to those problems.

NABEEHAH ARIFAH AZEEZ: If we are trying to move into the new energy and economic future, we need to make sure that as we are creating green jobs in a green industry that we’re also creating jobs where workers still can unionize, where workers are still making a living wage.

JIM STRONG: We should be making those things here in this country, and using USA-made solar panels, USA-made steel. And here’s something I want you to remember: That a solar panel made in anywhere else in the world is five times dirtier than a solar panel made in USA.

DHARNA NOOR: They say the fight goes from the classroom …

KALLAN BENSON: Is gravity a political issue? No, it’s not. It’s a fact. And so is climate change. And they teach gravity in their schools.

DHARNA NOOR: To City Hall …

REYNARD PARKS: We are in a city right now who has a mayor who has an opportunity to utilize a streetlight campaign. We had the opportunity to do solar street lights.

DHARNA NOOR: To the streets.

NABEEHAH ARIFAH AZEEZ: If you aren’t organizing to see something that your grandchildren will see the benefits of, you’re not really organizing.

DHARNA NOOR: But the narrative that labor and environmentalists are always at odds is pervasive.

MUSTAFA SANTIAGO ALI: There have always been those owners of business and industries who have looked for an opportunity to separate people. They understand that that is a part of the power dynamic.

DHARNA NOOR: Former EPA senior adviser and current Hip Hop Caucus senior vice president Mustafa Santiago Ali says this fight is happening across the country.

MUSTAFA SANTIAGO ALI: If you look at places like Appalachia, if you look at places like Kentucky and West Virginia and Ohio and Pennsylvania, what you will find in that space, especially in West Virginia, is that they have not allowed for newer types of economic opportunities, newer types of businesses in the renewable space to even move into and to be able to effectively compete. So therefore they are placing a real disservice on the folks who are there in those locations, because they won’t be able to take advantage of the 5 million new jobs that are going to be created.

DHARNA NOOR: Panelist Jim Strong as District 8 director at the United Steelworkers.

JIM STRONG: In 2008 the O’Malley administration introduced the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act.

DHARNA NOOR: His union initially opposed the bill, and it died.

JIM STRONG: The concern about the bill was the impact that this tax would have on the electricity use at the facility. And they use a lot of electricity. We were concerned it would have a negative impact on the jobs.

DHARNA NOOR: But a coalition of unions, environmental organizations, and government agencies worked together to draft a compromise.

JIM STRONG: And we actually end up drafting a bill which was passed in 2009.

DHARNA NOOR: This doesn’t mean labor and environmentalists always agree. For the past seven years environmentalists have introduced a bill to end subsidies to a paper mill that burns a byproduct known as black liquor.

JIM STRONG: That’s the second largest employer in Allegheny County.

DHARNA NOOR: Nabeehah says it can be hard to talk climate change with people who are facing more immediate issues.

NABEEHAH ARIFAH AZEEZ: People who are, you know, poor, oftentimes unemployed or underemployed, doing the best that they can. And so when you talk to them about an environmental movement, they feel like that’s not something that should be a priority.

DHARNA NOOR: Even though environmental degradation and climate change disproportionately impact poor people and people of color.

YINKA BODE-GEORGE: Vulnerabilities that communities experience as a result of injustice only makes climate impacts worse for those communities.

DHARNA NOOR: But the People’s Climate Movement says they’re down for the challenge.

NABEEHAH ARIFAH AZEEZ: Unions got to where they were by people putting in a lot of hard work. And so the same thing will have to happen with the green jobs industries.

DHARNA NOOR: For The Real News, I’m Dharna Noor in Baltimore.