Saturday, October 03, 2009

Labor and Climate Change

New AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka is making a lot of noise about labor being 100% behind climate change legislation and creating green jobs. That's great, but it's a bit hard to enforce on the local level. Global Labor Strategies has a piece about some locals joining with industry to oppose climate change legislation. These locals are hardly the only examples of this. The United Auto Workers has done a terrible job supporting emissions legislation and the United Mine Workers consistently goes to the mat to support mountaintop removal and the American coal economy. In this case, it's just a few locals in Alaska who would benefit from the building of pipelines and such.

Part of the problem is the decentralized nature of unionism in the United States. There are dozens of unions, many of which are today very small. The AFL-CIO is a federation, not a dictatorship. Unions have come and gone over the last decades, including the defection of the CIO itself in the 1930s and more recently SEIU's Change to Win coalition. So if a union is angry with the federation, they can just leave. Moreover, if the UAW wants to lobby to kill climate change legislation, there's little the AFL-CIO can do to stop them.

It's hard to blame workers for this. They desperately hold on to their jobs, knowing that GM will probably ship them to Mexico anyway, but maybe extreme loyalty to the company will engender loyalty from the company to them. That's not going to happen, but put yourself in the workers' position. West Virginia coal miners don't have a lot of other economic options. Despite the fact that mountaintop removal has vastly reduced employment in coal over the past twenty years and that the coal companies would replace every single worker with technology if they could, in a lot of West Virginia and Kentucky, a job in coal is the best job you can get. By far.

The answer to this dilemma is a more centralized labor federation with more power in the governing body. That's probably not going to happen, as the different unions can't agree on much of anything except to support Democrats in elections. But perhaps Trumka can rally the unions on these issues and convince workers that unionized green jobs are their bright future.