Environmental and Labor Groups Team Up to Demand COVID-19 Relief

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate the U.S. economy, national environmental organizations are stepping up to support labor unions and frontline workers across the country in their push for personal protective equipment, sick and hazard pay, safe working conditions, and other forms of relief as the crisis intensifies.

The Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS), which partners labor and environmental groups, is facilitating a loose coalition of more than 100 unions and environmental organizations working to pressure the Trump administration to do more to protect frontline workers. The groups are also supporting nine days of action from Earth Day to May Day to demonstrate the interconnection of climate justice and worker justice.

The coalition sent a letter this month to the White House to demand that the Trump administration immediately provide protective gear not just to hospital workers but also to other kinds of laborers who have proven essential, such as grocery workers and manufacturers who cannot work from home.

“The desperate need for [personal protective equipment] goes far beyond healthcare workers,” the groups wrote. “Janitors are deep cleaning buildings, teachers’ aides are delivering meals to children at home, warehouse and manufacturing workers are making and distributing essential goods, home care providers are caring for the most vulnerable, public service workers are maintaining essential services, bus operators are taking essential workers to their jobs.”

The groups also demanded that the administration deploy the Defense Production Act, which forces companies to manufacture needed supplies, more broadly and aggressively “to speed immediate production of new protective equipment and ensure it is routed to states for distribution.”

The Pentagon announced on April 11 that the U.S. military is using its powers under the Defense Production Act to spend $133 million on boosting N-95 mask production. Still, labor leaders argue Trump is not using the law to the extent necessary given the severe lack of protective equipment and ventilators necessary to battle COVID-19.

The letter was signed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the American Federation of Teachers, the Amalgamated Transit Union International and UNITE HERE, as well as the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, 350.org, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sunrise Movement and Fire Drill Fridays, among other labor unions and environmental organizations.

“We’ve worked for a while on really building bridges between the environmental movement and the labor movement, and anyone who is involved in either piece of that knows that there are some challenges there,” says LNS Organizing Director Lauren Burke. “But when the COVID-19 crisis struck, we realized that there was a real opportunity here to focus where it really mattered in building solidarity and fighting for real solutions to the COVID crisis.”

Labor unions and environmental organizations in the U.S. and around the world began working together more closely in the run-up to last year’s series of international, youth-led climate strikes on September 20, and those ties have only deepened amid the COVID-19 pandemic as environmental organizations have thrown themselves into organizing efforts to support frontline workers, taking direction from union leadership.

Many of the groups held an emotional video conference together in late March in which leaders from major environmental organizations listened to union leaders, including Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson, SEIU 1199 Secretary-Treasurer Maria Castaneda, United Food and Commercial Workers President Faye Guenther and National Nurses United Midwest Director Marti Smith.

Labor leaders detailed their workers’ needs, and how some are even dying on the front lines of the crisis. Smith explained the dire situation nurses face as protective equipment continues to dwindle, telling environmental leaders that they could help amplify the particular risks posed to fence-line communities who face higher rates of respiratory illnesses. Nelson explained how aviation industry unions were able to win direct grants to fund airline industry salaries and benefits in the CARES Act, and how labor originally pushed environmental measures in an initial draft of the relief bill before the measures were stripped out.

“I think we were poised before this crisis came, to take kind of [our] work together to the next level, and in particular, looking at a lot of the financing … particularly around green bonds and stuff like that,” UNITE HERE Secretary-Treasurer Gwen Mills told environmental leaders, referring to previous campaigns to call out companies’ corporate financing and greenwashing efforts. “So that’s something we really look forward to working on together, but where we are at the moment [with COVID-19] obviously has sidetracked us.”

The meeting yielded several smaller working groups focused on supporting specific trade union efforts in response to the pandemic as well as uplifting primarily labor demands but also potentially Green New Deal-type policies for the next major legislative relief package. The conversations around green proposals, however, are still just getting off the ground, says LNS’s Burke.

Labor and environmental advocates are also working together in other ways. More than 830 organizations, including environmental and labor groups, sent a letter to Congress last week calling for the next stimulus package to include a moratorium on electricity, water and broadband utility shutoffs. The letter also calls for stimulus funds for distributed solar, percentage-of-income water affordability programs and improved broadband connectivity.

The Sierra Club also sent a letter to Congress last week emphasizing the specific policy recommendations that its union allies have called for in the next stimulus package to bridge the gaps in health and economic protections while also calling for election reform measures, including mail-in voting.

Meanwhile, the BlueGreen Alliance, another organization focused on bridging the labor and environmental movements, is likewise calling for a set of stimulus packages to put millions of people back to work building a cleaner, more equitable economy based on a robust set of policy priorities, including protecting vulnerable workers, rebuilding the public sector, and investing in infrastructure and domestic manufacturing.

Green groups and labor groups are likewise working together to support this week’s virtual Earth Day youth climate strike, Earth Day Live, a three-day livestream hosting training sessions, performances, and appearances by activists, celebrities, politicians and scientists. Environmental and labor organizers are also hosting educational forums, passing resolutions online and mobilizing across social media this week and throughout the eight days leading up to the international day of labor on May 1.

Another way labor and environmentalists are mobilizing from Earth Day to May Day is by asking union members to conduct climate surveys among their membership, form climate and environmental justice committees within their unions and labor councils, and support unions’ youth worker committees.

The actions build momentum toward a massive general strike planned for May Day. LNS Youth Organizer Joshua Dedmond, through his work with the social and economic justice organization Cooperation Jackson, helped to release the first call to action for the May 1 general strike, and told Truthout organizers are working to build a set of demands for the strike that will prove palatable to the broader labor movement, as well as actions such as sickouts or call-ins that essential workers can also participate in.

“What is being called of labor and environmental groups in this moment is not for uniformity but unity without uniformity — the development of a united front,” Dedmond says. “With all of the demands that are being circulated around a general strike, it’s very key that we focus not on necessarily having the same list of demands, but leaning-in to collective action around the various demands that we have.”

Dedmond told Truthout that LNS organizers are also working to establish a Just Transition Listening Project to establish a framework for a just transition for the masses of workers who have been laid off amid the COVID-19 crisis, as well as for those who are or will be displaced from the fossil fuel industry amid a dramatic plunge in the price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil futures for June that fell into deep negative territory this week. Many oil and gas companies were already nearly bankrupt as the fracking industry continues a historic collapse.

Dedmond says he hopes to take current labor and environmental demands that have come out of recent strikes and movements in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and incorporate those ideas into the project’s framework, and hopefully, into a broader emergency Green New Deal proposal.

“We’re covering a wide variety and the full landscape of labor, of labor unions, and we’re even interested in investing some time critically with workers’ centers so we have the fullest analysis of the working class and how to connect all components of labor to the struggle for climate justice,” Dedmond told Truthout.

President Trump pledged direct financial aid to the oil industry this week after oil futures fell below zero for the first time in history. The Energy Department has drafted a plan to buy up companies’ untapped crude reserves as part of an emergency stockpile until prices potentially stabilize — allowing producers to leave these reserves in the ground.

Meanwhile, a Friends of the Earth analysis released last week warns that fossil fuel giants including ExxonMobil, Chevron and Conoco stand to “reap yet another billion dollar bailout” if the Federal Reserve moves forward with plans to buy up to $750 billion in corporate debt. These moves come as major banks are preparing to take over fossil fuel assets with CARES Act bailout funding.

Such moves, among others, have sparked renewed calls for a “People’s Bailout,” including an emergency Green New Deal jobs guarantee that echoes the historic New Deal programs that put millions of unemployed workers to work after the Great Depression.

As frontline workers and unions battle the COVID-19 crisis, they are already laying the groundwork for such a measure. Frontline workers are already calling for programs and policies that stretch far beyond the traditional limits of collective bargaining, including mandatory paid sick leave and hazard pay; debt forgiveness; suspensions of evictions, rent and mortgage payments; uncompromised access to food and utilities; greater child care flexibility on the job; and emergency funding for schools and hospitals.

Such efforts set the stage for the jobs guarantee program to fund local governments and nonprofits to put those laid off as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic back to work on strengthening the public health sector, supporting online education and providing essential services to the elderly and sick. Such a program could be expanded and made permanent as part of the broader Green New Deal plan to address the climate crisis.

In fact, such proposals are already gaining momentum. The People’s Bailout has laid out an initial vision for a “just recovery” and emergency green stimulus among its five principles to be included in a new stimulus package.

The green stimulus includes “public investments to rebuild our infrastructure, replace lead pipes, expand wind and solar power, build clean and affordable public transit, weatherize our buildings, build and repair public housing, manufacture more clean energy goods, restore our wetlands and forests, expand public services that support climate resilience, and support regenerative agriculture led by family farmers.”

This stimulus would, according to the People’s Bailout, “create millions of good, family-sustaining jobs with high-road labor standards; counter systemic inequities by directing investments to the working families, communities of color, and Indigenous communities who face the most economic insecurity; and tackle the climate crisis that is compounding threats to our economy and health.”

A group of climate experts, economists and professors released a letter to Congress in late March detailing what such a green stimulus would actually entail. The letter calls for a $2 trillion stimulus at 4 percent of the gross domestic product that would be renewed annually and contains more than 100 policy recommendations divided into eight categories across housing, transportation, labor, energy systems, food systems, green infrastructure, regulations and foreign policy.

While, the conversation between labor unions and environmental groups around pushing green proposals in the next stimulus package is still in its beginning stages, the deep ties of solidarity being forged now will prove crucial in order to move toward proposals like an emergency green stimulus for millions of laid-off workers in the future.

“The COVID crisis has really shown us that when we’re thinking about the transformation we need to have a climate-safe economy in the long run, these are the same things we’re talking about, and so it’s all just pieces of the same conversation,” LNS’s Burke says.

Youth Organizer Dedmond agrees, and says the current crisis is providing important lessons to both the labor and environmental movements regarding the inherent contradictions of capitalism, as well as a moment for both causes to become more cohesive.

“These groups are using this moment as a lesson and a sign of things to come for how we must move in a more synchronized space and utilize and lean on each other,” Dedmond told Truthout. “It has given a healthy challenge to both labor and environmental groups of how we are going to build a more sustainable future with the knowledge of the challenges that climate change will bring for us.”

This story is a part of Covering Climate Now’s week of coverage focused on Climate Solutions, to mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Covering Climate Now is a global journalism collaboration committed to strengthening coverage of the climate story.