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Unions and Climate Activists Find Common Cause in Opposing Airport Expansion

The climate movement’s most powerful ally against rampant growth in air travel is the industry’s vast labor force.

Airport employees and community allies protest a proposed expansion of Los Angeles International Airport on September 14, 2021.

“Are you scared you’re going to lose all your jobs ’cause there will be no planes?”

The audience chuckled at MSNBC host Chris Hayes’s first question for Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, at a March 2019 special on the Green New Deal. Nelson, an ardent climate advocate, dismissed the notion out of hand: “We still have to get around.” The real threat to flights, she insisted, is an increase in extreme weather events. It is climate inaction, then, that could keep planes from flying, rather than climate action.

Across the Atlantic, the messaging is notably different. Environmentalists across the U.K. and France have campaigned against airport expansions, and the Swedish language now has a word (flygskam) for the climate shame felt by those who fly. In August 2019, Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg chose to ride a boat to New York to reduce emissions and draw attention to the crisis.

So, will we have to keep any airplanes on the ground? The answer is complicated, depending on how quickly certain technologies become widespread, how willing we are to tolerate financial and environmental costs of jet fuel alternatives, and whether we aim to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions entirely or merely reach “net-zero” emissions (in which scenario we would continue to emit, but attempt to offset the climate impact through carbon capture and storage).

But there is a growing consensus that even in technologically optimistic scenarios, some constraints on demand will be necessary to curtail the expected growth in flights over the decades to come. Many climate activists argue that because these technologies are uncertain, we should start reducing flights as soon as possible. And some early indications — such as an ongoing union-led fight against an airport expansion in Los Angeles — suggests that the climate movement’s most powerful ally against rampant growth in air travel may be labor.

Few demonstrators at the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) during a September 14 rally held greenhouse gas emission foremost in their minds as they decried the proposed expansion. The 50 or so protesters — most wearing the shirt of either SEIU United Service Workers West (SEIU-USWW) or Unite Here Local 11 — were more vocal about issues such as health care, wages, and the impact of air pollution and traffic congestion at their jobs and in their neighborhoods. The two unions, representing thousands of food, custodial and passenger service employees at the airport, were joined by Sunrise LA and other community and environmental groups outside a meeting of the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners (BOAC).

An SEIU-USSW press release argues that the current plans to expand LAX “ignore the needs of workers at the airport as well as those who are most impacted by it: nearby neighborhood residents,” but they do not oppose the expansion outright. Instead, the labor groups want to see a community benefits agreement — an enforceable contract between the airport and community groups that allows workers and residents to provide substantive input, ensuring any airport development respects economic and environmental justice. If this demand is not met, SEIU-USWW President David Huerta tells Truthout, the union “could transition into direct opposition.”

Any solution must ensure worker voices are heard, says Sunrise LA spokesperson Josiah Edwards. Airport employees kept LAX running through the pandemic for inadequate pay, and already bear a heavy environmental burden. That they are not invited to the BOAC’s closed-door meetings is “a clear instance of environmental injustice,” Edwards says.

The activists made clear, too, that climate change was one of their concerns. “Global warming is a war,” began one chant outside of Terminal 7, “of the rich against the poor.” Jovan Houston, an LAX customer service agent and SEIU-USWW member, suggested airlines could “get better planes and eco-friendly planes” to address both air pollution and carbon emissions. But in addition, she added, “They can cut down on some of the travel.”

SEIU-USWW has produced a report, “Turbulence Ahead,” on the expected impacts of the expansion as planned. The document is thorough, addressing potential air and noise pollution, traffic congestion, labor conditions, displacement and gentrification affecting the predominantly Black and Brown community residents and workforce. On climate change, the report suggests “ambitious, forward-thinking targets for the use of sustainable aviation fuels or investment in research,” and raises the alarm around “unconstrained growth” given aviation’s emissions. “Increased flight volume and corresponding increases in ground traffic will not help the City of Los Angeles reach its goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.”

This ambivalence around economic growth coming from a U.S. union is a significant step. It goes further than Nelson’s comments, for instance, or the Labor Network for Sustainability’s Green New Deal Q+A, which merely suggests electrifying airplanes. It also complicates the traditional picture in which workers in an emissions-heavy industry are considered an obstacle to the renewable transition.

“A just transition needs workers and trade unions as its agents,” says Magdalena Heuwieser, co-founder and spokesperson of Stay Grounded, an international network dedicated to reducing flights. “It needs their expertise, their skills, and their democratic engagement.” The inclusion of a wide range of issues in the Los Angeles campaign likely brings in a more diverse array of supporters, and provides something more visceral — wages, health care, pollution, traffic — to galvanize workers and community members. Plus, labor-led action may be a more effective and popular way to get the city’s attention than a campaign led primarily by climate activists. “If climate activists don’t seek this collaboration [with labor],” Heuwieser says, “the argument can easily be made that campaigners don’t care for the livelihoods of working people.”

Los Angeles is not the only U.S. city pushing back against airport expansions. A coalition primarily of climate and environmental groups as well as Railroad Workers United is fighting a proposed expansion of the Oakland International Airport (OAK), citing climate impacts and pollution. The group is “actively reaching out to union/labor on this topic, but we are still early in the process,” according to Ariella Granett of the Stop OAK Expansion Coalition.

Stay Grounded is hoping to make this process easier, planning to publish “a guide to engaging with aviation workers and trade unions,” according to Heuwieser. Stay Grounded members are engaged in a number of airport fights around the world, and the group wants to be sure these campaigns are “collaborating [with labor] and considering the job perspectives.”

Earlier this year, Stay Grounded and the U.K. labor union PCS (which represents around 1,800 aviation workers) released a discussion paper on “A Rapid and Just Transition” for workers in aviation, tourism, and related sectors. The paper argues that “the only way to build support for climate action” is to take seriously “the justified fear of unemployment and loss of livelihoods” among workers and communities dependent on fossil fuels.

To do this will require building trust and following through on commitments to protect workers. As Nelson told In These Times, “a couple hours of training” is not a just transition. She emphasized the need to “start the transition process early. We need to get into these communities, talk with them about their needs, and get to know them.”

The Stay Grounded paper acknowledges this, developed through “a collective writing process by people active in the climate justice movement, workers in the aviation sector, trade unionists and academics from around the world.” It suggests that the economic transition, too, should be collaboratively authored: democratically planned and managed by affected workers and communities and, where possible, transition companies into state and/or cooperative ownership.

“It is important to focus on job creation in specific locations, like around airports or former tourism hotspots,” the paper observes, ensuring the most affected are not left behind. Working with labor, Heuwieser tells Truthout, “can help develop the case for … not just the same area with a smaller airport, but a qualitatively healthier, more diversified and climate resilient economy.”

The possibilities presented in the paper are exciting: a former Berlin airport, for instance, is now a giant park, “with long skating tracks, community gardens, arts spaces and new bird and insect habitats.” The paper suggests research centers and hospitals as two options for repurposing airport infrastructure and creating jobs in the process. And “back in 1976, the workers at Lucas Aerospace produced a comprehensive plan to switch to making more socially useful products, albeit never being adopted.” Workers could develop similar plans today, and receive government funding to pursue them.

“Plenty of aviation workers … have transferable skills,” the authors observe, which will serve them well in a new green economy: think flight attendants instead working on trains powered by renewable electricity. And for others, a just transition must ensure not only paid retraining but a well-paying, unionized job in one of many expanding green industries.

And we must do all this quickly, without compromising on the need to reduce emissions: “A transition can only truly be ‘just’ if it is also rapid enough to minimize climate breakdown and the mass extinction of species,” the report concludes.

The content was presented at a meeting of the European Transport Federation, Heuwieser says, and received positive feedback from an audience including representatives of several European unions. Stay Grounded is also supporting a new organization known as Safe Landing, comprised of current and former aviation workers (mostly pilots and engineers thus far) opposed to increasing flights due to climate impacts. Safe Landing is primarily U.K.-based, but is expanding and has connected with Stop OAK Expansion in California.

Heuwieser does not think technology will make a meaningful dent in airplane emissions in the short term. She says, “As hard as it is: We have to get along with the reality of changed habits … and this includes reduced flights.” Labor-climate alliances like the one in Los Angeles could be key to bringing this about, paving the way for a future with fewer flights but perhaps fewer respiratory illnesses, fewer heat waves, fewer underpaid workers. “I know people need to get to and fro,” says Houston, the LAX employee. “But at the same time, they are not considering the world.”

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