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Climate Change Is the Real Job Killer

“CounterSpin” interview with Joe Uehlein on the Green New Deal.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks during a rally at Howard University, May 13, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

Janine Jackson: Republican Rep. Sean Duffy likely thought he was onto a winner when he dismissed the Green New Deal as “elitist,” the sort of thing that “sounds great” if you are “a rich liberal from maybe New York or California.”

Opposing environmental concerns with the livelihoods of working-class people has been a tried and true method for dividing people: industry versus industry, the coasts versus the supposed “heartland,” and dividing people against themselves, as we’re presumed to have to choose between having clean air to breathe or having a job.

The immediate, cogent pushback to Duffy’s characterization from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who, along with Ed Markey, introduced the Green New Deal — is one indication that things have changed. Old fissures can’t be counted on to confuse people about their shared interest in fighting climate change and advancing workers’ rights. Though that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for confusion about what alternative visions could look like — particularly when news media, as in coverage of the Green New Deal, shortchange the role of workers in that vision.

Our next guest works to fill that void. Joe Uehlein is founding president of the Labor Network for Sustainability. He joins us now from Takoma Park, Maryland. Welcome to CounterSpin, Joe Uehlein.

Joe Uehlein: Thank you.

Even before the Green New Deal — which is not legislation, but a resolution, calling for decarbonization of the economy — you’ve been talking about the impact of climate change on workers, and the role workers and labor could play in what, if we take science seriously, has to be the response.

What’s your starting point when you talk with people who think this isn’t labor’s fight, or workers whose experience suggests they’ll get the short end of the stick?

Well, I start with two things. One is that climate change is the real job killer, not the answers to climate change. And we’ve done studies to show that, but, for a lot of working people, it’s very obvious.

For example, if you work in the public sector, which a lot of people do, the only way you can negotiate good contracts is if you have healthy state and local budgets; those budgets will be decimated by the impact of climate change. And we’re seeing that, not only in New York, in the aftermath of Sandy, but up and down the entire West Coast, with the budget increases those states have seen to fight forest fires. As Sara Nelson talks about — she’s the president of the Flight Attendants Union — they’re already losing jobs to more and more flights being grounded due to increased turbulence caused by climate change. And that list goes on and on.

But I start there, and then point out that the Green New Deal, this 14-page resolution — and I always stress that, because everybody says, “Well, what are the details? It’s short on specifics.” Yeah, it is. It’s a framework — it’s the best framework that we, in labor, have seen in a very long time for advancing workers’ rights. It sets a federal jobs guarantee for people who want to go to work fighting the climate crisis, and it also provides for what they call living wages, or family-supporting wages, in that jobs guarantee. And it steps up to the plate on climate.

Media often speak, kind of crudely, about “winners and losers” under policy changes, but of course it’s true that societal shifts have fallout. If we get Medicare for All, well, people who are now in the insurance business will need new jobs. But we don’t say, “Well, we need to keep making asbestos,” you know, “because those people need work.” It’s really more about whether you acknowledge the possibility of guaranteeing people’s well-being through a transition that society needs to make.

Yeah, I mean, there are 10 industries right now, including healthcare, that are in transition, with no guarantee that that transition will be just. The Green New Deal does call for just transition for all displaced workers.

So, again, regardless of the industry you work in, whether it’s food or healthcare or transportation — energy, obviously — lots of people are going to either lose jobs in an unjust and unfair way, or transition into other jobs with income maintenance and the retention of their health and pension benefits. That’s what we’re fighting for.

USA Today, back in February, ran a piece from a guy from the Cato Institute, warning that:

This green-painted Trojan horse is filled with the biggest single government expansion the United States has seen since the 1930s.

So they’re actually trying to scare people with the New Deal. Like, remember how much you hate Social Security? Is this going to be the tactic, to just paint it as socialism and therefore it’s just bad, we can’t even have a conversation?

Yeah, it will be. And it’s the talking points of the American Petroleum Institute, the fossil fuel industry, and a lot of people use their talking points. So yes, and look, they’ve got a lot of money. We’re talking about the Koch brothers and others here, and there will be a well-funded pushback campaign that will say what you just said, about, “This is socialism, expansion of the federal government.”

But also, they’ll say that it hurts working people. We have a little document we just prepared that takes on the six most prevalent lies that we see out there. And these are being covered extensively by the right-wing press. So we’re trying to counter that with good, solid arguments.

Yeah, I have to say, I resent, above many things that elite media do, the way they tell folks, “It’s just not possible for everyone to have a decent life. We just can’t,” you know? And so, you might think, “Well, golly, we do need to overhaul our energy system, and at the same time, we have a lot of people unemployed and underemployed. Surely, these things can be brought together.” But then here come the Very Smart People to say, “Ah, that sounds right. But, you know, we can’t do it, because…reasons.” It’s just very frustrating.

But you have found that when you’re able to talk around some of these undermining narratives, people, rank-and-file working people, understand it, right? And there are labor groups that are that are building these bridges.

Yeah, there are. There are also labor groups that are trying to tear those bridges down. So we’re right in the middle of that scrum, if you will.

Yeah. Well, we often see politicians counterposing, as I said earlier, the environment and workers. And from politicians, it’s often very fake. You know, “I have to oppose regulation, because I care so much about these coal miners,” where we don’t necessarily see that concern in evidence in many other places. But still, I think it can be easy to sell people on being afraid when people are already struggling, you know?

Yeah, absolutely. Fear is a very powerful motivator, maybe the most powerful motivator, and they know that. One thing I would point out is, where have they been over the last 20 years, as tens of thousands of coal miners have lost their jobs? They’ve not been there fighting for them. Coal miners still don’t have the federal guarantee of retaining their pension and health benefits in retirement that was promised to them. And who’s opposing it? All the same forces who oppose the Green New Deal.

So we’re fighting for that, for coal miners in retirement to retain pension and healthcare. And the other side, they’re fighting against it. And then they still use that fear argument. It’s a bit frustrating, but we’re putting the materials out there that counter all of that.

You were on the UN Commission on global warming for decades, an organizer with the AFL-CIO; I know you worked on the anti-WTO demos in Seattle, so this is a long time coming for you. Do you feel like this is it? Certainly it’s an opportunity on a scale that we haven’t seen in in many, many years.

Yes, I do feel like this is it. And I do feel that it is a great opportunity. And I’m disappointed when I hear labor leaders, including Rich Trumka the other day, who said, “We’re opposed to the Green New Deal.” And then he rattled off some reasons that kind of indicated maybe he hasn’t read that resolution. He said there’s no worker interest in it. There’s more worker interests in that 14-page resolution, like I said before, than anything we’ve seen.

So I do think this is it. Not only because of the absolute urgency of the climate crisis — and we see a whole new wave, now, of really young people, rising up and striking, not going to school, that’s going to grow — and this better be it. We have to win this. We have to solve the climate crisis, and we have the opportunity to do it in a way that improves the world we live in for working people and everyone. Why don’t we take that?

We’ve been speaking with Joe Uehlein. He’s founding president of the Labor Network for Sustainability. They’re online at That’s the numeral four.

His piece with Jeremy Brecher, “12 Reasons Labor Should Demand a Green New Deal,” can still be found on Joe Uehlein, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thanks for having me.

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