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Extending Solidarity to the Ecosystem: Laura Flanders Interviews Sean Sweeney

Sean Sweeney discusses how unions need to extend solidarity to the ecosystem itself.

(Image <a href= via Shutterstock )” width=”400″ height=”392″ />(Image via Shutterstock )What would it mean to extend solidarity to the ecosystem? That’s the question at the heart of this conversation with union activist and environmentalist, Sean Sweeney.

The conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that 50 years will be more than sufficient to witness the worst impacts of climate change. And if past is prologue, poor and working-class communities will be hit doubly hard. Climate change is a class issue, and yet the trade union movement continues to drag its feet.
In the United States today, while trade unions that aggressively back dirty-energy projects are in a minority, big labor is not exactly in the leadership of the movement for a sustainable and fair energy future. This year’s AFL-CIO convention saw no significant change on that front. Not enough people are talking about what the future might look like, especially for those whose livelihoods depend on the energy industry – and what opportunities exist to benefit from the shift. The United States is lagging, says Sweeney,
“In Germany now, there are 700 renewable energy cooperatives. Up to 25 percent of its power generation is renewable. It has installed as much solar energy last year as the entire installed capacity of solar in the United States.”

First things first: “For unions to get away from playing defense onto offense, they first of all have to tell the truth; they have to be aware of the urgency and seize the opportunities,” says Sweeney.

In a word, “They need to extend solidarity to the ecosystem itself.” What would that look like, and what does it have to do with privatization and the Battle of Dunkirk. Find out, in this edited transcript below. Sean Sweeney works with Trade Unions for Energy Democracy. He also directs the Global Labor Institute, a program of the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations. To watch my interview in full, go to

Laura Flanders: Hi, I am Laura Flanders. Fifty years would be more than sufficient to witness the worst impacts of climate change, according to a major scientific report released in October from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It is obviously a class issue. Poor and working-class communities are hit doubly hard by disasters like Hurricane Sandy, as we have seen, but while trade unions that vocally back projects like the Keystone Pipeline or fracking in the Marcellus Shale are in a minority, big labor is not exactly in the leadership of the climate justice movement. And this year’s AFL-CIO convention saw no real significant change on that front. So what is going on? There are some interesting developments; still, it is far from clear what real energy change would look like, especially for those whose livelihoods depend on the energy industry. Here to talk about that is Sean Sweeney. He works with Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, and he is the director of the Global Labor Institute, a program of the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

LAURA FLANDERS: Welcome to GRITtv. Glad to have you.

SEAN SWEENEY: Thank you, Laura.

Let’s start with the downside of the picture. The most recent report from the intergovernmental folks on climate change is very grim, and yet you have to agree with the critics of big labor who ask where is the labor leadership on this topic?

Well, are we talking about the labor leadership domestically or internationally? Because there could be an important distinction right there.

How so?

The international labor community tends to be more forward looking on the issue. And there is a reason for that [that is] not just cultural or ideological. The US unions don’t have the social protection that a lot of unions, in say, Europe do or even increasingly in the global South, countries like Brazil and South Africa. Workers are not thrown on the scrap heap in quite the same way they are in the United States. So, if you got a job, a union job, you want to cling to that as much as you can. This is an impediment to the labor leadership in the United States claiming the kind of role that it otherwise might do.

That is the debate we often hear: It’s jobs or the environment. What progress are we making on turning that around in the United States?

It is very difficult. First of all, the green economy was touted as a 5 million job builder. Many unions embraced the green economy anticipating that it would be done right, it would be done to scale and that there would be common sense in the sense that unions would be given an opportunity to represent the workers in those industries and so on. But what we see is the market-based approaches of politics at the moment, coupled with the renewable energy companies, who often are hostile to unions. We don’t have exactly an open-door policy for unions in the renewables or the green economy, generally.

So when a coal mine closes and union miners get put out of work, and then the solar panel company that starts is antiunion, that kind of plays right into the right wing’s hands.

Where is the exit route for the workers in those industries? They may not go to renewable energy. That’s fine. But they’ve got to go somewhere. And when a coal-fired power station is the only job in town, you bet there’s going to be resistance. So it is a policy failure; it’s not the failures of unions per se, and there could be criticisms made, of course. And I would be the first one to make them probably. But there are real structural and policy-based questions that need to be addressed.

Was any progress made at the AFL-CIO convention? They made a lot of resolutions on a lot of topics, even including mass incarceration, immigration so forth – not so much on climate.

A lot of progress on those issues, yes. I think that bodes well for the future – even on climate. What’s complicated is that there are some unions in the federation, the AFL-CIO, who really are playing and have a close alliance with the industry, to be honest. There is an unofficial alliance between the American Patrol Institute and Building and Construction Trade for example, and this again speaks to, in many ways, a policy failure. If the companies come along to unions and say, “We have some big construction projects building fossil-fuel infrastructure, and we are prepared to do that union. But we need your help to get this project approved.” Again it is very difficult for a union leader to say, “Well, no, we do not think that is good for the environment,” when there is high unemployment in the industry. So these are some of the challenges we have to grapple with.

So what is working? I mean, I’d love to hear more about your Trade Unions for Energy Democracy project. But first, close to home, talk about Connecticut for just a second. I interviewed a fascinating AFL-CIO director in that state about military conversion, based on some interesting alliance-building in Connecticut.

I had just been made of aware of that Connecticut story. There are similar stories around which point to a capacity of unions and community-based organizations and some renewable energy companies to actually imagine a different kind of economy based on renewable energy, that it has to be done the right way. There are many encouraging examples of that happening.

Like what?

In California, for example, the unions have been quite successful with some of the bigger utility-size solar projects. It is not been easy, but they have unionized many of those construction operations, and that is creating pretty good jobs for the people installing and constructing those solar [projects] in those facilities. So there are a few example of that nature.

I did talk to the president of the steel workers, and he admitted that it was a tough fight they were in around the Keystone Pipeline, where the steel workers and the buildings trades for the most part support the pipeline. But his goal is to get behind a green economy. His goal is to get the membership to go along. What are you seeing working?

First of all, the challenge is to reconcile the short-term demands of the moment with the long-term goal. And if it is always going to be a long-term goal and without actually taking some risks or making some real changes, then that is always going to be a problem. With Keystone, the issue, I think, is the alliance between the industry and some of the unions, which came out of a failure of the Obama administration to really gear up the green economy. A lot of those unions supported Obama’s green investments, but they kind of fizzled out. And they’re not going forward in the way they need to be going if we are going to address the climate crisis. So, the challenge again for unions around those industries is to articulate some really bold policy initiatives. On Keystone, for example, the unions who have supported it would have been far better off if they opposed the pipeline and joined with the environmental climate justice activists and surrounded the White House. Instead of having 10,000 people surround the White House, the unions had the capacity to put 100,000 people around the White House. And you bet some of those infrastructure investments that the unions want – repairing gas pipelines that are ruptured, building new robust Brazilian infrastructure – they have a much better chance of getting those projects approved, which would generate a lot more jobs and be good for the environment. This is something that Tony Mazzocchi, deceased now, with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers articulated decades ago, and I think that holds true today.

What is the most exciting thing you are seeing out there, in particular, in your international work?

First of all, there is a reality check going on globally. The green economy that was promised by organizations like the United Nations Environment Programme, which was largely about stimulating private investment, of appealing to private corporations, is stalled; it’s not happening. There is a recognition of where it is happening – in Germany, Denmark, one or two other countries – it’s being driven by the public sector, which means that the prospects of creating stable, decent jobs are higher when it’s taken away from simple profit-making equations and [when] environmental protection and the green economy [are] seen as a public service. And that is going to be a very important conceptual shift that has to happen.

Although in this country we’re busily shrinking the public sector on every front.

That is why the United States, unfortunately, is lagging behind many countries in the world in making the kind of transitions that are necessary. In Germany now, there are 700 renewable energy cooperatives. Up to 25 percent of its power generation is renewable. It has installed as much solar energy last year as the entire installed capacity of solar in the United States. So this is very, very popular in Germany. The recent election shows that there are no real challenges to this agenda. It makes absolute sense environmentally, socially and economically.

But not here. I was just in Appalachia, where a very big fight is under way. Coal miners are watching their industry decline; they’re being told there’s a lot more coal in the mountains; it’s just the environmentalists that are holding you back. In fact, there is no great alternative for people there. Are they going to be working in sort of, I don’t know, heritage tourism? I don’t think so.

If my facts are correct, West Virginia is the poorest state in the union, and yet more wealth was extracted from that state in terms of mineral-based wealth – coal – than probably any other state. Most of the coal happening in the United States now is in Wyoming, Montana. It’s largely blasting and largely capital-intensive; there aren’t many jobs.

Nonunion states.

Nonunion states. An increasing volume is going toward exports. So this is feeding the demand for energy globally. Coal is not in demand in the US. Coal-fired power stations are not being approved. Therefore, coal industries are looking for the markets principally in China and Asia.

But I am not hearing the solution for my nice miners in West Virginia.

Well, there needs to be a solution. This is again a policy challenge to make miners in West Virginia – those few that are left – whole. And most of them are getting toward retirement anyway. This is a fairly easy fix. If the fate of human civilization on the planet rests on some earlier retirement and some severance payments, then we should be doing better. This happened in Europe when lots of mines were closed down. Members walked away with some decent severance packages – and that’s the way it should be. Why should a miner or someone in a coal-fired power station – why should they pay the price for an energy transition that we all need? We should all pay that price, and making sure that those workers are kept whole is a top priority.

What do you make of the decision coming out the land of your birth and mine, the United Kingdom, to put on the schedule one more nuclear power plant, the first in decades, even after Fukushima – after all of that – partly in the name of energy transformation, energy change, getting off fossil fuel?

I understand Chinese companies are involved in that process as well. It doesn’t really matter to me whether they are Chinese or not. The issue is, is nuclear a low-carbon option? Is it something that is necessary as part of our metabolical and mitigation strategy? A lot of people, including quite enlightened people, believe that to be the case. I am not entirely convinced myself, but we have to look at all the options that are available. Renewable power does have technical challenges. Increasingly, I think it is obvious that renewable power can make up a lot of the energy needs. And we need to reduce the demand for energy, which is possible if we have radical conservation measures, so that’s a job creator as well. But nuclear is going to be highly controversial. I suspect – and all the data show – that it is declining as a percentage of energy generated globally. Every year it goes down a bit more. I suspect that will continue.

So let’s go back to where we began. How would you characterize the situation? I mean that is the language of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? How would you characterize the situation that we are in right now, vis-a-vis the changes that we are looking in our lifetime?

It is a planetary emergency; let’s be absolutely clear about it. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is quite a conservative body. It does not want to alarm people. It pulls together the evidence based on 2,500 scientific studies or 2,500 scientists contributing. When you have got that many scientists debating issues, it tends to gravitate toward the more conservative conclusion to be on the safe side. The problem is that the IPCC, since it started 20 plus years ago, has always been behind the actual data. So the arctic melt on the Greenland ice sheet deterioration and the glacier melt – all of that is going much faster than they originally projected. I think there is an element of conservatism in this. I am much more responsive to James Hansen’s message that if we get Sandy, if we get Katrina, if we get the monsoons we’ve been seeing and the forest fires we’ve been seeing with less than 1 degree Celsius of global warming – what is 4 degrees, 5 degrees, 6 degrees going to look like? And if business-as-usual is allowed to continue with the fossil-fuel companies, burning carbon, selling coal oil and gas around the world, that is what we are looking at – with 6 degrees Celsius of global warming within the lifetime of children born today. That is a horrendous scenario, and we really need to start with the truth. People say to me, unions say to me, “Well that is not a very uplifting message. Can you jazz it up a little bit?” I wish we had [a] more uplifting message. We have to tell the truth: that this is a planetary emergency, that the transition being proposed by the corporations and the politicians isn’t happening. And we need democratic control over energy, resources and options. And I think that’s a narrative that we should be pushing forward.

And where do unions come in on that?

It is the only way for them. The renewable-energy companies do not want to do it union because they are competing against fossil fuels. So the fossil-fuel companies that do have unions say, “You see? Those guys do not want you in their industries.”

And that is where we get those arguments about it is either the job or the environment?

But what we’re seeing is the privatization of energy. The liberalization of energy markets has opened up profiteering and asset stripping under “investment” all across the world; that has got to stop. So reclaiming what was once public and turning it into a public service again is a step that unions can support from the point of view of their own member interest, but also from the prospective of planning a transition to a renewables-based economy. That can be done; it’s technically possible; we need to make sure it is politically done.

Naomi Klein writes about climate shock, and she says that if the right wing thinks that climate change and environmentalism is a kind of front for socialism, let’s make it so. There has never been a greater opportunity to make an argument for central planning, for example, in the sense of “none of this can be done piecemeal.” We can’t do it from the bottom up, in fact.

That’s right, and you do not have to be a socialist to reach that conclusion. Many conservative scientists for example, who are not necessarily inclined toward politics, have reached the conclusion that it is technically possible to be zero-carbon by 2040, 2050, that we can really make a dent in our emissions and reduce them to the levels that can at least give us a fighting chance of stabilizing the climate, but they know that private markets aren’t going to be able to deliver that. They have to see a return on investment within a very short time frame, or they want guarantees for profits over the longer term. And if we have to make those guarantees, why can’t we do it in the public sphere and do it in a planned, coordinated equitable way. I think that is the way to go.

All right, so grow the public sphere, grow the sense of urgency. But we’ve talked about the class quality of these crises, and we’ve covered over and over again how, indeed, it’s poor and working-class communities who are affected worst. Where are the labor unions in advancing this agenda and claiming it as their own? Talk a bit about the coalitions you’re working with internationally.

. . . I will tell you a little World War II anecdote. When my dad was in the Battle of Dunkirk, running away from the German panzer divisions, there was a complete chaotic retreat. And during that time, British intelligence was planning the invasion of Europe. Now if someone had said at that time, “Why you are planning the invasion of Europe when we are in catastrophic and chaotic retreat?” they would probably say, “because it is not going to be like this forever.” I think that is the approach we need. For unions to get away from playing defense and playing offense, they first of all have to tell the truth; they have to be aware of the urgency and seize the opportunities, and that means appealing. Not just speaking to all workers and all people, but also extending that solidarity to the biosphere and the ecosystem itself.

What do you mean?

Well, why should – if we are talking about life holistically, as a total thing, that we are part of the environment and the environment is part of us – then why does solidarity stop in the human form? Why should we be anthropocentric about it? We need to be totally Earth-centered in our approach. Naomi Klein nailed that question. And it may sound tree-hugging, but what is wrong with hugging a tree?

So all for one, and all for one planet.

Absolutely. A lot of working people who are struggling to make ends meet get that. They understand that they are being abused in the same way that the environment is being abused, that the kind of economic system we live under now, which exploits them, is also having the same approach to the planet itself. People are aware of it. We just have to build a political strategy around it and not be afraid.

Do you think the union leadership is afraid? I am thinking of the head of AFL-CIO or head of the SEIU, are they afraid of this?

I think they have challenges within their own organizations. There are workers who do not get it, workers who listen to the propaganda, talk radio and the right wing and the Tea Party; definitely, we get to be aware of that. But there is certainly a generation, I think, a newer generation of union leaders who are beginning to get it and embracing it.

Do you have an example?

I think people involved with the excluded workers, domestic workers, workers who represent immigrants, who are often refugees of climate change. … That is the fact that is not usually recognized as deeply as it is. I think they understand it. I think women are more aware of it, frankly, than men in the trade union movement. That’s my anecdotal experience.

Add it to the list.

Add it to the list. And I think globally, there are unions that are asking the right questions and challenging austerity and building movements: They are the ones who are getting it, and you can see that in Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and even parts of Europe as well – and North America too. So there are Canadian unions, the new union Unifor, which was the merger of the Canadian auto workers and the communication, energy and paper workers, [that] have put climate protection, environmental sustainability in their constitution. You do not see many unions doing that. So there are some encouraging signs that there is a shift in thinking. It just has to happen a lot faster – which is why we are doing the work we are doing, that [we] try to make sure that we pull those thinkers together and build the strategy around it.

Great. Sean Sweeney, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you, Laura.

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