Unions and Green Jobs Panel

Jonathan Neele:
I speak for an alliance of 6 labor unions in the UK (www.campaigngcc.org/greenjobs).  We have a campaign for 1 million green jobs in the UK.  But I want to join with all of you in this campaign, because unless we act now, we run the risk of run-away climate change.  No one is sure when this tipping point is, but we have to think that we have twenty years in order to organize.  If we hit the tipping point, it will mean that the rains will fail, creating famine and hundreds of millions of refugees, and war.  This will change the balance of economies and power, and countries will go to war to change that balance back.  We’re now living through the wars for oil, and we’re destined to live through the wars for water.
The good news is that we can stop that from happening.  We have the technology now, and we can do it in ten years.  We need to cut CO2 emissions in the rich countries by 80% and in the poor countries by 25-50%.  To do this, there are thousands of things we have to do, but three things will make most of the difference.  One is to cover the world with renewable energy: wind power and solar power.  The second is to fix all the houses and buildings in the world so that they use much less energy.  The third is to cover the world with public transport not cars.
Bush and Obama tell us that this is too expensive.  It will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. But stop for a minute and think: what does too expensive mean?  It means jobs.  It means hundreds of millions of jobs all over the world.  We have hundreds of millions of people all over the world without work.  So what we are saying is very simple: we have work that must be done to save the planet, we have people who need work, give them the jobs.  In the UK, we have 2.5 million people out of work.  Our unions are campaigning for the government to act and to hire 1 million new workers to stop climate change.  We know that the money is there.
Two years ago we learned a lesson: the Federal Reserve of the US can find 400 billion dollars in a day if they think it’s important.  If the planet were a bank, they would save it.  They tell us now that the money isn’t there because they gave it all to the banks.  To that we say two things: first, the banks are still there – go and get the money back from them.  But also, this will not cost much.  In the UK, for 1 million jobs, it’ll cost about $50 billion pounds.  But the government gets much of that money back since the people with the new jobs pay taxes and don’t have unemployment benefit.  And also, the government can charge for the electricity. So, we think that it’ll only cost the government about $20 billion pounds per year.  But the government of Britain spent $200 billion pounds last year in what they call “quantitative easing,” which only means printing money.  We want the same amount of money over 10 years.  They can afford it.
But also, we have an economic crisis over the whole world.  In every country, people need jobs.  Look back to World War II; in that war, all the great powers of the world changed their whole economies to make as many weapons as possible to kill as many people as possible. We need to do the same thing now, but to save jobs.  When they did this during WWII, they ended the Great Depression and all over the world, people had jobs.  A government that reacts to an economic crisis by cutting jobs is a government punishing working people.  The only way out of an economic downturn is to create jobs.
In stopping climate change, we face two big challenges.  First, in fighting climate change, we’re tackling a phenomenon in the future, but we want people to act now.  With jobs, people want jobs now.  And we can get people to fight NOW.  The other reason is political.  Until now, the environmental movement has been a ghetto, made up of mostly white, middle class people. After Copenhagen, we know there’s only 1 way to stop climate change.  That is, to build a mass movement.  These days in Cochabamba are the moment of change for this.  Here we have the indigenous and campesinos in the movement.  As a result of this week, we are incomparably stronger, and there is incomparably more hope for the planet.  But we need the workers.  If we say to the people without jobs, come fight to save the planet and your job, then we can build a mass movement.  We are starting our movement and our campaign with the unions in the UK.
We may not win our campaign for 1 million jobs, but if we do, all the people of the world will see that it’s possible.  If we win, we want you to fight in your countries, where union traditions are stronger.  If we fight in multiple countries, the odds are much better that we’ll break through in one country and then in the rest of the world.
Q: We need to involve unions from all over Latin America here.  Why is there such slight representation?
Q: I’m a teacher and a unionist from Argentina, active for 40 years.  I’m really concerned about the lack of representation from unions in Latin America.  This is going to be a difficult fight given the lack of mass mobilization.  But we know that the state has to intervene to create more green jobs.  In Latin America, unemployment is not the same as in developed countries.  In Latin America, unemployed workers do not receive unemployment insurance.  In our countries, the conditions are such that even when companies are created that contaminate the environment, people support such companies because they create jobs.  When people in the North fight against pollution, their jobs just decamp to the south, where they find cheap labor and permissive governments.  In Latin America, there were long periods of military dictatorship that cost thousands of disappeared people.  This was followed by neoliberal states that have lost control over national resources and labor conditions.  We have tremendous difficulty pressuring our states to adopt green measures.
Q: I’m a member of a pharmacists’ union in Argentina.  Notions of green jobs in Argentina are often just a façade or veneer.  We need to expose corporations that say they’re creating jobs, even if they’re dirty.
Q: I’m a Bolivian woman currently working as a teacher in Britain.  The problem of unions in the UK is that they’re paralyzed, and that the EU has passed legislation for ‘green fuel’ which is going to make prices of food much higher.  The problem we all have in common is transport. Neoliberalism has dismantled our public transportation systems.  We need to fight for a global system of public transportation and free access for all.
Q: I’m from Chile, a country in which there is little democracy in the labor unions.  In addition, only 6% of the labor force in Chile is organized.
Q: I’m from South Korea.  In my country, workers don’t like green jobs because green jobs aren’t well-paying or secure.  We’ve struggled to get government to support shift of production in plants from car factories to public transportation.  We’re having a huge rally in October for real green jobs; if we can be successful, so can people in former dictatorships like South Africa, Chile, and Bolivia.
Q: I’m originally from Cuba, and am here representing the federation of Latin American trade unions.  The largest problem in this region is the high level of unemployment.  This is the fundamental issue that we have
to address.  Also, if we don’t change the underlying capitalist system, which produces unemployment and climate change, we won’t make any progress.  We need to find alternatives such as regional integration of the continent.
Q: I’m an Argentinian woman who works with the transport union.  I believe that we should walk out of here with a common agenda so that we can go back to our countries and our unions and get to work organizing.
Q: We need national and regional networks so that we can support and gain from one another’s experience.
Response by Jonathan Neele:
Green jobs=climate jobs.  Green jobs can mean anything.  My job is teaching, which is worthwhile.  But it doesn’t cut carbon emissions.  We have to limit this to jobs which cut carbon emissions.  This is the only way that we can keep this movement honest.  If people outside our movement think we’re being dishonest, they won’t support us.  If people inside our movement think we’re being dishonest, they won’t support us.  Think about the City University of New York – if students and faculty mobilize to make government rebuild the city in a green way, it’ll change the whole city and also class relations in US, and it will also provide jobs in the green economy.  What about workers in difficult jobs?  What about coca farmers in Bolivia and miners in South Africa?  In Britian, we say 1 million jobs and the government employs them, not the corporations.  You don’t tell coca farmers to stop cutting down the forest, you give them good jobs in the climate economy.  In Britain, the strongest union was the coal miners, so the heart of every trade unionist in Britain is with the miners, BUT we must stop using coal.  We don’t take people’s jobs away, but we must be strong enough to force government to give us new climate jobs.  This means that we must transform the union movement.  And we must transform the state.  So we’re going to have to build a mass movement.

Ashley Dawson

Ashley Dawson is professor of postcolonial studies in the English department at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and the College of Staten Island. His latest books include People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons (O/R, 2020), Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017), and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016). A member of the Social Text Collective and the founder of the CUNY Climate Action Lab, he is a long-time climate justice activist.