Perhaps We Could Do Something Big

Uniting the Labor Movement, the Peace Movement,
 and the Climate Justice Movement

For thirty-seven years I have been working in the U.S. labor movement, hoping to win it over to progressive, pro-human policies. In the past ten or so years, the labor movement has built significant ties with the U.S. peace movement. Now there are hopeful signs that the labor movement and the climate justice movement could forge an alliance.

I was raised middle class, and my family had no background in unions. When I decided to enter the labor movement, I was working on a graduate degree in ecology. I had been active against the Vietnam War for ten years and could see that the lack of union support was a major weakness in the peace movement. I was convinced that the labor movement needed to be won over to progressive, pro-human policies in order to implement a program of environmental sustainability, social justice, peace, and anti-imperialism.

For the next twenty-five years I worked to make the Teamsters Union and the American Federation of Teachers more democratic and responsive. But because I was also helping to raise two children, earning a living, and being an active participant in RC, I had little time to advance the peace and anti-imperialism agenda. Then in 2003, as the United States prepared to bomb and invade Iraq, unions all around the United States started passing resolutions opposing the war. Nothing on that scale had happened before in the history of U.S. unions. My own union of faculty and staff at my community college ended up voting to oppose the war. I was then instrumental in convincing the Philadelphia (Pennsylvania, USA) AFL-CIO1 to pass a similar resolution. Efforts like these in unions all over the country led to the formation of U.S. Labor Against the War—the first-ever national organization of labor organizations opposed to a major U.S. foreign policy—in which I have played a leadership role. Within a few years, this organization helped lead the national AFL-CIO to call for a reordering of national spending priorities—for cutting back on military spending and for using the money saved to support needed social services and civilian jobs. That was a major reversal of AFL-CIO policies.

I could not have stayed optimistic through all these struggles if I hadn’t had the tools of RC and the support of many wonderful Co-Counselors.

In the past few years, as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have steadily increased and the climate has been disrupted more and more, I have been reading, thinking, discharging, and talking about how to change the U.S. policies that leave us so dependent on damaging fossil fuels. With the encouragement of Madeleine Para,2 Kathy Miller,3 and other Co-Counselors, I have decided to act on the assumption that I can play a significant role in uniting the labor movement and the climate justice movement. I have had to struggle against feelings that I am too small and too old, that someone else could surely do it better, and so on, but in the last fifteen months I have taken a number of steps to implement my decision:

1) I asked a friend, who is also a fellow union activist and an RCer, to arrange a meeting with the president of one of the best national labor organizations working on climate change. My friend and I convinced him that our experience in U.S. Labor Against the War was a good model for organizing and changing policy within the labor movement.

2) I worked with two other friends, one of whom is an RCer, to plan a forum on labor and climate change. About twenty labor activists and close to a hundred environmentalists attended, and they left excited about the prospects for unity between labor and climate activists.

3) Working with the same friends, I invited fifteen labor activist leaders to a discussion on “Labor’s Response to Climate Change.” I presented four propositions and asked people to respond in a taking-turns format. The propositions were (a) that climate change presents a major threat to our economy as well as to our environment, (b) that labor needs to develop its own program and not just react against programs put forward by environmentalists, (c) that this program should include a carbon tax to make fossil fuels progressively more expensive and forms of alternative renewable energy more economically competitive, and (d) that we need an organization that can focus on a labor-environmental alliance. Again, people left energized and pleased to be discussing the topic. Two of the labor leaders—people who have very busy lives—asked when we were going to have the next meeting!

Here are some exciting developments in the larger world:

• Last September more than three hundred thousand people rallied in New York City (New York, USA) to tell the world’s leaders at the United Nations that they needed to implement policies to address climate injustice. Ten thousand union members from a hundred different unions were part of that march. One union leader was quoted in a union magazine as saying, “Capitalism cannot solve the climate-change problem it has created.” I have never before seen that magazine mention problems with capitalism.

• U.S. Labor Against the War is making climate change one of its central issues with the slogans “No More Wars, No More Warming” and “The U.S. Military is the Biggest Polluter on the Planet.” There is interest in lobbying for a fund for job training and income support for workers who lose their fossil-fuel jobs.

• Naomi Klein has written the book This Changes Everything in which she states that the climate justice issue might be compelling enough to unite a variety of activist movements and build a society that, by putting people before profits, is not only better for the climate but also better for people.

When I entered the labor movement nearly thirty-seven years ago, I hoped to help build a movement that would unite labor, peace activists, and environmentalists. It looks like this may be starting to happen. I plan to keep using my experience in the labor movement to help build the climate justice movement. I wonder what would happen if every RCer used his or her own connections to help build a diverse, powerful, pro-human movement to stabilize the climate. Maybe, just maybe, this could be really big! As Harvey Jackins used to say, “Let’s pull up our socks and go!”

John Braxton
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Reprinted from the RC e-mail discussion
list for leaders of wide world change

1 The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations
2 Madeleine Para is an RC leader and a climate-change activist in Madison, Wisconsin, USA.
3 Kathy Miller is a wide-world-change activist and the Regional Reference Person for Western West Virginia and parts of Pennsylvania, USA.

Last modified: 2017-04-06 23:03:41+00