Labor Day 2016: We Need Unions for Environmental, Racial, and Climate Justice

This Labor Day we take a look at compatibility between America’s two largest social movements, the environmental movement and labor movement. Any objective observer should conclude that rumors of the demise of the American labor movement have been greatly exaggerated, but the urgency of the mitigating climate disruption has not. 2016 marks 100 years since the first child labor bill was sponsored by Senator Albert J. Beveridge.

To this day, workers are still pushing for workplace and life improvements through the most powerful vehicle at their disposal: unions. It is still true that “union membership boosts life satisfaction across demographic groups regardless if someone is rich or poor, male or female, young or old.” The final remaining check to corporate power, unions are constantly under attack by the same corporate and financial juggernauts that pollute the planet with impunity. The difference is there are now challenges far and beyond the average selfish manager or corporate CEO.

To be clear, the union movement is facing political, demographic, and legal challenges. Still, unions must be the centerpiece to any real movement towards racial, environmental, and economic justice.

Without a strong labor movement there is no progressive movement. That’s why it is under attack from all directions. The question is how to build a stronger more inclusive labor movement that protects the environment and improves the lives of  low-income communities and communities of color? The most strikingly obvious opportunity at achieving these goals is working with unions and environmental justice groups in the creation of a green economy that protects and supports workers. There is major overlap between economic, environmental, and racial injustice in our country. In particular, declining unionization among black workers “has occurred alongside, and contributed to, an increase in overall wage inequality, as well as the widening Black-white wage gap”. While black workers are “more likely than workers of any race or ethnicity to be unionized at 14.2 percent in 2015,” they earn $24.24 per hour compared with $17.78 for non-union black workers.

Cooperation between unions and environmental groups is nothing new. Unions such as the United Auto Workers (UAW) have gone on record in support of the Clean Air Act and helped initiate the first Earth Day in 1970 with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The Sierra Club Environmental Justice Program is currently working closely with environmental justice groups, unions, and the Blue Green Alliance (BGA) to ensure stakeholder participation in the Clean Power Plan, which was developed under authority from the Clean Air Act.

The Sierra Club actively supports the RECLAIM Act and diversifying the economies of coal communities as America transitions to a clean energy economy, the Fight for $15 for low wage workers, the Our Wal-Mart campaign that supports thousands of low-wage Wal-Mart workers, and a whole host of other campaigns that are moving the needle toward racial, economic, and environmental justice.

Still, corporate media enforces the environment versus jobs narrative, portraying union members as “only concerned with their own interests at the expense of all others, including the environment” and environmentalists as only concerned with the planet even at the expense of jobs. Thorough historical analysis reveals these assumptions as untrue. In reality there is a “long record of environmental concern among unionized workers and their organizations that overlaps and intermingles with the sporadic news event that occasionally flares up between workers and environmentalists.”

For the Sierra Club Labor and Economic Justice Program, Labor Day is an important marker for the work we do. It is a yearly reminder of why we believe the solutions that will be applied to climate change must include organizing and the creation of smart policy that ensures the economic concerns of working people are addressed at every level of the movement toward clean energy, racial, and economic justice.