“Our current economic system values profit above people and the planet,” Sierra Club organizer Dominique Diaddigo-Cash said at a recent press conference in Minneapolis. “The same factors that drive owners to pay unlivable wages,” he continued, “drive them to pollute our air, water, and threaten our climate.”
The press conference was co-hosted by SEIU Local 26, Minnesota’s janitor and security officer’s union, and a coalition of environmental groups. These allies stood in solidarity to announce a newly-released report: Sky High Pollution: How Minnesota corporations pollute our planet and politics, and how community collaboration can help the state reach its 2050 greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.
It may not be immediately obvious why labor unions and environmental organizations should work together, but SEIU Local 26 has been in the news a lot lately for doing just that: Local 26 has made fighting climate change and protecting the environment key platforms in their contract negotiations. On Saturday, February 8, janitors and security officers even voted to authorize a strike if necessary, highlighting how seriously they are taking the threat of climate change.
SEIU Local 26’s fight puts into practice something that we often talk about as advocates for change: that all fights for justice are connected, and that we cannot separate out the fight for environmental justice from the fight for economic justice. That’s why the Sierra Club stands in solidarity with these workers in their demands for fair pay, good benefits and a healthy planet. Members of SEIU Local 26 clean and protect the offices and retail stores of some of the biggest corporations in the world: General Mills, UnitedHealth Group, U.S. Bank - just to name a few.
Green Cleaning & Climate Change
How are labor rights and the environment connected? First, SEIU Local 26 is calling on their employers to create new janitorial positions focused on green cleaning. The new positions proposed by the union would help sort out recycling and compost from trash, ensure janitors are using environmentally friendly chemicals, and work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the buildings they clean. As folks on the ground, they are positioned to put sustainability goals into practice. And many members have personal experience on why this matters as 40% of Local 26 members cite the Climate Crisis as part of their reason for migrating to the U.S.
“We were not alone, millions of people from the areas near my village left too, in one of the biggest migrations ever out of South America... Now I clean buildings that are some of the biggest polluters in Minnesota, which furthers the same problem that made me immigrate. This must be addressed. I think if we win green cleaning, we can send a message.”
Elsa Guaman, Local 26 member
But the interconnections between our different progressive campaigns are most obvious at the HERC garbage burner in downtown Minneapolis. The HERC burner is discussed at length in the new report, Sky High Pollution.
The HERC garbage burner is located in downtown Minneapolis. Trash from around Hennepin County, including trash from many downtown buildings, is brought to HERC, where it is burnt to heat up water, spin a turbine, and generate electricity. Xcel buys most of the electricity produced by HERC, and part of the steam helps heat and cool downtown office towers and the Target Field.
Pollutants from the burner - including dioxin, lead and mercury - end up blowing over North Minneapolis, a predominantly black and brown neighborhood.
"I collect trash in downtown Minneapolis. At the end of my workday I go to my home in North Minneapolis and breathe in the polluted air from the HERC incinerator that is burning the garbage I collected. This is the reason I am fighting for a healthy planet for my kids."
Maurice McLaurin, Local 26 member
Shutting Down Dirty Energy From Trash to Coal
The Sierra Club is supporting local leaders in their campaigns to highlight the racial health disparities caused by HERC and shut down the HERC burner - but that’s not the only way we’re connected to it. The HERC burner is operated by Great River Energy (GRE), which also runs the Coal Creek coal fired power plant in North Dakota. The Sierra Club is campaigning to shut down this plant.
The Coal Creek plant is North Dakota’s biggest coal fired power plant. It emitted over ten million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2018--the equivalent of over two million cars on the road--as well as thousands of tons of other pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. The dirty energy this plant provides is used to power the homes for almost 2 million rural Minnesotans. This means that many Minnesotans are stuck using dirty coal as their power source - and paying too much for it, to boot!
Climate Migrants Now Fighting For Their Rights in MN
GRE’s dirty coal plants are contributing to climate change, and climate change is creating a whole new class of climate refugees. Some of those refugees come to Minnesota to build a new home, and may end up collecting trash for the HERC burner - including Elsa Guaman, quoted above.
This creates a vicious cycle in which refugees flee the impacts of climate change and many come to the U.S. Some become janitors in SEIU Local 26 where they work to collect garbage from downtown office buildings. That trash is then burnt at the HERC burner to heat the buildings they clean, and the burner pollutes the neighborhood where many Local 26 members live. In addition, the burner contributes to climate change by pouring CO2 into the atmosphere, and climate change creates even more climate refugees.
We’re all in this fight together
SEIU Local 26 reminds us that there are also practical reasons for solidarity: we’re all in this fight together. If we want to stop climate change, we’re going to have to stand with workers in their fights for good jobs - especially when those workers are fighting climate change in their campaigns.
They are using their power to fight for a better world for all of us: can you join them?
Rally for Workers' Rights & Climate Justice, Thursday Feb. 27 at 5 pm in downtown Minneapolis
We’ve got an opportunity to stand with members of Local 26 in their campaign. On Thursday, February 27 from 5-8pm, environmental organizations will be downtown with Local 26 members on Nicollet Mall rally for Workers’ Rights and Climate Justice.
Workers are putting their jobs on the line if they strike. The Sierra Club is asking volunteers and members to show up in solidarity. We have committed to turning 100 people out to the rally - we’ll have volunteer roles for you or you can simply join the rally.
This is a fun, powerful way to support your fellow Minnesotans and support a healthy planet for us all.