The U.S. Labor Movement, the Paris Accord, NEPA, and the Importance for Connecting Social Movement Organizing on the Local and Global Arena

By Eduardo Rosario

Introduction:

When President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Accord on Thursday, June 1, 2017 it instantaneously became worldwide news. What received essentially no media coverage was what occurred on Monday, June 5, 2017, in the Capitol Building. Assembled at a congressional briefing was a 14-person delegation that came from throughout the U.S. representing the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA) along with representatives from EarthJustice. With the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord as the backdrop, this delegation was urging representatives from the various offices of the Senate and House of Representatives its support for a the little known federal legislation that has come under tremendous attack called the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The question here is what does the Paris Accord and NEPA have in common? When you place both the Paris Accord and NEPA, in context of our local, state, and national infrastructure, the two as it turns out have much in common when viewed through the filter of environmental justice, human rights, the workplace, and our communities.

U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord and its ramifications

On June 1, 2017, Donald Trump pulls the United States out of the Paris Accord, a commitment of nearly every country in the world to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and which aims to keep the planet’s warming below 2 degrees Celsius. Among the numerous reasons Trump made for pulling out of the Paris Accord was how it and environmental regulation threatened job creation. He went on to further assert how we were paying for other countries that were not paying their fair share — more specifically China and India. This was one of Trump’s major motivations for the US withdrawal from the Paris Accord. This withdrawal is a monumental mistake and represents a complete disregard of some clear facts and economic realities we cannot deny, for example:[1]

  • Innovation in clean technologies and jobs is on the rise.
  • Investing in growing clean energy, clean vehicles, green infrastructure development, and energy efficiency can drive manufacturing growth in the United States.
  • To not take advantage of the tremendous potential of the green economy puts the US at a competitive disadvantage, leaving these benefits for the rest of world to surpass the US as far as the research and development of green technology and a green economy.

Despite Trump taking the nation in a direction that is devoid of logic, commonsense, and stability, a growing number of state and local governments are committed to the goals and aims of the Paris Accord by adopting policies that meet the challenges of global warming by way of greater infrastructure investment using green technology to confront the realities of a future with rising sea levels, higher levels of disease, greater frequency of extreme weather episodes, and a global population that will continue to rise while at the same time having less water to sustain the demands of humanity. In a June 1, 2017, Steven Mufson’s article published in the Washington Post, stated the following:

“Thirty states and scores of companies said Thursday that they would press ahead with their climate policies and pursue lower greenhouse gas emissions, breaking sharply with President Trump’s decision to exit the historic Paris climate accord.”

On Friday, June 2, 2017, the following day after the US withdrawal from the Paris Accord, CBS News released the following statement issued by many state and local governments:

“Mayors, governors, and business leaders from both political parties are signing onto a statement of support that we will submit to the U.N. — and together, we will reach the emission reduction goals the United States made in Paris in 2015,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “Americans will honor and fulfill the Paris Agreement by leading from the bottom up — and there isn’t anything Washington can do to stop us.”

The fact is the “greenhouse” effect caused by carbon emissions is nothing new and science has known of this phenomenon for well over a hundred years taking us back to the time of the Industrial Revolution. In 1896, Svante Arrhenius calculated the effect of doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide has a direct effect on increasing surface temperatures of our planet of 5–6 degrees Celsius.

In reality, what Trump has set out to do is to begin to limit or rather eliminate public discourse on global warming starting with the US withdrawal from the Paris Accord. The facts not being told to the American populace are how the US, which represents 4.34% of the worldwide population[2], is responsible for 15.99% of the total global carbon emissions[3] and the US who has not paid its fair share nor properly begun to address climate change. US economic and foreign policies are exacerbating the environment and economy alike. It is the nations of the global south which tend to be amongst the poorest nations in the world who pay the biggest price for the carbon emissions that originate from the global north — the richest nations of the world. Primarily because they do not possess the resources and infrastructure due to disease, the onslaught of war, and the dislocation of people, due to economic impositions via free trade and austerity measures, free trade policies and austerity measures imposed by the global north.

The truth is the Paris Accord does not go far enough. Scientists have been warning global powers over the decades on where we need to be in order to avoid triggering global environmental tipping points that cannot be reversed with all the money and technology we may possess once set into motion. This ultimately will place humanity as we know, it on the chopping block if we stay the course and do nothing—hence, the gravity and enormity with the decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord. What needs to happen here in the US as a labor movement and nation is to adopt a science-based climate change policy, and break away from global capitol’s market-driven green economy that are based on the failed principles of mass production and the open-market knows best. These are the economic principles and policies that have been embraced for over a century that are largely responsible for the present day global warming crisis. Despite the Paris Accord not going as far as we ultimately need to, it is clearly an important step forward that takes our planet and humanity in the right direction.

Four days later on Monday, June 5, 2017, Trump then dubs the week “Infrastructure Week” for the country. The level of contradiction in the president’s policies is just staggering. Most job creation connected with environmental regulation involves blue-collar jobs. David Foster, executive director of the Blue-Green Alliance, and Leo Girard, president of the United Steelworkers, reported at the “Good Jobs/Green Jobs Conference” held in Washington DC on February 9 – 11, 2014 that infrastructure investment using green technology that provide green jobs with benefits, boost not only the economy and jobs, but begins to set us on a path towards environmental sustainability. It could potentially create 11 million jobs in the U.S. — jobs that would address many of our infrastructure needs, such as replacing antiquated technology and reliance on coal in many schools and communities; repairing of 86,000 defective bridges; building and repair of roads and highways; pipeline infrastructure for our water and sewer systems; improving our public transportation system; and renovating many public buildings. This is the fundamental reason why this is a labor issue and how we must build coalitions with the environmental, as well as with the civil rights movement.

The economic fallout for the US from policies such as Donald Trump withdrawing the US from the Paris Accord may prove insurmountable to overcome if the US stays the course and does not join forces and resources with the global community. This is of particular importance when it comes to addressing climate change in context of the US infrastructure for it will take more than the 30 states who are committed to the goals and aims of the Paris Accord. This demands the entire nation committed to such a proposition that moves us towards adopting a science-based climate change policy. Coalition building is affected by economic and political conditions, but these same economic/political conditions and impositions can be trumped over time by education and lessons learned from the past.[4] This is indisputable when we examine the mass mobilizations of the 1990s such as the international organizing and mobilizing between the labor and environmental movements against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), the Battle of Seattle, or fast-forward to the Blue/Green Alliance here in the US, Occupy Wall Street, and the global mobilization of the Peoples Climate Change March.

Coalition building may seem elusive, but will prove imperative if global capital continues to maintain its current trajectory, a course that will only lead to even greater environmental degradation, in turn, further exacerbating global economic conditions. The trade union principles of justice and dignity are not in conflict with the principles of social movement environmentalism. In unity, these social forces are in a stronger position combating the impositions of global capital than either of them can do alone. Coalition building specifically between the labor and environmental movements has been extensively researched over the years and discussed by academics and trade unionists alike. Regardless of whether one favors a “social movement organizing” model or a servicing/business unionism model, it is long overdue organized labor in the US honestly address the heated debate surrounding the question of “jobs versus the environment”.

We must begin by asking, “What have been the obstacles towards coalition building between these two powerful social movements?” The common enemies of labor and the environmental justice movements are global capital and those they employ. Corporations have effectively framed the jobs versus the environment debate, often dividing the labor and environmental justice movements from uniting their resources. This has been the weapon of choice particularly during times of economic downturn. The jobs versus the environment strategy have effectively driven a wedge between potential allies based on their relationship to capital. Phillip Harvey, and his description of the pace of the economic recovery being “distressingly slow,” only deepens the divisions and hurdles we must overcome in order to consider strategies and objectives concerning climate change and environmental sustainability.[5] But the claims of job loss due to environmental regulation are most often politically motivated and unsupported by economic analyses (Mayer 2009). Most research on the economic effects of environmental regulations suggests a positive impact on overall employment rates.[6] Free trade policies, outsourcing, deregulation, privatization, and when extracting industries have exhausted all the natural resources of a region leaving behind joblessness and a destroyed ecosystem all have had a far greater deleterious effect on jobs than environmental regulation.

Labor’s potential for growth, and its relevance as a social force are enhanced, particularly among youth and for communities in need when it takes up environmental issues. When labor does not take the steps necessary to be inclusive of broader social concerns these same communities are unlikely to view labor unions as a vehicle for improving their living and social conditions. For these reasons many labor activists embrace a social environmental perspective rather than following global capital’s market-based green economy and the business environmental agenda.[7]

The labor movement is beginning to gain a serious understanding of truths outside its familiar terrain, such as those from science, actively engaging in the fight against global warming.[8]  Though the labor movement is far from being crowned the “steward of the planet” or “protector of the environment,” in recent years many unionists have become more receptive to the question of the environment. A good example of labor moving outside its comfort zone was the labor movement’s public support for a socially responsible environmental policy in the 1999 “Battle of Seattle.” A more recent example is the work of the Blue/Green Alliance, a coalition of labor and environmental organizations representing over 15 million workers and supporters, with unions such as the United Steel Workers playing a leadership role, as well as the over 400,000 who marched in the streets of Manhattan in the September 2014 Peoples Climate Change March, and again the over 200,000 who marched in the April 2017 Washington D.C. Peoples Climate Change March.

Not only U.S. unions but also labor organizations across the globe, in both the global north and south are engaging in such coalitions. While advancing trade union rights for collective bargaining, freedom of association and organizing, they are also increasingly working in coalition with environmentalists to address our responsibility to the local, regional and global environment. With the U.S. labor movement beginning to play a larger role on the question of global warming, “green jobs” are becoming an agenda item for creating jobs in renewable energy, making buildings and industry more energy-efficient, as well as jobs that reduce our carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions.[9]

This potentially leads to a growing openness towards coalition building with the environmental justice and civil rights movements among rank-and-file workers. Connecting workplace hazards with pervasive environmental hazards that leach into the community, unions and community groups can place increased pressure to embrace labor/environmental concerns. To move beyond the corporate perspective that pits jobs against the environment, workers and environmentalists can find common ground around a political ecology that drives change and does not simply respond to it.[10] Despite the positive efforts of blue/green coalitions, the U.S. labor movement has yet to adopt a science-based climate change policy, unlike many global labor confederations and national unions of other nations.

At a UN investor summit on climate risk, on January 12, 2012, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was forthright in his statement about climate threat.

“Scientists tell us we are headed ever more swiftly toward irreversible climate change with catastrophic consequences for human civilization. And far from being a threat only in a distant future, climate change is happening now. That demands action! The carbon emissions from coal, from oil and natural gas, agriculture, and so many other human activities have caused global warming, and we have to act to cut those emissions, and act now.”[11]

While the AFL-CIO has gradually accepted the reality of man-made global warming, this call to action represents full recognition of this global problem. Despite such public statements, however, the AFL-CIO still has not endorsed even the minimal targets for carbon reduction proposed by the world’s leading body of climate scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), let alone the reduction of carbon in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million that America’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen, says is necessary to prevent the “catastrophic consequences for human civilization that is looming on the horizon.”[12] The U.S. labor movement adopting a science-based climate change policy and divorcing itself from global capital’s green economy is yet to be fully realized. But a science-based climate change policy can become a reality if the labor movement joins in coalition with the environmental justice and civil rights movements — locally and globally.

Ecological modernization differs from a narrow trust in technological fixes in that it recognizes that environmental problems are serious enough to require conscious strategies to address them – rather than placing our hopes in the invisible hand of the market or on technological breakthroughs.[13]  This runs counter to global capital’s market-driven green economy. Across the nation, many local and state governments are meeting the challenge of making our energy, transportation, and other systems cleaner and more efficient. Millions of people are being put to work in jobs designing, manufacturing, and installing the clean energy technology and infrastructure needed to reduce the pollution that is driving climate change.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) reports[14] that installed renewable energy capacity increased more than 115 percent from 2000 to 2015 and now produce 14 percent of domestic electricity in the country. According to 2017 data recently released by the DOE in its second annual U.S. Energy and Employment Report, no- and low-carbon energy and energy and vehicle efficiency industries currently support approximately 4.5 million American jobs, including:[15]

  • 2 million jobs in energy efficiency;
  • Almost 374,000 jobs in solar energy;
  • Over 700,000 jobs working with fuel efficient and alternative vehicles and their components;
  • 102,000 jobs in wind energy; and
  • 19,745 jobs in smart grid technology.

These are growing industries: in 2016, the solar workforce increased by 25 percent and wind employment increased by 32 percent, while the energy efficiency sector added 133,000 jobs, and expects to grow another 9 percent in 2017. The Solar Foundation Solar Job Census reported solar jobs have nearly tripled since 2010.[16] The American Wind Energy Association estimated that 248,000 workers would have jobs in or supporting the wind industry by 2020.[17]

Building on these investments by leading globally in growing the green economy would mean more of these kinds of jobs here in the United States, and it’s critical that we spend our time working to ensure that existing jobs and those to come are quality, family-sustaining union jobs with benefits in our communities across the nation. Rather than withdrawing from the Paris Accord, the United States should instead lead the world in driving the significant economic growth and job creation that comes from designing, manufacturing, and installing the clean economy.[18]

The National Environmental Policy Act:

Just as we must take responsibility globally and do our fair share as a labor movement, as a civil society, and organize internationally with the labor, social, and human rights movements of other nations, this cannot be divorced on what we must do on a state and local/community level. Just as the labor and social movements of the global north must build bridges with their counterparts in the global south in order to combat global warming. Labor’s bridge building on a state and local/community level with the environmental and civil rights movements, and solidifying such coalitions is critical that we do so if we are to transition our local/global community towards a green economy that is founded upon a science-based climate change policy. One example of how we can begin to build bridges and coalitions is by using an important tool called the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Everyone has heard of a town hall meeting when there’s a proposal for example, to build an incinerator in your community. But the reason why there’s a town hall meeting in the first place is because of NEPA. It provides the mechanism for the general public to be active participants in the decision making process with regards to any proposed project that receives federal funds. NEPA is not perfect but it provides an important opportunity in building environmental justice in the workplace and community, and more specifically, confront environmental racism.

It is more than apropos that we not only speak of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), but also emphasize the importance to protecting NEPA from forces that wish to abrogate it, where in reality NEPA needs to be expanded and not nullified. In each of the last three Congresses, we have seen over 160 bills that undermine NEPA by shortening public comment periods and statutes of limitation, establishing arbitrary deadlines for environmental review, limiting the consideration of better alternatives or waiving the law altogether. We must bring to light and address the allocation of environmental burdens across the United States, and how the brunt of such burdens are disproportionately born by communities of color. Despite such disparate treatment these communities suffer there are solutions and goals that are attainable in order to remedy this crisis. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), is an important piece of legislation that aids in our taking preventative steps in halting with the continuation of policies that relegate many communities as repositories for dumping pollutants and carcinogens in our air and water, killing workers in the workplace, pollutants and carcinogens that fester via underground plumes that poison water tables in the very communities these same workers live and raise families.

As we all know there are numerous international norms and conventions banning racism and discrimination, and here in the United States racism and discrimination is illegal. Yet when we look at where the lion-share of where major pollution producing industries and structures such as incinerators, power plants, pipelines, and toxic waste sites are located, it cannot be ignored or denied how they are established in many Afro-American, Latino, and Native American communities. From a humanitarian perspective the importance of NEPA for many communities in-need here in the US is critical. NEPA is a genuine avenue of recourse in maintaining the checks and balances for protecting our families, our loved ones, our communities, and our land. NEPA also provides an opportunity to advance proposals and campaigns for investment in green technologies and industries instead of dirty energy industries and structures via the “Environmental Impact Statement” process.

Environmental concern is spreading and the problem cannot be dealt with unless we start with the workplace. It is for this reason the words of Tony Mazzocchi leader of the US Labor Party and the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers ring true, “A degraded work environment ultimately affects the general environment”. The fact is the labor movement has a rich history of championing the cause of environmental justice at work and in the community. A history that goes back to the United Steelworkers of America, and the Donora, Pennsylvania, air pollution disaster of 1948. This is why NEPA is important to the labor movement.

The purpose of NEPA is to make the siting of environmentally burdensome facilities more equitable. Because NEPA, through the “Environmental Impact Statement” (EIS) process, mandates taking into account the significant environmental effects of a proposed project, including its cumulative impact, and requires public participation as part of its process, it is a procedural device for considering environmental justice when making a siting decision. To combat the unfair allocation of environmental burdens, decision-makers must infuse distributional factors into existing environmental statutes. NEPA offers applicable precedent for this infusion because it’s environmental impact statements have long included discussions of the socioeconomic effects and disparities of certain proposed government actions. [19]

It is for this reason the National Environmental Policy Act is the “Environmental Bill of Rights”. It is the means by which we attain environmental equity. The Act provides:

The Congress, recognizing the profound impact of man’s activity on the inter-relations of all components of the natural environment, particular the profound influences of population growth, high-density urbanization, industrial expansion, resource exploitation, and new and expanding technological advances, and recognizing further the critical importance of restoring and maintaining environmental quality to the overall welfare and development of man, declares that it is the continuing policy of the Federal Government, in cooperation with State and local governments, and other concerned public and private organizations, to use all practicable means and measures, including financial and technical assistance, in a manner calculated to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans”.[20]

In other words, NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, was set-up to balance the welfare of the people against the backlash of industrialization and urbanization. Yet, balance is exactly what is lacking in the siting of environmentally burdensome facilities, for example, hazardous waste sites. According to the “Toxics Wastes and Race” report, conducted by the United Church of Christ’s Commission on Racial Justice, environmental hazards fall disproportionately on low-income and minority communities who have borne the brunt of waste siting decisions. Dr. Benjamin Chavis, former head of the United Church of Christ testified before the House Subcommittee on Transportation and Hazardous Materials stated, “three out of five African Americans and Hispanic Americans live in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites”.[21]

NEPA offers a remedy because it mandates a process more likely to consider the concerns of minority and low-income groups, overburdened by industrial polluters whose proposed project seek to establish themselves in one’s community. In accordance with NEPA, an agency is not only required to predict the environmental effects of a proposed action, it is also compelled to involve concerned parties in the decision-making process.[22]

Conclusion:

The labor movement is a concerned party and is a legitimate player on the local and global arena precisely because of the space it occupies in society and the power labor can exact locally and globally. The labor movement has a right to voice its concerns and organize in coalition with the environmental and civil rights movements against both the US withdrawal from the Paris Accord and the attacks against NEPA and the Environmental Impact Statement process. Global capital and in this case the White House openly denying the environmental and economic realities looming on the horizon are an affront to one’s democratic right to live and work in a healthy environment. What the global capitalist class fears the most regarding the discourse on global warming and civil society’s criticism of the fossil fuel industry be it locally or globally is it places into question the capitalist system itself, and where it is leading society.

The withdrawal from the Paris Accord and staying the present course and doing nothing to address global warming is unacceptable for there are no jobs, no economy, or life on a dead planet. The attacks against NEPA is an affront against a community’s democratic right to voice one’s concerns and grievances included in the Environmental Impact Statement process, especially, when we are talking about environmental hazards in one’s own backyard. In particular, when NEPA provides an avenue of recourse to directly confront the intentional relegation of hazardous industries and structures in many communities of color.

The labor movement is completely in its right to continue to build bridges of unity and solidarity in the name of democracy on behalf of all workers union and non-union alike, their families, and their loved ones. Labor and in this case Labor Council for Latin American Advancement is right to say, “Not in My Backyard. The labor movement is here to say not where we live, not where we work, not where we play, and we have a right to protect ourselves in the workplace, the right to defend our families, community, and protect our planet against those forces whose only concern is to make a profit, at the expense of our health, our lives, and our land”.[23]

It is these same private and government forces that fear when the labor movement, environmentalists, and communities, organize against all efforts that seek to silence one’s voice. But that is precisely the response the labor movement must have in solidarity with civil society, and forge forward as one community, with one voice, organizing towards a “just transition” for all workers and the environment.

End Notes

[1] https://www.bluegreenalliance.org/resources/why-withdrawing-from-paris-is-a-monumental-mistake/ (June 24, 2017)

[2] http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/us-population/ (June 25, 2017)

[3] https://www.statista.com/statistics/271748/the-largest-emitters-of-co2-in-the-world/ (June 25, 2017)

[4] Mayer, Brian – Blue-Green Coalitions: Fighting for Safe Workplaces and Healthy Communities; Cornell University Press, 2009, P.48

[5] Phillip Harvey, Back to Work: A public jobs proposal for Economic Recovery, P.1

[6] Mayer, Brian – Blue-Green Coalitions: Fighting safe workplaces and healthy communities; Cornell University Press, 2009, P.5

[7] Dimitris Stevis, Unions and the Environment: Pathways to Global Labor Environmentalism. Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society, 2011, P. 145

[8] Sean Sweeney, More than Green Jobs: Time for a New Climate Policy for Labor. New Labor Forum, Fall 2009, P.53

[9] Ibid

[10] Sean Sweeney, More than Green Jobs: Time for a New Climate Policy for Labor. New Labor Forum, Fall 2009, P.54

[11] http://www.labor4sustainability.org/articles/1695/, Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith, Labor and Environment: Next Steps for Dialogue, Publisher: Labor Network for Sustainability (June 24, 2017)

[12] Ibid

[13] Stevis, Dimitris – Green Jobs? – Just Jobs? Justice all the way down; Colorado State University, Department of Political Science, International Studies Association Annual Convention, New York, February 16, 2009, P.2

[14] http//energy.gov/eere/articles-4-renewable-energy-rise-america

[15] http//energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2017/us energy and jobs report_0.pdf

[16] http://www.solarenergyfoundation.org/national

[17] http//energystorage.org/news/esa-news/over-3-million-now-work-clean-energy

[18] https://www.bluegreenalliance.org/resources/why-withdrawing-from-paris-is-a-monumental-mistake/ (June 24, 2017)

[19] Heather E. Ross, Using NEPA in the Fight for Environmental Justice

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] https://www.facebook.com/LCLAA/videos/10155283240246678/ (June 26, 2017)

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About elnwebmaster

This is the discussion blog of the Labor Fightback Network, an auxiliary to the laborfightback.org website. It is designed to facilitate discussion among labor activists concerning the critical issues facing working people in the current economic crisis. Readers’ comments are welcome, but flaming is not. Any comments which are racist, sexist/homophobic, or disrespectful on a personal level will not get past moderation.
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