Building ties between workers & the climate justice movement

October 1, 2023
climate protest

Central to the struggle to address climate change and win a safe climate is engagement with and mobilisation around the issue by the global working class. The Global Ecosocialist Network hosted an international online forum, in June, to bring together labour activists and climate justice activists to share their experiences in building links.

The panel featured Jeremy Brecher, founder of the United States Labor Network for Sustainability (LNFS); Ferron Pedro, a senior campaigner with 350; Fridays for Future activist Rika Müller-Vahl from Germany; and Filipino labour leader Luke Espiritu, who heads the labour organisation, Solidarity of Filipino Workers (BMP).

Brecher began by outlining some of the challenges facing the climate justice movement in the United States, where, in his view, the labour movement lags behind in addressing climate change and is “most likely to be advocating for climate policies and approaches that are either denying the climate crisis” or advocating “solutions that are extremely unlikely to address it effectively”.

He explained that the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNFS) tries to encourage unions to “find a way to be more positively involved with climate issues and help the climate and environmental movements have a better understanding of working people and organised labour”.

Moving beyond ‘jobs vs environment’

One of the challenges, said Brecher, is moving the discussion beyond a “jobs versus environment” framing of the issue, especially when arguments like “that's going to cost workers their jobs” or “that's going to undermine the employment prospects for American workers” are constantly propounded in the media and by the fossil fuel industry.

“[LNFS] is constantly fighting for another frame, which is, first of all, that climate change itself is the real job killer,” said Brecher.

“The jobs fixing the climate are the best plan for worker employment and for social justice.”

Brecher said there are five strategies the LNFS uses to try to shift the discussion: The first is to “recognise the common interest in human survival and in sustainable livelihoods for working people and the rest of humanity”.

“Climate advocates are environmentalists and workers. We all need a livelihood and we all need a livable planet to live on,” Brecher said.

The second is to “look for alliances around specific issues. So, for example … workers in the transportation industry have joined with environmentalists to advocate for shifting from private cars to public transit,” which would create “skilled jobs and greatly reduce greenhouse gas and local pollution”.

The third approach is to seek “win-win” solutions to conflict, explained Brecher.

“We're constantly facing situations where unions are — both on their own initiative and through employer connivance — being mobilised to oppose climate protection measures. “And so people who are advocating for climate protection need to make concrete plans for just transitions in cooperation with unions,” he said.

Brecher cited the example of a Massachusetts coal-fired power plant that closed down in 2017, where unions worked with local climate activists and the local community “to turn it into a clean energy hub, which is now producing more jobs than the power plant that was closed”.

Brecher said that during the struggle over the Keystone XL pipeline, the LNFS developed a plan that showed how “green” jobs for pipeline workers and others could be created along the route of the pipeline. “These would be jobs that would be protecting the climate rather than destroying it.”

The fourth strategy “is to support a broad public agenda for creating full employment by converting to a climate safe economy ... That really means the Green New Deal … [which] in this country defines the idea of climate protection as a means for creating good jobs and social justice.

“And finally, we can start building the Green New Deal — or whatever the equivalent is in other places — right now from below.”

Creating a powerful force for change

Ferron Pedro told the forum that her organisation, 350 Africa, recognises the need to bring workers and climate activists together, because of the “potential force for transforming society” in linking these movements more closely.

Pedro, who previously worked for the South African Federation of Trade Unions, explained that there is now widespread recognition that capitalism has “been built on the exploitation of both workers and the environment” and has brought about the climate emergency, among other crises.

In the African context, there are multiple emergencies, explained Pedro. “We have an unemployment crisis. We have an energy crisis, which I know extends beyond our borders. But these emergencies are … clearly rooted in capitalist modes of production.

“The working class in and outside of the [labour] movement are not only the most affected by the changing climate, but also have a vital role to play in overcoming its impacts and transforming society.

“By taking an honest look at the challenges being faced by the labour and climate movements in our context, that can give us some really good insights into what we need to do and what opportunities exist to strengthen these movements, not just internally … but also to bring them closer together and to make real gains in the struggle for climate justice.”

Prior to the forum, Pedro spoke to some “comrades in the union movement”, and asked them what they thought were some of these challenges. “Why is it that the climate and labour movement are sometimes at odds and — even when that's not the case — are not working as closely and powerfully together as possible?” she asked them.

One colleague, who organises in the Transport Retail and General Workers' Union (THORN), told Pedro that, in their experience, precarious workers are more concerned about immediate issues, such as permanent jobs and wages. “Many are single mothers who just don't have the time and mental energy to be concerned about anything more than survival.”

They also reported that workers in more secure jobs are more likely to take an interest in the issue of climate change. Members of the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, for example, are “quite articulate and interested in the energy crisis in particular”, said Pedro. “But if we want to bring in the majority of workers, we have to weave the immediate issues with the issues of the climate.”

One shop steward for the General Workers Union told Pedro that unions are struggling with internal shortcomings, factional battles, limited resources, a changing workforce, and “an inability to attract young people, in the context of 40% unemployment, with no end in sight”.

There's also “a perception that the climate justice movement is driven by the interests of the middle class and the privileged” the shop steward told Pedro. “The tone that they speak to workers [in]: ‘We know what is good for you and you must trust us on this and you must just do what we say.’ There's a sense that they're speaking down to workers…”

This leads workers to “vote with their feet” about participating in campaigns and movements, said Pedro, especially when those campaigns come “fully packaged” and workers have not participated in creating them. There is also a lack of time during work hours for workers to attend meetings and educational programs.

“Workers’ issues should be taken up, even if there isn't a direct link to the climate movement, to help prevent the feeling workers have that [climate activists] want support, but only for [their] campaigns and [their] agenda,” Pedro said.

But the looming issue is the question of industry transitions as the South African economy faces the challenge of decarbonisation.

According to one organiser Pedro consulted, “Unions are not talking about enough about climate issues on the shop floor, and those most affected by the transition are deeply fearful of job losses and very suspicious of how renewable energy is being introduced.”

Workers are also concerned with the impacts on costs and that “privately owned independent power producers will mean exorbitant prices”.

This unionist, who organises mines in Langa province, which is the “coal mining sector heartland” in South Africa, said “the coal mining sector is booming” and asked Pedro: “If the West is imposing a climate agenda, then why are they importing our coal?”

“So information is not communicated enough,” said Pedro.

A safety spokesperson from the South African Federation of Trade Unions told her that workers are concerned about job security and job losses in the industry when coal-fired power plants are decommissioned and the flow-on effects down the chain.

“He says there is a sense that the climate movement is led by NGOs who have agendas funded by corporations and institutions led by the industrialised Western countries, such as the IMF [International Monetary Fund] or OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development], advocating for policies which are contrary to the developmental needs of the global South,” said Pedro.

This has “also led to a kind of climate denialism, with the climate emergency seen as a Trojan horse for resource extraction”.

With reports and comments by prominent South African union leaders arguing that moving away from coal will harm the country's economy, electrification efforts and increase electricity tariffs, he told Pedro that “if climate activists want workers to come on board and organised labour to come on board more actively in their campaigns, they have to be steeped in a radical social justice ethos, taking seriously demands for re-skilling and job creation and have cogent plans on how affected communities will remain resilient.”

Pedro said these comments point to opportunities to bring the climate and labour movements closer together. But climate activists need to be members of and support the rejuvenation of the trade union movement. “We joined a union at … and there's a lot that can be done … [such as] supporting shop stewards training, workers education … and linking with campaigns in solidarity as insiders in the trade union movement.

“We've also actively focused on solutions and the job-creating power of decarbonisation — with the jobs crisis in South Africa and the fact that the term ‘just transition’ has been co-opted by entities that don't have a lot of concern for workers or the environment.”

“A labour-climate alliance requires these multi-issue, broad-based coalitions — and we have such a coalition, the Climate Justice Coalition in South Africa, [which] includes trade unions, community formations and NGOs. And a big focus of our work … is popular education and communities learning lessons from each other.

“Whenever we have any kind of action or activity or education program, it's important for us to include trade unions, community organisations and youth groups.

“[For the coalition] this also means aggressively extending the case for public ownership to renewable energy, with the incredible distrust [that exists] around the corporatisation and privatisation of energy in South Africa.”

‘We Ride Together’

The forum heard next from Rika Müller-Vahl, a Fridays for Future activist from Berlin, who is active in a campaign called “We Ride Together”, bringing together climate activists and workers in the public transport sector across Germany in a “joint strike movement” for mobility and mobility transition.

Müller-Vahl said it will take the majority of society to seriously fight for a just climate future; to be powerful enough to stand up to the power of the big energy companies and “fossil capital”.

“In our eyes, this requires ‘climate politicisation’ — the climate ‘turn’ of the trade unions, and at the same time an orientation of the climate justice movement towards workers and labour … [and] We Ride Together is an important step along the way”.

Next year, collective bargaining will take place between workers and local public transport companies across Germany, she explained.

“About 100,000 employees from 160 companies will very likely go on strike to improve their working conditions,” because the current working conditions in public transport companies are “catastrophic”. Müller-Vahl said long driving shifts, workplace stress and a lack of toilet breaks are everyday occurrences, and far too little is invested in expanding public transport and staffing. “As a result, many drivers are leaving jobs and there are far too few new recruits.”

“It's clear that more drivers are needed in public transport companies to make climate friendly change in transportation at all possible. And this constellation makes 2024 a very favourable time window for this alliance,” said Müller-Vahl, as the public transport union is ready to lead an offensive to improve workers’ conditions.

“At the same time, many activists in the climate justice movement like myself, are crushed, frustrated by years of experience of defeat, and are looking to new means of power and open to closing ranks with those fighting for an upgrade of the climate jobs of the future.

“And on this basis, activists have made contact with workers and local public transport companies in around 40 cities since last October … helped by the fact that local transport companies had already gone on strike at the beginning of the year”.

Verdi (the United Services Trade Union) deliberately scheduled its nationwide strike in public transport for March 3, the same day as the Fridays for Future global climate strike. This “made a huge impression [on] the striking workers who were off on a climate strike for the first time, and with the striking activists who were off on a workers strike for the first time” and “workers and activists could experience the feeling of collective and joint action”.

It also set off a storm in the media and from employers. “The chief executive of the Confederation of German Employers publicly denounced the joint strikes as a dangerous crossing of the line into a political strike.”

Building trust

Müller-Vahl stressed that the joint strike day “did not come about on its own”, but “was the result of weeks and months of building trust between workers and activists”.

“For example, in Göttingen, a small town in Lower Saxony, an exceptionally close cooperation has developed” between unionists and climate activists, said Müller-Vahl.

“When the activists first contacted the workers in October, the first reaction was skepticism”, because “the climate justice movement and the climate issue in general do not have a very good reputation among many workers”.

“They said things like: ‘We don't want to cooperate with those who glue themselves on the roads, or those who are the ones blocking my bus rides. And that's what we heard quite often when we got into contact with workers for the first time. So it was not an easy situation to start from, despite seemingly close interests.”

Despite this, activists did not give up.

“It started a conversation with the workers,” said Müller-Vahl. Activists said: “We want to support you and your collective bargaining round because we think that good working conditions in the transport companies are necessary for a change of transport … [and] climate justice can only go hand in hand with good working conditions for you …”

In Göttingen, activists organised a Town Hall meeting in solidarity with the strikes, and 200 people came to hear from workers.

However, in Cologne, “there was initially and unanimous vote of the union activists against cooperation with the climate justice movement,” said Müller-Vahl.

Not to be deterred, climate activists “went through Cologne for two weeks and collected over 1000 signatures in solidarity with the workers’ strikes, thus winning their trust.

“In Göttingen, activists did a survey on the willingness to strike with the majority of the workers, by standing at the depot every day for a week, sometimes starting at 4am, and holding talks and getting in touch and earning trust.”

And in these cities, and many others, they then stood together on the streets to strike as a “finale” on March 3, in many cases starting at 3am to help set up the picket lines.

“March the 3rd was only the starting point,” said Muller-Vahl, as the next round of nationwide public transport strikes will follow early next year.

“In the coming weeks, we want to build up the activists groups of We Ride Together in the individual cities and further develop the relationship of trust with the workers in the transport companies.”

In September, “this will be followed by a double majority petition,” said Müller-Vahl – a tactic espoused by educator, labour and community organiser, Jane McAlevey in the United States.

Activists will collect workers’ signatures and community signatures on a petition calling for the implementation of workers’ demands on the company “and for massive political investment in public transport”.

“Then hopefully 100,000 drivers and 100,000 activists will go on strike together in the spring [March-April] of 2024” in pursuit of these demands.

Müller-Vahl hopes this will be a “big step towards a turnaround in transportation”, and will “show that a climate turn in the unions and a labour turn in the climate justice movement is possible”.

Just transitions

The final speaker on the panel was Philippines labour leader Luke Espiritu, president of the militant labour centre, Solidarity of Filipino Workers (BMP).

Espiritu shared the example of the proposed transition in the transport sector in the Philippines, where drivers have been fighting for a just transition, which in this case means saving jobs.

The Philippine government announced earlier this year that it will phase out jeepney vehicles — a traditional form of public transport — and replace them with “modern”, and purportedly lower emissions jeepneys.

“But they are doing so in order in order to remove the transport sector from the hands of small transport operators,” said Espiritu. It will effectively “give the entire transport industry to corporate interests who will now control the transport sector and create a profit or surplus from a monopoly on the transport industry”, putting the livelihoods of transport workers at risk.

“It became very, very clear to the transport workers,” said Espiritu, “that this attempted transition purportedly from a obsolete type of transport vehicle towards a more environmentally friendly type of transportation” was being carried out in the interests of capital and “will result in the loss of thousands of jobs”.

“This resulted in a big transport strike in our country for the preservation of jobs, and in this case, it became very clear that, yes, we do want the transition and in fact transition is inevitable, but the transition must be just, it must not be defined by the capitalist class … [but] be defined by those who are affected by the transition.”

“And [BMP] demanded that those who are affected — the transport workers — must be heard on the process of transition and it must ensure the continuation of livelihoods.

“So in this case I do not see that the interests of the labour movement and climate justice would be at odds in the context of an inevitable transition … but it is more beneficial … that the labor movement defines the transition. Let the workers control the terms of the transition … it must be done with justice.”

“In fact, we must push the labour movement, push for cleaner energy, and in fact make it quicker … and this is the intersection that I see in regard to uniting the labour movement with the movement for climate justice in the Philippines.”

Espiritu said that in the Philippines, climate justice is mainly being advanced by civil society groups and NGOs, and there is still some way to go to before major labor organisations and labor groups embrace the fight for climate justice in the context of a just transition.

Alliances have developed between labour groups and major NGOs that push for climate justice. “For example, my organisation, the Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino [BMP], does have a partnership with the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice, the Center for Energy Ecology and Development, and the Asian People's Movement for Debt and Development, which are organisations that have embraced and advanced the fight for climate justice.”

Espiritu said he can see the prospects for the Filipino labour movement to fully embrace the fight for climate justice.

“The labor movement in the Philippines has been there and has been pushing for a system that is an alternative to capitalism, has been pushing for the socialist alternative, in [its] 100-years of struggle.”

Espiritu said this perspective is crucial to the struggle for a just transition for workers.

“You cannot just tweak a simple policy of the government or [change] a part of the system that we have right now, like, for example, the energy sector … without opening the floodgates to several other developments,” which come up against the capitalist system.

[Susan Price is a member of the Global Ecosocialist Network's steering committee. This report also appears on]

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