Climate Is Poised To Be A Divisive Issue For This Group Of Voters

Some 5000 union members, led by the United Mine Workers of America, march through downtown Pittsburgh in 2014, protesting the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Some labor groups have decided climate action is the only way forward. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/GENE J. PUSKAR
Some 5000 union members, led by the United Mine Workers of America, march through downtown Pittsburgh in 2014, protesting the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. Some labor groups have decided climate action is the only way forward. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/GENE J. PUSKAR

This may come as a shock, but not every American is concerned about preventing catastrophic climate change.

After decades of political messaging about how clean energy would be an economic disaster, many people are skittish about changing the status quo — even if the status quo holds dire consequences for our economy, our health, and our way of life. But as the effects of climate change touch more and more people, some labor groups are making environmental issues a priority.

“From our perspective, climate change and inequality are the two moral and existential crises of our time,” Pete Sikora, a political and legislative director for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), told ThinkProgress.

The Argument For Action

CWA and other unions that are joining the chorus of voices calling for action on climate change represent an important shift for labor, which has historically been somewhat leery of environmental regulation. Instead, Sikora’s union, which represents the recently victorious Verizon workers, is part of a coalition that supports New York State’s ambitious new climate change bill. In fact, climate action is increasingly being seen as an economic win.


The Climate and Community Protection Act passed the Democrat-led Assembly this week and is now at the Republican-controlled State Senate. NY Renew, a coalition which brought together labor, climate, and social justice groups, helped pass the measure. The bill sets a goal of 50 percent renewable electricity generation by 2030 and focuses on clean energy job creation, particularly in disadvantaged communities.

While unions have traditionally fought for workplace and economic improvements, climate change represents a serious threat to everyone, including union members, Sikora said, so an alliance with green groups makes sense.

Americans’ Concern About Climate Change Is GrowingCREDIT: AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez If you are concerned about global warming, you are part of a growing majority that hadn…“We spend a lot of time fighting for retirement [benefits],” Sikora said. “But what does that mean when the temperature is 5–10 degrees hotter when you retire? Our members’ futures are in serious peril from climate change.”

CWA is undoubtedly part of a broader trend. In May, the two-million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) voted to include environmental justice as part of its platform.

“SEIU members live and work in some of the most polluted zip codes in America and are part of communities that are most impacted by climate change,” SEIU international president, Mary Kay Henry, told the Guardian. “We know first-hand that our fights for economic, racial and immigrant justice are inextricably linked to the fight for environmental justice.”

Donald Trump is an absolute abomination of anti-union hot air

SEIU has, for years, been moving towards a climate justice position. When the EPA released its Clean Power Plan last summer, the union called it a “public health issue” that affects its members.


“Climate justice must accompany economic justice,” Dr. Hemant Sindhu, president of the Committee of Residents and Interns, an SEIU union of physicians, said in a statement.

Then last fall, when the Pope visited Washington, D.C. and spoke on climate change, the union again welcomed the message as one of economic justice. “Let us heed the call to commit, collaborate and fight together for a safer, cleaner and more just society, as called by Pope Francis!” said former SEIU International Secretary-Treasurer Eliseo Medina.

SEIU, whose membership includes nurses, joined with environmental groups to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline project, a move that could turn out to be a pivotal moment in the history of U.S. unions.

The Big Break-Up

Other unions took a different approach. In 2012 at least one group, Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), left a longstanding environmental and labor organization, the BlueGreen Alliance, over the Keystone issue.

“We’re repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women,” LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan said in a statement at the time.


It remains to be seen what those groups will do when faced with the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump. During the Verizon strike, both Democratic candidates — former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — supported the union, while Trump remained silent.

“Donald Trump is an absolute abomination of anti-union hot air,” Sikora said. “Here we are in this Verizon strike, [and] the central goal of Verizon is to offshore more jobs, and Trump is completely MIA,” he said, referencing Trump’s oft-stated opposition to labor globalization.

“The guy is a complete phony and a menace to American society. We’re going to be moving our members aggressively to vote against Donald Trump,” he said.

In fact, while Clinton and Sanders have each received several major union endorsements, Trump has received only two: the 16,000-member National Border Patrol Council and the New England Police Benevolent Association.

Still, the fight over climate action continues to divide the labor community. Earlier this month several major unions, as well as the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest federation of unions, announced that were starting a Super PAC with California billionaire Tom Steyer. The Super PAC is meant to help defeat Trump in key states, but some union members were quick to criticize the partnership. Steyer is a noted climate activist and is the founder of NextGen Climate, an environmental advocacy group. (He is also a board member of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, ThinkProgress’ parent organization).

After the announcement, eight building trade organizations wrote a letter to the AFL-CIO, urging it not to work with Steyer. “The AFL-CIO has now officially become infiltrated by financial and political interests that work in direct conflict to many of our members’ — and yes, AFL-CIO dues-paying members’ lives,” the letter said. The AFL-CIO has yet to endorse a candidate. Historically, it has endorsed Democrats, but its own website calls for “reaching consensus among our 56 affiliate unions and creating unity across the labor movement.”

That may no longer be possible.

What Comes Next

The schism had already become starkly clear during the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. Four unions signed work agreements in 2010 with the pipeline’s developer, TransCanada, before the application was even finalized. The ensuing battle over the future of the project pitted union against union.

“KXL could be a precursor to a more protracted and serious union leadership-level dispute in the years ahead,” writes Sean Sweeney, director of the Murphy Institute’s International Program on Labor, Climate, and the Environment. Sweeney refers to union support of the extraction industries — primarily oil, gas, and coal — as the Blue-Black Alliance.

“On the one side there are those who feel that the country’s rich coal, oil, and gas resources will ensure the U.S.’s economic prosperity in the years ahead,” he writes.

On the other side of the U.S.’s energy war is the growing movement that sees the social and environmental costs of drilling, blasting, mining, moving, and burning of fossil fuels. The extraction, transporting, refining, burning, and waste by-products associated with fossil fuel use is inflicting intolerable damage on communities and ecosystems; further destabilizing the earth’s climate, and will ultimately weaken the U.S. economy over the longer term.” (Emphasis added.)

Even some extraction industries are starting to get that message. In West Virginia, mountaintop removal, a kind of mining that is incredibly destructive to the local environment, has been opposed by both unions and environmentalists alike. But it takes a lot to get some industries there.

We have to overcome the enormous power and wealth of the oil and gas companies

“We have to overcome the enormous power and wealth of the oil and gas companies,” CWA’s Sikora told ThinkProgress.

One way to do this would be to organize the clean energy industries. According to The Solar Foundation, a non-profit that tracks employment in the solar industry, only 5.5 percent of the industry, about 11,500 people, are union members. Nearly all of them — 8,515 — were solar installers, but even among that sector, only 7.5 percent of the total were unionized. In manufacturing, the proportion of unionized solar workers was a measly 0.4 percent, 108 people.

U.S. Solar Created More Jobs Than Oil And Gas ExtractionClimate by CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JERRY MCBRIDE Over the last year, the solar industry added jobs twelve times faster than…thinkprogress.orgNationally, about 10 percent of manufacturing employees are represented by a union, but that number has been falling steadily since the 1970s, taking wages with it. In fact, it’s the extraction industries where unions have been able to hang on.

But the job growth is expected to continue for the clean energy sector, and failing to address climate change could be devastating to the economy, let alone the moral implications of continuing to cause increased drought, storm surges, sea-level rise, and contagious disease. Citibank estimates that not addressing climate change could cost trillions of dollars by the middle of the century.