SEIU Comes out to Support Green New Deal, Will Other Unions Follow?

I (Miro) got a chance to see Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts last week. The murals take up an entire room and Rivera purposefully painted images of nature throughout to convey that everything humankind does is ultimately connected to the earth and nature. I found that reminder really powerful.

Late last week the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a labor union representing almost 1.9 million workers, passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal. This is significant because SEIU is the first national union to officially endorse the draft legislation at a time when most unions have been quick to come out against it.

Although the GND puts an emphasis on workers, as Vox reported, “the UMWA and other energy unions are skeptical that the Green New Deal builds a bridge sturdy enough to carry workers over to a future with cleaner energy. While there’s language about a jobs guarantee, there is no mechanism in the resolution to fund those jobs nor any specifics about how much they will pay, where they will be, and what benefits will be provided.”

  • Other major unions like the AFL-CIO felt as if they weren’t a part of the drafting process for the Green New Deal and have called it “not achievable.”

Cause for Hope: State-level chapters of national unions, however, have been having better traction with state lawmakers. Matt Schlobohm, Executive Director of the Maine AFL-CIO, was a stakeholder in the drafting of his state’s “An Act To Establish a Green New Deal for Maine”–which is a state level effort to establish a Green New Deal framework in Maine. Schlobohm who supports Maine’ Green New Deal said that “We know that the energy transition is coming, it either happens to us, or with us, and we think ‘with us’ is a much better process.

How SEIU Stands Apart: The union’s support of the GND is due to the resolution’s “connecting policies to combat climate change with those that raise standards for all working people.” In a statement, SEIU explained that “this is crucially important for communities of color, who are most impacted, so that no working people, families, or communities are left behind. SEIU members support immediate, bold action on climate change that holds corporations accountable for rampant pollution and creates good union jobs in a just transition.” Of course, SEIU’s members are service employees who generally aren’t directly involved with the process to extract and refine fossil fuels so they don’t have the same objections as that of the United Mine Workers of America.

But but but: Coal production didn’t plummet because of liberal policies, the abundance of natural gas and its relatively cheaper price along with rapidly growing competition from renewables induced a market switch that but coal companies out of business. At the same time, when coal companies have filed for bankruptcy they’ve been absolved of paying retirement and healthcare benefits to their union workers while paying out bonuses to their executives. The writing is on the wall, renewable energy is the future and now is the time to forge plans to ensure that workers are a priority in this transition–which will include addressing the anti-union nature of many of Silicon Valley’s green tech startups and biggest companies.

Why This Matters: Lack of support by some of the most influential unions for the Green New Deal means that for some Democratic candidates, making climate change a core campaign issue becomes more difficult. Many industrial workers see bold, government involvement in climate action as a threat to their livelihood. And while union members are not uniformly Democrats this nonetheless highlights that candidates who want to make sweeping progress on the climate crisis need to issue plans with specifics for labor and bring in union stakeholders to the conversation around a national transition to a clean energy economy.

Also Important: These candidates will also need to address the fact that some of the biggest players in clean/green tech–like Tesla–are notoriously anti-union. The workforce who will manufacture and install things like batteries and wind turbines need to earn a living wage and have collective bargaining power, otherwise what sort of just transition are Dems fighting for?


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