Stronger Social Infrastructure Will Help Working Families Overcome the Climate Crisis

Photo: SEIU

By Mary Kay Henry

When a climate-driven fire, flood, extreme heat, or cold event, or — as we have endured over the past year — pandemic hits, working Americans face difficult, life-changing crises.

Working families are more likely to watch their homes get destroyed, lose access to power and water, go through the shock of a healthcare setback, or get wiped out financially because their jobs are disrupted by a climate event.

Working-class Black, Brown, and Asian Pacific Islander Americans are even more exposed to these threats. Because workers of color make up the backbone of the service and care industries — where powerful corporations hold down wages, oppose adequate funding for social services, and try to block workers from organizing unions — they are more likely to live on the edge, with fewer resources to fall back on.

And after decades of environmental racism, many Black and Brown working families are pushed to live in zip codes where it is harder to stay healthy and safe, both during daily life and during a disaster.

This is an issue of life and death. In the past few years, members of the Service Employees International Union have had family members killed in wildfires in California and Oregon. SEIU members have lost homes to floods in Texas and North Carolina and hurricanes in Florida and Puerto Rico. During a catastrophic pandemic that has probably been intensified by climate change, healthcare workers who belong to our union have sacrificed their own lives while working in nursing homes ravaged by COVID-19, providing home-based care to vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities, and working in hospitals overwhelmed by patients.

But instead of helping essential workers cope with these growing risks, America’s elected leaders have exacerbated the problem by slashing investment in social infrastructure that is crucial for maintaining successful, flourishing communities.

All of us need access to strong social infrastructure — public health, social services, and caregiving provided through states, cities, counties, and community-based institutions to foster collective well-being. Equitable access to social infrastructure is a cornerstone of a thriving community, whether it’s in the aftermath of a severe climate event or during everyday life increasingly impaired by pollution and a changing climate.

As a country, we need to start to make better choices to make life sustainable in an era when the changing climate will put more stress on working Americans.

There is reason to hope for new progress. The Biden administration has introduced some promising proposals to rebuild our social infrastructure.

The first step will be to listen to essential workers who are calling on corporate and elected leaders to respect us, protect us, and pay us as our country takes action to end the pandemic. Biden’s American Rescue Plan includes major investments to bolster public health capacity and provide emergency help for our states, counties, cities, and schools to keep communities running as they battle the spread of the virus.

For the longer term, President Biden put forward a plan to improve access to home and community-based care. His plan proposes investing $450 billion to expand access to home care services, creating 1.5 million new jobs to provide that care, and building a sustainable workforce to serve those who need care. The plan will increase pay for home care workers to at least $15 an hour, provide affordable healthcare, paid sick time, and training. It creates a pathway for caregivers to form unions to advocate for themselves, their clients, and their communities.

By stabilizing our home care system, Biden’s plan will create more economic stability for the huge numbers of Black, Brown, and Asian Pacific Islander working women who do the vast majority of America’s caregiving work. Improved economic security for caregivers and their families will help make it possible for them to better navigate the uncertainty of climate-driven economic upheaval.

These are crucial first steps towards restoring social infrastructure that is worn thin in so many working-class communities after long periods of underfunding and neglect.

Making investments in a stronger caregiving system and other social infrastructure will put America on a path towards rebuilding and expanding our public health and community-based services workforce. It’s time to bolster working parents’ ability to raise their kids, provide support for people with disabilities, and provide long-term care for elders as we manage risks caused by climate change.

The city of Philadelphia’s disastrous attempt to provide the COVID vaccine through a for-profit startup company led by inexperienced young executives shows how attempts to get by with seemingly inexpensive shortcuts can go wrong. A stable, qualified corps of public health care workers will help inject new energy and capacity into our underfunded and overstretched public health system and foster social cohesion and community resilience.

The grueling collective trauma of the coronavirus pandemic has exposed how vulnerable our social infrastructure is to a natural catastrophe. Essential frontline workers have continued to make heroic efforts to keep their communities going, doing their best to make up for structural, corporate, and institutional failures. But America cannot avoid taking stock of what has gone wrong so we can identify how to give better support to working people when we need to manage future threats.

The working people of SEIU know that to win this change we will need to link arms with people in the climate movement, in the racial justice movement, and other friends and neighbors who want to build a sustainable, inclusive America.

Many of the same billionaires who use their influence to block action to protect our planet also use their power to stop working people from uniting in unions to negotiate for higher-quality jobs. We’re all in this together. We will need to work together to overcome opposition from these formidable opponents.

Together, we believe we can advance our nation’s efforts to overcome threats caused by a changing climate, build a balanced economy, and create more opportunities for all working families to lead secure, fulfilling lives — no matter what color our skin, where we were born, or what kind of work we do.

Mary Kay Henry is the International President of the Service Employees International Union, a union of two million janitors, nurses, healthcare workers, public school workers, and other service and care workers.

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