Labor and Climate Form a More Perfect Union
Environmental and labor activists have found success collaborating at the local and state levels. Now they have their eyes on federal policy.
During an unusual dry spell in the last days of 2021, the plains north of Denver caught fire. By Jan. 1, the Marshall Fire had destroyed more than 1,000 homes that would ordinarily be safely covered in snow. The fire also closed the Starbucks where Len Harris worked.
She and her co-workers, some of them displaced by the fire, had been arguing with management for months for more staffing, training, and protection from customer abuse. Now, the crisis was giving them an unexpected break.
“We all took a big breath,” she remembers. With the space of a week off, she and others came to a conclusion: “What we put up with is awful. This is ridiculous. We don’t need to work this much.”
Harris began to talk to her co-workers about forming a union. By spring, they had officially voted to become the first unionized Starbucks shop in Colorado.
Harris saw the vote as a moment of triumph both for worker protection and for climate action.
“These working conditions are because [corporate leaders] want to make more money off of less people, because they want to make more money for shareholders, because they want to expand,” she says. She sees that push to expand, to make consumption easy and inexpensive, as the root of human-caused climate change. “So many capitalistic luxuries that are just cheap [and] faster produced have absolutely a terrible effect on the environment.”
Some climate organizers have been searching for a bridge between the labor and climate movements for years. The challenge, though, has been finding policies and approaches that satisfy both worker interests and climate’s urgency.
That’s beginning to change. State legislatures, Congress, environmental organizations, and labor unions—including Service Employees International Union and United Steelworkers—have found powerful allies in each other.
“It’s been a history of peaks and valleys,” says Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations. He worked with labor and environmental groups in the 1990s to fight NAFTA and later saw environmental activists join labor activists in the streets in 1999 World Trade Organization protests known as the Battle of Seattle. But those alliances didn’t last.
In the past decade, labor and climate activists have started to find common ground again. Many of the country’s biggest labor unions have expressed support for climate action, and they’ve backed at least portions of policy proposals like the Green New Deal.
“We’re in a moment that we might not have again for quite some time—where we have a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president and the ability to pass legislation that can really move the dial,” says Walsh. He believes it’s a time for climate organizers to double their efforts to reach out to workers and organized labor, to push for policies that benefit both movements.
So far, many of the successes have remained at the state level. In California, SEIU California, the BlueGreen Alliance, and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) collaborated on a report on social solutions for climate resilience, including the importance of home care workers as first responders and as a vital source of societal resilience to climate change. Care workers provide life-saving care and help evacuate vulnerable people during fires, hurricanes, and floods. In part as a result of that collaboration, a pilot program, backed by SEIU Local 2015 and funded in part by the state, aims to train those workers on aspects of first response, like emergency planning and disaster recovery. APEN, BlueGreen Alliance, and labor unions also successfully advocated for the state to put $100 million toward climate resilience centers in places like public libraries and community centers, an idea they first put forward in that collaborative report.
“We are trying to somewhat blur that line or division that’s constructed a lot. Our communities are also workers,” says Amee Raval, APEN’s policy and research director.
She says APEN’s collaboration stemmed from a basic observation: In a lot of fights, climate and labor organizations were on the same side. For example, after a 2012 fire at a refinery in Richmond, California, APEN members joined labor unions on the picket line to demand better safety practices.
But fractures between the movements persist. Environmental groups and labor unions have struggled to find a shared vision for moving away from fossil fuels, and for tackling fights over infrastructure, like new pipelines.
“I think it is fair to say that we have always been strongest and most unified when we have legislation that we can work on together,” says Walsh. “I understand the power of [fighting pipelines] from an organizing and movement-building standpoint. I don’t think it’s worth the cost from a political standpoint, and what it does to relations between labor unions and environmental groups, and what it does to the political landscape in particular places.”
Raval says organizations like APEN that are focused on environmental justice often have an easier go of it.
“I think there’s more pathways for environmental justice and labor to align, especially when we’re talking about working-class communities of color,” she says. There, the same people impacted by pollution and environmental degradation are those often working in difficult conditions.
From Harris’ standpoint as a worker, she sees another barrier: the hustle of trying to survive in a society where overwhelming economic pressure prevents people from being able to engage on environmental issues. After all, it took a catastrophic, climate-change-fueled fire to give her and the other Starbucks workers the space to begin to organize.
“You don’t have time to reflect, you don’t have time to think about the environment” when working long hours at low wages, she says. “You only have time to think about you, the people that you love that need your help, and your bills.”
When she talks to her colleagues, she usually just focuses on their work concerns, rather than pushing them to talk about unionizing. “I’m not trying to drag people along this sort of epic journey of mine without them wanting to come with me,” she says. But she’s found they are receptive to ideas about how their struggle in a coffee shop in suburban Denver is linked to a broader fight over climate and societal change. There’s strength, she says, in not seeing the issues as separate, but instead as two responses to the same extractive whole.
Raval agrees. “We’re really thinking about [climate resilience] in the context of these intersecting crises,” she says. “Our community is experiencing all of these things at the same time.”