Unions and the Environment
Today is Labor Day, a holiday created in the late 19th century to honor and recognize the American labor movement and the works and…
Today is Labor Day, a holiday created in the late 19th century to honor and recognize the American labor movement and the works and contributions of laborers in the U.S. It’s a good time to consider how organized labor interacts with the environmental movement.
Unions were set up, starting the late 1800s, to give workers some leverage in bargaining with their employers. A large company can mistreat workers and keep wages low when there are more job-seekers than jobs. Unions allow workers to negotiate collectively with employers, and to strike when negotiations reach an impasse. Unions’ focus is on improving pay and working conditions for their members.
Union membership has been declining in the U.S. for some time. The percentage of workers belonging to a union (called “union density”) in the U.S. has declined from 20.1% in 1983 to 10.3% now. It is high in Scandinavian countries, e.g. 65% in Finland, and low in undeveloped countries. Union membership in countries like China (45%) and Cuba (81%), where the unions are controlled by the government, provides many fewer benefits than in most countries, where the union can negotiate from a position of strength and solidarity with employers on their members’ behalf.
The environmental movement, especially large organizations like the Sierra Club, NRDC, World Wildlife Foundation and Environmental Defense Fund, has aligned itself with labor unions. The BlueGreen Alliance is a U.S. umbrella organization set up by the “Big Greens” and major labor unions to coordinate action.
Environmentalists feel akin to labor unions, partly because they are both positioned on the left side of the political spectrum. They support organized labor politically, even when labor is seeking results that harm the environment. The support doesn’t seem to go both ways. Organized labor never supports the environment when it goes against the economic interests of union members.
Unions Support Fossil Fuel Production
California has been a leader in fighting climate change. It has adopted numerous laws and policies to reduce the demand for fossil fuels in the state, including a cap-and-trade program, and an executive order requiring GHG emissions to be reduced to zero by 2045. A reasonable next step would be to start reducing on the supply side as well: to start phasing out oil and gas production in the state. Reducing GHG emissions to zero by 2045 means, in effect, stopping the combustion of coal, oil, and gas by that date. If we’re not using fossil fuels, then we should stop producing them. Putting a policy in place to stop producing them by 2045 would send a strong signal that the state is serious about dealing with climate change.
But there is an unholy alliance of labor unions with oil and gas producers in California. I’ve been told by staffers in the California Legislature that there is no chance of the Legislature passing a measure to curtail oil and gas production because it would be fought by both labor unions and oil companies, both of which give significant campaign donations to legislators and strongly oppose any measures to curtail or regulation oil and gas production.
Labor unions and oil companies opposed a recent California bill, AB 345, which would have imposed a 2500-foot setback between oil operations and homes, schools, and other sensitive sites. They claimed that it would result in the loss of 7,000 high wage, blue collar, and union jobs. Unions fought this measure even though it provided significant public-health benefits for those living near oil and gas production sites, mostly disadvantaged people of color.
Labor unions are dug in, focused on the past; instead, they should be envisioning a future that’s different from — and better than — the past. Unions have a major role to play in the transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy. There can be as many high-paying blue-collar union jobs in renewable energy as there are on oil and gas rigs now, and unions can help ensure the transition is just and equitable for their members. Oil and gas workers need to be retrained so they have skills that will be marketable after we stop producing fossil fuels. The transition is inevitable, and unions will get a better deal for their members by cooperating and facilitating the transition than by fighting it.
Environmentalists must part ways with labor unions on this issue. It’s too important for there to be a compromise.
Unions Block Police Reform
Black Lives Matter organizers have called for defunding the police, a slogan with an unclear meaning. The literal meaning would be the abolition of police departments. That is unrealistic and impractical. A more nuanced version is that city and county governments should reduce their police budgets, and handle many situations, such as domestic violence, with social workers or other, non-police, non-violent personnel.
Police unions are fighting such reductions. They don’t acknowledge that the unjustified killing of black men is an important enough problem to justify such reforms. They’re stuck in the past.
But, more importantly, police-union contracts block effective enforcement of use-of-force rules. Removing police officers who use deadly force when it’s not needed should be the highest priority now. Given the importance of the problem, we should be erring on the side of dismissing officers who use too much deadly force rather than allowing them to remain. Police unions, stuck in the past, are not going to voluntarily agree to this; their mission is to get as much money and job security for their members as they can.
How can we solve this problem? We need to force the unions’ hand. We can’t afford to wait until it’s time to renegotiate each police-union contract, especially since the unions are politically strong enough in many jurisdictions to prevail in negotiations. We need a law at the state or federal level that makes police investigation information more transparent and renders void police-contract terms unduly protecting officers from investigation and public scrutiny.
Unions Help Workers
Unions play an important part in protecting workers’ rights and in allowing workers to negotiate on equal terms with large companies. These functions are especially important in this age of extreme income inequality and declining job security. But the unions should be more flexible and willing to adapt to changing conditions, such as the climate crisis, and the police’s violent treatment of minorities.