Unionization and The Environmental Movement

by Lizzie Taber

What you can do:

  • Consider joining pro-labor clubs on your campus such as Cornell’s POC USAS.
  • Look into unionizing at your workplace. See here for more information: https://www.unionplus.org/page/how-join-union  
  • Look into your local officials’ stances on labor. 
  • Do not cross a picket line

Despite the historic rift between environmental and labor interests, unions may play a key role in combating the environmental crisis. Previously, when considering the labor and environmental movements, their incongruent interests have been a focal point. However, in recent years, unions have taken up the environmental cause.

Improving environmental conditions is of special interest to the workers who form the base of unions, as these individuals are at increased risk from pollutants in and around the workplace. Furthermore, environmental harms fall disproportionately on the working class during the production process [2]. Union bargaining on environmental issues can produce solutions tailored to the needs of both the corporation and the workers to find innovative solutions that do not hinder business functioning[2].

Examples of union involvement in environmental issues can be found in both heavily industrialized and developing nations. Early action occurred in the 1970s in Australia with Green Bans, pro-environmental strikes, in the construction industry and with the UAW’s 1970 failed attempt to add an anti-pollution clause to a new bargain with General Motors [5]. More recently in 2006 an international trade union conference of over 150 unions was held in Nairobi [6]. This conference discussed incorporating environmental rights into the definition of traditional workers’ rights and how to sustainably develop trade unions [6]. The International Metalworkers Federation, World of Work Pavilion and International Federation of Transport have all separately organized to confer on climate change policy [5].

These recent efforts are made more substantial by the collaboration between environmental organizations and unions. The United Kingdom has seen the recent collaboration between the Trade Union Congress and environmental NGOs. Resulting in a number of trade unions in the UK creating green reps networks to provide guidance on creating a green workplace [5,7]. Likewise, in the United States the U.S Steel Workers’ Union and the Sierra Club have collaborated to create the Blue-Green Alliance [5]. The BlueGreen Alliance now includes eight of the largest unions in the United States and six of the country’s most influential environmental organizations [1].

The BlueGreen Alliance’s work points to how fundamentally intertwined labor and environmental issues are. They state that “Too often, Americans are asked to choose between jobs and the environment…we can no longer choose one or the other,” and have released the Solidarity for Climate Action platform [3]. The plan aims to help the U.S reach net-zero emissions by 2050 through measures such as investment in clean energy, expanding unions, making workplaces are safe from toxic pollution and harmful chemicals, guaranteeing pensions for workers moving to the clean energy economy and granting access to training for low-income households and underrepresented groups [1].

International unions allow workers to make beneficial environmental adjustments which may otherwise hinder their global competitiveness undermining the environmental cause. Many of the issues in advancing the climate initiative, such as loss of jobs and productivity can be addressed by including unions and their initiatives in the climate fight. Changes such as these show that creating environmental change can and must involve blue-collar workers.

Works Cited:

[1] About Us. (n.d.). Retrieved December 08, 2020, from https://www.bluegreenalliance.org/about/

[2] Hultin, J. (1973). Unions, the Environment, and Corporate Social Responsibility. Yale Review of Law and Social Action,3(1).

[3] June 24, 2. (2019, June 29). Leading Labor Unions and Environmental Groups Join Forces to Act on Climate. Retrieved December 08, 2020, from https://www.nrdc.org/experts/nrdc/leading-labor-unions-and-environmental-groups-join-forces-act-climate

[4] Report • By Matthew Walters and Lawrence Mishel • August 26. (n.d.). How unions help all workers. Retrieved December 08, 2020, from https://www.epi.org/publication/briefingpapers_bp143/

[5] Räthzel, N., & Uzzell, D. (2011, August 17). Trade unions and climate change: The jobs versus environment dilemma. Retrieved December 08, 2020, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0959378011001154

[6] Solidarity for Climate Action. (n.d.). Retrieved December 08, 2020, from https://www.bluegreenalliance.org/work-issue/solidarity-for-climate-action/

[7] “Trade Union Non-Government Organizations (TUNGO) Greenworkplaces Projects in the United Kingdom.” Unfccc.int, UN Climate Change , unfccc.int/topics/education-and-outreach/good-practices/education-and-training/trade-union-non-government-organisations-tungo-greenworkplaces-projects-in-the-united-kingdom.