Labor unions and green transitions in the USA

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New report investigates how US unions are addressing climate change — and why and how their positions vary.

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New report investigates how US unions are addressing climate change — and why and how their positions vary.

Dimitris Stevis
Contestations and Explanations

ACW: Adapting Canadian Work, 2019

reviewed by Valerie Lannon

“Long term solutions require broader and public just transition policies and those can only be the result of strong political coalitions…. Such coalitions must and should include workers across the board – as well as other societal forces … nor can others speak for the workers affected.” —Dimitris Stevis

With interest growing in Green New Deals in various countries, and even talk, by Yanos Varoufakis and others, of an International Green New Deal, it is imperative that we consider the views of workers whose active, mass support is essential if any GND is to succeed.

In that context, this report, published by the Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change program at York University in Toronto, is very timely. Dimitris Stevis of Colorado State University investigates how US unions have addressed climate change — and why and how their positions vary.

His research covers 50 recent initiatives at both the local and national levels. The latter include the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS), Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), and the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation (BGA).

He notes that unions discussed environmental justice as far back as the 1970s — the work of Tony Mazzocchi of the Oil, Chemicals and Atomic Workers Union is best known. Shortly after that, however, a cleavage developed, with several unions adapting to the “jobs over the environment” rhetoric of the right. The Just Transition Strategy was opposed by the United Mine Workers of America and most just transition work came to an end by the end of the century.

On the other side, in 2008 the Steelworkers and the Sierra Club launched the BlueGreen Alliance (BGA), which has continued ever since, in spite of opposition from conservative unions, in the building trades.

One of the most useful features of Stevis’ analysis is a table which lays out the spectrum of US unions’ positions on climate policy. He avoids a simplistic binary of “for or against” positions, presenting a more nuanced picture of variation between and even within unions. He divides union positions into the following categories:

  • largely silent (e.g. UFCW, Longshoremen, Firefighters, Police);
  • largely silent on environment/climate and supports fossil fuel infrastructure (e.g. several building trades);
  • accepts need for climate policy and supports fossil fuels (e.g. other building trades, teamsters);
  • has climate policy with adaptation and support for some fossil fuels (e.g. Steelworkers); and
  • has climate policy with mitigation of fossil fuels (e.g. nurses, postal workers, teachers and various public sector unions).

Stevis goes on to provide details about the climate positions of unions in the following production networks: energy; construction; manufacturing; transportation; and services.

The second part of his report, titled Explanations, explores the reasons behind these varying union positions. He prefaces this section of the report by stating that economic data alone are not compelling, and that social power and inequality must be addressed, which is “a central goal of networks such as LNS and TUED.”

One factor that affects union perspectives is the fragmentation of American unions compared to those in Europe. Part of this stems from the evolution of some unions that originated in one sector into more general unions — Steelworkers represent workers in manufacturing and education, Sheet Metal Workers also represent railroad workers, and so on. “Internal fragmentation,” Stevis says, “leads unions to pursue competing priorities or prevents them from taking a position… For example, the Electrical Workers union is a leader in renewables but is also a strong supporter of coal — because it represents workers in coal-fired utility plants.”

An additional factor that the renewable energy sector is much less unionized than the rest of the energy sector.

Relationships with other institutions also influence union policy. Building and construction unions, for example, have long been part of associations of building contractors.

Relationships with environmental organizations are weaker. While several environmental groups share labor’s concerns, only the Sierra Club has a specific labor program, and “no unions have an explicitly environmental program/department that connects leadership, middle level and local unionists… The BGA plays such a role for a number of unions, but without the internalization of environmental and labor priorities by unions and environmentalists, respectively, the BGA is not sufficient.”

Without using the terminology of “rank and file-ism,” Stevis is clearly pointing in this direction, to the need to engage and mobilize ordinary workers, not just staff and high-placed officials.

Stevis goes on to describe how union positions can also vary by individual state governments, some of whom have taken their own initiatives responding to the climate crisis, in the vacuum left by inaction at the federal government level.

The report does not discuss previous attempts at just transitions, virtually all of which have been tremendous failures for workers, leaving many highly skeptical about current discussions. Nor does it call for any specific measures that a just transition might require. But he does argue that developing transitions must include everyone affected: “Just transitions limited to particular cases are likely to breed resentment.… Coalitions must … include workers across the board as well as other societal forces. They cannot be limited to those who have ‘equity’ in the narrow sense — nor can others speak for the workers affected.”

Those involved in promoting and developing just transitions and Green New Deals can learn from Stevis’s study, and activists in other countries could benefit from undertaking similar studies. Understanding the positions of workers’ organizations is critical to the fight to end fossil economies.



  • Industrial waste affects the ecosystem. Therefore it is much necessary to address this issue. Labor unions are the right group to resolve these types of complex problems.

  • I agree with Richard Fidler; having lost their radical analysis and their power to disrupt, unions can only lose in a rear-guard attempt to defend the status quo. Joining all the other losers suffering the effects of “economic growth”. I foresee a rank and file revolt as workers abandon the alliance with the capitalist state and join a rebellion. It will be costly for all of us in the short term- but what is the alternative?

  • The climate crisis and green transitions require global solutions that are fundamentally anticapitalist. The answers cannot come from unions that operate as job trusts protecting the corporate interests of their members.

    This study, which is online, confirms what we might surmise: union positions are largely determined by the degree to which climate change threatens members’ existing jobs or (to a lesser extent) opens opportunities for better, alternative employment of those same union members. Where union membership is fragmented among different industries union approaches to environmental issues are contradictory, even paralyzed.

    Overall, the opportunism and pragmatism promoted by the industrial relations regime leads to reliance on capitalist politicians, whether Democratic or Republican, in hopes of gaining some temporary reprieve. Above all, most unions seek ways to promote economic growth, to make capitalism work for them.

    The environmental challenges displace growth as the prime programmatic consideration. The issue is one of survival, of humans and indeed all life on planet Earth. This requires thinking outside the capitalist box, in class and not corporatist terms.

    What can union members do from an ecosocialist perspective? They can strive to recreate the labour movement as a social movement working in alliance with others to promote a break from capitalist growth, competition and profit. To be replaced by a society founded on principles of cooperation, equality and social justice. This need is all the greater in the most fossil-fuel dependent industries, where unions face a stark choice between being part of the problem or becoming part of the solution.

    As the study concludes (p. 34), unions need “a more sustained political strategy.” Green transitions are not something they can negotiate with management. “Long term solutions require broader and public just transition policies and those can only be the result of strong political coalitions with an explicit agenda.” Let’s hope a subsequent study by the authors will have more to say about that.