Student Blog | Centering Workers in the Environmental Justice Movement: An Opportunity for Solidarity

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On June 2 and June 3, 2022 the Kalmanovitz Initiative hosted a virtual event,  “The Pandemic Worker Wave and a New Social Compact: A Public Forum on Working-Class Prosperity in a Transformed World.” Over the course of two days and ten panels, more than 45 speakers explored a range of topics affecting workers, including climate change, democracy, collective bargaining, immigration, occupational safety, and more. Throughout several of the panels, the opportunity for collaboration between the climate and labor movements emerged as a common thread.

On Thursday, the “Just Transition Starts Local” panel kickstarted the conversation around the intersection between climate justice and economic justice. Featuring Robin Clark-Bennett, Director of the University of Iowa Labor Center, Mijin Cha, Assistant Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy at Occidental College, and Pat Devaney, Secretary-Treasurer at the Illinois AFL-CIO, the panel brought together voices from both academia and union leadership. Panelists offered their thoughts on just transition, a framework for securing workers’ rights as society makes the necessary shift from an environmentally destructive economy to a sustainable one. 

As Professor Cha noted, the key word in just transition is transition, meaning that an actual shift away from fossil fuels must be the first step. But what does it mean to center workers’ justice as that shift occurs? According to Cha, the choice between different communities or between equity and a transition away from dirty energy is a false one. Just transition necessitates a reimagination of our collective future, in which we move from profit-oriented systems of extraction to systems of regeneration that are geared towards workers, communities, and the planet. More concretely, Pat Devaney argued that just transition involves incentivizing businesses to adopt greener practices, as well as compensation and benefits such as healthcare for displaced workers as they search for new jobs.

After discussing what just transition means and the challenges and opportunities it presents, the panelists reflected on how the conversation has changed since the beginning of the pandemic. Professor Cha has noticed a growing sense of despair over the past two years, noting that “There is this false idea that we can either move rapidly or move together. We can only move rapidly if we move together.” However, Cha noted that she is heartened by an increasing recognition that climate action is much more complicated than just reducing emissions. The need for multidimensional solutions has also been on Clark-Bennett’s mind, as worsening climate disasters in Iowa have highlighted the workers’ rights implications of climate change. Devaney has seen this growing focus on the environment reflected in the labor movement as a whole, as organized labor has become increasingly proactive rather than reactive in its efforts to address the effects of climate change on workers. 

Looking towards the future of the climate justice movement, panelists grappled with the question of whether to focus on local and state-level solutions or federal policy change. While local organizing is fundamental, progress on the national level is necessary to affect change in states without a progressive political climate, Clark-Bennett argued. Devaney agreed that federal policy change is necessary for consistency, noting that even if one state has a progressive climate policy, if neighboring states do not it will end up importing the fossil fuels generated by those states regardless. Cha argued that work at the local level is fundamental, because it allows for the voices of frontline communities to be centered. However, Cha noted that the vast amount of resources needed for a just transition could be more easily harnessed at the federal and even international levels.

The panel concluded on a note of hope, as panelists offered their thoughts on the future of climate. Despite the many challenges both the labor and environmental movements face, the panelists all viewed this current moment as an extraordinary opportunity to re envision the way our economy and society operate in order to better serve the working class. 

On Friday, “Migration, Climate, and the Question of Labor” brought a global perspective to the conversation around climate and labor justice, featuring Samantha Smith, Director of the International Trade Union Confederation’s Just Transition Centre, Deepak Bhargava, a Distinguished Lecturer at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, Sonia Mistry, Climate Change and Just Transition Global Lead at the Solidarity Center, and Rigoberto Valdez, Presidents Organizing Initiative Coordinator at MLK Labor.

Samantha Smith stressed the importance of not leaving workers behind in a just transition, particularly in areas dominated by dirty industries like coal. Smith’s two-pronged approach to just transition consists of regional social investment in things like infrastructure, schools, and hospitals, as well as universal social protections, such as the expansion of social security, the development of a bridge to pension benefit, and the creation of high-quality green new jobs.

While she conceded that access to these kinds of worker protections will not prevent migration completely, Sonia Mistry argued that they could be the difference between community resilience and forcing people into precarious and dangerous situations. Indeed, workers with labor protections are 25% less likely to migrate. On the other hand, unprotected workers are both more likely to migrate and significantly less likely to participate in democratic processes and climate adaptation efforts in their home countries. Fair migration policy requires that the wealthy countries who are largely to blame for the climate crisis provide financial compensation to the Global South to account for environmental loss and damages.

Deepak Bhargava also highlighted the disproportionate burden climate migration has on the Global South, placing the responsibility for migration on wealthy Western countries like the U.S., which drove the crisis through corporate exploitation and support for authoritarian regimes. According to Bhargava, the U.S. must undertake a massive increase in immigration. This increase must be done in a progressive, social-democratic, worker-centered way, not through a neoliberal lens that views immigrants as merely more labor to exploit. He noted the challenge that America’s nativist and xenophobic political climate presents, arguing that progressives need to offer a convincing alternate narrative.

Climate emerged for me as one of the most salient points of the forum, because—like the COVID-19 pandemic—it represents an existential threat to the status quo, in which corporations view both workers and the environment as an exploitable, expendable means to an end. It will take nothing short of transformational change to the very structure of our economy to slow the climate crisis. Rather than viewing this high bar for change as discouraging, we must view it as an opportunity for long-overdue progress in all sectors of society. Climate change poses an urgent threat to the continued existence of human life, but it also presents an opportunity for the climate and labor movements to work together to reimagine a new social compact that prioritizes people over profit.

Calla Rhodes is a rising junior in Georgetown College studying American Studies from Portland, Oregon. She is a student intern with the KI during summer 2022.