Class and the Labor-Environmental Divide

CollinsHeadshotHow do we address the deep class and culture divide that has opened up between workers and environmental activists?

We are heading to a potentially severe clash between green advocates who advocate for reducing carbon emissions and labor-community activists concerned about jobs, racial equity and reducing extreme wealth inequality.

Both the climate crisis and the wealth gap are deepening – and both will require aggressive social movements. We can either pull together to work toward a systematic “just transition” or be pitted against each other by corporate interests.

I spent the summer interviewing labor, environmental and community justice activists and thinkers about the rift for a lengthy article on this topic published this month in The American Prospect called, “Can We Earn a Living on a Living Planet? Labor and the Ecological Limits to Growth.”

In my conversations, many “just transition” activists invoked the late labor leader Tony Mazzocchi, who is considered the Rachel Carson of the labor movement. Mazzocchi believed that for the environmental movement to succeed, it must advocate for a “just transition” for workers displaced by environmental protections. A real just transition would go beyond the pitiful job retraining programs for workers displaced by trade agreements like NAFTA.

Those of us in the climate justice movement have to appreciate that our urgency about the climate catastrophe does not trump equity concerns.

Happily this concept of a just transition has been embraced and further developed by many in the climate change movement. The Climate Justice Alliance has lifted up communities like Richmond California, home of Chevron refineries, the coalfields of Kentucky, and the Black Mesa reservation in Arizona, as communities that have been exploited by fossil fuel industry. They are pressing for just transition policies at the community and national level.

Europe appears to have an easier time with this green growth conversation. In Germany, the labor movement is a full partner in the transition to decentralized and renewable energy, especially in the country’s post-Fukishima rejection of nuclear power. This is in part because workers in Germany already have a just transition in the form of strong social safety nets. Workers might lose their jobs but they won’t lose their income, homes, and basic security.

“What we enviros need to understand is the centrality of work in people’s lives—and that in a society with deep social insecurity, your job is everything,” says Joe Uehlein, co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability. “One’s livelihood, retirement, hopes, and dreams. We have everything to fear from an environmental movement that is silent about workers. Sustainability starts at the kitchen table, meaning our kid’s education, savings, food, and next job.”

Those of us in the climate justice movement have to appreciate that our urgency about the climate catastrophe does not trump equity concerns. If we really want to fix the environment, then we need to join coalitions to rewire an economic system that both exploits humans and depletes nature.

The environmental movement must become a new economy movement that advocates for full employment, just transition for workers, and job-boosting public investment in education, infrastructure and research.


Chuck Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and a board member of Class Action. He is a member of the New Economy Working Group and author of “Can We Earn a Living on a Living Planet?”, in the Fall Issue of The American Prospect.

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