Climate Justice and Sustainability

By Kathy Russell, Tompkins County Workers’ Center (TCWC) Community Union Organizer in the local environmental and climate justice movement

One of my favorite yard signs is “IF YOU THINK THE ECONOMY IS WORKING, ASK SOMEONE WHO ISN’T.”

It makes you wonder.

What should an economy be for anyway? Shouldn’t it promote social justice and enable all of us to live with dignity? Shouldn’t it diminish inequality and violence while it fosters environmental health and integrity?

We need a new economy that works for us, one that moves away from the vicious agenda of extracting wealth from the earth and from human labor. We can only halt this cycle by furthering the labor movement’s essential values of solidarity and mutual support.

Clean energy generates jobs. Last September, the University of Massachusetts Political Economy Research Institute and the Center for American Progress released a report showing that cutting greenhouse-gas emissions 40 percent by 2035 would create 2.7 million more jobs and reduce the unemployment rate by 1.5 percent.

Alliances among labor, civil rights and environmental activists are deepening. For example, the Sierra Club and 1199 Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are partnering with the NAACP march from Selma to Washington DC that began August 1. This Journey for Justice demands “a fair criminal justice system, uncorrupted and unfettered access to the ballot box, sustainable jobs with a living wage, and equitable public education.”

New alliances also include the Labor Network for Sustainability founded in 2009. LNS wants us “to look beyond the cramped rules of the current system” to build a full-employment economy, renewable energy and a just transition for workers, communities, and carbon-dependent regions.

The United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club forged the BlueGreen Alliance to push for climate and clean energy legislation that would create and maintain family sustaining green jobs and build a stronger, fairer economy. Their Board of Directors represents the largest US labor unions and leading environmental organizations.

These alliances are not without tensions, but those can best be worked out among the grass roots at local levels. Here in Tompkins County, we have the new Coalition for Sustainable Economic Development (CSED). A first for this area!

Representing labor in CSED are officials from the Plumbers and Pipefitters, IBEW Local 241, NE Council of Carpenters and the TCWC. We are eager to participate because it promotes the primary objective of the labor movement – unity of action among all workers for the betterment of everyone! Businesses should be able to grow in a way that truly benefits all the people who live here, not just big corporations coming from the outside.

CSED has proposed new policy for tax abatements to the TC Industrial Development Agency (IDA), and it will be represented on the mayor’s task force to formulate a new CIITAP (Community Investment Incentive Tax Abatement Program). We have supported the “Ban the Box” Campaign, which seeks to get rid of the box that job applicants are supposed to check stating whether they have ever been convicted. CSED has also supported TCWC’s Campaign for a countywide Living Wage.

The unity represented by CSED can be seen at meetings of the IDA, the Common Council and the County Legislature. Allies are calling for genuine, sustainable development that meets rigorous energy efficient standards, created, maintained and operated by a local, diversified work force that is paid a living wage.

After all, in order for buildings to meet sufficiently tough standards of energy efficiency, they must be created by trained, skilled workers, like those who have gone through the sort of apprenticeship programs offered by local building trades unions.

The fight for climate justice and the struggle for the rights and dignity of labor can no longer be separated!