Trumka: Labor ‘will not bear the cost of climate policy alone’

BERKELEY, Calif. — Organized labor stands ready to help combat climate change — but not if it means sacrificing well-paying jobs, AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka told an international audience of union officials.

“We’re willing to sacrifice, but we will not bear the cost of climate policy alone,” he said.

“This can’t be an afterthought,” he added, “or a nice thing we think about only after we deprive whole communities of their economic lives.”

Transitioning away from fossil fuels — the central aim for a global climate conclave in San Francisco this week — necessarily means that some work linked to older technologies will evaporate, as Donald Trump’s championing of the coal industry demonstrates.

“This is not easy for us. For millions of workers in the United States, our livelihoods, our families, our communities, sometimes our whole way of life, are at stake,” Trumka said.

As a former coal miner himself, Trumka drew a parallel to the now-irrefutable evidence of the hazards posed by coal extraction and the need to do something: “[T]unnels without support cave in,” he said, “mines filled with methane explode, miners lungs filled with coal dust have no room for oxygen, and an atmosphere pumped full of carbon will heat up the planet to a point that imperils human civilization.”

But while he pledged the labor movement’s “100 percent commitment to fighting climate change” — and noted that the AFL-CIO last year passed a resolution supporting the transition to renewable energy — he cautioned that he had a message for the thousands of experts and public officials gathered in San Francisco.

“I’m also going to make clear that the only path forward is by investing in a better, more inclusive, more just future for our communities and our families, because you simply can’t leave anyone behind in this process,” Trumka said. “Working people won’t allow the fight against climate change to become another excuse to continue the attacks on the working class.”

The text of that AFL-CIO resolution nods at the political struggle over a cleaner energy industry, committing to fighting “politically and legislatively to secure and maintain employment, pensions and health care for workers affected by changes in the energy market.”

In other words, Trumka said, labor will be vigilant in pushing for “creating and maintaining high union-wage jobs” in the burgeoning renewable energy sector — even if that means clashing with environmentalists over what types of energy projects advance.

“We must be open to all methods of reducing carbon emissions including technologies that some environmentalists don’t want to consider,” he said.

Echoing Trumka’s point, other union officials urged their brethren to flex their political muscle and ensure organized labor has a role in shaping climate policies, including by securing labor standards for clean energy projects and pushing for job training.

“We’re the people who can cut the deals, bring the workers behind us, make sure the skills are there, look after the demands around pensions, bargain for the guarantees,” International Trade Union Federation general secretary Sharan Burrow said.

A case in point: a landmark California law pushing the state to generate 100% of its retail electricity from clean sources, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed to great fanfare this week, was not just supported but molded by labor unions that retain substantial clout in Sacramento.

“Labor, especially the building trades, have played an integral role in making sure those policies passed,” California State Building and Construction Trades Council of California lobbyist Cesar Diaz said, but also pushed to ensure guarantees of good jobs “are actually attached to those policies.”