Speech | Better Pay and Benefits · Manufacturing · Global Worker Rights

Trumka at UC Berkeley: Collective Action and Shared Sacrifice Key to Fighting Climate Change

Berkeley, California

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks on labor and climate at the UC Berkeley Labor Center

Good morning. I want to thank the Berkeley Labor Center for hosting this event, and for the incredible work you do each and every day. Thank you, Art (Pulaski), for that kind introduction and for all you do across California and nationally as a leader on the AFL-CIO’s state and local committee. I also want to recognize two very special union sisters: Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC, who is a force for workers’ rights on the global stage and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, my trusted partner, who is pushing the labor movement to be bold and think big.

We are here in the Bay Area this week to demonstrate the power of working people coming together to make lasting social and economic change. On Monday, Secretary-Treasurer Shuler laid out a strong vision for investing our resources wisely at the Committee on Workers’ Capital Conference. Tomorrow, we’ll head over to the Moscone Center where I’ll talk to 5,000 environmentalists about coal. Well, sort of. I look forward to pledging the labor movement’s 100 percent commitment to fighting climate change. But I will also make clear that the only path forward is by investing in a better, more inclusive, more just future for our families. You simply can’t do one without the other. Working people won’t allow the fight against climate change to become another excuse to continue the attacks on the working class.

Something is happening in America, brothers and sisters. Collective action is on the rise. And now, even the White House is noticing. You may have heard that President Trump took a shot at me on Twitter...ON LABOR DAY! Let me tell you something: When Donald Trump is criticizing you on Twitter, you must be doing something right. Gallup just did a poll that found approval of unions at 62 percent...a 15-year high. Trump’s approval is below 40 percent, by the way.

Working people from coast to coast are recognizing that the best way to achieve our dreams is by standing with the person next to us...finding strength in each other...fighting together.

262,000 new members joined unions in 2017...and here’s the best part...three quarters of them were under the age of 35. We’re rallying the next generation to our cause, and our popularity is reaching new heights across the country. New research from MIT shows half of non-union workers would vote for a union today if given the chance. Working people want to stand together in a union. Working people want a voice on the job.

If you want fresh proof of our momentum, look no further than Missouri. Last month, voters there went to the polls to decide the future of right to work. And with more than 67 percent of the vote, the Show Me State sent that horrible law into the ash heap of history. It wasn’t even close! Democrats voted no. Half of Republicans voted no. Two out of every three Missourians who cast a ballot voted no.

After the Supreme Court ruled against us in Janus, many pundits wondered if it would be the death of the labor movement. Well, brothers and sisters, they got their answer! The Chamber of Commerce said that, for every punch they threw, working people threw ten more.

We knocked more than 800,000 doors. We made more than 1 million calls. We spoke to members at over 1,000 different worksites...talking about good union jobs and the power of collective action. And it wasn’t just locals who were on the ground. Trade unionists from around the country went to Missouri to pitch in. The California Labor Federation, the LA County Fed, the Sacramento Central Labor Council and many, many others. And you know who was there in full force? IBEW 1245! Thank you, Tom Dalzell! Thank you, Local 1245! You showed America what solidarity looks like!

Brothers and sisters, 2018 is the year of the worker. We are rising together as one to build a nation that honors our labor. We will not accept an economy that only works for a handful of elites. We will not back down or settle for less.

We see a new spirit of progressive collective action all over America. Immigrant workers are putting aspiration above fear. Black Lives Matter. #MeToo. Young people demanding safe schools. The fight for LGBTQ equality. Civil disobedience to resist the horrible nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. More women, people of color, progressives AND UNION MEMBERS running for office and winning. And of course, the incredible, powerful teacher strikes, with big victories in states where collective bargaining for teachers is illegal and union-busting is a time-honored pastime.

Each of these movements is a powerful rallying cry for change, driven by collective action. As a labor movement, it is our job to ignite the flames of justice, not contain them.

And that’s exactly how we’ll be successful in the fight against climate change: by demanding justice for working people and ensuring no one is left behind.

Most of you know that I started out as a coal miner. I grew up in Nemacolin, a small community in southwestern Pennsylvania. It was a company town...the mining company owned everything except the union hall and the church. They tried exercise total control over us...and they even tried to control reality...ignoring and muddying scientific facts to suit their own interests.

It was expensive to reinforce  the mine tunnels, so the company simply disregarded the structural realities of digging miles underground.. It cost money to properly ventilate the mine, so they told us the air was fine, when it was actually filling with explosive gas. And worst of all, they claimed it was healthy to breathe coal dust, when we knew it was killing us, and our families.

But of course, the real laws of science always prevail—tunnels without supports cave in, 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 the planet to a point that imperils human civilization.

As we speak, a huge hurricane is headed toward the East Coast, its power fed by Atlantic waters that are warmer than average, and its impact sure to be exacerbated by sea and ground levels rising under higher than average rain. Averages, of course, are constantly changing as we set new climate records, and not in a good way.

For this reason and many more, I am here on behalf of the American labor movement to make absolutely clear that we remain committed to the task of stopping runaway climate change. I say “we remain” because as the fight against climate change has taken on increased urgency, the labor movement in the United States and globally has supported urgent action. We supported the last real comprehensive climate bill, Waxman-Markey. We supported the Paris Accord, and we opposed President Trump’s destructive decision to withdraw from it.

And, for the first time ever, at our national convention last October, the AFL-CIO passed a climate resolution...adopted unanimously...with the outspoken support of the unions whose members work in the energy sector. That part is critical–the workers most impacted by a move away from carbon fuels came together and endorsed a plan to save our people and our planet.

Our resolution strongly asserts that the fastest and most equitable way to address climate change is for labor to be at the center of creating solutions that reduce emissions while investing in our communities, maintaining and creating high-wage union jobs and reducing poverty.

We know it can be done. It’s happening right now. From California to New York, the labor movement is putting our political weight behind efforts to fight climate change while winning strong labor standards in the process. This isn’t only good policy. It’s good politics. It’s proving that big, transformational change happens faster when labor is at the table.

Make no mistake, this is not easy for us. For millions of workers in the United States...our livelihoods...our families...our communities....are at stake—not decades from now, but right now. We are prepared to make the tough choices. We are willing to sacrifice. But we will not bear the costs of climate policy alone. The most privileged in our society must also do their fair share.

You see, the main challenge in fighting climate change is not technological or scientific. It’s economic and political. We have the technology to take on climate change, and every day that technology improves. Save for a handful of climate deniers, we know that human beings are causing climate change with catastrophic results.

So the most important question we face today is how to create a sustainable, low-carbon global economy of broadly shared prosperity. How do we embrace a vision that changes the politics of climate change? What can we do, together, to overcome the cynicism and rising authoritarianism across the globe, that keeps us from moving forward faster to fight climate change even as our own behavior threatens the very fabric of civilization?

Successful action will require more than an understanding of climate science. We must think carefully about how to actually make change. And to be successful, it has to begin with dialogue and negotiation with those whose lives and communities, health care and pensions are bound up with carbon-based fuels.

We must push for an approach that attacks poverty and inequality, one that gives people hope and confronts the rising divisions polluting our political system. We will fail unless we can make change work for working people. This cannot be an afterthought or a nice thing we think about only after we deprive whole communities and regions of their economic lifeline.  

To be clear, the solution is never going to be perfect. Every source of energy, every technology, both creates jobs and has environmental consequences—solar, wind, hydro, you name it. But only carbon emissions threaten to destabilize the ecosystems we depend on, and with them, civilization itself. That means if we are going to fight climate change effectively we must be open to all methods of reducing carbon emissions—including technologies some environmentalists don’t like.

We can only solve the challenge of climate change when we find a formula based on clean energy that also meets the real needs of regular people in their everyday lives...decent work and pay...access to energy and water...health care... food security...the list goes on. The alternative is the continued politics of stalemate, inaction or worse.

There are voices around the world seeking to use the fear of change to turn working people toward hatred and division in the service of authoritarian politics. When the movement to fight climate change ignores the issue of economic justice, or treats it as an afterthought, when we seek to address climate change without respecting the hard work and sacrifice of workers in the energy and manufacturing sectors whose jobs are threatened—we feed the forces who are trying to tear us apart.  

The stakes are enormous. If we don’t get this right, we could find that our democracy fails before our climate...as rising fear and rising hate converge on us faster than rising seas.

The labor movement, here in the United States and globally, is blazing a different path. We are ready to be part of this fight. We can use this historic moment of collective action to defend our democracies and our planet, and build a prosperous future for all those who call it home.

So let’s get to it. Thank you very much.

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