US Union Central Hosts 'Climate, Equity, Jobs' Roundtable

Blake Skylar
AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler remarked, "Never before in this building have these three movements all come together in this way – labor, racial justice, environmental justice." | AFL-CIO

Apr. 23, 2024

AFL-CIO: Global warming a union issue because it’s a workers’ issue

WASHINGTON – The ongoing story of global warming is littered with ravaged livelihoods, devastated towns, and lost lives. It chronicles a tragic plight for everyone in its path, and it’s a narrative that fossil fuel interests would prefer to sweep under the rug. Many look to Earth Day as a clarion call to take action in the wake of this crisis, and the AFL-CIO held an event on April 22 to do just that.

It was the first national convening of a united coalition of labor, racial justice, and environmental justice organizations to hold a discussion on how climate change is impacting workers and their communities. Livestreamed to around 1,000 viewers, the gathering commenced with the words of AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, and she began with a bit of news, which, unlike the crisis affecting the planet, struck not the tone of tragedy, but instead highlighted a hard-fought triumph.

“Something extraordinary happened 72 hours ago in Chattanooga, Tennessee,” she said. “There, Volkswagen workers – after a decade of threats, harassment, and union busting – voted to join our UAW family. Workers all over the nation are taking inspiration from this.” Shuler added that she was reminded of this year’s stunning solar eclipse, in which, “we saw something historic happen right before our eyes. That’s what this victory felt like to me.

“We’re gonna see more history made today. Never before in this building have these three movements all come together in this way – labor, racial justice, environmental justice. This is the first but not the last time that we’re having these critical conversations on climate together. The labor movement is evolving and changing. It’s not your granddaddy’s labor movement. This gathering probably wouldn’t have happened a generation ago. We are working around the clock to build a modern movement that responds to the changing workforce and economy; one that centers racial justice, young workers, and black and brown workers that have been left behind for too long.”

She declared, “Our workers are ground zero of this crisis.” To drive home the truth of that statement, workers took the stage in turns to elaborate on their personal – albeit harrowing – relationships with global warming.

Management told housekeeper Rhonda Leneski to work nonstop with no break, despite the fact that she was feeling ill from the heat. | AFL-CIO

“I’ve worked for 27 years to keep dorms clean for students,” said Rhonda Leneski, a member of AFSCME Local 1072 and housekeeper at the University of Maryland. “In recent years, climate change has presented new challenges to our members and the community. Increased temperatures have created worsening working conditions for myself and others in the workplace. The temperature in our building can reach over 100 degrees. Management told us to work and that there’d be no break despite the fact that we were feeling ill; like passing out. Then they told us we could have a five-minute break. Well, a five-minute break could not even dry our uniforms. The problem is getting worse each summer, the temperature is continuing to rise, and we deserve adequate protection for our health and wellbeing.”

For anyone thinking complaints about heat amount to small potatoes, unions and government officials alike have underscored just how deadly rising temperatures can be.

“Heat is the leading cause of death of workers among all weather-related phenomena in the U.S,” said Raj Nyack, assistant secretary for policy with the United States Department of Labor. “Black and brown workers are hit hardest by heat, urban centers are at higher risk.”

In the midst of escalating natural disasters, however, those who are not burning up may be drowning. Sophia Farve, a member of Unite Here Local 23 in New Orleans, held Hurricane Katrina fresh in her memory, like many of those who had it hard in the Big Easy.

“I’ve worked in the hospitality industry for 30 years, including at family-owned businesses in New Orleans,” she said. “When Katrina happened I was living in Atlanta. I was able to give refuge to family members who were living there when Katrina happened.

“As business owners, we were some of the first to come back and see the devastation firsthand. The disaster affected living conditions and livelihoods for months. It took years to rebuild and years for New Orleans to regain a heartbeat.

“Hospitality workers are the first to be out of a job and sometimes the last to be brought back to work. Hospitality jobs have some of the lowest wages, we are often living paycheck to paycheck, and money set aside for emergencies is not always possible. We just had flooding a couple of weeks ago where two feet of water in our buildings put people out of work. Each year the hurricanes are bigger and bolder and more threatening. I live in a feeling of uncertainty.”

New Orleans hospitality worker Sophia Farve lives in a post-Katrina city that dreads the next climate change-fueled hurricane or flood. | AFL-CIO

The plan put forth by workers, however, was not one steeped in futile fear, but one marked by the radical and reasonable notion that power must lay in the hands of workers and their communities in order to affect change.

To that end, Isabella Ruesing, a second-year apprentice with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trade, remarked, “Every tradesman has felt the effect of climate change in their work. As we celebrate Earth Day we need to recognize the unique role we play. We create jobs that not only teach the importance of clean energy and sustainability but also teach how to properly install systems to accomplish just that. Registered apprenticeship programs offered by us and similar organizations across the country are gateways to equitable and lucrative careers.

“In light of significant legislative movements, billions of dollars are being funneled into clean energy. It’s a historic opportunity for all of us, including those looking for a meaningful career, those who want to provide for their families, those who are lacking access to health care or safe working conditions. We must pioneer meaningful change for our communities and for our planet.”

With the crucial parallels between labor and environment sharply drawn and laid out on the table, Bishop Carroll A. Baltimore, President of Creation Justice Ministries, spoke to the role that clergy play in bolstering the struggle against the climate crisis. “I look at everything through a global lens,” he said. His ministry, he explained, “is comprised of 38 different denominations across the country. And we do eco-justice work. I’ve been involved in this process for 25 years.

“Things really took a drastic change for me in November 2013. I landed in the Philippines, where I have a major ministry, and the driver taking me to my hotel said, ‘You’re in the midst of being caught in a super typhoon that will hit tomorrow morning.’ And that typhoon gutted out the entire central part of the country, destroying some six million homes, and left another almost two million without food and health care. Out of that process, I was moved to lead a raising of funds for pastors in those communities, because if the pastor was in the community it made it easier for the community to redevelop and collaborate, and to grow together.

“We’ve been involved in tree planting recently in the Philippines. We planted 3.2 million trees. We engaged in tree planting in Durban, South Africa to buffet a refinery that’s right at the doorstep of the poorest community, where people are dying of all kinds of diseases, cancers, asthma… We’ve been involved also in planting trees in Haiti. My role as clergy is to advocate; to disturb those who are complacent, to collaborate with green groups, and also the private sector and faith communities, to rebuild and to make life more sustainable.

“I was a letter carrier before I was a pastor,” he concluded. “So I’m a staunch believer in unions. We are to be stewards of this earth.”

An article coming on April 29 on this major initiative by the AFL-CIO will focus on the close connection between the fights for climate justice and racial justice in America.

[Top photo: AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler remarked, "Never before in this building have these three movements all come together in this way – labor, racial justice, environmental justice." | AFL-CIO]