‘We Must Be Bolder Than Ever’

To combat the common and false perception of the labor movement as an opponent of the fight for climate justice rather than an enthusiastic and necessary ally, a labor federation representing over 30 million workers from 152 countries is calling on unions around the world to join—or do everything they can to support—the millions of people set to take to the streets on Sept. 20 for the youth-led global climate strikes.

“Public Services International (PSI)—the global union federation of workers in public services—is calling on our affiliates and unions across the world to do all in our power to support the week of action on climate, including by taking strike action where possible,” Rosa Pavanelli, general secretary of PSI, wrote in an op-ed for Common Dreams on Thursday. “To build the political will needed to change the system, we must be bolder than ever.”

“The climate strike provides an opportunity to break out of our constraints, to reinvigorate our movement, to learn from young people on the fro, nt lines, and to redefine what is possible.”
—Rosa Pavanelli, Public Services International

Pavanelli said the Sept. 20 strikes, and the broader push for transformative climate action, represent a historic chance to revitalize the labor movement and build the kind of broad coalition capable of defeating the powerful corporate forces standing in the way of necessary change.

“For many people, unions are seen as an increasingly defensive or reactive force. Under sustained attacks from the right across the world, we were forced to fight to preserve our achievements rather than expand social justice,” Pavanelli wrote. “The climate strike provides an opportunity to break out of our constraints, to reinvigorate our movement, to learn from young people on the front lines, and to redefine what is possible.”

“We cannot let the vital idealism of this new generation be poisoned by cynicism and doubt,” added Pavanelli. “This is our last chance. They are our last chance. We must stand with them.”

PSI’s call to action comes as a growing number of unions in the U.S. and around the world are publicly voicing support for the youth-led climate strikes and bold policy proposals like the Green New Deal, which—according to recent polling data—is very popular among American union members.

Contrary to the media narrative that climate action and organized labor are in conflict, Thanu Yakupitiyage, U.S. communications manager at 350.org, said unions have been “very supportive” of the global strikes, which have centered the need for a just and equitable transition away from fossil fuels.

“There’s this idea that unions and workers cannot be supportive of a climate justice movement, and that’s just false,” Yakupitiyage told Common Dreams. “This is actually a pivotal time for the labor movement to be in collaboration with other advocates and activists against corporations like Exxon and Chevron who have lied to all of us.”

Last month, as Common Dreams reported, the 35,000 member United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America became the first U.S. industrial union to endorse both the global climate strikes and the Green New Deal.

Major unions like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—which represents nearly two million workers in the U.S. and Canada—and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have also backed the youth-led climate strikes, which will kick off a week of action coinciding with the United Nations Summit on Climate Change on Sept. 23rd in New York.

Over 2,500 climate strikes have been planned in over 100 countries around the world, with 500 actions set to take place in the U.S., according to 350.org.

Union support for the youth-led climate mobilization and the Green New Deal reflects the deeply intertwined relationship between the struggles for economic and climate justice, Lauren Burke of the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) told Common Dreams.

“The labor movement and the movement to combat climate change are really linked. And I think anything saying otherwise is really a false dichotomy,” said Burke. “To transform our economy in the way that we need to transform it to combat climate change really is going to require huge transition, and that’s going to mean a lot of jobs.”

“The labor movement and the movement to combat climate change are really linked. And I think anything saying otherwise is really a false dichotomy.”
—Lauren Burke, Labor Network for Sustainability

LNS research director Jeremy Brecher and Worker Institute fellow J Mijin Cha stressed that point in an op-ed for The Guardian this week, arguing that “we can fight climate change and create millions of good, green, union jobs in the process.”

“Far from being opponents of climate action,” they added, “rank-and-file union members understand that climate change is a real threat, that addressing it can create jobs and strengthen unions, and that the government has a responsibility to protect climate, communities, and workers. Lost in this false choice between jobs or the climate is that union workers also live in communities and want to live in a clean, healthy environment.”

The backing of unions across the world has been welcomed with open arms by climate campaigners, including 16-year old Greta Thunberg, whose activism helped spark the youth-led movement that organized next week’s climate strikes.

In response to a message of support from Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation—which represents 207 million workers worldwide—Thunberg tweeted, “We no longer stand alone.”

Burrow said unions plan to strike wherever possible. “Where that’s not possible,” said Burrow, “they will take stop work action and other forms of protest.”

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