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PEP Oct 2014
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Public Employee Press

The Greening of the Labor Movement

By GREGORY N. HEIRES


Zoological Employees Local 1501 President Jeremy Sanders, with a green baseball hat
and T-shirt,

Thousands of union members, including an enthusiastic contingent of DC 37 members, participated in the People's Climate March, which is believed to be the largest demonstration ever by environmental activists in the United States.

National, statewide and local unions played a big role in organizing the massive Sept. 21 demonstration in New York City, and unions contributed significant resources to guarantee its success.

"We are sending a message to our city, state and federal elected officials to take the necessary steps to decrease global warming pollution," said DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts. "They must act now!"

Green activists are hopeful that the march, the largest pro-environment demonstration in U.S. history, marks the beginning of a movement that will unite a broad alliance of labor, community and environmental groups dedicated to protecting the environment. Unionists who marched say the demonstration shows that the decades-old division between environmentalists and labor over the issue of jobs is finally breaking down.


DC 37 leaders and activists get ready to march after city unions held a rally.

Birth of a movement?

"I hope a new movement will grow out of this," said Jon Forster, a DC 37 vice president who heads the union's newly formed Climate Change Committee and worked with the 83 unions that helped organize the march. "Building new community alliances is important, not only for creating jobs but also to address social justice issues," he said. "Climate change discriminates. Hurricane Sandy hurt the city's minority and poor communities disproportionately."

"This is really a class issue," said Civil Service Technical Guild Local 375 member Joshua Barnett, who works for the New York City Housing Authority. "The communities of New York City are unequally affected by asthma and pollution. The highest percentage of garbage dumps, sewage treatment plants and lead paint are in poor communities."

Labor activists gathered for a lively rally at Broadway and 57th Street before the march kicked off in the late morning. Organizers estimated 350,000 workers, parents and children, human rights and peace advocates, youths, students, people of faith, politicians, celebrities and community activists joined in the march. About 200 DC 37 members participated.

Union leaders and rank-and-file members underscored how climate change is an existential issue for working people.

DC 37 Associate Director Henry Garrido recalled how Hurricane Sandy devastated the union's downtown headquarters, which was closed for nine months because of damage. Many DC 37 members were among the thousands of residents the hurricane left homeless.

But while DC 37 members were direct victims of the storm, they also worked on the frontlines helping residents, Garrido said.

EMS workers tended to people injured in the storm. Members in the public hospitals evacuated patients. Social Workers and clerical employees ran shelters. And mobile libraries became outposts to help residents of storm-ravaged communities charge their cell phones, learn about emergency services, and find shelter and shower facilities.

"Our members work and live in the coastal cities of the eastern United States," said Hector Figueroa, the president of Service Employees Local 32BJ, which has 145,000 members who work in the city's buildings as cleaners, maintenance laborers, security officers, window cleaners, building engineers and doormen. "They all are at risk with climate change."

Figueroa pointed out that buildings account for a significant part of the city's gas emissions and electrical output. The local founded a training program for its supervisors to make the buildings they work in more environmentally friendly by conserving water and using electricity more efficiently.

Some unionists expressed little hope that addressing climate change is possible without significant political and economic changes.

Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress, which represents professors and other staff in the city's public universities and colleges, said that because "capitalism cannot solve the climate problem," it is up the unions to be a leading force in advocating the public policy and economic changes that are needed to deal with environmental problems.


Henry Garrido
DC 37 Assoc. Director

Profit-system devastates our planet

"It's our for-profit system that will lead to the devastation of our planet," Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, president of the New York State Nurses Association. She recalled that the administration of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was unprepared for Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It was up to public employees like nurses and community activist groups like Occupy Sandy to come to the aid of residents in the first week after the storm, she said.

Stanley Sturgill, a retired Kentucky coal miner, spoke at the People's Climate March news conference in the morning.

"We have already lost thousands of jobs," Sturgill responded when asked about the historic rift between labor and environmentalists over the issue of jobs. His observation suggested that with the decline of traditional industry, the union movement should focus on creating green jobs and other employment.

Organizers of the march pointed out that 20 percent of the world's electricity now comes from clean energy sources. Uruguay, Norway and Germany have adopted carbon-free policies. In May, Germany reached a landmark when nearly 75 percent of its peak power demand was met by renewable sources of energy.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency seeks to cut carbon dioxide emissions of coal plants by 30 percent by 2030. Nearly 200 coal-fired plants have closed in the United States.

More than 1,500 organizations organized the People's Climate March in New York City. On Sept. 21, more than 2,700 marches took place around the world.

The People's Climate March was timed to pressure world leaders as they gathered at the United Nations for a climate summit to plan for the 2015 United Nations Climate Summit in Paris, where they aim to sign a new international climate treaty.


.

Labor backs green policies

"In New York City, labor can help create new programs to protect our infrastructure, protect the environment and develop alternate sources of energy," said Juan Fernandez, president of DC 37's Local 154, whose members include human rights workers. The city's big public sector - with engineers, scientists, public health and wastewater treatment workers - is uniquely qualified to help the city become safer by adopting green policies and projects to help protect the infrastructure of the local economy, according to labor activists like Fernandez.

"Labor is always on the frontline when there is a disaster," said Jeremy Sanders, president of Zoological Employees Local 1501, whose members include workers at the world-famous Bronx Zoo. "We are going to be on the ground when the next disaster hits. Without the public employees, the city would grind to a halt."

Sanders was among several DC 37 activists who worked with the DC 37 Climate Change Committee to mobilize for the march. Sanders, Fernandez and Forster served as media spokespeople. Sanders and Forster appeared before the City Council to support a resolution supporting the march that passed overwhelmingly.

"We have to fight greed and create green jobs," said Natasha Isma, who heads Local 1549's Next Wave Committee of young activists. "We have to protect our children and our children's children. If we don't act, we're not going to have any planet left."

"For us, climate change is not an abstraction," Roberts said. "Working families and the poor are often hit hardest by climate disasters. Our members and other workers risk their lives to help victims, repair infrastructure and provide essential services in the aftermath. Governments must step up the effort to address climate change, which is destroying our planet."



"I am here because we have to protect where we live. We have to protect our children and the ones we love."
—Claire Mayers, Local 1407


"I came out because I want to be part of change. The union should support green jobs and green actions like recycling and making old buildings more energy efficient."
—Sibel Ozbek, Local 375



 
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