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Take on the Fossil Fuel Bosses

The way to think about climate change isn't labor versus environmentalists. It's labor versus the fossil fuel companies who are destroying both worker protections and the planet.

The entrance to the Crandall Canyon coal mine is seen August 16, 2007 near Huntington, Utah. Justin Sullivan / Getty

On Monday night, anti-labor Senator and climate denier John Barrasso (R-WY) gleefully posted a letter on Twitter from AFL-CIO unions raising concerns about the Green New Deal. The letter came not from the entire AFL-CIO and the more than 12.5 million workers it represents — as Barrasso incorrectly suggested — but from Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers, and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, on behalf of the AFL-CIO Energy Committee, a body on which four-fifths of the AFL-CIO member unions are not represented.

Still, the letter generated massive attention, as commentators quickly slotted the story into their ready-made “labor versus environmentalists” frame. Few questioned the idea that the Green New Deal could inflict “immediate harm,” as the letter put it, on workers in fossil fuel–intensive industries. And no one bothered to wonder why we weren’t talking instead about the actual imminent danger these workers face — a recent 26 percent increase in fatalities in extractive industries.

The whole incident exposed how climate deniers, anti-union politicians, and labor officials in certain unions have become strange bedfellows in an effort to prevent the decarbonization of the US economy. In the process they have stifled real debate about how best to include workers and their unions in shaping policies that will directly impact them, instead turning them into props for climate-denier talking points.

While climate justice activists, from the writers of the Leap Manifesto to the Sunrise Movement, have made real efforts to bring in workers from heavy industry, energy, and construction, their overtures have been hampered by labor’s weakness in these sectors — where decades of anti-union campaigns have made jobs once thought stable appear constantly under threat. Perversely, it’s the same people blocking climate action who have worked tirelessly to degrade workers’ standard of living and job security.

The jobs versus environment framework is pernicious, then, not only because it sows division among workers and a wider set of climate activists, but because it masks the extent to which environmental protections and labor protections have historically risen and fallen together — and who is responsible for assaulting both.

John Barrasso personifies this joint attack on workers and the environment. He’s received $693,650 in contributions from the oil and gas industry over the last five years and another $525,100 from the utility industry over the same stretch. His donor list reads like a who’s who of predatory businesses and union busters: Amazon ($15,400), Blackstone Group ($32,200), Chevron ($31,400), Wells Fargo ($12,500). Of particular interest to the unions that signed the AFL-CIO letter should be names like Murray Energy, which gave $23,500 to Barrasso over the past five years.

Murray Energy, one of the nation’s largest mining firms, has been fined nearly $30 million dollars for regulatory violations since 2000. Nearly all of those penalties stemmed from flouting workplace safety, environmental, or labor relations regulations.

And those violations have been lethal. Ryan Lashley died in 2013 after the company “fail[ed] to adequately secure” a high-pressure hydraulic hose that was damaged by nearby machines. John Michael Garloch was crushed to death by a mix of rock and coal in a 2015 accident that seriously injured three others. Thomas Ciszewski bled to death after his arm was cut off by a machine belt in a Murray-owned Ohio mine. And that same year, in the company’s most infamous disaster in recent history, nine miners needlessly perished in a mine at Utah’s Crandall Canyon after significant company negligence.

Despite the cascade of deaths, the company’s dangerous practices continue: last year, injury rates at five of Murray’s West Virginia mines more than doubled. The resurgent crisis of black lung — the product of anti-union attacks that have shredded worker protections — is killing miners by the thousands.

The attitude Murray Energy takes to worker safety — “cutting corners to maximize profits, and getting away with it,” as members of a southern Illinois mining community put it following the preventable death last year of twenty-year-old Tyler Rath in a mine owned by a Murray subsidiary — has had severe environmental effects, many of them in the communities where miners live. The deadly mine that killed Tyler Rath had also released coal slurry, dangerously high levels of heavy metals, and other waste into area waterways. One area farmer lost his whole crop after forty acres of corn fields flooded and were covered in “thick black gunk.” The poisoning of the rivers threatens biodiversity in the Midwest and Central Appalachian regions, which have become a “sacrifice zone” for the nation’s cheap energy. One spill by a Murray Energy firm killed more than four thousand animals.

To top it all off, Murray Energy head Robert Murray is a climate denier. The same man who has threatened members of the United Mine Workers for organizing in his mines has also waged an ideological campaign against them — insisting their jobs are imperiled by efforts to cut carbon emissions. In southern West Virginia — home to one of the world’s richest coal seams — Caterpillar advertises coal as “clean” and “carbon neutral.”

Murray’s record shows that the cost of climate denial can be measured in worker deaths, decimated landscapes, and impoverished communities constantly under threat of displacement. This alone should completely reframe the debate about the futures of workers in fossil-intensive industries: it’s coal magnates and fossil fuel CEOs like Robert Murray, not climate change activists, who are destroying the lives of workers in extractive industries.

Unfortunately, unions like the United Mine Workers have not provided the political leadership needed to foster discussion among members about their role in a “just transition” and their aspirations for safe, meaningful work. The UMW leadership has opted instead to participate in their own marginalization, even as their members, working and retired, face serious economic, health, and environmental threats from the companies that employ them.

Still, the energy and construction unions, which have been among the most vocal critics of climate action like the Green New Deal, must be brought on board for any viable decarbonization plan. The Green New Deal isn’t about putting people out of work, it’s about remaking deadly workplaces, socially and ecologically destructive workplaces, into good, green, and just jobs. That must be a democratic process, and it must bring workers — even those in some of the most destructive industries — into the movement.

Leading advocates of the Green New Deal, including the Sunrise Movement, understand the central role that union workers must play in remaking our society. And importantly, they recognize that Cecil Roberts (president of the UMW) and Lonnie R. Stephenson (president of the IBEW) don’t represent the views of their entire membership. “The truth is,” the Sunrise Movement wrote on Twitter in response to the letter, “that union leaders, shop stewards, & workers across the country are excited about the Green New Deal framework b/c it busts the ‘jobs vs. environment’ myth once and for all.” Their approach is to build alliances and have real conversations that engage workers’ concerns. To that end, they have announced a “Road to the Green New Deal” tour, which includes stops in the industrial heartland and coal country.

But support for the Green New Deal will also have to be built inside unions and — especially in the absence of leadership from the internationals of unions like the UMW and LiUNA — will have to be pushed from below, with the help of unions like the National Nurses United and the Amalgamated Transit Union, both of which have stepped up. A growing number of rank-and-file members back the Green New Deal and are in the position to build committees in their locals, form caucuses inside their international unions, and take action in their workplaces. These efforts inside unions to support climate action — buttressed by groups like Trade Unions for Energy Democracy and the Labor Network for Sustainability — can help us bring the imagination of the Green New Deal to the shop floor. And make it work.