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The Road to Climate Action Might Run Through Labor Law Reform

Democratic Socialists of America is pushing for the PRO Act as part of its climate strategy — because it realizes that rebuilding working-class power is crucial to confronting the climate crisis.

Members of Service Employees International Union 1199 and others march for a Green New Deal in Detroit, Michigan. (Becker1999 / Flickr)

Like many in his cohort, Ashik Siddique, a member of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), got tired of doomscrolling. He may even have invented the term: The Wall Street Journal, no less, has credited him as one of its earliest users. Reading too much about the climate crisis especially can be not only depressing but also politically demobilizing. Siddique, thirty-three, along with many other DSA activists, is instead seeking to turn the despair of the moment into action that could save the world.

In this spirit, many young people in DSA and beyond have been committed to organizing for the Green New Deal, the comprehensive plan, proposed and popularized by socialist congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to decarbonize the economy through investment in green jobs and infrastructure. This legislation and the ideas surrounding it have, over the last couple years, emerged as a top priority among DSA’s membership. But how to win it? The answers haven’t always been obvious.

When Bernie Sanders was running for president, it made sense for socialists most committed to climate to focus on his campaign, since in 2020 he made green jobs central to his platform. After Bernie, it was still clear that we needed to act quickly to save all life on Earth, but this was much easier to type than to do. Surveying the space between what our situation requires — the economy must be decarbonized and almost everything decommodified — and our present reality, “The biggest gap,” says Siddique, a national organizer in DSA’s Green New Deal Working Group and a newly elected member of the organization’s National Political Committee, “is just the lack of organized power to do any of that.”

DSA lacked not only state power, but the organizing capacity to pass the Green New Deal, its leadership realized. What’s more, that capacity didn’t exist anywhere in the United States: Other environmental groups were too beholden to ruling-class donors and to the Democratic Party establishment to pursue an agenda that would alter class power relations. That’s why the environmental movement is largely confined to moral appeals. (Even a few years ago, much of the messaging was about sad polar bears rather than our own survival and that of our children.) It’s why the demands of many organizations seem so small — create a Youth Climate Corps, protect a specific butterfly species — when compared to the scale of the climate crisis. DSA doesn’t have big donors to placate, but it has still lacked a practical way to take on the fossil fuel industry and win. The group realized that “anything we are calling for would be pretty limited,” Siddique explains, unless “we figure out how to rebuild working-class power through organized labor.”

To that end, DSA has made organizing for the PRO Act (Protecting the Right to Organize Act) a top climate priority. (Of course, many DSA members — including this writer — are union members or would like to be, and consider the PRO Act important in its own right). Part of the leftward-shifting trend of policy discourse over the past few years, the PRO Act would make it much easier for workers to form unions through numerous reforms in the processes of union elections and a substantive upgrade of the federal government’s power to enforce labor laws. The full legislation is stalled for now, but Congress has an opportunity to pass parts of it through the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill championed by Bernie Sanders, which invests massively in social services and in the environment. The PRO Act provisions presently in the budget reconciliation bill include huge fines for employers who violate workers’ union organizing rights (as much as $100,000 for each violation) and funding for aggressive enforcement by the National Labor Relations Board.

If any provisions of the PRO Act pass in this cycle, it will be partly due to tireless organizing by DSA, which has been waging its biggest national campaign since Bernie. DSA members have made a million phone calls to voters in the districts of key senators, encouraging them to call their lawmakers and demand labor rights. DSA has shown that its considerable volunteer power can move even the notoriously recalcitrant. At least partly because of DSA’s efforts, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Angus King of Maine have flipped on the issue, becoming supporters of the labor rights protections. (Both politicians have said that they changed their position after hearing from constituents, and no other organization that was organizing their voters and targeting them as intensely as DSA was.)

DSA organizing brought the PRO Act closer to reality, but it’s highly possible that the entire $3.5 trillion reconciliation package could fail, due to conservative Democrats’ opposition to its scale, killing the labor rights provisions along with the many other crucial measures. If that happens, what will this campaign have accomplished?

Siddique says DSA has built organizing capacity, increased cooperation among its chapters, and demonstrated its own formidable volunteer power, which had previously only been proven in local campaigns. “We have exerted enough pressure to potentially change federal law,” says Siddique. “That’s something DSA hasn’t done before. Now we have evidence that throwing down for something like this can actually work.” The campaign has also helped strengthen DSA’s relationship with unions, some of whom see even social democratic reforms as politically risky. DSA worked closely with unions on the campaign, including Communication Workers of America (CWA). All of this will be crucial in the future, whether in a renewed campaign to pass the full PRO Act or Medicare for All — or the Green New Deal.

Passing the PRO Act is no guarantee that all unions would jump on board with the Green New Deal. Just as the environmental movement is full of class enemies, organized labor can be an unreliable ally of the planet. We’ve seen, even as the climate crisis continues to batter working-class neighborhoods, that many unions will continue to defend pipelines and coal plants, protecting members’ short-term job interests at all costs.

But Siddique points out that while the environmental movement has won numerous crucial victories opposing fossil fuel infrastructure like pipelines, for broader popular support, the defenders of the earth need a more positive agenda. Averting doom only goes so far. Investment in green jobs and green public goods will improve the lives of millions of working-class people and is broadly popular across usual political divides. Siddique says, “We want to make clear that green jobs and green public investment are basically the answers to any problem.” And the climate jobs agenda has momentum right now, enjoying some support from the Joe Biden administration and, better yet, a recent union-powered victory in Illinois, which we wrote about last week.

Of course, for the growing numbers of young people looking for a way to stop wildfires, flooding, and mass extinction, “build power” and “strengthen working-class institutions” sound like a long game, and that could be a tough sell. DSA’s thoughtful, painstaking analysis of how to win is more realistic than the moral appeals to elites favored by many in the nonprofit industrial complex, but it doesn’t necessarily speak to the urgency so many of us feel about the climate crisis.

That’s why it’s essential that socialists continue organizing and winning on elements of the Green New Deal itself — like the Green New Deal for Public Schools, which we recently reported on — efforts which have been successful at engaging many who worry about climate but haven’t previously been politically involved.  “It’s a big fundamental tension,” Siddique acknowledges:

We need to help people understand the urgency and the solution, but also propose something that builds the power to achieve that. Really build our power, not just speak truth to power, which people on the left have been doing for a long time, especially environmentalists.