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Machinists Union Adopts Resolution Making the Fight Against Climate Change a Priority

Posted Sept. 28, 2016

MP3 Interview with John Harrity, president of the Connecticut State Council of Machinists, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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The AFL-CIO recently announced its support of the controversial Dakota Access pipeline, which is opposed by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, through whose ancestral land it passes. The labor federation says the pipeline will create jobs for their members, while ignoring the fact that moving half a million barrels of crude oil a day will have a devastating impact on the climate.

Meanwhile, 1,200 delegates of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, who gathered in Chicago for their convention in early September, voted in favor of a resolution to make the fight against climate change a priority for the foreseeable future. John Harrity, president of the Connecticut State Council of Machinists since 2011, initiated the resolution. Harrity, who has been a member of the union for 37 years and works at Pratt & Whitney, first won support for his resolution from members of his Connecticut local.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with John Harrity, who says he was inspired to become active on climate change issues after reading a 2012 article in Rolling Stone magazine written by environmentalist Bill McKibben. The article titled, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math" explained that we must leave 80 percent of fossil fuels in the ground if humans hope to keep global warming below two degrees Celsius, which was until recently considered the tipping point for runaway climate chaos. However, more up-to-date research shows that the tipping point is more likely 1.5 degrees. Here, Harrity tells the story of how delegates were moved to support his resolution, and how the Machinists' union adoption of an activist position on global warming could influence the U.S. labor movement.

JOHN HARRITY: The issue was that we have thousands of members who work in fossil fuel-related industries, and in particular on the railroads, hauling coal that goes from Appalachia to the West Coast in order to be put on ships and sent to China. And those workers are understandably concerned about their future and about their jobs, and they are more likely to be against anything that talks about climate change than they are to be supportive of it. And I can totally appreciate their dilemma, but climate change is a crisis for the world, and certainly for working people. I tell every group that I address that climate change is the most critical issue facing all of us for the rest of our lives, and I think people are slowly beginning to realize that.

When the resolution came up, the committee that reviews resolutions recommended that the convention not pass the resolution because of the fears from the fossil fuel folks, and under discussion delegates get up and speak pro or con on what’s before them, and there were six mics and people at all six said that they were opposed to the resolution and hoped it would be voted down. But before debate is closed, the president of the union, who is chairing the meeting, always asks if anyone was speaking in opposition. And so, I was. My opposition was that they should pass the resolution. So I spoke to the delegates and I basically told them that our kids and our grandkids were counting on us to deal with this issue, and that it was coming regardless of whether we did a resolution or not, but it needed our leadership, it needed our involvement, and especially if things involve our members. As I said to the delegates, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu, and so we need to be involved in this struggle going forward.

I spoke for about six minutes. I actually had to get permission from the chair because I had exceeded my time, and the delegates approved that. And then I finished up and there was a voice vote. And the chair was uncertain which way the voice vote went, so there was a standing vote of the delegates – the only standing vote that happened at this year’s convention.

I asked them if they would, before they voted, to take out their cell phones and look at a picture of their kids or their grandkids, because those were the people they were affecting by their vote on the resolution. I think that that’s what people need to think about, and what I’m told is that that was effective in getting people to think about it. And the vote was 503 against the resolution and 607 for the resolution, so the resolution passed. It was a great moment, I think, for the union, because it put us in the position of moving forward and being in the leadership of this issue, which is where we need to be. There’s a lot that has to be done; we cannot begin doing it without having the approval of the body, and this certainly clarified that, and it was absolutely clear that the majority of people there – not an overwhelming majority but a majority in our democratic organization – wanted to take a position that our union should be involved in the fight against climate change. So I think it was a great step for our union and hopefully will get a number of U.S. unions following suit and we can address this more aggressively than we have.

BETWEEN THE LINES: John Harrity, is there a labor group working nationally on this issue?

JOHN HARRITY: The group I’m most aware of, which is also an excellent organization, is the Labor Network for Sustainability. And that brings together people that are interested in this issue across unions and gets people together. They put out different studies that assess…as much as climate change is a crisis we think it’s also an opportunity to rebuild the U.S. economy on the basis of a renewable energy economy, which is a huge undertaking and should provide literally millions of jobs in taking that on, and it’s a necessary task. So, anyway, the Labor Network for Sustainability has been great in getting the data together, which indicates the effect of these policies and also of encouraging folks like me to try and bring their unions around to understanding that climate change is something that the labor movement needs to be involved in.

Learn more about Connecticut State Council of Machinists by visiting ctstatecouncil.goiam.org/.

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