Climate Activists and Labor Must Work Together to Build a Clean Energy Future

Posted Dec. 6, 2017

MP3 Interview with Pedro Cruz, with Sierra Club's Labor and Economic Justice Program, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

energy

At a conference focused on the struggle to rein in and roll back oil and gas infrastructure, more than 300 activists gathered in Pittsburgh Nov. 17th-20 at the People vs. Oil and Gas Infrastructure Summit for communities fighting back. There, they discussed the harms caused by various forms of fossil fuel production and use, including fracking, pipelines, oil trains, LNG export facilities, fracked gas power plants, refinery expansion and more. The current infrastructure boom, summit organizers say, will lock in fossil fuel production for decades to come, threatening the global climate and harming people’s air, water, and health.

At the summit, activists from across the U.S. who are challenging oil and gas infrastructure projects debated strategies on how to fight back both through legal means, direct action and artistic expression. One of the Summit workshops was titled “Climate Justice and Jobs,” and featured two presenters, one from the Service Employees International Union and Pedro Cruz, senior representative of the Sierra Club's Labor and Economic Justice Program.

After the workshop, Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Cruz about the challenges climate activists face in working with labor unions and the critical need to forge closer ties in order to work toward building a clean energy future. [Rush transcript.]

PEDRO CRUZ: In the U.S. we have two progressive forces, which are the environmental movement and the labor movement. There have been cases in the service sectors where national unions like SEIU, UNITE HERE, where they march together with environmental activists and the other way around. You have other progressive unions like ATU – that’s the transportation union – basically, their claim is that their jobs are green jobs because most of them are bus drivers and work in public transportation. Therefore, they see more investment in public transportation means more jobs and a cleaner environment, so we have those commonalities.

Unfortunately, with the building trades, it’s kind of a mixed bag because when you talk about pipelines and gas and oil infrastructure, it’s the kind of thing we’re fighting on a day-to-day basis. But my point is, we don’t have to fight for that; we shouldn’t be having that fight. Probably that’s an area where we can agree to disagree. We also need water infrastructure and the same set of skills you need to lay down pipe for oil and gas is the same set of skills you need for water infrastructure, and that’s an area that we can be working together.

What other area? Electrical workers. Electrical workers are the future, basically, of the new economy, because electrical workers are the ones doing EV [electric vehicle] infrastructure, the one doing the retrofit of buildings, the one dealing with the installation of solar and wind energy. So there are so many areas where we can be working together and some areas where we start to see that partnership and hopefully it will grow as the renewable sector grows, too.

BETWEEN THE LINES: There are so many more jobs in renewables – and they’re not going to be exported, because they need to be done here – than there is in the fossil fuel sector. It’s also true that for the most part, those jobs don’t pay nearly as well as jobs in the coal industry or building pipelines. They sometimes pay maybe a third as much. And maybe they’re mostly not organized, not unionized. Do you think the solution to that is to have another whole wave of union organization like happened in the 1930s where people who were in jobs that were not highly skilled jobs still got organized and got decent pay for the work they do?

PEDRO CRUZ: I couldn’t be more emphatic in my "Yes, yes, yes!" Not only organizing in those sectors, but we climate defenders, we have such an important role in that organizing process, because in the same way we organize boycotting X or Y product because it’s bad for the environment, if we can use that same energy to ask for the organizing in the clean energy sector and the renewable sector, it would make such a big impact.

We have a lot of bad actors in the clean energy sector and it’s for us also to denounce them and to force them to do the right thing. I can mention the example of the Nissan plant in Mississippi that they were trying to organize into a union. That plant was supposed to be doing electrical cars that everybody would agree that they are better for the environment than the cars we have today, but at the same time those cars are being assembled under conditions where the workers are making way less money than other unionized plants in the northern part of the country.

When you add to that that it’s in Mississippi, in a black, impoverished community, that makes things even worse because it’s not just an issue of jobs or an issue of the environment, but it’s also an issue of economic justice that everyone should have the same economic opportunities. I think that’s something that we in the climate/environmental area should be aware, that we want to move forward with a cleaner environment and justice for all, but also not making the same mistake we made in the past and trying this time to integrate people who were left behind economically, people who were affected by environmental injustice. Those are the people who should be getting the good jobs in a renewable economy. Those are the people who should have access to affordable, clean energy, too. And that’s something we should be advocating for.

For more information, visit People vs. Oil and Gas Infrastructure Summit, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Nov. 17-20, 2017 at peoplevsoilgas.org; on Facebook at facebook.com/events/647465608976552; People vs. Oil & Gas at actionnetwork.org/ticketed_events/people-vs-oil-gas.

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