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Why Unions Need to Join the Climate Fight

 By Bobby Righi 

“The case I want to make to you is that climate change – when its full economic and moral applications are understood – is the most powerful weapon progressives have ever had in the fight for equality and social justice,” stated Naomi Klein speaking on September 1 to the founding convention of UNIFOR, a new mega union created by the Canadian Autoworkers and the Canadian Energy and Paper Workers Union.

This speech is a moving call to unions to bring their institutional strength, radical history, and organizational skills into the struggle against the destabilization of the natural systems that we depend on for all forms of life. Kline calls the energy industry and the banks and governments that support them “extractivists” who take and take without giving back. They “take as if there are no limits to what can be taken – no limits to what workers’ bodies can take, no limits to what a functioning society can take, no limits to what the planet can take.”

The threats to the climate makes the need to fight austerity all the more pressing because we need public services and public infrastructure to both bring down emissions and prepare for the coming storms. We need to revive and reinvent the public sphere. We need subways, streetcars and clean-rail systems that are everywhere and affordable to everyone. We need energy-efficient affordable housing and smart electrical grids carrying renewable energy. We also need major investments in the old infrastructure. Our future depends on our ability to do what we have so long been told we can no longer do: act collectively. Who better than unions to carry that message?

The renewal of the public sphere will create millions of new, high paying union jobs that don’t hasten the warming of the planet. She calls on us to notice that there are already lots of workers in low-carbon jobs: the care-givers, educators, sanitation workers and other service sector workers. Turning these low-paying, low carbon jobs into higher-paying jobs is itself a climate solution and should be recognized as such. Naomi Kline argues that climate change puts us right in the middle of the struggle for social justice and arms us with arguments that raise the stakes significantly.

How to pay for all of this? Fossil fuel companies and the banks that finance them make obscene profits and we have to get our hands on some of these profits to help clean up the mess they have made. It is a concept well established by law: the polluter pays. How to get at these enormous piles of money? A national carbon tax and higher royalties are two ways as well as a financial transaction tax and raising corporate taxes across the board. Ending subsidies is a good idea, as well.

In the U. S. we, the taxpayers, subsidize the oil, gas, and coal industry to the tune of $14 billion to 52$ billion a year. Estimates vary depending on what is counted as a subsidy. If health costs of burning fossil fuels are factored in, all of these figures are way low! What might we do with, say $40 billion a year in infrastructure improvement, health and education? To his credit, Pres. Obama has asked every year for a $4 billion cut to fossil fuel industries but congress has never seen fit to vote on the proposals.

The speech by Naomi Kline, “Overcoming ‘Overburden’: The Climate Crisis and a Unified Left Agenda” calls on workers in all fields to unite and look for better ways the economy can work . She calls on us to stop believing in the lies of the “extractivists” and come up with our own vision. It is a must read for all of us interested in social justice and the way forward. Read the whole speech at: http://www.

Bobby Righi is a member of PSARA’s Environmental Committee & a retired member of AFT-WA. Naomi Kline is the author of The Shock Doctrine. 

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