January 18, 2008 Volume 109 Number 2

AFL-CIO leader, back from Bali, says it's time labor stepped up

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Barbara Byrd may soon be attending your union meeting to deliver an urgent message.

Byrd, secretary-treasurer of the Oregon AFL-CIO, is the Portland coordinator for the Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) of the University of Oregon’s. She spent Dec. 3-14 in Bali, Indonesia, as an official observer at a United Nations climate change summit.

Byrd returned to Oregon evangelized: Global warming is real, and the union movement needs to step up and show leadership by helping to craft the world’s response to it.

“The need to really ramp up labor’s engagement is so clear to me now in a way it never was before,” Byrd told the NW Labor Press. “We need to be there to talk about protections for workers who might lose their jobs, and about creating new jobs that are good jobs. We [in labor] bring a moral dimension to this discussion, having to do with equity — who loses and who benefits in dealing with climate change.”

There’s no time to waste, Byrd said. The scientific case, by now, is overwhelming. Even the Bush Administration has acknowledged that global warming is happening. At the Bali summit, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presented its most recent conclusions after reviewing hundreds of studies. Global evidence of a warming trend is unequivocal, the IPCC reported, from increases in average air and ocean temperatures to widespread melting of snow and ice to rising average sea levels. And human activity, the IPCC concluded, is the driving force contributing to the warming.

In Bali, Byrd met foreign trade unionists who told her that global warming’s impacts are already here. Agricultural land is turning into desert. Floods are uprooting communities. Massive forest fires are destroying people’s livelihoods. And disappearing Arctic ice is disrupting fishing industries.

“The folks I met from Malaysia and South Africa and Argentina and Brazil, they’re not sheltered from the impact,” Byrd said. “They’re experiencing it big time. We haven’t felt it because we’re a rich country and can adapt. But we will.”

Fortunately, according to the IPCC report, humanity already has technologies to combat global warming. The Bali meeting was the kickoff of a new round of negotiations over the international response to global warming. The negotiations are supposed to produce a successor agreement to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. Under the Kyoto Protocol, 36 of the world’s rich countries committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while 137 poor countries committed to monitor and report emissions. The United States and Kazakhstan are the only countries not to have ratified the Kyoto agreement.

The negotiations begun at Bali are expected to be concluded next year at a meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark. According to the road map agreed to in Bali, poor nations would also commit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the new agreement, and rich nations would help them do so with aid, investment, and transfer of new technologies.

The Bali meeting was the first time the world’s trade union movement has had a role in climate talks: The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC ) was given status as an official observer, and brought 90 trade unionists from 25 countries.

Byrd was part of the 20-member U.S. contingent, which was led by Bob Baugh, a former Oregon AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer. Baugh now is executive director of the national AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Council, and chair of the labor federation’s one-year-old Energy Task Force.

As observers, Byrd and other trade unionists met with official government delegates to lobby for workers to be protected when actions are taken to halt global warming, a principle ITUC outlined in a “Green Jobs” white paper.

Back from Bali, Byrd is working on a presentation to take around to local unions. Byrd said she wants to make sure organized labor is part of state and regional discussions on how to respond to global warming. At its 2007 convention, the Oregon AFL-CIO passed a resolution to create a blue ribbon committee to study how the state labor federation can best contribute to the fight against climate change. Byrd wants labor to be at the table this year when state lawmakers discuss global warming legislation to be introduced at the 2009 Oregon Legislature. Oregon is one of six western states (and two Canadian provinces) taking part in the Western Climate Initiative, an effort to develop a regional response to global warming. If there are state and local government subsidies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Byrd wants to make sure they favor employment of local workers, and require payment a living wage.

“There are [green] jobs being created as we speak,” Byrd said. “They are not necessarily good jobs. We need to make sure they are good jobs. And then we need to go out and organize them.”

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