A Labor Movement Call to Address Climate Change


Joe Uehlein
Joe Uehlein

Joe Uehlein — a nationally prominent advocate of a closer labor-environmental alliance — will speak in Portland Oct. 10. Hosted at the Oregon Labor Center by the group Climate Jobs PDX, the event is billed as an evening of music and dialogue with labor activists on climate and jobs crises. Uehlein is the director of the DC-based Labor Network for Sustainability, and serves on the board of the group Voices for a Sustainable Future alongside Oregon AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Barbara Byrd. Uehlein is a former secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department and director of the AFL-CIO Center for Strategic Campaigns. He’s also a musician in a Washington DC roots-rock band, and a member of American Federation of Musicians — hence the music at the event.

The Labor Press had some questions for Uehlein, which he answered by email.



What needs to happen in order to slow down and stop human-caused climate change? 

We call for a World War II style mobilization. It will take a national program of unprecedented scope and scale to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a manner consistent with the best science-based targets and timelines, and in a way that addresses our income inequality crisis at the same time. We’ve done it before — winning World War II, building the U.S. highway system, going to the moon. And we can afford it: We found a trillion dollars in 2008 to bail out the very financial institutions that caused the market crash. What we can’t afford is to not do it, because the economic impact of climate change will be devastating. 

To what extent is organized labor working to combat climate change?

Organized labor has recognized the science and the severity of the problem, and the short timeline we have to deal with it. But we have been very slow to take the necessary action.

There have been a lot of tensions between greens and unionists lately. What are they fighting about?

There’s nothing new here. These tensions have always existed. They have increased lately because our shrinking labor movement still has density in the fossil fuel industries, so anything that challenges those industries is not received well within the house of labor. That said, fossil fuels are a major part of the problem, and we must reduce consumption of them. The corporate-fueled “jobs vs. environment” frame is a major reason that we’ve not developed a common vision, yet we have far more in common with our environmental allies than with the corporations.

So often it seems that unionists and environmentalists butt heads — about whether to build a new pipeline, the size of a new bridge, or the right balance of industrial land and natural reserves. Do you see a way out of those fights?

I do see a way out. We need a common vision and we have to get serious about developing that common vision. We have a project where we bring labor and environmental leaders together to discuss difficult issues. We believe that it is through honest differences of opinion that we arrive at sound conclusions and correct judgements. Both sides have to work harder at this.

What are the prospects for a truce, or even of the two forming a broad and enduring alliance? What do you think the two movements could win united that they would lose divided?

Both movements are failing at achieving their goals. Together we could start winning. The environmental movement needs to work much harder at not just recognizing labor’s need for jobs, but at truly understanding the primacy of work in people’s lives. And labor needs to more fully understand that climate protection represents a new kind of human solidarity, and that our future as a labor movement will be more secure if we find a way to become a central player in the movement to build a sustainable future for the planet and its people. Right now the prospects are not great, because both sides tend to be short-sighted. But great progress has been made, and I believe we’re at a major turning point and in the next five years we will see a very different and more cooperative labor-environmental landscape. We are already much further advanced than we were five years ago.

How sympathetic do you think the leaders of prominent environmental groups are to labor’s agenda of living-wage jobs?

I think they are very sympathetic, and the work of LNS, the Blue-Green Alliance, and others has helped increase this level of sympathy  But we need much more than sympathy  Just like we say that labor needs a climate plan of its own (If Not Now When?), we say that environmentalists need a jobs plan of their own. They need to go way beyond sympathy and understanding and begin to fight for worker rights, and good family-supporting jobs. This is in their self-interest just like becoming a climate protection movement is on our self interest as a labor movement.

EVENT DETAILS: Saturday, Oct. 10, at 6:30 p.m., Oregon Labor Center, 3645 SE 32nd (just south of Powell Blvd.), Portland.

EXTRA: In “If Not Now, When? A Labor Movement Plan to Address Climate Change,” the Labor Network for Sustainability outlines what a labor-led climate change effort could look like.


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