A Bad Climate? The State of Social Justice Efforts in the Labor and Environmental Movements

by on June 13, 2016 · 0 comments

in Culture, Economy, Election, Environment, Labor, Organizing, Politics

no bakkenBy Jim Miller

Among the stories that you may have missed during the stretch run of the primary season was some significantly bad news out of labor on the national front.

Several large unions in the building trades came out against a plan by some of the biggest public sector unions to join forces with environmentalist Tom Steyer in order to fund a major anti-Trump get out the vote operation in the fall. The New York Times noted that:

Two of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies, labor and environmentalists, are clashing over an effort to raise tens of millions of dollars for an ambitious voter turnout operation aimed at defeating Donald J. Trump in the November election.

The rift developed after some in the labor movement, whose cash flow has dwindled and whose political clout has been increasingly imperiled, announced a partnership last week with a wealthy environmentalist, Tom Steyer, to help bankroll a new fund dedicated to electing Democrats.

That joint initiative enraged members of the nation’s biggest construction unions, already on edge about the rising influence of climate-change activists. The building-trades unions view Mr. Steyer’s environmental agenda as a threat to the jobs that can be created through infrastructure projects like new gas pipelines.

Thus, rather than having the vision to embrace the great potential of a labor-green alliance and work toward building a sustainable future that addresses climate change and fights for good sustainable jobs, a small reactionary element of the labor movement preferred instead to throw down the gauntlet and embrace a narrow, future-killing business unionism.

The good news here is that this group of unions doesn’t come close to speaking for the entire labor movement or even the majority of the building trades, many of whom have earnestly been pursuing ways to find common cause with environmental partners. There has been positive movement locally, nationally, and internationally in a more progressive direction with my union, the California Federation of Teachers, embracing a climate justice agenda here in California and SEIU heading in a similar direction at the national level, along with many others. But clearly, much work remains to be done inside the house of labor.

Too Much Big Green?

Elsewhere in environmentalist circles, activists were pondering news of a recent report critical of what Naomi Klein has called the “big green” strategy in the environmental movement. As the Huffington Post related:

A searing new report says the environmental movement is not winning and lays the blame squarely on the failed policies of environmental funders.

The movement hasn’t won any “significant policy changes at the federal level in the United States since the 1980s” because funders have favored top-down elite strategies and have neglected to support a robust grassroots infrastructure.

Environmental funders spent a whopping $10 billion between 2000 and 2009 but achieved relatively little because they failed to underwrite grassroots groups that are essential for any large-scale change, the report says. . . . Environmental funders mainly support large, professionalized environmental organizations instead of the scrappy community-based groups that are most heavily impacted by environmental harms.

Organizations with annual budgets greater than $5 million make up only two percent of all environmental groups, yet receive more than half of all environmental grants and donations. For building a movement, funding priorities seem upside down.

In the report, “Why the Environmental Movement is Not Winning,” the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy suggests that what funders should be doing in response to this situation is investing more money in grassroots action and building the infrastructure that can support a broad-based social movement rather than sticking with top-down professionalized “activism.”

Putting these two developments together, it is clear that in order to change everything those in both the labor and environmental movements need to start in their own houses.


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