Donald Trump and his congressional Republican allies have taken control of the U.S. government. The result threatens to be devastating for both labor and the climate — not to mention immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, women, children, the elderly, the disabled, LGBTQ people, and many others.
The Trump regime is potentially vulnerable because it only represents the interests of the top 1% of the top 1%. But it has a potentially winning strategy to rule nonetheless: keep those who might stand up in the interest of the 99.9 percent divided and therefore powerless. While Trump has played black against white, Latino against Anglo, women against men, gay against straight, and exploited many other divisions, his “trump card” may well be his ability to divide labor and climate advocates.
The Trump ascendancy creates a new context for addressing long-standing tensions between organized labor and the environmental movement, between workers’ job concerns and everyone’s need to protect the climate. Trump and his congressional Republican allies intend to exploit these tensions to the max. But their threat to workers, the earth’s climate, and society as a whole make cooperation against them imperative for both organized labor and the climate protection movement. Forging a force that can effectively counter Trumpism requires change that will involve tension within each movement as well as between them, but that may be necessary if either is to have a future. The alternative is most likely decimation of both movements and of everything they are fighting for.
A new labor-climate cooperation has begun
Two examples suggest labor-climate cooperation may be possible in the Trump era. One was a direct confrontation between the incoming Trump administration and an alliance of unions and environmentalists. When the Trump transition team sent a questionnaire to Department of Energy staff demanding to know the names of people who had attended meetings or conferences on climate change, American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox Sr., warned against “a return to the political witch hunts of the 1950s.” He demanded that, “President-elect Trump must instruct his transition team to cease this profoundly anti-democratic behavior immediately.” This pushback was joined by environmental and scientific organizations. Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists said, “The Trump transition team’s pursuit of the names of Department of Energy employees involved in work on climate change is unacceptable.” It “smacks of McCarthyism and should cease immediately.” Further, Department of Energy employees should “resist complying with any demands that would compromise the independence of the agency’s experts.” The Department of Energy rejected the Trump transition team demands and said it would not name names. A few days later the Trump transition team disavowed the questionnaire, claiming that it was “not authorized.”
Another example shows that cooperation around climate, jobs, and justice is possible in the Trump era. Shortly after Trump’s election, the Illinois legislature passed the Future Energy Jobs Package which will invest at least $500,000,000 in new solar, community solar, and energy efficiency programs targeted at low-income communities, combined with job training for work in the solar industry. The bill was a compromise among a wide range of forces, and included a bailout for nuclear power plants, but attempts to include a coal company bailout and huge consumer electrical rate increases were defeated. The bill will create 3,000 MW of new solar generation and 1,300 MW of new wind generation by 2025 in Illinois. Local jobs will be guaranteed because utilities will have to use in-state solar and wind energy sources, rather than purchase renewable energy out of state.
Labor and climate movements: Divided we fall
The coming of the Trump regime presents organized labor with a dilemma. On the one hand, Trump’s infrastructure program and military build-up promise to provide jobs for some union workers; his proposals to end trade deals and put tariffs on manufacturing imports align with long-standing labor opposition to pro-corporate globalization. On the other hand, Trump and his Republican allies in Congress propose tax, budget, and social welfare policies that will directly impoverish most workers; his cabinet appointees are proven enemies of organized labor and the rights of workers; legislation, executive policy, and supreme court appointments are likely to lead to what one labor staffer has called an “extinction-level event” for organized labor. The attack is likely to be fast and furious; already Trump’s Republican allies in the Kentucky legislature have begun the process of passing House Bill 1, which would let workers work under a union contract without paying dues and House Bill 3 which would repeal the state’s prevailing wage law.
Some in organized labor are already advocating that unions try to work with Trump on trade and infrastructure issues. Under normal circumstances it might be possible for labor to support those parts of the Trump agenda it considered beneficial and oppose those that are harmful. But these are not normal circumstances. To say that labor can work with Trump is to normalize his regime. That will be suicidal for labor at a time when Trump and his allies are attacking the very existence of unions and the right of workers to organize. It ignores the likelihood that even Trump’s “good things” will come with poison pills. His infrastructure plan, for example, is being described as based on “private equity” and “low cost construction.” The result is likely to be the banning of prevailing-wage rules and union security provisions for construction workers. And to “cooperate” with Trump is to disregard the reality that labor’s allies are facing devastating attack as well; if labor wants their support, it will need to support them in turn. The defeat of Trump requires defining him not as a normal horse-trading politician but as a threat to working people, society, and a livable planet.
Guidelines for a labor-climate challenge to the Trump agenda
What are the essential elements of a unified labor-climate response?
Develop and campaign for a unified alternative agenda around jobs and a just transition to climate safety: The labor-climate movement needs its own strategy which is both worker- and climate-friendly. It must include a just transition to 100% climate-safe energy and jobs for all. But it needs to go beyond that to a vision of a new economy based on values not greed. Such a program needs to be projected into the broad anti-Trump movement and into the political arena.
Develop an alliance of unions and allies willing to fight the whole Trump agenda: This is already started with efforts like the Greenpeace-initiated pledge of United Resistance, the People’s Climate Mobilization, Our Revolution, and Labor Network for Sustainability’s Labor Convergence on Climate. Such a “big tent” needs to include unions that are not part of the AFL-CIO, such as SEIU, Teamsters, and National Education Association. Some unions may choose not to join because they are unwilling to take a forthright stand against the Trump agenda; it would be both absurd and catastrophic for that to prevent the rest of the labor movement and its allies from taking on a fight that is about the very right of unions to exist.
Expose Trump’s agenda: Virtually every aspect of Trump’s agenda is bad for both working people and the climate. It harms people and planet to aid the enrichment and empowerment of the rich and powerful. It is phony on jobs, phony on trade, and phony on climate. It needs to be exposed as an attack not only on particular groups like workers, immigrants, and women, but on society itself. Labor and climate movements should work together in every venue they can affect to expose the harm that the Trump agenda will do to working people and communities.
Erode Trump’s base: Campaigns should target those who have been beguiled by Trump’s false promises. The campaign by Democrats and Bernie Sanders against Republican attacks on health care provides an example. Similarly, Fight for Fifteen’s focus on a living wage for all could have considerable appeal among the poor white communities where Trump made his greatest inroads.
Block implementation of Trump’s agenda in the political arena: This can be done in part by building wide advocacy coalitions against each element of his program including his labor and climate policies. Whether Democratic politicians will fight the Trump agenda or simply keep their heads down is currently hanging in the balance. We need to let them know that they will have support and funding if they fight – and that they will lose it if they don’t. (Two-thirds of Democrats want their representatives to resist Trump.) To the extent that Trump’s agenda is exposed and widely rejected, Republican politicians in swing districts will start to oppose parts of his program to differentiate themselves from him.
Block implementation of Trump’s agenda on the ground: A good example was the defeat of the Trump transition team’s effort to gin up a witch hunt in the Energy Department. Blocking pipelines and other harmful infrastructure projects will be necessary; such actions must include alternative job plans for workers and communities; while some unions will no doubt oppose such actions, others should be encouraged to support them or at least remain neutral in the interest of workers’ own future and the solidarity of the anti-Trump coalition.
Act wherever possible to realize the labor-climate agenda: States, cities, and regions are still available arenas for positive labor-climate action. The Illinois Future Energy Jobs Package provides a case in point. Where such victories are achieved, they should be widely promoted elsewhere as examples of what can be accomplished.
Build a worker-friendly environmental movement: Research shows that union members are more concerned and more likely to take action around environmental and climate issues than non-union workers or the general public. Nonetheless there is genuine resentment among many workers and union members about environmentalists who are perceived to be unconcerned about the impact shutting down a fossil fuel facility or blocking an infrastructure project has on workers and their jobs. As part of building a broader cooperation, environmental groups need to join coalitions fighting for workers’ rights, such as the right of workers to a $15 minimum hourly wage and the right of public employees to collective bargaining. In the era of Trump’s offensive, there will be ample opportunities for environmentalists to reach out and establish new relationships with workers. Joining their picket lines is a good place to start.
Put Trump’s destruction of the climate and his attacks on workers and unions front and center in the case for his complete repudiation: There are innumerable reasons to want to reduce and eventually eliminate Trump’s power, including his aforementioned threats to immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, women, children, the elderly, the disabled, LGBTQ people, and many others. But his threats to working people and the climate go beyond any special group to include the interests of everybody who has to make a living and inhabit the earth. They represent common interests of all the many constituencies whose particular interests Trump threatens. As such they can be unifying threads that help bind the whole opposition to Trump and Trumpism together.
Recognize tensions but work for cooperation: There will inevitably be tensions within and between unions and between labor and climate movements. These tensions are likely to become outright conflicts in some cases, as they did of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines and in the building trades opposition to the AFL-CIO’s decision to work with climate advocate Tom Steyer. They may even intensify as unions allied with the fossil fuel industry find such allies in the highest seats of power in a regime that is intent on wiping out the rest of the labor movement. But the core interests of workers and the labor movement lie both in defeating Trump and in forestalling the devastating effects of climate change on themselves and their posterity. Civil rights, immigrant rights, healthcare for all, and other crucial issues also created tensions within organized labor. But in the end justice and common interests prevailed. They can do so again with labor and climate.