ALR Dialogue: Climate Change and Green Workforce Development

Dr. Sean Sweeney, Director of CUNY/Murphy Institute's International Program on Labor, Climate, and the Environment, is an established voice in the international trade union movement's effort to address climate change. Dr. Sweeney spoke recently with ALR staff about labor's role in the climate change agenda and a number of other related topics.
(Launched in early 2015, the Murphy Institute International Program for Labor, Climate & Environment aims to be a hub for education, research, policy development and alliance-building for US and international unions working on energy, climate change, and ecological and social sustainability.)

CUNY/Murphy Institute’s New International Program on Labor, Climate, and the Environment

This program is a first, at least at the institutional level – it's quite unique in the world! There have been other programs relating work to green workforce development, but nothing like this. Of course, unions have had, for a while now, some awareness around the climate issue, but it is still not on their core, day-to-day, regular agenda. Organized labor is still a strong political force worldwide, and we see it as a powerful institutional means to convey this idea that climate change is not just about carbon and global warming, but also about mass production, mass consumption, and the very essence of capitalism – not merely a by-product of capitalism. So, one thing we're doing is educating union members. We’ve started a certificate program in which workers can receive credit at CUNY, and there are also non-credit courses they can take.

Climate Change and Labor

Union engagement five years ago was very limited, especially in the United States. Organized labor stood steadfast by the issue of “no emission reduction” because, as they saw it, reduction meant placing a greater burden on companies and those companies would respond by laying people off or, worse, moving to locations where there were no emissions regulations at all. But now organized labor is waking up to the facts. And we've got to try to push them further to see they’ve got a moral obligation as stewards for the planet. Unions will attract workers by saying, “We refuse to work for companies who are polluting and damaging the ecology.” Put it this way, it will become more and more difficult to organize workers if you are on the side of factories and plants that pollute. Global climate change touches everything from labor law to collective bargaining. Workers in collective bargaining situations are going to be bringing climate issues to the table. Organized labor needs to be educated in order to act. And we need all hands on deck to inspire the new generation of workers to get engaged, because in their mind, unions are part of the old picture and always on the company’s side. This is the chance for unions to create a new image for themselves.

China, Labor and Climate Change

China is seeing an increase in public attention to this serious issue, in part because of the documentary “Under the Dome.” In recent years Chinese workers have stepped up in response to environmental degradation. I’m encouraged by this growing wave of support. But the problem is very severe. Chinese workers will be affected in many ways – we’ll start to see an increase in occupational safety and health concerns on the job. More and more Chinese workers are laboring outside in the building trades and in agriculture, and that means direct interaction with air quality. We all need to understand the ripple effects of climate change, such as the fact that malnutrition will become a problem when crops are damaged by flooding and drought. There are so many negative consequences of climate change. In the 21st Century, we’ve got to look globally to find ways to cope with this ecological crisis.