by Bob Buzzanco and Scott Parkin, originally published 18 January 2024 on CounterPunch, accessible here: https://www.counterpunch.org/2024/01/18/jeremy-brecher-on-how-labor-and-climate-movements-build-power-from-below/
In the latest Green and Red Podcast, Bob and Scott talk with author, labor historian and activist Jeremy Brecher who’s been engaged at the intersection of labor, the environment, and the climate for decades. Over 50 years ago, Jeremy authored “Strike,” a labor history classic. And then more recently he’s worked at the intersection of the labor and climate movements. We talk with Jeremy about strikes, unions, and union leadership since he first published “Strike;” the recent “Hot Labor Summer” of 2023; the labor-climate movements and much more.
Jeremy Brecher is a writer, historian, and activist who is the author of more than a dozen books on labor and social movements. His works include the labor history classic “Strike” and “Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual.” Jeremy is also a Senior Advisor for the Labor Network for Sustainability.
Scott Parkin: Today we’re talking with, Jeremy Brecher who is a writer, historian and activist and author of numerous books on labor and social movements, as well as doing a lot of work on, in the climate movement. Jeremy is the author of “Strike!” and “Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual.” He’s also the senior advisor for the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS). And so we’re going to be talking about the long history of labor and the environment.
We’ve seen industry try to pit the two against each other. And then we’ve seen, we’ve seen progress in that relationship in recent years. And so we’re going to be talking about all of that today with someone with Jeremy, who’s been engaged at the intersection of labor, environment, climate for quite some time, Jeremy, welcome to the green and red podcast.
Jeremy Brecher: Thanks for having me.
Scott Parkin: Maybe to kick off, just because, we just had the 52nd anniversary of Strike coming out. Maybe if you wanted to just start off with a bit about the power of the Strike and, what the source of that power is.
Jeremy Brecher: A basic theme of. strike and a great deal of the rest of what I’ve written over the years. Is based on the fact that as the old Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobbly song said, “they’ve taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn, but without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel can turn.”
And I think that’s a underlying power of the strike, and it’s actually not just of strikes, but of all ways in which people withdraw their cooperation and withdraw their support from whatever the power centers or the people or the oppressive forces that they’re facing and are confronting the fact that the powers of this earth.
Ultimately, our dependence on the cooperation or at least acquiescence of ordinary folks is a fundamental principle and almost always ignored. When people are thinking about power, they think about the power of bosses, employers, big corporations, the government, armies. But as that song says, “without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel can turn,” and that fundamental idea of the withdrawal of labor power in the case of a strike, or even more broadly, the withdrawal of cooperation with the powers and principalities of the earth is the fundamental source of power that all of us who often feel and seem to be powerless Have if we can cooperate in withdrawing our cooperation from those who are oppressing us, who are doing things that are harmful to us.
Bob Buzzanco: You’ve put out a new edition of “Strike.” What would you say that the major kind of trends or differences are from that first phase? You studied up to 1970 say, and then since then, it seems like the labor movement has been, although the last few years, we’ve certainly seen an upsurge, it’s been on the defensive. It’s been attacked. The Democratic Party, who were supposed to be its allies, really haven’t done what they could have done to support it. What do you think the biggest shift has been, like, that, over, from 1970 on? And then do you think the last few years are indicative of another kind of trend toward more union organizing, maybe more aggressive? Or militant union work, the decline of labor organization and visible struggle over the last at least 40 years.
Jeremy Brecher: I think you’re right in saying the 70s, the early 70s, is really when it begins to turn is a very real phenomenon and not want to be ignored. I don’t think any kind of happy talk saying, “oh, labor’s fine.” And this is all an exaggeration. I don’t think it’s true. I think there was a major decline in the power of organized labor and of working people in general.
I think that a primary cause of it was globalization because that meant that General Motors or US Steel could take a large part of their production and their other operations and move it anywhere around the world that was cheapest. And that was a gun pointed at the head of workers and organized labor, and it essentially created a bargaining situation where they had to. I think that’s it. Worse and worse conditions give up more and more power under the threat that the jobs would simply be closed, their employers would shut down, move away.
And so there were other causes to certainly public policy played a role. But the loss of the ability. The bargaining power that came from being able to shut down a plant, because the bosses could thumb their noses at the unions and say, “sure, go ahead, shut down the plant. We can shut down the plant. We’re going to shut it down and move it to Timbuktu” was essential change in the power relations and so the unions found some techniques and tactics for fighting back against that. But the overall shift in the balance of power was very profound.
Bob Buzzanco: I noticed that the great Staughton Lynd blurbed your book, and Stoughton was a friend of mine. He often talked about, in a very critical way, that unions, especially from the New Deal era on, gave up the right to strike. That was part of the agreement, that kind of more corporatist agreement. Labor has seeded a lot of it is more effective, maybe best, most effective of strategies. And, whether you see that coming back, we’re hearing at least things from, like Sean Fain and, the Amazon and Starbucks workers that sound a lot like that labor militancy, but, without that strike, whether it’s legal or not.
Can labor really continue this path for making improvements?
Jeremy Brecher: The auto industry and auto workers are a great example to explore the questions that you’re raising. And the great industrial union organizing campaigns of the thirties and forties brought large hundreds of thousands of workers, millions, into unions that were, in most cases, new unions and the workers who are coming into them were people who had not grown up with unions been had experiences with unions. If they had bad experiences and nonetheless conditions got more and more unbearable as far as the pace of work, the level of pay, forced overtime, et cetera.
I’m mentioning these things because they’re all very similar to the things that workers are facing today, despite the great difference in our society and the way work is organized. But the fundamental, these fundamental problems have intensified. During the period of loss of power of organized labor these problems have gotten more and more intense and that’s the background to I’m getting a instability in your visuals.
So the workers today are facing many of those same fundamental problems. And I think that’s an important reason that you are seeing in the last couple of years different forms of worker self-organization and action that you have not seen for decades on the scale of it is very hard to evaluate in terms of.
Are we just at the beginning of a great trajectory of more extensive and intensive labor action, or are we seeing a pure just a bigger blip in the long-term decline? I think it’s too early to make a definitive opinion about that, and as Yogi Berra used to say, “a prediction is difficult, especially about the future.” But there’s certainly things that are happening in 2022, 2023 that were very different from things that had been happening in the recent decades.
Scott Parkin: I was listening to a podcast the other day, and it was talking about youth voters are a new swing vote. And it was saying that 88 percent of under 30s are pro-labor union, which is mind boggling. That would have to include Trump voters, Republicans, along those lines and I’m wondering how. You think that trend is contributing to this? We see a lot of youth– Gen Z millennials– which are becoming more and more progressive on labor issues more than, previous generations.
Jeremy Brecher: The change in overall support for unions among the American public has been very dramatic. And the in the poll data, the amount of support for unions, the people who say unions are a good thing or they’re in favor of unions has grown enormously over the last few years, most extreme among young people, as you say. One recent poll found that 88 percent of young people said they would support or did support unions.
My organization, the Labor Network for Sustainability has a young worker project which is reaching out to young workers around the combination of labor and climate issues because young people are also very concerned about climate and much more both worried about it and more willing to act around it than their elders.
That has allowed me to read a bunch of interviews with younger people and young workers. Get some sense of their concerns. They both feel squeezed by the kinds of work pressures I was referring to before, speed up, low pay and very much by insecurity, the fact that when they look forward in their lives, even if they went to college have some kind of skill, as they look forward, see a very dim, not to say grim future.
And I think that makes them very interested both in trying to participate in climate protection and in organizing unions, taking part in unions, unions are not always hospitable to young people. This is a very old problem in the labor movement where often each new generation of workers finds that the established trade union leadership, they’re glad to get their dues, but they’re not really that interested in having them play a join and playing a leading role in the organization.
That’s a long-standing kind of struggle that happens generation after generation. We’ve obviously been seeing that here in the unions where you’re not getting upstairs and where you’re not getting new leadership coming up. But in the and that’s one of the reasons that the Starbucks workers and the Amazon workers have formed their own unions as you say, overwhelmingly composed of young people because they looked at the existing unions and they said is there really a place for us here? If the existing unions, they said, here’s your home, we’re going to make this a place where you can be who you are and fight for the things that you care about. I think that they would have had a lot of interest in joining them and operating under their umbrella.
But what happened is that the young people who were forming a local sort of resistance group in their workplaces. Looking at what they were, what the proposition was and say, you know what, we think we better just do this on our own. so That’s, I think that’s a piece of the generational dynamic here too. We’re, as in the case of the recent UAW, events on the kind of door have been open to younger people to play a leading role.
I think that they very much stepped forward and found a way to operate within the existing trade union structure. Or at least within a changed the very much developing version of the trade union structure. And that’s what in the UAW where the new leadership that was selected in 2023 is very different in its whole approach, much, much more open totally unlike previous years.
UAW and most other union negotiations where the negotiations are hot hush. It’s considered completely illegitimate to tell the membership what’s going on in the negotiations. They had weekly social media events where they debriefed everyone on what was going on and generally a kind of openness like that. It makes for a very different kind of organization and organizational culture.
Scott Parkin: We’ve seen Sean Fain and UAW leadership, and I would say some other unions to be more outspoken on issues that aren’t necessarily labor issues. There’s where we see them vocally critical of the billionaire class, but, Sean Fain came out and called for a ceasefire in Gaza. We see labor much more vocal on climate issues, for example, than they have been in the past. Would you attribute that to some of this younger membership or other factors at play?
Jeremy Brecher: Yeah, it is a significant factor. And the reality is that if our established union leadership wants young people to believe that they’re people, something to support and work with they have to address climate and they’re finding that out.
And the ones who are finding it out are beginning to do it. There’s also a more fundamental point here, which is you can look at a trade union as something that’s designed to represent almost like representing the business interests of a group of small businesses in a trade or trade federation.
Their job is to represent the business interests of their members. And it’s often called business unionism, that mentality and that kind of institutional approach. There’s a very different pole within the labor movement, which is often called social unionism or social movement unionism or other terms like that that see.
Union members as working people who happen to be working in one workplace or one particular industry, but who share interests with other working people around the country, even around the world. And those interests go to common things that are common. For those people to face. So in the case of climate unions have been very reluctant to become involved with climate issues because there are unions who say our members will lose jobs.
If climate protection measures are taken, if we start reducing fossil fuel use, for example our workers in the fossil fuel industries will lose jobs. And that’s been a very powerful force. And concern within organized labor. Also, a legitimate one, but one that needs to be addressed by saying, yeah, they should not bear the burden of the necessary changes that are necessary to protect all working people and all people, if it comes to that, we have to have a just transition that protects them and make sure that they’re made whole in the transition.
In my view, there is not a contradiction between unions representing the interests of their members as people who work in a particular place in a particular industry and at the same time representing their interests. As part of the working-class working people as a whole.
And you can certainly see that in Sean Fain and the new way U.A.W. leadership, which has been very explicit in terms of we’re not here to represent just the interests of people in one factory or company, or even. Just of our members consider, for example, unorganized workers in other plants to be part of our constituency. We have an obligation to represent them, and their interests and we have an obligation to create conditions of welcome that will encourage them to join with us both for their own struggles and for the broader struggles of the workers and working people in general. So, you’re seeing that development there and in a number of other unions.
I would not say that it’s a dominant trend. No union leaders are going to counterattack against Sean Fain this week. But as things go forward, I would keep an eye open for counter pressures where people say there’s a lot of hype here, but really, and then they’ll find some small thing to pick away at I don’t think.
The UAW and Sean Fain are terribly vulnerable to that at this point, but I don’t, I think you’ll find. The response in terms of following the course that they’ve laid out will be uneven. Some unions will do it, some won’t.
Bob Buzzanco: Was it yesterday that Sean O’Brien, the Teamsters, met with Trump. And, you’ve noticed in the past couple years, Republicans like Josh Hawley, and Tom Cotton, who are, utterly disingenuous, any of them will put out these, statements of support for unions and labor. And I think a lot of the reasons they can do that is because the Democratic Party is left the field clear to a large degree.
Obama hasn’t really done anything. Biden calls himself the most pro union president and, forced the railroad workers back to work. How difficult is it to create a more vibrant and aggressive union movement without any kind of support? The ruling class, Wall Street, got plenty of support all over the political spectrum and labor not so much.
How do you do it without having that kind of sturdy support? You go back to FDR and the New Deal or something like that.
Jeremy Brecher: Just, it’s interesting that FDR, although he’s remembered as a great supporter of labor, was a very ambiguous figure in that.
Bob Buzzanco: He said, “curse strikes!” He took what, $6 million for the 1936 election. And then after that, he was, yeah, but no, my point is that that’s all.
Jeremy Brecher: No, but what but the CIO rolled on anyway, that’s. And when there’s that kind of head of steam behind worker organization when workers are in a mindset where they say we’re just going to do this because we believe in it.
We know it’s necessary. It’s crucial to our future. Then then the power of the strike. That we talked about before, and more broadly, the power of workers in society comes into play. And it’s true that having political support is extremely helpful. But the reality is you point out the power of capital is under most normal circumstances entrenched in government and public policy in ways that labor can only make minor inroads into. And I take that as a kind of given condition until millions of people are ready to sit down in their plants, walk out of their offices, go out in the streets until there’s that kind of mass popular power which then public officials have to say, “does this mean I won’t get reelected?” Or “does this mean that my agency or government is gonna get delegitimated by in terms of the people?” Only when you begin getting that pressure at work do you get a real significant willingness of politicians and parties to stand up to the Wall Streets and represent interests of workers.
And when those people don’t have that kind of mass pressure and mobilization, things tend to slide back to. At least partway back to conventional domination of politics by them that have so that I think that’s I’m personally I’m not against experiments with labor parties or various kinds of explorations like that, but don’t think, I think the Democratic Party must be seen more as a pawn of powerful forces than as a powerful force in its own right. And so capturing the Democratic Party or influencing it as a whole is pretty limited as a strategy that does. And but at the same time, I don’t think of a 3rd party strategy per se. Is especially in the American context too promising what we need to have been working people organized in their own interest and all of us organized in our own interest in the sense that climate protection, peace, these are interests of everybody and we need to be organized in fighting for those interests.
And then use that collective power to pressure the politicians to do the right thing. That doesn’t mean that running somebody for office is always a bad idea. Often, it’s a good idea. Looking at the Squad, you can see sometimes it’s a brilliant idea, but as an overall strategy, I think, the power that working people have available is through their own self organization and action.
Bob Buzzanco: I think we’re seeing that with the Amazon and Starbucks workers. I’m in Texas and I’m in the Texas State Employees Union, which is affiliated with the CWA. And, they’re always saying “will you add an extra five bucks a month,” which I won’t do because I’m not giving money to the Texas Democratic Party. Let’s talk about throwing it away.
And there’s this heavy reliance and I’ve seen this, and I’ve talked to other people in other states, on the Democratic Party. For historical reasons, but I think that if they continue to rely on that, remember Obama had promised, what was it, the checkoff system or something like that, and then we’ve seen these horrible court cases, like the AFSCME Janus case. I don’t know. I guess part of me would like to say, let’s just say screw you to the Democratic Party and go out and do this in an autonomous way. I don’t know if that’s possible or not, but I think it’s clearly a problem when not just labor isn’t really willing to do what it promises it’ll do to get votes, but when the unions themselves are so connected and glued in many ways to the Democratic Party.
They’re always hitting me up to give money to the Texas Democrats. “Do this, do that.” And it’s not, I don’t really see it going anywhere. Obviously in Texas it’s not really accomplishing anything.
Last year, everybody was saying “why can’t American workers be like the French workers who are out in the streets.” That’s never really been the way American labor has been structured. You had that period of class war, right? From the end of the Civil War to the Little Steel Strikes. But, overall, it’s been a timid movement and there are long historical reasons here that I rack my brain thinking about all the time.
Scott Parkin: I am going to shift to some questions around labor and climate a little bit more. How has the politics of workers and climate change in recent years?
Jeremy Brecher: So, my first answer is not enough has changed, but it has changed. I think the biggest change of all is something that we’ve just seen, which was the UAW in the context of the new leadership and the Big Three strike against the big three took on the idea of just transition to a climate safe. economy as a central part, not only of its advocacy for what the government should do, but it’s It demands for what the industry should do.
Jeremy Brecher: And at the core of the UAW strike against the big 3 was the issue of electrification of car of the auto industry. Where are we going to go over to electric cars? And if we did, was that going to be used to augment with someone times called the race to the bottom each. Manufacturers of cars and of batteries would find a way where go where the wages were lowest and where the labor law was weakest with the right to organize was weakest and they make their plans.
It’s there and they produce their cars and their batteries there. And they would use. The whole electrification of the industry to drive down conditions for workers and basically render unions powerless and that was actually going on. We are well into that process. The major car companies have primarily built their plants in the Southern in states that have right to work laws and they’ve been the new battery plants are being done as joint ventures with foreign corporations which claim that they can’t have kind of claim that they can’t have the same contracts as American workers in American unions.
And all that was used as a smokescreen to drive down conditions for the workers in those plants and then used that as leverage to demand that the workers in the Midwest and elsewhere outside of the South had to meet those lower wages. More dangerous conditions and the UAW took that head on and said, we are completely unwilling to accept this.
And instead, you have to raise the conditions of the plants that are, making the electric vehicles and making the batteries to those of rest of the industry and the union conditions that exist in our best plants, and they made that essential demand to the strike the and partially for that reason more than 100 environmental organizations, including all the major ones backed the strike.
Which is especially important especially impressive because the propaganda of the companies was, oh, you’re going to make costs of the electric vehicles be prohibitive and no one’s going to buy them. And you’re going to defeat the effort to protect the climate by switching to electric vehicles.
And they took that head on and said no, if you make a process of transition to climate safe production, be actually a vehicle for severe harm to workers, you are going to undermine the drive for climate protection. And you were going to make enemies of the people who should be your friends.
And instead of that, we need to raise the floor for everyone, especially for those who are being exploited in the production of electric vehicles and batteries and instead. Raise the standards for them. And this was part of why the environmental movement overwhelmingly supported the UAW strike.
And of course, the minute the strike was over, they said, “okay, Tesla, you’re next. You’re coming right in our sights.” And again, the propaganda is that if you organize Tesla and start paying the workers more than the pittance, you’re going to make electric vehicles too expensive, and no one will buy them, and we’ll be stuck with climate change is a bunch of hogwash. Of course, the alliance of the environmental groups and the UAW has been the perfect way to show that it’s hogwash and to show the common interest that both organized groups have.
And of course, we all must make a living and we all have to live in this rapidly deteriorating climate. In fact, we’re all both workers and we’re both victims of climate change and we’re fighting for our own interests on both of those fronts. And what this UAW strike did was to bring them together and around the idea of a just transition that would make sure that workers benefited in the transition to a climate safe economy, rather than being desperately harmed by it.
That to me is the biggest step forward we’ve taken in my conversation. Maybe 15 years of working in this area.
Scott Parkin: Yeah, and what we’ve seen in the not-too-distant past, through the 2010s and in the 2020s, we’ve seen a lot of pipeline battles. We saw campaigns against Keystone XL and Line 3 and the Dakota Access Pipeline and labor was always reluctant because the building trades were saying that you’re going to cost our workers jobs because they’re the ones building these pipelines.
I’ve seen that history play out in front of my own eyes, right? As a climate organizer for the last 20 years. And I’m just wondering, are we seeing the sort of influence of the building trades begin to wane at this point? As we saw with what you just pointed out about the UAW strike.
Jeremy Brecher: It’s going to be a struggle. I view this as sort of the first big push. Of course, some of us have been pushing for a decade or more people in a lot of unions have, but as you say the opposition of what we call the fossil fuel unions, which is largely holding trades. Some of the utility workers have nominated the approach of organized labor, specifically the AFL CIO.
There have been pushbacks, there have been exceptions, there have been some beachheads made before. But I think as the overall concern about climate change gets greater and greater as we face catastrophe after catastrophe. Then eventually organized labor is going to have to change and we’re seeing pieces of that happening in many unions on a partial scale. The big stumbling block that we find is everyone’s in favor of green jobs. Everyone’s in favor of spending money creating Windmills and solar collectors and other forms of green energy except it is but the stumbling block is we must do that.
And we also must stop putting the crap into the air and have we don’t have to do it instantly, but we must have managed decline of fossil fuel burning. And if we don’t do that, then the sign on global warming that we already are experiencing with devastating effect, which just loves to have compared to what’s in the pipeline.
For the future, and if we don’t stop putting this stuff into the atmosphere, that is no number of green jobs and inflation and windmills is going to solve the problem. You must cut. Then if I use burning of fossil fuels and extraction of fossil fuels and replace it with renewable energy, you can’t just add them together.
And that’s the stumbling block. Very few unions have been willing to say. Yeah, you know what we must make sure that workers don’t aren’t the ones to get hurt by it, but we must cut fossil fuel burning and fossil fuel extraction. And that’s, I think, will be the place where the. Where the real battle comes because some unions have got to step forward and say that’s necessary.
Now, the other piece here is realistically, from the point of view of the building trades, the number of jobs that are open to the building trades by green energy and other forms of climate protection, I Are colossal compared to the tiny number of jobs that are being defended in fossil fuels and they’re less and less.
The number of workers in renewable energy is now growing multiple times faster than the number in fossil fuel energy. So, it’s really a question of holding on to the past in a way that’s It’s bound to be a failure over even the medium run but for all kinds of institutional reasons, it’s very hard for them to make a leap to something else.
The number of jobs for electricians that’s being opened up is huge completely disproportionate to the number of electricians who are working in fossil fuel power plants. And yet it’s great division between different sectors of electrical workers union about their approach to climate protection and fossil fuels.
And that’s just 1 example of how the retrograde side here gets perpetuated. I think because of the reality of the climate crisis, it’s like a foreign army is invading the country and the people were saying, oh, don’t worry about that. They’re just becoming more and more marginalized and more and more even a substantial number of Republicans say, oh, yeah, climate change is real, then they’ll blame it on God knows what all kinds of absurd things that have nothing to do with it.
I think that is going to it’s the stability or that there’s been of those kinds of positions within labor are going to be severely undermined. And then what comes next?
Scott Parkin: Why is the leadership of the building trade still so attached to these fossil fuel jobs? If there’s this burgeoning field where their members could get jobs and in green jobs and renewable energy?
Jeremy Brecher: I’m going to start with the thing that’ll get me into the most trouble, which is they receive significant funding directly from the American Petroleum Institute annual. Their big gala events are funded by the American Petroleum Institute, which is the trade organization of oil industry.
I don’t believe that’s a principal cause, but it shows you have deeply. In that the fossil fuel interests they are the in some cases, it is just a kind of macho belief in, we’re like, we’re the big, we’re the big guys. We’re the men who go out and do this tough work and we get paid.
Three or four times as much as the average worker and by God, we earn it and we’re going to fight to keep it. It is a mentality like that’s a part of it and I’m sure there are other factors as well. As a matter of fact, I wish somebody would go and do a serious study of this question because I haven’t seen it in all the time I’ve been working on it.
Somebody could really go into that and find out some of it has to do with internal political balances. I know that the machinist’s union has strong support for climate. They passed a strong climate resolution, but it has a minority sector of railroad workers who are primarily people who haul coal. They for very understandable reasons are very worried that if we shut down all the coal mines, their jobs are going to go away.
They are not very fortunate to their numbers within the union in terms of the representation on the executive board and stuff like that. So, the overall policy of the union, which would have a lot to gain from climate protection policies and other areas. But the power balance internally puts them in a position to call the shots. At least until a new leadership makes a different configuration of powers. Those are some of the things. I don’t think there’s any one simple explanation, but change is hard and or in organized labor. There’s always been a lot of resistance to change at the top.
That’s why the CIO had split off from the AFL and had to start a new organization to organize the unorganized industrial workers. So it’s hopefully we can do it without that kind of process, but it will be a struggle and a conflict. And in fact, it already is.
Bob Buzzanco: Do you see labor’s getting involved in other issues? I know of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Labor was deeply involved in that. There are reproductive rights, and I’m not sure the exact number, but a significant percentage of union members now are female. So, do you think that there will be a kind of expansion? Into these other areas and, as organizing tools as well.
Jeremy Brecher: I think it’s ongoing. And we see it with climate, the big most recent example is immigrant rights. Some unions were part of where employers were turning immigrant workers into Immigration. Some unions began taking a very different approach and began supporting immigrant rights marches and protective legislation.
And then some top union leaders went around to others and said, “You know what, our members, these are our members, these people you’re saying that the employers should get them, be prosecuted if they don’t fire them. These are our members. You have got to quit. We must completely change our approach to it.”
And they did. And they became a bulwark of immigrant rights and even today remain, they really have not been backsliding in that area that much because it is their members and it’s also the people that they must organize. That would be an example where there was a lot of Trumpism that they had to go up against. On reproductive rights for women, most unions have good positions on paper. But they have been gun shy about getting involved in this current round. Of the abortion rights struggle that also could shift partially because it’s such an important political issue for the candidates.
It’s the best card of the candidates that they would want to support and that they hope will support them. And that, plus the crucial point that you make out that women are no longer a tiny part of the labor movement. They’re a very large part. Those things put together at least create a potential for making unions be more active and outspoken on reproductive rights and other areas.
It’s likely to happen, but it’s likely to be very uneven. There are already unions that take extremely strong stances on a wide range of social issues. There was an opposition to the Iraq war that developed in organized labor that was completely out of line with his traditional support for Vietnam and the whole string of wars that it supported. Sean Fain came out calling for a ceasefire in all to the Israeli bombing in Gaza is it comes in the context of a very long and deep involvement of American labor with Israel. So, the fact that there’s that much of the beginning of a break doesn’t indicate that it’s all going to go that way. But when you start seeing little areas where if you have a solid rock, and then you start seeing little pieces of it beginning to flake off, it’s a hint that there’s something going on.
Again, I think it depends in part on how deep broader disaffection with American and Israeli policy goes. It’s certainly much deeper than it has been in the past and that’s bound to have some effect. I think another factor there is that many people of color identify the Palestinians as people of color who are being abused by essentially white colonialists.
As a Jew it pains me to have to say that there’s a lot of truth in this argument. and that means that in the unions as strong African American or other people of color presence. They are very far from the lack step support for Israel that has been traditional for American labor where that leads if you could tell me the outcome of the Gaza war, I’ll tell you the outcome of that struggle.
Bob Buzzanco: I just earlier today, I got an email from a Mike Elk who runs Payday Report who said he’s having people he’s had a few people cancel their donations because he’s been reporting on Gaza. And I know this is particularly difficult topic in the United States, we saw stuff like this during the obviously the Vietnam era.
I remember the eighties in Central America where there were labor councils organized to oppose U. S. intervention in that. So that’s what I did my M.A. on– labor in the early Cold War. So, this is something always fascinated me. I think labor’s role in foreign policy from the old AFL-CIO days and things like that to the present is really important. When Fain talks about, like, when I heard him talking about Gaza and Palestine, he also made the point that the United States is spending, billions, hundreds of billions of dollars abroad. And that’s not being spent here on the kind of things workers need.
I live near East Palestine, Ohio. It’s still a dump. It’s still toxic. And that’s been over 6 months now, way over 6 months now. I think that’s something that I always look to and I know how difficult it is because. You’re disloyal. You’re not a good American. You hate America, all this kind of stuff. If you criticize foreign policy, but it seems Fain, obviously not a dumb guy. And I don’t think he would do that if he thought it was reckless. I think he said, understands there’s a crowd out there. There are people with their ears open to that.
Scott Parkin: My last question is about just transition. It’s a term that goes back to at least Tony Mazzocchi in the 1970s about how to transition from industrial jobs, which are destructive and harmful for the environment, to something more renewable and protective. And it’s been applied to climate. How would you say that just transition is being viewed now amongst the labor within the labor movement, particularly with the leadership?
Jeremy Brecher: There’s a significant change, many unions especially what we refer to as the fossil fuel union unions, the like the miners’ union and the construction unions, a few others were dead set opposed to even talking about just transition, except to abuse it.
Richard Trumka, who was a president of the miners and then became president of the AFL CIO, said “a Just Transition is just another name for a fancy funeral.” And that was a very widespread attitude way beyond the fossil fuel unions themselves. To some unions it was not a universal view.
There were some unions that spoke positively of a just transition but not very many. That has changed very much at a rhetorical level, so that the term just transition is now actually used by all kinds of top union leaders and that represents a very big change. Change out the talking the talk level, the question of what it will mean at the walking the walk level.
I think is. That’s a present and open question. The UAW, not only speaking in favor of just transition, but specifically campaigning and striking for a program of just transition, I think, represents a huge breakthrough. And we’re going to have to see what the effect of that is throughout the rest of the labor movement.
I’ve been advocating that other unions take it as an example. And say, okay, that’s what a just transition means in the auto industry. What does it mean in our industry? If you looked at what a just transition would mean for the construction industry the opportunity for it to be both tremendously beneficial to workers and tremendously beneficial, actually, to the unions themselves, just in terms of membership and cloud.
It would be a very powerful thing to lay out what a just transition for the construction industry would mean. In the same way that the UAW has done it for the auto industry in Canada, there was a study exactly along those lines that showed that in Canada, which is, of course, a lot smaller population than here, millions and millions of jobs would be created for construction workers alone.
Through that transition from a fossil fuel economy to a climate safe, renewable economy. There is now an organization of teachers called the Educators Climate Action Network, and they are developing plans for what a green transition for education would be like both in terms of the content of education and in terms of what a schools look like. What are training programs can be done.
In practically every in every industry and that would be a way to move into a very different kind of labor politics around climate. And you can certainly see the beginnings of it. And the UAW has opened the door to hey, why don’t we all go, why don’t we all go through that door?
Scott Parkin: As a longtime climate organizer, it is exciting to see some of the shifts that we’ve just recently began to see, both with the upsurge in labor organizing and action, and then also the increasing connections between labor and climate defenders.
Bob Buzzanco: Thanks for coming on to, I read your book some years ago. When I was in graduate school, and I’ve been familiar with it and I’ve always admired what you’ve done and to keep at it all these years.
Jeremy Brecher: Thanks very much. It’s great to talk with you and great to be able to have at least a one-way conversation with your audience.