Just 11 days after Pope Francis released his encyclical on the environment, New York will host a major gathering of 40 unions from 14 countries. With resistance to ‘extreme extraction,’ austerity and inequality all rising, unions see opportunities to begin to build a united global movement for fundamental change.  The Pope’s radical critique of the existing system is sure to resonate with the 100-person gathering.

TU climate summit

More than 40 unions from 14 countries will participate in a one-day Trade Union Climate Summit in New York City on June 29th, 2015.  Hosted by 32BJ SEIU, approximately 25 unions from the US will be present, representing workers in energy, nursing and health care, public transport, food and retail, building services, as well as new organizing efforts among precarious workers in the New York City area. Roughly 30 allied organizations will also participate, including the Climate Justice Alliance, 350.org, and the Emerald Cities Collaborative.

Why a summit?

The summit is being organized nine months after the massive People’s Climate March on September 21, 2014, and just 5 months before the ‘last chance’ UN climate negotiations (COP 21) in Paris in early December 2015. Unions and close allies will come together in New York determined to find ways to help better connect the rising climate movement with the growing global struggle against austerity and inequality.  Unions have been playing an important role in both movements, but in most instances fighting for climate protection (read: people protection) and building opposition to austerity, low pay and precarious work remain separate struggles. But the potential for building a new and tranformational ‘climate and class movement’ appears to be growing.

This potential seems particularly visible in Southern Europe where the left has won impressive electoral victories in recent months. Importantly, this is a left for which atmospheric and ecological degradation is not an afterthought, but a central question that reveals a basic truth: we live in a political economy that takes but does not give back. Both nature and labor are inseparable, and both are treated as a ‘resource’ from which value is extracted as needed and then dumped.

The June 29 summit in New York will hear from unions from Greece (Thessaloniki water workers) and Spain (Comisiones Obreras) as well as from Italy (CGIL) where the traditional political parties are also losing support. With an eye on the Paris climate talks, the summit will hear from two representatives from the main French trade union federation (CGT) regarding the preparations for the events around COP21.  The UN climate meetings have been the scene of large mobilizations in recent years, particularly Copenhagen in late 2009 and Durban in late 2011.

The Paris moment and the crisis of the EU

The UN climate talks in Paris are expected to produce an inadequate climate agreement that will be grounded in voluntary pledges to reduce emissions rather than one built around binding commitments.  Thus far the emissions reductions being discussed fall far short of what the scientific community says is required.

The negotiations are expected to follow the usual pattern, with a lot of speeches and expressions of concern, but with few positive outcomes. Organized by the International Trade Union Confederation,unions from numerous countries will be working hard to get some mention of workers’ needs for just transition and decent work (per the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda) into the final text of the Paris agreement.

Many unions see the UN meeting in Paris as a major opportunity to organize on the ‘outside’ of the talks.  This is expected to involve French unions from several political traditions mingling with anti-austerity groups, climate NGOs, and other grassroots organizations  A major demonstration has been called on November 29th, the goal of which is to show world leaders that the world wants action on climate change and it wants it now. Other activities are also being organized.

It is conceivable, some say likely, that the UN climate talks will take place with Greece having already left the EU. The general election in Spain is scheduled to take place before December 20th, and opinion polls and recent results suggest that the radical left will make historic gains. Therefore both situations will effect the atmosphere in Paris and perhaps set the stage for unions to help further facilitate a coming together of the climate and anti-austerity movements around a set of bold demands and transition proposals.

Carbon Battlegrounds: US and Canada

One of the goals of the June 29 summit is to help further develop a progressive U.S. trade union climate protection agenda that is independent, science-based, economically transformative, and capable of moving union members into action. US labor has a poor reputation on climate change that initially stemmed from strong union opposition to the now expired Kyoto Treaty in the late 1990s. Many unions have been reluctant to embrace science-based emissions reduction targets based on the belief that adhering to these targets will make US manufacturing less competitive. But efforts are being by U.S. unions to build closer ties on energy and climate questions with major unions in Canada, such as CUPE, UNIFOR, the Canadian Labour Congress, and the two Québécois trade union bodies CSN and FTQ.  Several US unions – particularly nurses (National Nurses United, NY State Nurses Association) and public transport unions – have actively supported climate justice struggles and anti-fracking fights.

The need for solidarity thoughout the Americas is particularly urgent given the proliferation of battles around fracking (Argentina, Canada and the U.S), the Alberta tar sands, fossil fuel infrastructure projects like coal export terminals and proposed pipelines like the Keystone XL and Energy East, both of which would, if fully constructed, transport diluted bitumen from the tar sands to, respectively, refineries in Texas and Eastern Canada.  The prospect of “Saudi America” has opened up divisions within organized labor in the US, and to some extent in Canada also. In both countries some leaders have generally allied themselves with the agenda of oil, coal and gas companies. At its recent legislative conference, the North American Building Trades restated its strong support for fracking (with regulations) and the Keystone pipeline.  See: Energy-Policy, Building Trades (PDF).

Proposed route for the 4,600 Kilometer Energy East pipeline

Proposed route for the 4,600 Kilometer Energy East pipeline

However, the June 29 summit will provide an opportunity to reflect on the tenacious resistance to ‘extreme extraction’ across the region, and weigh up the contribution being made by unions. From the Americas unions and labor federations from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and Peru (FENTAP) will report on these struggles, some of which have led to violent confrontations

Unions from Australia, India, Korea, Norway, the Philippines, and the UK will also be represented at the June 29 summit. Two Global Union Federations – Public Services International and and the International Transport Workers Federation, will complete the 23-person international contingent.

About the organizers:

The summit has been organized by the recently launched International Program for Labor, Climate & Environment at the Murphy Center, a center of trade union education and activism that’s affiliated to the City University of New York. Other partners include Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung–NY Office, and 32BJ SEIU, the voice of 145,000 property service workers.

The June 29 summit will be organized around six consecutive discussions.  The full program is available here.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Sean Sweeney

Sean Sweeney is the coordinator of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) and directs the International Program for Labor, Climate & Environment at the Murphy Institute, City University of New York.

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