On September 20, millions of students and community members participated in a global climate strike. Climate justice activists gathered in streets in incredible numbers across the world, many students striking from school, to challenge local and national governments to actively address climate breakdown. A major supporter of the student climate strike, working closely with the student-led Sunrise Movement, is the Service Employees International Union.
SEIU recently passed a union resolution that acknowledges climate-breakdown and directly supports the Green New Deal. As SEIU sees it, a changing climate, and climate breakdown, affects workers everywhere.
A just transition means specifically addressing that disinvested communities at the margins (majority low-income/poor, and communities of color) are on the frontline of climate disasters, and have the highest exposure to pollutants and extreme environmental conditions through work and housing location. A just transition recognizes that marginal communities are most affected by climate-breakdown and should be at the center of all policies to address jobs and the changing environment going forward.
Editor Filiberto Nolasco Gomez takes us to the SEIU Healthcare board meeting in Minneapolis as international members discuss how climate change is affecting union workers in their local chapters. He talked with Luisa Blue, Executive Vice President of SEIU, and Chair of SEIU’s Environmental Justice Committee, as well as with John Barton, Director of SEIU’s Climate and Environmental Justice Program.
Here are some examples of how workers are affected by
- Farm workers are unable to rely on health land for healthy crops as the environment yo-yos between severe drought and flooding.
- Changing temperatures cause certain insect populations to increase and some to decrease, upsetting an equilibrium that agriculture sectors attemps to offset through the use of pesticides and fungicides. Farm and field workers are exposed to more chemicals as the, and therefore experience an increase in health complications resulting from chemical exposure (i.e. kidney failure, lung complications, cancer).
- Pollutants from superfood sites, sites of de-industrialization like old pulp mills and refineries, and closed mines are leaking into waterways, neighborhoods, and places of work. This increases with severe weather events such as hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes.
- Massive fires decimate communities, and increase the workload of healthcare providers.
- Drought leads to loose soil that is swept up in the wind and inhaled into lungs causing an increase in Valley Fever in the Central Valley. Valley Fever affects both fieldworkers and healthcare workers.
Barton: We approach [climate and environmental justice initiative] as something that really is important to the lives of our members and their families. We have large numbers of members who live in low income communities around the country who are experiencing high levels of respiratory illness, have been exposed to toxic water, have been exposed to lead, have been exposed to all types of issues, so the issue of environmental justice is important to many of our members. As you know from LA, the 10 most polluted zip codes, many of which are in the LA area, are 70% Latinx, and our union has a high number of Latinx workers, especially in California. So there’s that, and there’s the climate crisis…we had 60,000 impacted members in Texas and Florida [from hurricanes], many of whom lost everything. The Camp fire in Northern California, dozens of our members lost their homes or almost lost their homes, lost loved ones. So, that’s obviously an issue that’s come up more and more from our members. On the flip side of the coin, we’re also the public employees, we may not be the first responders, but we’re the second responders, who go into the Camp fire, we’re the social workers where people are looking for housing and animal control. We’re all of that. So, you know, in LA, with asthma and all those issues, our public health nurses and others…so we’re really kind of on the frontlines, and so it’s a big issue for our people. So we’ve gotten more and more involved in the climate and environmental justice movement in our country.
Blue: Because we represent a lot of immigrant workers, and the climate has affected their home countries some of our members send money back home, so with this last hurricane where Puerto Rico was hit bad again and Haiti was hit bad again we had members who were concerned about their family and trying to do what they can on a family level to help out. My first foray into the climate stuff was actually the big typhoon in the Philippines. One of our environmental justice committee leaders, Maria
Low-income/poor families, including many SEIU workers, have a harder time financially (and physically and emotionally) recovering from climate-disasters. This cycle will only increase as our climate continues to breakdown and severe weather events increase.
How SEIU is focusing on climate and environmental justice
The SEIU Environmental and Climate Justice Committee includes members from 18 locals, whose work is to specifically focus on how chapters can support workers and employers in moving towards sustainable, low-impact workplaces.
SEIU’s efforts to support climate justice includes coalition building and public education.
Barton: We’ve gotten more and more involved in the climate and environmental justice movement in our country. As Luisa said we’ve endorsed the Green New Deal. We see the Green New Deal as not just a piece of legislation but an urgent call to action and mobilization. We like how it unites both climate justice, racial justice, and very clearly economic justice issues with a strong focus on the growth of unions and the need to rebuild the labor movement in the country while at the same time protecting those workers who’ll be impacted by any transition. So our work right now is – how do we bring the Green New Deal to life, how do we put it in the streets – in Detroit we united with the Sunrise Movement…now we’re working closely with the Future Coalition and the November Student Strikes. We met yesterday with students here about how we can support those efforts. We think those efforts are important, and how we can educate this youth on the importance of unions and the role that we play while at the same time lift up these demands around climate justice.
Nolasco-Gomez: What sorts of legislation [have you been successful in passing in California and Colorado]?
Blue: Carbon tax, with the goal of 100% renewable. the Green Janitor program where we’re expanding it outside of California. John has also done a lot of work in
Barton: We’re giving a presentation to the board of the local [in Minneapolis], an educational around climate change, and what position the union has taken, why, what is the Green New Deal, how we’re actually now moving into action around September 20th, all that. We need to make sure that any legislation that happens in this state around moving toward clean energy that there are assurances and — for workers to be able to organize unions and receive sustaining wages and benefits. Because if you build it on non-union and low-wage, it’s gonna be the exact same story you hear, which is “oh we’re just going from a unionized good-paying industry to a non-union”
More about SEIU
SEIU is made up of at least 2 million:
- Healthcare workers (doctors, nurses, home care and nursing home workers, lab techs, environmental service workers, dietary aides)
- Property services workers (janitors, security officers, maintenance and custodial workers, stadium and arena workers, window cleaners,
- Public service workers (local and state government workers, public school employees, bus drivers, child care providers)
SEIU is an international union, with 150 chapters to reflect both international goals and local needs of union members. SEIU local chapters have their own officers, governing bodies, constitutions and bylaws. Additionally, 15 state local councils represent all SEIU local chapters and guide state programs and campaigns (such as local campaigns supporting the Green New Deal).