Texas, unions, and a Green New Deal are three ideas that on the surface seem incompatible. But dig deeper, and it’s clear that’s not the case.
In fact, a House race in Texas could well be the template that shows how to meld progressive climate politics and union organizing. Teacher and union organizer Mike Siegel is trying to unseat Republican Rep. Mike McCaul, one of the richest members of Congress. The district is rated as “lean Republican” by the Cook Political Report, so it’s not a shoo-in for Siegel to win by any means. But it’s a tantalizing glimpse of how the new climate movement is shifting the narrative away from the false premise of jobs vs. the climate to one of shared prosperity and building a new world together.
The Sunrise Movement released an ad this week for Siegel, whom it has endorsed. Like its previous viral ad for Sen. Ed Markey, the senate sponsor of the Green New Deal who became the first person to beat a Kennedy in a statewide Massachusetts race, it looks and feels light-years away from previous climate-themed electoral ads. Contextless smokestacks and people in the middle distance enjoying nature peppered with politician’s platitudes are out; workers, justice, and getting shit done are in.
The Markey ad included the senator explaining how he gets the aforementioned shit done and featured several young adults, including a fisherman in a Green New Deal T-shirt who captured progressive hearts despite never uttering a word. The new Sunrise ad for Siegel is narrated not by the candidate but by Ryan Pollock, an IBEW Local 520 electrician and got the Texas AFL-CIO to endorse a version of a Green New Deal he introduced last year. The message isn’t about clean air and water; it’s about the need for a just transition for workers in fossil fuel-affected industries and ensuring unions set their own terms.
“This election is about sending one of our own, to bring our vision of a Green New Deal to Congress,” Pollock says as the ad reaches a crescendo. “And to bring good union jobs so we can build a more stable future for ourselves and our loved ones. We are here at the exact right moment to build our America.”
Earther caught up with Pollock to talk about the ad, why having a union member go to Congress is so crucial at this moment, and what work the climate movement still has to do to build a new coalition that brings trade workers from all backgrounds to the table. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Brian Kahn, Earther: Why did you decide to appear in the Sunrise ad for from Mike Siegel?
Ryan Pollock: He’d potentially be one of the most pro-labor members in the House if he wins. IBEW 520 and Austin Central Labor Council have been big early backers of his. He has fostered a relationship with IBEW 520. We know him. He shows up all the time, and he doesn’t dictate to us what the terms are going to be and what he’s going to be fighting for. He asks us so that’s important to us. The Green New Deal—which he is probably going to be one the most vocal proponents for—is also going to create massive amounts of jobs for us. This would be incredibly beneficial for us as well as the rest of the central Texas building trades. It’s not just jobs but an emphasis on trade unionism. And we’re in desperate need of that right now.
Earther: What has the climate movement misunderstood about the labor movement? Why have they failed to bridge that gap, and is there a missing ingredient?
Pollock: The missing ingredient has been a just transition. When fossil fuel plants like a coal-fired power plant close down, they’ve neglected to consider what these workers are going to do now to make a living. That’s been the approach of environmental groups for decades. Capital has used that against these environmental groups to drive a wedge between workers and decarbonization. And so we’re both starting to recognize now that labor isn’t going to be successful in transitioning into this new industry without environmental groups, and environmental groups aren’t going to be successful in achieving decarbonization without labor.
Earther: What has changed in the past couple years?
Pollock: I think basically this movement that’s been building over the last two years. I mean, I’m not sure how else to describe it other than a more socialist-minded movement, which has ties to both labor and environmentalism and all-around justice. People are recognizing how omnipresent injustices are in our lives. It’s everywhere we look, including our workplaces, including the neighborhoods that we live in, who’s exposed to toxic chemicals and who isn’t. People are recognizing that all these things are linked together. We can’t just achieve health care justice without also working on all these other things. And we can’t get environmental justice unless we also are addressing criminal justice. Now we’re seeing these things as one cohesive thing that we have to do after all at once.
Earther: In terms of organizing on the ground, what are the next things that need to happen to keep pushing this forward?
Pollock: Educating the membership of organizations, especially in labor. Something like 90% of oil and gas workers haven’t even heard of a just transition. And it’s becoming very clear that most workers don’t know what the Green New Deal is. Reactionary news outlets are doing a really good job of spreading misinformation and other news outlets are doing a really terrible job of correcting that and actually spelling out what the Green New Deal is all about. They’re focusing more on like a horse race approach to getting these ideas passed. They’re not breaking down why we need this and what it does and what it really means. There’s a big gap there that really needs to change.
Earther: Why are you personally down with the Green New Deal? What drew you to it and made you want to get behind it?
Pollock: Environmentalism wasn’t really my big thing. I understand what we’re facing, both environmentally and as a trade unionist. Both are in grave danger and have been for a long time. This is a plan that that addresses those dangers very clearly and very aggressively.
When Markey and AOC released the original resolution for the Green New Deal, within a couple of weeks, the national AFL-CIO Energy Committee released a memo basically just slamming it and saying, ‘No, we’re not down for this.’ And I wondered why, because this was such an obviously good thing for us, especially the IBEW. While we do represent some oil and gas workers at the fraction of what we have, and this would be us dictating the terms of how we transition out of that that industry and make sure that our brothers and sisters who are working in that industry are protected. And not just protected, but are able to thrive. So to me, to just outright say we’re not down with it was just totally baffling to me. So I started looking into it and doing research, talking to people. And now it’s just kind of like I’ve become the IBEW Green New Deal guy.
Earther: How do you reach workers in affected industries who might be skeptical about leaving fossil fuels behind and getting a seat at the table for the new economy we need to build? As you mention in the video, if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu, which we’ve seen happen with the coal industry where these companies just went bankrupt and stiffed workers and stiffed the Black Lung Fund.
Pollock: Whether we make the fossil fuel industry end on our own terms or we let the market dictate the terms, it ends. People know that no matter what we do, it’s it’s going to end and it’s already happening.
If we look at the green economy as a whole new industry, whereas with the fossil fuel industry, it was already established before we started organizing it and we’re coming up from behind. If we get in on the ground floor of the green industry, then we can establish it under our own terms and and organize that from the bottom up. Right now, green jobs aren’t organized, so they’re not the best jobs out there. These oil and gas workers look at that now, like I don’t want to be one of those guys. If we get on it now and invest hard and go after unionizing, then we can create an entire industry in our own image.
Update, 10/16/20, 11:48 a.m.: This post has been updated to reflect that Pollock does not live in Siegel’s district.