Environmental Organizers Aren't Just Fighting the Climate Crisis, They're Fighting to Unionize

Photo: Getty

Behind every climate strike, airport sit-in, or pipeline shutdown is a group of hard-working individuals who’ve made it their life’s mission to save the world. Some organizers are employed full-time by major environmental organizations; others may be contractors. Either way, they can attest that the work is never easy—and their employers don’t always give them the compensation they rightly deserve.

In fact, as the climate crisis reaches heightened levels of urgency, many workers are trying to organize healthier workplaces to prevent the seemingly inevitable burn out that often accompanies the daily grind to solve climate change. Climate workers are turning to labor unions.

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In July, workers at the League of Conservation Voters filed for union recognition. Fast forward to October and employees at Food and Water Watch also publicized their attempts to unionize the workplace. Just a few days later, U.S. workers with 350 announced their intent to unionize. Those groups are taking a page from the Sierra Club, where employees formed the first environmental work union back in 1992.

“It’s just incredibly important [that] as urgent as the climate crisis is, we can’t burn out the people who are making the movement possible and these major incredible mobilizations possible. We can’t leave them behind while we grow the movement,” John Qua, a senior electoral organizer with 350 Action who’s organizing around the union, told Earther. “We need good organizers more than ever right now, and we need them to keep doing what they’re doing, and that starts by protecting their jobs and protecting their sanity and work-life balance.”

For many climate organizers, a union could provide some basic protections: overtime pay, job security, and protections for temporary workers among other things. A union could also help foster the type of work environment that’s more welcoming to people of color and other marginalized folks who don’t come from privileged backgrounds.

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That’s particularly important for the environmental movement, which is notoriously white. Leaders have been trying to fix this, but they won’t attract more diversity if workers aren’t guaranteed a living wage or that their labor won’t be exploited. Research has found that in California, at least, unions increase the likelihood that women, people of color, and immigrants have health insurance, a retirement plan, and higher wages.

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Sixteen women of color who are part of the union at the Sierra Club—which is represented by the Progressive Workers Union that covers more than 350 staff based across the U.S. and in Puerto Rico—wrote a letter to management during their latest contract negotiations in 2017 and 2018 where they outlined their experiences and hardships in the organization, such as toxic workplace behaviors and lack of raises and promotions.

“Once we put that letter forward, the next day we saw movement on all of our proposals,” Progressive Workers Union President Neha Mathew-Shah, who is also on staff at the Sierra Club, told Earther. “To me, the union is so critical in amplifying, elevating, and centering the voices of women of color.”

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Those efforts are at the core of American unions, which began not only as efforts to secure basic safe working conditions and protections such as the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, but also to gain fair pay and gender equality. Now, unions have are pushing for more. They’re one of the best avenues to ensuring workers in the U.S. aren’t left behind by rising income inequality that creates haves and have-nots. That rise is fueled in part by a federal minimum wage that has stayed stagnant for more than a decade while living costs have risen. The increasing interest in unions also addresses a cultural shift in what employees expect from their workplace (i.e., retirement plans and paid vacations), especially those at mission-driven organizations.

“The fact is,” Mathew-Shah said, “that workers, especially young workers, are like, ‘We’ve had enough.’”

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Members of the Progressive Workers Union at the Sierra Club’s D.C. office.
Photo: Courtesy of Progressive Workers Union

Employees in what John Beck, an associate professor at the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University, calls “movement jobs” want more than the stereotypical white, male-dominated office. They want diversity and equity. They want a work culture that gives them their nights and weekends instead of one that celebrates long hours and personal sacrifice. And now’s their moment.

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“You don’t organize to simply accept the status quo as it is unless you’re trying to make sure the status quo doesn’t go away and get worse,” Beck told Earther. “You accept unionization as a mission because of the fact you want to make the workplace better. The point is if you believe that the world should be better for others, that doesn’t mean you have to exempt yourself.”

For many environmental organizations, making the world a better place is the whole point of their existence. Groups such as 350 have thrown their support behind efforts to unionize Tesla workers. And nearly every environmental group has backed the Green New Deal, which includes a strong call for unions to be a part of the clean energy future. That’s allowed employees fighting for union recognition and a fair contract at these very groups to make the case: Well, what about us?

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“Our phrase that we used especially during negotiations—and even now—is, ‘practice what you preach, walk the talk,’ as an organization,” said Mathew-Shah.

While the labor movement does have a history of supporting environmental protection and public health, its relationship with environmental groups has been rocky. As climate advocates demand an end to fossil fuels, coal workers and trade unions tend to see only a loss of jobs. Historically, there’s been a serious disconnect. That relationship has been improving in recent years as mainstream environmentalism has become more sophisticated in discussing the climate with special attention to how climate change intersects with race and class. Organizations are growing more keen to listen to the people most affected by the climate crisis, including union and non-union workers impacted by the transition away from gas-guzzling cars and coal-fired power plants that helped create this problem in the first place.

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“As we look to America’s energy future, we must spend as much time planning for how current energy sector workers will navigate this shift as we do implementing policies that will address climate change,” said now-retired Utility Workers Union of America President Michael Langford in a statement after environmental leaders and major trade unions released a climate action plan in June together. “With the right approach, we can take significant steps that put America on the path to net-zero emissions, while creating high-quality jobs that bolster the middle class.” 

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Now, environmental organizations are taking a hard look at the mirror to address their own shortcomings as they relate to labor rights. The League of Conservation Voters has already voluntary recognized its union. The 350 U.S. Union has secured voluntary recognition, but that won’t be final until staff bargain on whom the union will represent and then vote on it before the National Labor Relations Board. Union organizers hope to see bargaining start in December, but Qua recognizes that’s ambitious.

Still, that’s more hopeful than what canvassers at the Fund for Public Interest experienced in August when they tried to unionize. After, the nonprofit shut down an entire North Carolina office after employees announced their intent to unionize. The group has said the closure wasn’t meant as retaliation, but it sure had the appearance of being like union busting to employees looking for recognition. There’s always a risk when employees announce they’ve created a union of retaliation, but for many, that risk is worth it.

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“One of the best things that organizers at any progressive organization—climate or other issue—can do right now is unionize,” Qua said. “It’s an incredible tool that can only lift up people in the progressive movement at large.”

We at Earther (represented by our own union, the Writers Guild of America East) can’t help but agree. The climate crisis won’t be easy to combat, and we’ll need every one of these workers taken care of if we’re going to stop it.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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