Green Locomotive Project Featured at Labor Communications Convention

December 14, 2023

UE organizer Ryan Calbreath spoke about the Green Locomotive Project at the International Labor Communications Association (ILCA)’s bi-annual convention at the end of November. Calbreath was part of a panel on messaging to the labor and environmental movements about climate change, hosted by ILCA Vice President Howard Kling, the Retired Director of the University of Minnesota’s Labor Education Service.

Calbreath shared the origins of the Green Locomotive Project, explaining its goal of providing job security for UE members building locomotive engines at Wabtec. In addition, the UE rail crew drivers fighting for the reduction of fossil fuel use in rail yards want to protect their own health and the health of their families. Climate catastrophe is a global existential threat, but, like organizing around anything else, it is most effective to start with local concerns and immediate consequences.

Calbreath was joined on the panel by Sydney Ghazarian of the Labor Network for Sustainability, Jose “JB” Tengco, Vice President of State Affairs for the BlueGreen Alliance, and Vivian Price, Dominguez Hills Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies, California State University.

Ghazarian shared her experience mobilizing environmental organizations to support the United Auto Workers’ strike this year. Major climate and labor wins were secured during the UAW strike this year, she explained. The Labor Network for Sustainability addressed a letter to the “Big Three” automaker CEOs demanding “workers in sustainable battery production have the same pay and safety standards as under the National Agreements.” The letter was signed by 150 organizations. Members of this coalition followed up by marching in UAW picket lines, and distributing pamphlets about the urgency of these sustainability demands at Big Three auto dealerships. Amid this solidarity from environmental justice groups, General Motors committed to “include electric vehicle battery production work in the UAW’s national agreement.”

Tengco discussed communications strategies and organizing realities when bringing together labor and environmental organizations to advocate for policy changes. He broke down the delicate process of achieving California’s historic commitments to create sustainable jobs building offshore wind farms. These developments generate significantly more energy than onshore wind farms. Tengco echoed the sentiments of other panelists, that often environmental groups only want workers to show up and agree with them, but that is not realistic and not how you build a sustainable inclusive movement. Green jobs should not be ways for corporations and politicians to score points with environmental groups if those “green jobs” are not family-sustaining union jobs.

To round out the panel, Price spoke about the importance of listening to workers and centering them in the economic transition forced upon the world by climate change. She presented a clip from “The Just Transition Listening Project” wherein an international group of workers from the fossil fuel industry discussed the portrayal of their jobs in the media, by politicians, and by the activists in their country. Price emphasized a recurring theme of the panel: you cannot expect workers to participate in a movement to transition away from fossil fuels if that movement does not listen to them and consider their economic needs.

An audience member raised a question about the perceived contradiction between expanding the national social safety net and public investment in the emerging sustainable economy. The panel responded by stating that with sufficient organizing of workers in the US, the public would not have to pick and choose between investing in public benefits, like universal healthcare and education, and building the zero-emissions economy, given that their agenda included divestment from polluting enterprises like fossil fuel subsidies and the military. 

Another member of the audience asked about the false equivalence some draw between “green technologies” and automation. For the panel, that can be countered by a worker-led movement focused on achieving a just transition and avoiding the risk of ecological damage manifesting from short-staffing. For example, there would be unfathomable environmental disasters if train derailments and truck crashes increased in the name of automation to cut costs by eliminating jobs.

The panel made clear the tricks corporations and politicians are trying to pull are not working. Opening factories in right-to-work states, and underpaying workers to produce low-to-zero emissions technology might count as a “green job” for some, but the labor movement can see it for what it is: a way for bosses to cut costs and weaken the power of the working class. Panelists agreed the urgency of the moment requires us to demand green jobs and good union jobs, and a united front of workers and environmental justice activists can win them both.


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