On April 27 and 28, UE representatives participated in a Green Worker Organizing conference in New York City. The event, which was sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung–New York Office, brought together leaders from unions, worker centers, and climate justice groups to discuss the need to organize unorganized workers as part of addressing climate change.
UE Local 1177 Recording Secretary Cedric Whelchel, a member of the UE Leadership and Staff Development Program, and Kari Thompson, Education Director and International Strategies Director, were there to discuss UE’s Green Locomotive Project as well as UE’s approach to organizing unorganized workers and more. Other participants included Sari Sairanen and Nathan Kraemer from Unifor in Canada, Kathleen Ma from the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committeem, Brandon Mancilla, the newly elected director of UAW Region 9A, Chama St Louis from the National Black Worker Center, and Tefere Gebre of Greenpeace (formerly with the AFL-CIO), among many others.
The conference included frank conversation about the limitations in past efforts to include the labor movement in climate justice organizing, which sometimes resulted in ignoring the needs of the many unorganized workers who are also impacted by climate change. Participants also shared experiences about trying to organize workers who are doing jobs that help move away from fossil fuel consumption, like solar panel installation. Many of these workers are hired as independent contractors, allowing employers to avoid providing benefits and making it harder for the workers to form unions.
UE’s Green Locomotive Project aims to address climate justice for a broad array of workers in the rail industry. UE is advocating for tighter regulations on the emissions produced by locomotive engines. This will require railroads to buy less-polluting locomotives, which can be built by our members at Locals 506 and 618 in Erie, Pennsylvania. Such regulations would also have a powerful impact on cleaning up the air pollution experienced by railroad workers and communities that live near rail yards. This includes our UE members across the country who are employed by Hallcon and other railroad transportation providers. Whelchel is one such member. At the conference, he shared his experience of knowing his health and breathing were negatively impacted by his work in the railyards, sitting in a parked van next to idling diesel locomotives.
Thompson led a panel conversation with Mancilla, St Louis, and Rosemarie Molina of Unemployed Workers United, on the state of the US labor movement and different organizing models for reaching unorganized workers. Both Molina and St Louis emphasized a need for organizing that recognizes underlying community challenges of working folks. This has allowed them to bring climate justice into their organizing, but the conversations with workers rarely start with that topic. Sairanen participated in a panel conversation on organizing approaches to climate-impacted workers with Matt Mayers of Green Workers Alliance and Gebre.
Participants left the conference with intentions to continue their discussions, including sharing educational resources and ideas for fundraising. Whelchel said it was a good experience, and that he learned a lot.