Tag Archives: labor movement

The Green New Deal and the Future of Work in America Conference

Last month, the Center for Work and Democracy at Arizona State University hosted a two-day conference titled The Green New Deal and the Future of Work in America. The conference was organized by Craig Calhoun (University Professor of Social Sciences, ASU) and Benjamin Fong (Lecturer, Barrett Honors College, ASU) and included a keynote address by Frances Fox Piven (Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology, CUNY Graduate Center). The conference gathered leading scholars on labor, the environment, and social movements to “discuss the Green New Deal and its potential to both respond to the climate crisis and plot a path forward to a more just and fair nation.”

I interviewed Dr. Todd E. Vachon, a postdoctoral associate at Rutgers University in the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations and conference attendee, about what social movement scholars can take away from the conference. Todd is currently working on a book manuscript about the emerging movement of climate activists within the U.S. labor movement. The findings in the book are based on four years of participant observation with three labor-climate movement organizations and builds upon Todd’s 20+ years of participation in the labor movement as a carpenter, organizer, and a union leader. The manuscript, which explores the collective action framing processes around the contested concept of a “just transition” for workers, is currently under review at an academic press. He has also published research examining the environmental attitudes and behaviors of U.S. workers and the political-economic predictors of greenhouse gas emissions cross nationally.

What are a few of the “big ideas” you’re taking away from the conference? 

Well, for starters, the Green New Deal (GND) has inspired a new wave of organizing and movement building to confront the climate crisis. It’s not just a plan to address climate change though. It’s also a roadmap to a democracy revival movement. The shared understanding among most attendees of the conference was that merely electing the right president, while certainly a worthy goal, is not alone going to prevent climate catastrophe. Stopping the worst of climate change is going to require collective action. And that action is going to have to demand more than just greenhouse gas emissions reductions, it’s going to have to center social and economic justice for workers, Tribal communities, and people of color if it’s going to have any chance of succeeding. Anything less will pit workers against the environment and against frontline communities—as has so often been the case in the past—rather than uniting these groups in shared purpose against their common foes, the real purveyors of social, economic and environmental injustice.

Why should sociologists, and social movement scholars in particular, be interested in the topic of the conference? 

As with the original New Deal, a major reorientation of society like that envisioned by the GND is going to involve massive amounts of civic engagement and collective action at levels not seen in decades. Such periods of widespread and continuous social action typically invite experimentation and innovation on the part of activists. These periods also create a great opportunity for social science research to address questions related to social movement formation, tactical repertoire development and deployment, movement outcomes, and more. For example: how is it that people come to realize that their individual wellbeing is wrapped up in the collective wellbeing of everyone? Under what circumstances does this realization foster concerted action? How then are movement targets selected? How and when do climate movement organizations win or lose? And what types of coalitions are able to build the broad base of support required to successfully challenge the hegemony of the fossil fuel industry and it’s supporting neoliberal governing ideology?

The youth Climate Strikes and the direct actions by groups like Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement already represent a new wave in climate activism; one that embraces many of the demands of the environmental justice movement but also some demands of the mainstream environmental movement as well as the labor movement. This new wave of climate activism is inherently cross-class in nature. Activists are targeting states, producers, and consumers alike and are making demands that are simultaneously material, non-material, and cultural in nature. These developments challenge some long-held beliefs among scholars regarding the nature of movements, their targets, and their goals, and thus warrant new streams of research. Further, these events are unfolding in real time and provide a tremendous opportunity for qualitatively rich, empirically rigorous research that not only improves our understanding of social movements but may also contribute to saving humankind from its own worst tendencies.

Is there any work you came across at the conference that you think should be “required reading”? 

I think everyone who has not already done so should take 10 minutes and read H.Res 109, the Green New Deal resolution submitted to congress by Representative Ocasio-Cortez-Cortez and Senator Markey. Unlike previous proposals to address the climate crisis, this resolution explicitly acknowledges the social and economic disruptions that will ensue as a result of decarbonizing our economy and it lays out a broad vision for some of the ways we can create a sustainable society with justice and equity for all.

Beyond that, hearing Francis Fox Piven discuss some of the ways in which the climate movement might succeed or fail in its efforts to win a GND reminded me that it is never a bad time to re-read Poor People’s Movements. The crucial role that structural crises in social and economic institutions played in the formation of the movements studied in that book can offer much insight into our contemporary climate conundrum and the resulting movement growing to address it. Other required reading will be the edited volume based upon conference participants presentation which should be available sometime in 2020 or 2021.

Finally, I would also recommend that interested readers check out the websites for two movement organizations, the Labor Network for Sustainability and the Climate Justice Alliance, if they would like to learn more. These organizations both offer lots of insights from the perspectives of activists, scholars, and practitioners into the real challenges involved with forging durable alliances and building a movement for a climate safe and just society for workers and frontline communities.

You can learn more about the conference here and also watch the archived livestream on the conference’s Facebook page, facebook.com/GNDWork/.

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Millennial Activists in the Labor Movement: Two Cases from Canada

By Rachel K. Brickner

In March 2018, motivated in large part by a pattern of bounced paychecks, the workers in four locations of the Smiling Goat cafe chain in Halifax, Nova Scotia voted to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Workers at two other Smiling Goat locations have been unionized since 2013 and 2015, when those cafes—then under the ownership of the Just Us! cafe chain—were part of a barista unionizing campaign that mobilized young, progressive activists and called attention to the employment crisis facing millennial workers.

Unlike more well-known activist movements in which millennials have played an important role, such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Dreamers, the Halifax barista union drives focus specific attention on millennials’ experience in the workforce and within the labor movement. And with good reason: millennials are engaged in an economy in which there has been poor median compensation growth since the mid-1980s. And yet, only 5-10% of millennials belong to unions—a factor linked to higher wages and better benefits—despite their support for organized labor and a slight uptick in union drives in workplaces with younger workers.

As Meaghan Dalton and I wrote recently, what was unique and important about the Halifax barista unionizing drives was that they were led mainly by women and LGBTQ workers for whom the general challenges of the precarious employment context were exacerbated by gender-based discrimination, harassment, and marginalization. For example, women spoke of unequal treatment and work assignments. Transgender baristas noted awkward and discriminatory treatment by customers, managers, and staff, as well as the difficulty of finding and changing jobs. It was not surprising, in these baristas’ analysis, that gender queer workers were at the bottom of the working class. The leaders of these drives turned to the SEIU because they thought that belonging to a union could make a positive difference in their employment experience. As one movement leader put it, “there’s not really many [employment] options, but [does] this option also need to be as bad as it is?” Supported by the SEIU, the Baristas Rise Up campaign raised awareness of the baristas’ experiences and mobilized local progressive activist networks and the public behind them. Ultimately, baristas at three of five targeted Halifax cafes voted to unionize.

This case illustrated clearly that issues of identity cannot be neatly separated from economic issues as traditionally understood. As such, Dalton and I argued that it is important for the labor movement to take an intersectional approach, viewing the experiences of workers—and, hence, their motivation for organizing—as crucially linked to their membership in different groups.

While the specific identity aspects of the Halifax baristas’ organizing drive may be unique, their case confirmed some of the obstacles to Millennials’ labour organizing that have been noted by others. For example, given declining rates of unionization, millennial workers do not necessarily know a lot about unions or have experience in the labor movement. The Halifax leaders got their start through personal connections in the SEIU who helped the barista leaders learn the ropes of organizing. It is incumbent on organized labor to reach out to millennial workers and empower them as labor organizers. Unions have come under criticism for being slow to organize young workers, despite precarious employment in the low wage service sector. Although unions are focusing more organizing attention on millennial workers, even one SEIU organizer noted of the Halifax barista union drives, when there is no guarantee of success, “how much resources do we want to put into this campaign in hopes that it will continue to spread?” Additionally, labor laws, procedural requirements, and outright intimidation make unionization difficult. Even when unionization is successful, workers and their unions cannot control the market: in Halifax, four of the five cafes involved in the barista union drives closed or were sold.

The challenges of unionization suggest the importance of alternative organizing models through which millennials can participate in the labor movement. The “$15 and Fairness” campaign in Ontario is one such model. Specifically, $15 and Fairness is a coalition of union and non-union labor activists, health providers, faith groups, campus communities, and migrant workers groups. The coalition took advantage of the provincial government’s call for a “Changing Workplaces Review” to advocate for provincial legislation that would address six key demands: a $15 minimum wage, paid sick days, labor protections and rights for all employees, fair scheduling practices, the right to organize and unionize, and respectful workplaces.

Millennials and young workers have been critical to the $15 and Fairness campaign. Campus organizing networks at 14 post-secondary institutions have used awareness raising activities, days of action, lobbying efforts, and strike support to draw attention to the shared work experiences of members of the campus community—low wages, precarious work, poor working conditions, and Islamophobia and other forms of harassment and discrimination. These activities have allowed the networks to build solidarity among students, full- and part-time faculty, and custodial and food service workers. Off campus, unionized and non-unionized millennial workers have used grassroots organizing and face-to-face outreach around the province to call attention to the need for decent work for low wage workers.

Many of the $15 and Fairness campaign’s demands were met in Ontario’s “Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act” (Bill 148), which passed in November 2017.

Unions are important for millennial workers, like the Halifax baristas, who want a collective voice in the workplace that will allow them to negotiate better wages, benefits, and working conditions. However, in a political and economic climate where there are significant obstacles to unionization, campaigns like $15 and Fairness create other important avenues for millennial activists to become involved in a more inclusive labor movement. Such campaigns expand the labor movement beyond unionized workers; acknowledge the experiences of workers from marginalized groups, like transgender, indigenous, young, and immigrant/migrant workers; and build coalitions to demand legislation that supports decent work for all.


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