Tag Archives: labor unions

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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Singing and not singing: The activist age divide

The year 2012 is a special one in Massachusetts: the centennial of the 1912 Lawrence textile strike has been celebrated with literally dozens of events, with more still planned. The gatherings I’ve attended have given me glimpses into the cultures of different wings of today’s progressive movements. My conclusion is that participatory singing as a political act is becoming an outmoded relic of former movements.

At the big Labor Day event, the crowd included UNITE-HERE members and other Lawrence-area union members, mostly Latinos younger than 50. Union members wore union t-shirts to signify their affiliations; and they marched in contingents; but they didn’t sing as they marched. Some of the musical performers that day sang in Spanish, and young and/or Latino festival-goers either sat and listened or they danced along – but they never sang along.

A number of white and black singers at the Labor Day festival encouraged sing-alongs, and I watched to see who sang and who didn’t sing. In particular, because Bread and Puppet Theater, with its giant puppets and stilt-walkers, is so inherently interesting to all ages and races, I was able to watch their big diverse audience respond to calls to sing along. Perhaps Mobilizing Ideas readers won’t be surprised to learn that those who sang along were old and white. Many of them were seasoned leftists whose experience stretched back to the ‘60s or earlier.

At other Lawrence centennial events I saw the same singing demographic: old and white. The only middle-aged exceptions were approximately four of us hard-core political folkies, those who knew by heart all four verses of the “Bread and Roses” song about the 1912 strike. But except for us, everyone else who sang “Solidarity Forever” had white hair and weathered faces. Ditto with “Union Maid.” And twice, when “The Internationale” was sung, everyone else who stood up and raised their right fist appeared to be 75 or older; this old socialist tradition seems not to have been passed down.

During the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s I realized that young activists in that movement did not sing during protests. And the music of the Occupy movement seemed to be either performance or participatory drumming, not participatory singing (see this collection). But during those two mobilizations I thought that the singing/not-singing breakpoint was about age 35. At this year’s Lawrence events, I realized that the age divide is much older, and that political singing seems to have virtually died out even among middle-aged activists.

For those of us raised on Civil Rights freedom songs, anti-war songs, wimmin’s music, De Colores and anti-apartheid music, a movement that doesn’t sing seems strange and culturally impoverished. Media jamming and crowd-sourced creativity through Youtube, Facebook and Twitter are the new mode of activist participatory creativity; activists now have protest tools unimagined in the 1960s.

But when I think of some of the situations in which the anti-apartheid movement sang their freedom songs – between jail cells on death row, in the poverty of exile, and while marching under violent repression – I worry about how future activists will keep their spirits up and build solidarity when all their electronic devices are unavailable to them.


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Social Movements Classes as Sites for Organizer Training

By Brian K. Obach

An alternative approach to teaching social movements classes is to do so in a way that imparts practical skills designed to prepare students for careers in organizing.  While higher education institutions offer training and professional development for a wide range of careers, this important career trajectory is almost completely neglected.  The dearth of higher education offerings in this area is so great that labor unions and private non-profit centers have had to develop their own training and education programs to meet their own demand.  With some modification, most social movements classes could be designed to develop that skill set and to better prepare students for careers as professional organizers.

There are thousands of non-profit community organizations and labor unions throughout the United States that employ social movement organizers.  A visit to a web-based employment clearinghouse for non-profit organizations yielded a list of over 600 jobs available under the designation “activism.”  Continue reading

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Recall Elections: The (Con)tested Grievance Tactic

Kathleen C. Oberlin

Journalists and pundits alike clamored to interpret the recall election that took place in Wisconsin last week on June 5th. As Republicans beam with pride over Governor Scott Walker’s steadfast hold onto his seat, the Democrats are left to reevaluate among many issues whether or not the recall election is a tactic to continue to use in the current political climate. For those unfamiliar with what exactly a recall entails or where and when it can be done (presumably many of us), check out the national center for state legislators’ overview. Until recently state level (e.g., assembly members, governors) recall efforts were quite rare. It remains to be seen if this will continue in the future as a viable means to channel grievances. Continue reading

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Reinvigorating Labor Day? “A day for migrant rights, labor rights, human rights”

Many television news segments, newspaper articles and blog posts have, of late, asked what’s  next for the Occupy movement. With spring in the air, apparently much of the Occupy movement’s strategizing has gone into claiming Labor Day as a way to express contemporary discontent and possibly mobilize new participants particularly in smaller cities.  According to Alan Farnham of ABC News, “It’s shaping up to be a busy spring for Occupy.”  Because of its cultural significance, or that it presents a perennial opportunity to raise awareness and promote Occupy goals, May Day might get a makeover in becoming the day for the 99%.

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The Benefits of Losing

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post about the potential de facto shuttering of the National Labor Relations Board. I suggested that, while an effectively powerless NLRB might be very bad for unions in the short run, that institutional change could result in additional labor movement mobilization in response. Since President Obama made three new board appointments to replace the expiring recess appoints, the board is still up and running (for now), averting the specific scenario I suggested. But that same process is now transpiring in a different setting.

United Federation of Teachers logoOn Friday, the New York City school system made public highly controversial effectiveness ratings of some 18,000 teachers–with their names attached. Responses from teachers union members have been swift, strong, and voluminous, and the United Federation of Teachers is continuing to mobilize in opposition to Mayor Bloomberg and administrative proponents of the ratings (here’s a full page ad the union recently ran in the New York Post, Daily News, and Wall Street Journal). It remains to be seen if this recent loss turns into future wins for the union, but the potential for mobilization certainly seems to be swelling.

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Occupy Wall Street Port Shutdowns and the ILWU

By Jon Agnone

On the heels of a round of crackdowns against Occupy Wall Street (OWS) encampments across the country, the movement turned their attention to shutting down the “economic engines for the elite” through a coordinated shutdown of West Coast shipping ports on December 12, 2011.  This action occurred following the shutdown of Oakland’s shipping terminal a few weeks prior on November 2 by the Occupy Oakland protestors, with turnout estimated at 30,000 individuals. According to the movement’s website and many of the published news reports on the event, one of the primary motivations of the coastwise shutdowns from San Diego to Vancouver was to stop “Wall street on the waterfront.” The movement saw this event as a two part solidarity action: First, in support of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in its ongoing jurisdictional battle at the Port of Longview in Washington against the grain terminal operator EGT; and second, in support of port truckers—who are non-union despite many unionization drives over the years by the ILWU and the Teamsters—who work on the manifold terminals up and down the West Coast owned by maritime shipping giant SSA (the major tie-in for the OWS movements is that Goldman Sachs has a 51 percent ownership stake in SSA). Continue reading

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The Stunning Success of Occupy Wall Street

By Marc Dixon

“I AM NOT YOUR ATM,” “No Bonuses for Big Banks,” and “Wall Street: Never Again” were among the placards carried by the thousands of protesters participating in what was dubbed as the biggest anti-Wall Street demonstration in decades. It was the spring of 2010. Richard Trumka, the President of the AFL-CIO, the rally’s lead sponsor, said he wanted to force a “which-side-are-you-on” movement for politicians when it came to Wall Street Reform. An impressive showing for sure, it still lacked much political punch. Later that year in the run-up to the midterm elections, progressive organizations put 175,000 people on the Washington Mall to call for jobs and for more accountability from politicians. Labor, civil rights, and numerous other groups made impassioned claim after impassioned claim. Few listened. The rally paled in comparison to the attention surrounding the novel protest group on the right, the Tea Party, or even the Daily Show’s commercialized “Rally to Restore Sanity” a few weeks later. Continue reading


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US Unions: Closing Opportunities or an Opening of Sorts?

William B. Gould IV, Stanford law professor (emeritus) and former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, had an interesting Op-Ed in the New York Times recently. He notes a pending situation where the NLRB will be rendered effectively powerless to act starting January 1, 2012 and then discusses the potential implications of such a scenario (spoiler: it’s all bad for labor… but you probably saw that coming). He brings up a number of very interesting points that experts on the US labor movement (of which I am not one) will likely find compelling, disturbing, or–who knows–even debatable. But what caught my eye was his final point:

Mr. Obama needs to make this an election-year issue; if the board goes dark in January, he should draw attention to Congressional obstructionism during the campaign and defend the board’s role in protecting employees and employers.

If the NLRB does “go dark,” it would certainly be the closing of a key “opportunity structure” for the US labor movement. On the other hand, people are often more motivated to act when they perceive themselves to be losing something they had rather than striving for something new. It’s possible, then, that organized labor might view this closing of one opportunity, coinciding with start of a national election season, as a new opening for political organizing–whether or not President Obama decides to make an issue of it.

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