RISING UP GREEN Unions, activists unite to force vote on green initiative

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WHAT’S MORE IMPORTANT: JOBS OR THE ENVIRONMENT? Yes, may be the answer on offer for the people of Washington state in the USA come November.

A chance to vote that way is the aim of a broad alliance of unions and about 60 activists groups backed by 375,000 citizens who signed a petition to get the Protect Washington Act (Initiative 1631) on the ballot in the state election cycle this November.

The Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy spent more than a year hashing out the language for the initiative, a hugely ambitious attempt to tackle both climate change and economic inequity in Washington.

They crafted a ballot measure that would commit the state to massive reductions in CO2 emissions. The plan would also impose a carbon-emissions fee on big polluters. The resulting billions of dollars in revenue would be used in two ways:

first, for a rolling series of investments in clean energy and water
second, for strong protections for workers in targeted fossil fuel operations.


‘Glide paths’ to a just transition
The pitch for signatures was simple: no fossil-fuel workers would be left behind. The money raised from the initiative would create “glide paths” to full retirement for fossil-fuel-industry workers within five years of retiring.

For those who had worked in these industries between one and five years, it would provide a year of guaranteed income, health care, and retirement contributions for every year the employee had worked.

For those who had worked in the industry for more than five years, it would cover them with a wage-insurance program for up to five years, making up whatever income difference there might be between their old wages in the fossil-fuel industry and their new ones in non-fossil-fuel sectors.

“The initiative defines what it means to have a just transition—it doesn’t just mean a couple years of training,” observes Lynne Dodson, secretary treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council.

“This is about a model of hope,” says Tom Geiger, communications director of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. “But the process by which you get to the details is more important. It’s really about community-based solutions.”    

The people’s campaign rented an unused chiropractic office in Seattle’s hip, young University District before gathering signatures throughout the late spring and early summer. From this somewhat down-at-the-heels headquarters, a huge, mainly volunteer-driven campaign was launched—and eventually stretched to all corners of the state.    

Climate change kills workers
Last summer, in the midst of a weeks-long heat-and-smog haze created by vast forest fires in Canada Honesto Silva Ibarra, died on the job. He was a 28-year-old diabetic migrant laborer from Mexico, working on a blueberry farm near the Canadian border.

Ibarra’s death triggered a wildcat farmworkers strike. Rosalinda Guillen, a 67-year-old farmworker organizer, has no doubt that global warming helped kill Honesto. “It was pretty scary,” she recalls of the fires. “The headlines in the papers were ‘Be careful. If you have health problems, stay indoors.’ We can see on a daily basis the changing climate, because we’re working on the land all the time.”

A generation ago, labor unions and environmentalists in the state were bitter enemies—at odds over saving the spotted owl, and throughout the decline of the logging industry. Not any more.

Steve Garey headed the United Steelworkers local in the little town of Mount Vernon, Washington until he retired a few years back. He spent most of his career working as a machinist at two nearby oil refineries. Steve is now a strong supporter of Initiative 1631.

‘It’s us and us and us and us and them now’
“If you’re in Texas or Louisiana, this issue doesn’t have political legs,” he argues, sitting in his union hall, the walls of which are covered with decades' worth of photographs of members killed in refinery accidents. “But in this state, it does.

“And 1631 allows us to consider the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs with very high labor standards written into the terms of investment.”

“This policy is about old people planting shade trees for their grandkids,” Steve says. “This is going to be classic ‘organized people versus organized money.’ It’s not just ‘us and them’ anymore—it’s ‘us and us and us and us and them’ now, and it’s made all the difference in the world.”


This article was originally published by The Canadian Labour Institute.  

Reprinted with permission for CALM Members use.