64 The impact of the labor movement and social transitions at the urban level

Steve McFarland, University of Tampa, USA

The climate crisis represents a grave threat to natural systems and human livelihood, and a unique political opportunity to remake the world drawing on the principles of social justice and sustainability. As the years tick away without binding global agreements on greenhouse gas emissions, and with many of the most significant national economies continuing to increase their emissions growth, scholarly attention has shifted to the scale of urbanisation. And rightly so– various estimates put the percentage of carbon emissions generated in cities at anywhere between 50% and 80% of the world total (Fitzgerald 2010; McBride and Shields 2014).

Buildings, in their construction, operation, and demolition, use an estimated 30-40% of all energy worldwide (Renner et. al. 2008). Transportation, for its part, accounts for roughly 1/4 of total greenhouse emissions (Renner et. al. 2008, 19). McBride and Shields (2014) and Renner et. al. (2008) help us identify the urban pillars of a low-carbon economy: renewable energy, green building, and clean transportation.  Abundant opportunities for reduced emissions are present at the urban level. Building retrofitting for reduced energy use, green construction, mass transit infrastructure, zoning and land use planning, and local economic development policy are among the most significant.

These are tall orders, but as Mike Davis has observed, the cities we will all need to weather the climate crisis are in many ways the cities that urban social movements have long struggled towards for reasons of social justice. As Davis (2010, 42) puts it, “there is a consistent affinity between social and environmental justice– between the communal ethos and a greener urbanism.” Low carbon cities will be denser, more compact and walkable, with greater public amenities and less pollution. The hidden “ecological genius” of the city, Davis insists, depends on pursuing public affluence over private wealth, on integration, on equality, on leisure over consumption.

Organized labor has increasingly placed its political strength on the side of climate justice. This shift in labor movement priorities comes in part out of recognition within the labor movement of the severity of the climate crisis and in part out of a growing recognition of the need for the labor movement to reboot. As Barry (2013, 228) puts it, “the emergence of a green trade unionism […] represents the opportunity for the repoliticization, re-radicalization and revitalization of the trade union movement“.

International labor’s position has coalesced, with some dissent, around ideas of a Keynesian “Green New Deal,” and a “just transition” (Murillo, 2013). A just transition implies labor’s participation in climate negotiations, and the provision of “high road”stable employment at a living wage, as well job re-training and income support for those workers whose livelihoods are threatened by the transition to a low-carbon economy (Felli, 2014). In the U.S., this Green Keynesianism is represented by unions centered around the Blue-Green Alliance, which includes the United Steelworkers, Service Employees International Union, the United Auto Workers, and the Amalgamated Transit Union, among others. But other sectors of the U.S. labor movement have been more ambivalent, or even outright opposed to action on climate change, with unions in mining, building trades, and utilities in particular pursuing a job-conscious political line that obstructs climate action that would threaten employment in those industries.

As labor orients itself in response to the climate challenge, there are at the same time increasingly influential voices within the movement calling for a scalar reorientation of the U.S. labor movement: a reorientation of theory, organizing, and resources away from the national scale and towards the scales of the city and the metropolitan region.  Its proponents argue that this will enable labor to break out of sectoral silos, build local alliances with community groups, and vie for urban power from the grassroots (Fletcher and Gapasin, 2008). An influential model for this rescaling is described by former South Bay Labor Council head Amy Dean (Dean and Reynolds, 2009). In Los Angeles, for example, the LA County Federation of Labor has intervened forcefully in local political campaigns, backing progressive candidates who in turn contributed to organizing gains among home healthcare workers as well as seaport, airport, and hospitality workers. The city’s Clean and Safe Ports Campaign, started 2006, is an inspiring example of green-labor-community coalitions in action. The campaign, brokered by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) drew together 40 labor, community, immigrant, and faith based organizations in coalition with national environmental groups the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club (Durrum 2013). The campaigners were determined to put an end to community health hazards linked with “dirty diesel” trucks serving the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and at the same time to address the exploitation of drivers as independent contractors. The campaign’s success in 2008 replaced the truck fleet, reducing diesel emissions by 90%, and redefined drivers as employees, who quickly unionized.

This precedent for an expanded coalition of labor and environmental groups was built on, during the organisation of  October’s 2014 People’s Climate march in New York City, which drew an estimated 400,000 people representing 1500 groups, including 80 unions with 11,000 members marching. The march’s organizers explicitly positioned the event as marking a shift in the climate justice movement towards a mass constituency rooted in communities of color and those of working class. The order of the march reflected this emphasis: so-called “Frontline Groups” of indigenous and environmental justice groups led the way, with labor groups (marked in blue) right behind, followed by mainstream green organizations. In many ways, the march responded to the pressing need identified by Victor Wallis to “identify, gather, and synthesize all the disparate expressions of popular response to the climate crisis” (2013, 501). A concerted urban focus for the labor movement and the climate justice movement brings with it great opportunities for remaking cities along just and sustainable lines.




Barry, J. (2013). “Trade Unions and the transition away from ‘actually existing sustainability’: from economic crisis to a new political economy beyond growth” in Räthzel, N., & Uzzell, D. L. (Eds.). Trade unions in the green economy: working for the environment. New York, NY: Routledge.

Davis, M. (2010). Who will build the ark. New Left Review, 61(2010), 29–46.

Dean, A. B., & Reynolds, D. B. (2009). A new new deal: How regional activism will reshape the American labor movement. Ithaca: ILR Press.

Durrum, J. (2013). Building a Sturdy Blue-Green Coalition at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Progressive Planning 197, 12-17.

Felli, R. (2014). An alternative socio-ecological strategy? International trade unions’ engagement with climate change. Review of International Political Economy, 21(2), 372–398.

Fitzgerald, J. (2010). Emerald Cities: Urban Sustainability and Economic Development. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fletcher, B., & Gapasin, F. (2008). Solidarity divided: The crisis in organized labor and a new path toward social justice. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Martin Murillo, L. (2013) “From sustainable development to a green and fair economy: making the environment a trade union issue” in ” in Räthzel, N., & Uzzell, D. L. (Eds.). Trade unions in the green economy: working for the environment. New York, NY: Routledge.

McBride and Shields. (2014). Cities, Climate Change and the Green Economy: A Thematic Literature Survey. Retrieved April 18, 2015, from http://warming.apps01.yorku.ca/wp-content/uploads/WP_2014-01_McBride_Shields_Cities-Climate-Change-and-Green-Economy.pdf

Renner, M. (2008). Green jobs: working for people and the environment. Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute.

Wallis, V. (2013). The Search for a Mass Ecological Constituency. International Critical Thought, 3(4), 496-509.

Author Biography

Steve McFarland is Assistant Professor of Geography in the Department of Government, History , and Sociology at the University of Tampa. He earned his PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (2014) and master’s degree from the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell. He has taught courses on urban geography, urban theory, social movements, cultural geography, and GIS at CUNY, Columbia, and Sarah Lawrence College. His dissertation research examined the history of union halls and “labor temples” in the U.S. labor movement, with a focus on their role as spatial-cultural hubs bridging racial and ethnic difference and linking organizing in workplaces and residential neighborhoods. He is currently engaged in research on the role of organized labor in urban climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Contact email: stephenmcfarland@gmail.com

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