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Anyone Who Tells You to Choose Between Jobs and the Environment Is a Scumbag
Lies, damn lies, and a Just Transition.
One of the most nakedly evil political maneuvers of my lifetime has been the concerted long term effort to convince the working class that environmentalism is detrimental to their interests. This message, which has been cultivated in middle America for decades with great success, will be responsible for far more human suffering than most political lies when it’s all tallied up. I hope that we can kill this particular lie sooner rather than later. And there is good reason to think that we can.
Impoverished Louisianans in Cancer Alley are told that environmentalist boogeymen want to end their way of life (being stricken with cancer from toxic air produced by industrial plants). West Virginia coal miners with black lung are told that the Democratic War on Coal is coming to put them in the poorhouse. Oil companies reap billions of dollars selling fossil fuels that will produce global warming that will flood working people out of their homes and spin up hurricanes that will blow their roofs off, and then they pay amoral politicians go to on Fox News and wave their hands about how the loony green zealots want to take their jobs away. The entire dynamic is an especially pernicious twist on the normal form of economic terrorism that moneyed interests wield over workers. In this case, the same interests responsible for keeping people poor enough to fear financial ruin are also going to poison them with environmental degradation on the back end. They will keep workers poor and fearful and make billions of dollars on their backs and then ride off into the apocalyptic orange sunset when the last cent has been extracted from the murdered earth under their feet. This connection between poverty-induced fear and exploitation of natural resources keeps the whole game going. In order for the con to be successful, workers must never gain enough economic breathing space to be able to think about the more long term issues. They must always be kept close to the edge of survival. Then they are easier to scare. They must always be made to worry about today so much that worrying about tomorrow seems like a luxury. All the while, companies are sucking up the natural world’s wealth that should rightly belong to these same workers’ children and grandchildren. There is something indescribably wicked about a plan that makes economically exploited workers political accomplices in selling out their own futures. Every politician and pundit and corporate flack who has knowingly participated in this effort over the course of their careers should consider themselves a human disgrace.
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As obvious as the motivation of this scam has always been, the more enlightened path to navigate the issue of jobs and the environment has long been obvious as well. The term “Just Transition” was coined to sum up this very thing. There is a very well developed set of principles and policy goals that lay out how our society can transform itself to fight climate change without leaving working people adrift. Labor unions will be a key part of any Just Transition that works. And most labor unions are not stupid. The United Mine Workers of America know well that coal mining will not last forever. The UMWA has publicly backed a shift from coal power to green energy—while, of course, demanding that the jobs of the future actually exist before asking coal miners of today to abandon their own jobs. In the broadest sense, wise unions aren’t wedded to continuing the flawed operations of any given industry forever; they are wedded to helping workers thrive. It is completely possible for organized labor to be the single strongest supporter of a Just Transition, provided it is designed in a way that puts the economic burden on governments and corporations, rather than on working people.
And that is one reason why yesterday’s announcement from the United Auto Workers that they have forced General Motors to bring their EV battery plants under the union’s National Master Agreement is such a big fucking deal. With the caveats that this is just a first step, that there is much more to be won, that the other auto companies in the Big Three must be brought along as well, that Tesla must be unionized—this is one of the most meaningful steps ever taken towards a true Just Transition in America. Looming over the UAW’s strike has been the larger question of whether the future of American automaking was non-union EV plants in “right to work” states, a future that would make phasing out union jobs the price of phasing out fossil fuels. Such an outcome—despite being a purposeful act of union-busting that would be wholly the decision of the corporations—would carry with it the appearance of validating all the warnings from the scaremongers about how green jobs are a trap. Indeed, Republican politicians like J.D. Vance, who is a real lying piece of shit, have been trying to graft this narrative on top of the UAW strike from the very beginning. Just yesterday, Vance published a piece claiming that the “Left wing climate agenda” and Biden’s “premature transition to electric vehicles” were responsible for the economic pain that autoworkers have suffered since the 2008 recession. Just hours later, the UAW announced its historic toehold in new EV plants. As I said, J.D. Vance is a real lying piece of shit.
Lest anyone be confused, there are two very closely connected reasons why these politicians are so committed to pushing the idea that environmentalism and good jobs are mutually exclusive: one, they work for business interests that make money by harming the environment; and two, they fear the power of organized labor if it is focused in the correct direction. The farcical but somehow ongoing project of the Republican Party to pose as some sort of Party of the Working Class is a pathetic attempt to see if culture wars are powerful enough to trick working people into voting for a set of political goals that will keep them poor and make them die early. The ideal for these Republican politicians would be: no unions, more fossil fuels, and white workers lured by racism and xenophobia and scientific lies to vote against any sort of working class unity. The opposite ideal—the one that UAW is in the process of manifesting—is: strong unions, workers united, higher wages, and a Just Transition into a future of cleaner, greener jobs that will reduce pollution and inequality in one fell swoop. None of this, by the way, is an advertisement for the Democratic Party, which has a long history of being pathetic in its own ways. It is an advertisement for unions. Saving working people from poverty and saving working people from pollution and rising seas and cancer are all part of the job of saving working people. That is what unions do.
People have different politics. I get it. Some of us drive trucks and work in factories and others of us ride the subway and type on computers. Some people have to sweat for a living and other people can sit around all day reading policy papers. I don’t expect everyone to naturally care about the same stuff or to naturally come to the same conclusions about how to get to where we need to be. But I will humbly suggest that one shared idea that we can all get behind is this: Don’t respect anyone who doesn’t care if you suffer. Don’t respect anyone who is willing to tell you lies that will hurt you and your children in order to make themselves rich. That is, I think, something we can all agree on. And there is no group of self-serving bastards more blatant than rich people who lie to poor people about what is in their own interests. Fuck those guys. People need good union jobs and people need a clean environment to live in. Anyone who tells you that you can only have one or the other—or neither—is a scumbag.
Previously: There Are Only Two Issues. Unionizing the green future can address them both.
“A new Authors Guild survey finds that median book and writing-related income for authors in 2022 was below the poverty level.” Wow! Fight this trend by preordering my book about the labor movement, “The Hammer,” which will be published in February. I think it is good.
I have a piece in The Guardian today about the WGA’s victory in its own strike and what it means. We are building a wall to hold out the bloodless killer AI, and we need all the bricks that we can get. More on this topic soon.
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