After the summer of 2023, the hottest in recorded history, it is not just laborers but labor itself that is in the hot seat. Workers who spend their days exposed to the elements may find respite as the seasons turn, but as more of the world starts responding to climate change, the question remains: Where will organized labor stand as the heating of the Earth continues?
The effects of a warming planet are evolving rapidly. This hot strike summer, featuring everyone from flight attendants to Starbucks baristas, offers some clues as to how the labor movement must evolve as well.
The demands from the United Auto Workers to include its members in EV battery plants sends a strong signal from an industry that is pivotal to the energy transition. Detroit’s Big Three warn that union obligations will slow the shift to electric vehicles. But US president Joe Biden’s recent visit to the UAW picket line highlighted the importance of transitioning to green, well-paying (read: union) jobs, and reminded everyone that the final word on labor’s place in the climate movement hasn’t been written.
The heat is on labor
In some ways, climate change can make it more difficult for workers to organize against their employers. Hollywood studio executives were recently fined for weaponizing triple-digit temperatures: they’d ordered the trimming of shade trees that offered striking writers and actors relief from the sun. Later, Hurricane Hillary’s landfall in Los Angeles forced the strikers home after more than 100 uninterrupted days of picketing.
But this hot strike summer also featured big labor wins that were catalyzed by climate change. Extreme heat, destructive to just about every workplace that isn’t obsessively climate-controlled—including construction sites, kitchens, warehouses, and fields —sparked spontaneous walk-outs from Atlanta to Italy.
At UPS, hundreds of thousands of delivery drivers won guarantees for air conditioning and cab fans in their furnace-like trucks, averting in the process what would have been the largest strike in US history. At Amazon, an unyielding heatwave drove the first-ever unionization of the company’s delivery contractors, leading to a strike in June that spread to other Amazon facilities around the country.
Federal regulators are still formulating workplace standards for heat stress, and state rules are inconsistent. In Texas, for example, lawmakers chose to slash, not expand, worker protections by eliminating mandated water breaks in big cities. In the absence of common-sense rules, workers have turned to collective bargaining to win workplace protections.
We know that companies are already scrambling, or will be soon, to accommodate the effects of climate change. Extreme heat slashes productivity by billions of hours and racks up huge air-conditioning bills. Stronger storms threaten job growth while paradoxically driving up wages amidst rebuilding efforts.
But demands for better labor practices in the face of climate change still risk being framed as clashing against the needs for urgent climate action: the “We must act more ambitiously, yesterday!” imperative. California’s firefighters, for example, faced pushback when they sought to improve wages for preventative fire management. Critics argued that the added expense might slow down brush-clearing drives before a brutal wildfire season. It’s a tricky balancing act for a state that “sources” much of its firefighting force from prisons, for pennies on the dollar.
There are instances, however, when the global impacts of climate change might give American workers more leverage, not less. As negotiations dragged on between dockworkers and West Coast port terminals, for example, a drought drying up the Panama Canal made it more difficult for suppliers to reroute shipping traffic to alternate entryways. Suddenly it was clear again, just as it was in the pandemic when supply-chain disruptions caused a backup of ships and containers, that the ports need the workers as much as the workers needed the ports.
From autos to agriculture and beyond
It’s not just infrastructure and logistics workers who are caught in the crosshairs of climate change. American farmworkers, too, will become more critical as the heating of the planet continues.
Years of strain on the country’s agricultural labor force were somewhat alleviated by access to globalized food markets. The network is fragile, though. Recent disruptions—from climate factors, rising energy costs, and geopolitical tensions—caused a 10% increase in American food prices in 2022 alone. As many producer nations turn to food nationalism in the face of falling crop yields, as India did last summer by banning grain exports, the US will have to rely more on its own farm workers.
Labor fights are an inevitable feature of deepening climate change. How they get resolved will shape our energy transition and other important components of the response. Will we see more Teslas on the road than EVs from the Big Three union manufacturers? Will our packages continue to land speedily on our stoops as delivery workers toil in extreme heat? Can we expect more NAFTA-scale transformations of trade as nations try to navigate worsening climate conditions? And when will I get my sriracha back? These are all questions that climate change poses.
The answers won’t be found today on the picket lines. But there are solutions. Whether they materialize depends on how employers, governments, and the labor movement recalibrate for a warming planet.
Adam Met is executive director of the climate research and advocacy nonprofit Planet Reimagined and holds a PhD in human rights and sustainable development. He also plays bass in the multi-Platinum band AJR. Ben Dahan, Planet Reimagined’s fellowships and partnerships advisor, contributed to this article.
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