Episode 81: How U.S. Media Cynically Pits Labor and Climate Activists Against Each Other

Citations Needed | July 3, 2019 | Transcript

Pro-Nixon construction workers riot in Lower Manhattan in May 1970, attacking students and anti-war activists protesting the Vietnam War, bombing of Cambodia and the fatal shootings at Kent State.


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Adam: Yeah, and remember we have about 40+ News Briefs, which are these 10-40 minute segments we do that are only available on Patreon. So, if you’ve burned through the catalog and you’re looking for new content that’s something people seem to enjoy. And so we try to do those as often as we can for people who support us on Patreon.

Nima: “How Elite Environmentalists Impoverish Blue-Collar Americans,” howled a 2009 column in Forbes. A decade later, just last month — June 2019 — Forbes again warned of quote “a growing, and likely irreparable, rift between elite progressive environmentalists.” The Hill has explained how quote “Environmentalists need to reconnect with blue-collar America.” Recently, Politico reported, “Labor anger over Green New Deal greets 2020 contenders in California.” While a Fox News headline the very next day read, ““AOC’s Green New Deal could have Dems facing blue-collar backlash at polls, some say.”

Adam: One of the very few times that corporate media actually cares about what American labor has to say is when they’re using them as a wedge to punch left, namely at environmentalists and activists calling for urgent solutions to climate change. The narrative they’re reinforcing: a broadly assumed — but largely baseless — premise that climate change is a boutique issue for wealthy liberals that real, working, salt-of-the-earth people just don’t care about.

Nima: For a media that still largely views the working class as a white man with a hardhat caricature, this fits into a nice binary that undermines both efforts to take on fossil fuel companies and improve the lives of workers themselves. But who does this false dichotomy actually serve? How does the media highlight and misconstrue real points of tension to undermine both groups and what can activists do to resolve good faith differences without just playing into power-serving “hardhat versus hippie” cliches?

Adam: And moreover, what do we mean when we say “labor,” and how do “workers” — who exist in the Global South too — drowning in the South Pacific or displaced in the deserts of South Sudan factor into our notions of what’s at stake in the Labor versus climate change debate?

Nima: Later on the show, we will speak with Michelle Chen, contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast.

[Begin Clip]

Michelle Chen: I mean, I think the Green New Deal’s overarching agenda goes way beyond those energy worker unions and it’s talking about climate change as an economic imperative in the sense that poor disenfranchised communities will be the hardest hit. Those workers are workers who, some of them may work in the energy industries, but in fact the most vulnerable workers are workers that are working precarious service sector jobs, workers that may not have unions at all, farm workers and workers laboring in really dangerous and unstable conditions.

[End Clip]

Adam: In February, earlier this year, Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez, Representative from New York, and Ed Markey, a Senator from Massachusetts, announced what they called the Green New Deal, which was — broadly speaking, and this is extremely broad — a massive transition away from fossil fuels with very aggressive targets to reduce carbon emissions and try to mitigate catastrophic climate change. This is the biggest, boldest, most frankly, realistic legislative framework to actually do something about climate crisis. And it was immediately met with a torrent of articles rushing to sort of highlight the tensions between “labor” and Ocasia-Cortez. Now, to be fair, it is true that the Sunrise Movement and Ocasia-Cortez did not really consult with the major labor groups before they announced the plan. And there was definitely some territorial contests going on, but one couldn’t really read any, any coverage of the Green New Deal without this new sort of tension between labor and climate change activists. So you have Reuters in February 2019: “Labor unions fear Democrats’ Green New Deal poses job threat.” New York Post in March 2019: “Behind the Green New Deal: An elite war on the working class.”

Nima: That’s my favorite one. Reason in April 2019 had the headline “Joe Biden Courts Blue Collar Voters, Says ‘I Am a Union Man.’” And ABC News, also in April, ran the report, “2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden appeals to labor unions, blue collar workers at rally.”

Adam: And both of these articles took potshots at the Green New Deal as a sort of liberal elitism thing. There’s a few problems with this. There was a study done by Data For Progress of progressive think tank in March of 2019, 350 Action and YouGov, polling that found that “labor” — being in a union — tracks with support for the Green New Deal and remains broadly popular with 59% of voters in the U.S. supporting the policy and only 29 opposed. But you can actually adjust for other factors and you find out that being in a union in and of itself correlates with support for the Green New Deal.

Nima: Right. Not this kneejerk ‘union labor opposes this,’ which is what you see in headlines. If you actually look at the data, unions — people who are in unions — broadly support it.

Adam: Right, and so you have a sort of subset of unions which is what sort of generally called the trades unions, which are people who are construction, oil, gas, people who work in mining, obviously coal mining. You have that these workers, which again sort of fit into a sort of traditional mold of white rural working class workers, really become the focus point of where this tension lies. What was basically a turf war between the heads of labor, heads of these traditional trade labor unions and AOC and the Green New Deal because they didn’t consult them, was turned into this existential crisis where people who cared about climate change were painted as elite detached liberals who were going to hand Pennsylvania to Trump again versus these hardhat, real salt of the earth types without any indication. And none of these reports that we mentioned and none that we’ll mention later, none of them really talk about what the stakes are, which is to say the end of the Earth. I mean the stakes could not be higher, but it’s treated as a boutique issue that only rich liberal Hollywood donors care about.

Nima: Well, right. And so you get into this hardhat versus hippies, right? So they’re the tree huggers over there, the flower children, and then, you know, the coal-smudged, hardhat wearing Real American. But you know, this is a trope that is really exploited throughout our media and unsurprisingly, no more so than on Fox News. Media Matters recently reported that in the last week of March 2019, Fox aired more than twice as many prime time segments discussing the Green New Deal as MSNBC and CNN combined. And also unsurprising the coverage that was aired on Fox was, quote, “riddled with misinformation, mockery, and climate change skepticism.” End quote. So what you get in the polling, even when you see polling on Green New Deal breaking along partisan lines with Republicans and right leaning respondents overwhelmingly negative about Green New Deal, they also tell pollsters that they’re highly informed about it. So it’s like, you know, they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, I know a lot about that and I’m opposed to it,’ when really this has to do with the Fox News media machine and the right-wing media machine of painting AOC and supporters of the Green New Deal as hippie dippy socialists loons, which actually animates a lot of the animus against this policy. So you actually see this play out in the actual polling. There’s a Yale-George Mason poll that found that support for the Green New Deal is lower among Republicans who watch Fox News more frequently than it is among Republicans who watch it less often. This was a survey conducted in April of this year and it showed that support for the Green New Deal is just 22% among Republicans who watch Fox more than once per week as opposed to support for it is at 56% among Republicans who watch Fox once per week on average or less. But it’s actually more profound than that. Also, in April, the US Chamber of Commerce — extremely right-wing — released the results of a poll finding that quote, “73% of voters support a ‘cleaner, stronger’ energy agenda that uses more American energy and continues environmental progress, compared to 21% of voters who support the Green New Deal.” So that’s how it was framed: the 73% versus 21% but this is what the questions were on the poll. It was whether you support this: “America focusing on using its resources responsibly and safely by implementing a ‘cleaner, stronger’ energy agenda that prioritizes investments in innovation and advanced technology to reduce emissions.” That’s one. That got 73%. This got 21%: “America focusing on requiring a transition to the Green New Deal’s proposal to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. economy in 10 years, regardless of cost.” So you see like that’s totally disingenuous polling where you know the thing that was apparently 73% overwhelming response positivity was not the Green New Deal one. Like yeah, but nothing in there contradicts anything in the Green New Deal. It’s like the Obamacare thing. You know, if you describe what’s actually in like the Affordable Care Act and you say, ‘So there’s this thing called the Affordable Care Act and here’s, here’s what you get and whatever it is problematic but, but here’s the stuff.’ Do people like it? And they’re like ‘overwhelmingly.’ And they’re like ‘what about Obamacare?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh fuck that, that’s horrible, no way, that’s like a socialist government takeover and fuck Obama.’ And it’s like, oh cause you’re just talking about the people and the name associated with this policy and not the policy itself.

Adam: Yeah. And the reality is that the right only gives a shit about unions when they can use them as a wedge. But if you actually look at the quotes, and you could do this on your own time, if you try to find quotes from people like Phil Smith, the Director of Communications at the United Mine Workers who represent about 80,000 coal mine workers, if you try to look up quotes from union heads like him online, it’s either two stories. It’s an anti-environmentalism story or it’s a story about how unions may be sympathetic to or going to Trump. Nobody gives a shit at Politico, or to large extent The Washington Post, although they are not as bad, or Reuters about unions unless they can use them as a wedge. There’s no sense that, you know, here’s how coal miners have suffered, here’s how coal miners have disease or are losing their pensions. Occasionally you get a process story here and there. But mostly the extent to which these publications care about workers is when they can use them against the other thing they’re not supposed to care about, which is catastrophic climate crisis. And I think that really says all that you need to say, which is there’s a selectivity here, which is something that we talk a lot about in the show, about emphasis, where it’s not that there aren’t real tensions within labor, it’s that those tensions are selectively highlighted and cynically wielded by both centrist and right-wing media to undermine dealing with the real issue at hand, which is climate change. And then you have the other issue, which we’ll get into with our guest, about who even gets to be counted as a worker, even within the United States. Forget, you know, workers in the Global South who are going to disproportionally be affected by climate change without a doubt. In fact, they already are. This is no longer, you know, in the future, this is now. The people within the United States, undocumented immigrants, people who are not in unions who are going to be severely undermined by the sporadic weather patterns brought on by climate change, people in agriculture, construction, they just sort of don’t count. They’re not workers that are worthy of seeking out. So you have this very selective, very tokenizing understanding of what is labor. And so when they say, you know, labor versus climate change, really what they mean to say is a very specific kind of labor, a very specific racialized labor.

Nima: Only the labor we mean in this specific case.

Adam: Right. But otherwise we don’t give a shit about them.

Nima: Well, right. And also there’s the political horserace angle of this too Adam, which is, you know, that the Democratic Party is gonna lose the labor vote, right? It’s going to lose unions. The Democratic Party used to be, you know, the home of unions and now this like, oh, caring about the fucking planet is going to make them run from the party, which also plays into, you know, we were reading those headlines earlier, the role corporate centrists like Joe Biden serve. So you have an article from May 2019 from the Detroit News, it’s a commentary by Nolan Finley and in it Finley writes this, quote: “Joe Biden’s surge since officially entering the presidential race should be instructive to the score of other Democrats competing for the party’s nomination. Biden broke from the pack by turning away from the Big Government, Big Giveaway platform dominating the early campaign and focusing instead on the Forgotten Democrats.” — that’s “F”-“D” capitalized, Forgotten Democrats — “They’re a subset of the Forgotten Americans that carried Donald Trump to victory in 2016, when Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party deemed them irrelevant. These blue-collar, union workers were once the spine of the Democratic Party. They kept the party true to pocketbook issues — jobs, fair working conditions, decent wages, opportunity for their kids.” End quote.

Adam: Again, the problem with that is that, I mean, yeah, it is true that the Democrats to some extent abandoned unions, but the reality is that the bulk of unions are service unions, they’re not, the biggest union is the teachers union, followed by SEIU, which of course is not really what they’re talking about here, although there is some overlap. I don’t want to downplay too much because I do think that the Democrats did to some extent needlessly abandon white labor or whatever you want to call it in the Midwest, but it really wasn’t as big a factor as people make it out to be. According to a review of exit polls by Slate, quote, “Rust Belt 5 were twice as likely either to vote for a third party or to stay at home than to embrace Trump.”Quote unquote. In other words, Clinton lost Rust Belt voters. Those making under $50,000, Trump didn’t really win them. Democrats lost 1.35 million votes. Trump picked up about 590,000, the rest stayed at home or voted for a third party. So really 2016 was defined by depressed voter turnout, which largely had to do with a number of factors which we won’t get into, but it wasn’t so much that they ran into the arms of Trump or viewed Trump as some liberator. Although reading, you know, scanning The New York Times profiles of the Rust Belt, you would think they are all Trump voters. There was an exodus, there was a slight exodus, but the idea that embracing climate change or the reality of climate change is somehow toxic to winning over these voters, it does two things. Number one, it breeds apathy and nihilism and ‘why bother,’ you know, mentality. But two, it really is patronizing and undermines the degree to which these workers, if their brains weren’t pumped full of poison from Fox News every day would have to appreciate and understand the stakes of climate change and that there really has to be a just transition that gives people comparable jobs and maintains pensions. And that’s an argument I think, this is why AOC was smart in framing the Green New Deal as a jobs program. This is a New Deal. This is a jobs program that is going to both provide work and also well paying work and work with pensions, but also is going to save us from boiling the Earth or at least increase our timetable of not doing so.

Nima: And allow us to potentially survive on that boiling earth a little longer.

Adam: Right.

Construction workers attack students outside Federal Hall on Wall Street on May 8, 1970. (Credit: AP)

Nima: The hardhat versus hippie media trope was really born on May 9, 1970. There certainly were articles about competing class, race, generational [issues], as we’ve discussed on the show previously in the ‘60s and ‘70s of course, but in early May 1970, there was an article in The New York Times headlined “War Foes Here [meaning New York] Attacked By Construction Workers” And it opens this way:

“Helmeted construction workers broke up a student anti war demonstration in Wall Street yesterday, chasing youths through the canyons of the financial district in a wild noontime melee that left about 70 persons injured.

“The workers then stormed City Hall, cowing policemen and forcing officials to raise the American flag to full staff from half staff, where it had been placed in mourning for the four students killed at Kent State University on Monday.”

End quote.

Following the so-called ‘Hard Hat Riots’ of May 1970, President Richard Nixon thanked the construction workers for their support and was presented with a commemorative hard hat in return.

So the article talks about, there were mass protests that week against the escalation of bombing in Southeast Asia by the Nixon administration, which also coincided with the National Guard shooting students at Kent State. And in response to these protests in downtown Manhattan, apparently all these construction workers wearing their construction gear and their hardhats, many of them actually working on building the World Trade Center at the time, which would be open two years later, attacked these students and protesters and other people. And it really had this visual cue of hardhats versus hippies and this idea of the subversives being, you know, knocked over the head and you know, made to respect the flying flag because of, whatever, patriotism and dropping bombs on people. Right? So that trope really entered into this media lexicon and has been used again and again as we’ve seen and no more so kind of shifting from the war framework now into a more environmental framework.

Adam: I think the war framework is a good one because Sarah Lazare helped write this show and edited the piece that it’s based on written by Michelle Chen, I think had a great analogy. She said, when we talk about climate change versus labor and we don’t talk about the laborers in the Global South, it’s just like with the way we cover war, only in the context of how it affects American troops and not those affected by the violence overseas. And so you see this, you know, forget, forget interviewing laborers who don’t fit those sort of white hardhat stereotypes. I mean the millions and hundreds of millions of laborers in the Global South who will be affected by climate change are just a nonissue. They just don’t exist in any of these articles we mentioned and they will never exist in any of the articles you mention because they’re not considered a legitimate stakeholder even though they’re the ones by every single objective metric that will suffer the most.

Nima: To discuss this more we’re going to be joined by Michelle Chen, contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Michelle Chen. Thank you so much for joining us today and Citations Needed.

Michelle Chen: Thank you.

Adam: So, I loved your piece. I’ve been talking about it with Nima for a long time and one of the things that I found intriguing about it is there really has been this sort of uptick in outlets like The Washington Post and Politico sort of suddenly having a massive interest in what Joe Worker has to say. Now there are some real points of tension between what we sort of generally referred to as organized labor, specifically organized labor in the trades, oil, gas, so forth, and the Green New Deal. And I guess my first question is that in your writing, how do you distinguish between kind of bad faith concern trolling and legit concerns with the possible negative effects or short-term negative effects on American workers?

Michelle Chen

Michelle Chen: Well, I suppose you probably have to look at who’s doing the commentary. I imagine that mainstream corporate media publications are generally interested in reporting on divisions within the left because they find it interesting to sort of dissect or kind of record the drama of a slugfest because I suppose, you know, maybe the Left is kind of boring otherwise. And they have to think of different ways that they can report on exciting angles going on within the left. And I think that might be one of the motivations for mainstream publications taking a peculiar interest in any kind of division that’s going on among progressives. And so this issue might be no different. With respect to just, you know, genuine concerns that labor has I would probably think that if labor is voicing them then those should be taken seriously. That doesn’t necessarily mean that every concern that is aired is a valid one. It doesn’t necessarily mean that labor advocates that take various positions can’t be misinformed or perhaps ill informed or misled about some of the claims going on around such an issue, such a contentious issue as climate change. I guess it’s less of an issue of whether it’s just concern trolling or you know, genuine good faith critique. I mean you have to look at sort of the substance of the critique and figure out from there who is irrelevant to you and who’s saying it.

I don’t think that mainstream media necessarily really has a dog in this fight. So I’m not really sure why they, when they do report on divisions that are surrounding something like the Green New Deal I think they’re primarily interested in kind of, um, sort of the internecine politics of the Left. When we’re looking at labor unions raising genuine concerns that are on behalf of their own members that should, at least on the surface, I mean, seems like if it seems like it is, um, it is out of valid concern for their constituents, I mean that’s what labor movements, I mean that’s what labor unions do. So that doesn’t necessarily mean that every critique coming from them as valid though.

Nima: Yeah. So in your piece you note that kind of when discussing climate change, the climate emergency, climate crises and their effect on certain union jobs, by and large, the media kind of presents a very specific white working man cliche. And that type of stereotype is sought out for comment routinely, whether they’re union leaders or just kind of, you know, Joe Hardhat. But while the people who do wear hardhats are definitely affected by climate, affected by policy and worth checking in with, to what extent has this cliche kind of monopolized the conversation entirely away from maybe other types of working people?

Michelle Chen: Well, I think that when we’re talking about the Green New Deal, I mean it is supposed to be an attempt to knit together sort of an economic development agenda that works for working class people and an environmental agenda that tries to mitigate and or adapt to the impacts of climate change. Both of those things are things that need to be done, whether they can be neatly meshed together in the Green New Deal that is a question for policymakers and whether they can make it work. I think that when we’re talking about the labor unions that are going to be most vocal in their opposition, or at least their hesitance around the Green New Deal, it would be those who feel that their livelihoods are immediately threatened by a dramatic transition in the economy away from fossil fuels. So, when we talk about hardhats broadly, I mean I guess it’s a shorthand for people who do work in the building trades, people who are involved in the energy industry. And so you do see that coming out. I mean you see mine workers as well as, I think it was the IBEW that voiced concerns about the Green New Deal. And so, you know, their job is to advocate for their members and um, that’s, I imagine that that’s what they’re doing in good faith. I think that to the extent that they are concerned, it is probably just about the livelihoods of their members. If they had some assurance that their members would fair okay in this transition, then that would probably allay their concerns right there. I don’t think there’s an ideological opposition to anything the Green New Deal is proposing to do. And so when we’re talking about those workers, I think those needs can be addressed. But I mean, I think the Green New Deal’s overarching agenda goes way beyond those energy worker unions. It’s talking about climate change as an economic imperative in the sense that poor disenfranchised communities will be the hardest hit. Those workers are workers who some of them may work in the energy industries, but in fact the most vulnerable workers are workers that are working precarious service sector jobs, uh, workers that may not have unions at all. Farm workers and workers laboring in really dangerous and unstable conditions. So if you look at the workers that are most impacted by the issues that the Green New Deal is trying to tackle, by and large, some of that may be people who have their livelihoods at stake in a transition away from a fossil fuel based economy. But by and large, I mean I think the largest constituency group that the Green New Deal is advocating for in terms of workers are those workers whose livelihoods and lives will be threatened by climate change, not so much by the disruption caused by the transition away from fossil fuels. And to the extent that they are going to experience disruption, I mean that is something that is a bridge that they’re going to have to cross if they want to actually preserve their communities and survive. So it kind of comes down to an existential question. So I guess like I mean in terms of which workers we should be listening to, I think it’s always important to recognize that the labor unions that are most politically influential and best positioned to have the ear of the mainstream media are not necessarily the ones that are that representative of the broader working class. Labor unions are by their nature, powerful groups of organized workers and that’s what they should be. But there are a lot of workers out there that don’t have unions to advocate for them. And there’s also a broader labor movement that goes well beyond individual unions. Right? So there’s a broader working class movement out there and there’s a broader interest group of working class people that are not necessarily advocating in an organized way.

Adam: Yeah, and this is the thing I found fascinating about it, which is at the beginning of the episode we did a sort of cursory review of who The Washington Post, Politico, Reuters talks to and they speak to, every single person they spoke to in a leadership position was, was a white male. And they sort of have a very, like you said, a kind of hardhat understanding, but of course we can even abstract that a little further. It’s not even just the people who, you know, your, your sort of undocumented labor in the hot sun in California who will be affected by climate change because they don’t establish the stakes of climate change on workers. It’s seen as this sort of boutique, rich white liberal issue versus the sort of rough and tough salt of the Earth. Whereas the reality of the situation is that it’ll have a massively negative effect on real workers. Not even just of course in the United States, but workers outside of the United States. You already have obviously famine in certain parts of Africa, you have islands literally disappearing in the Pacific. Now these are workers too. And I, and I guess what I, what I’m asking is to what extent do you think that reporters who report on this should really maybe think about, should broaden their idea of what it means to have a working class comment on this particular topic?

Michelle Chen: Sure. I mean, I think that our concept of working class, I mean, if they have a concept of working class at all it is one that is almost completely, you know, contained within the confines of the United States, right? We don’t really think of the working class in global terms and I think the Green New Deal, I mean if there is anywhere that it falls short is that it is um, it is primarily nationally focused, right? And it could actually go much further in terms of trying to broaden its scope to extend beyond the boundaries of the United States because climate change is obviously a global issue. And likewise the working class interest in a just transition is also a global one. The labor movement in the U.S. and I guess you could say, you know, most labor movements of all countries could also fall short in terms of finding sort of a broader sort of internationalist agenda. I think that has a lot to do with um, the way trade policy works, the way nation states operate with respect to labor law and the way that unions are set up. I mean there’s essentially the larger more influential unions are essentially sort of ensconced in a system of national governments, right? And they’re beholden to those laws and it’s very difficult to sort of come up with a coordinated agenda where it’s unions coming together sort of around the world. But if there is one issue that could really mobilize the working classes around the world, whether they’re in unions or not, it should be something like climate change. Right? So I think the Green New Deal also presents an opportunity in that sense.

Going back to what the media could do. Well the media does report on climate change in its international reporting certainly. But again, I mean it’s never going to be a full picture because mainstream media outlets are generally pretty limited in terms of what they can do when reporting on sort of the global scale of climate change. That being said, I mean I would say that sort of every institution could probably go much further in terms of coming up with a more international sort of transnational concept of what it means to be a worker and the struggles that workers everywhere are facing. I think their reporting on globalization and say the reporting on trade policy perhaps might be some examples of where there has been actually some pretty interesting reporting talking about global supply chains and other things like that. And I mean I think that if climate change is going to be affecting the economy on a global scale, then maybe it would be incumbent upon the media to actually integrate some of their reporting on things like trade policy and the global economy with what is sort of the global impact of climate change on something like, you know, the garment trade or oil markets around the world and you know, have this affecting everyday working people.

But just going back to this question of their workers around the world that are all being affected by climate change, I mean there are workers in America that are also being affected by climate change now, right? And I would think that if maybe one very concrete example, um, that we have right here in the United States are the many immigrant workers who have left their home countries due to factors that are at least indirectly related to environmental changes that have happened, uh, because of fossil fuel based economy. So we’re going to see increasing levels of climate driven migration in the coming years and the people who are going to be moving across borders are going to be moving ,if we don’t deem them outright climate refugees and they are certainly climate driven economic migrants. Right? And so, you know, these are going to be the new working classes, people whose livelihoods and their quest for, you know, a decent living is going to be shaped by climate change. So that is the, you know, that is one area that I think the labor movement both here and internationally has yet to really grapple with. Uh, you know, given that when labor does sort of weigh in on trade policy, it’s often from a standpoint of, well, we have to protect American jobs.

Adam: Right. Bringing it back real quick to the sort of hardhats versus hippies frame. It seems like so much of this rests upon what people mean when they say ‘just transition.’ Obviously American labor, organized labor, the sort of big unions were burned by previous promises of just transition, whether it was NAFTA or TPP. So when Ocasio-Cortez by her own admission and her Sunrise Movement’s own admission, without any kind of consultation to the big labor groups sorta says, ‘oh, don’t worry, we’re going to have a just transition.’ To what extent do you think that, I mean, what does it mean to reassure these groups in your opinion? And our labor groups may be rightfully skeptical that once a Green New Deal in reality goes through the legislative process, goes to the kind of neoliberal meat grinder that when it comes out the other end it a just transition will just be more sort of, you know, go to community college and learn how to kind of program crap.

Michelle Chen: Yeah. Well I think that those are valid concerns. I don’t know that the, I mean I assume that their Trade Adjustment Act and other things like that, I don’t know if they were actually framed using the term just transition, but if they were, that certainly would be interesting. I mean, yeah, the just transition with respect to the economy I think with respect to the environment, I think it is important to keep in mind that yes, I mean there has never been a particularly good example of a just transition, but we also haven’t dealt with climate change on this level before. Right? So we’re, we’re doing a lot of things that are unprecedented right now. But yeah, I mean I do think it is a valid concern course that people’s livelihoods will be disrupted by climate change. I think it’s really important that governments, policy makers and the labor movement is honest about this and consumers as well. You know, the environmental movement I think has for a very long time sort of capitalized on the on the sort of the stagnant political discussion in Washington around climate change and hasn’t really had to grapple with really strong policies that are designed to decarbonize the economy. We’ve never faced that as workers or as consumers, right? So it is going to be a very difficult transition for everyone. I think workers rightfully should be concerned about how this will affect their jobs, but we also have to recognize that our entire way of life is going to undergo some pretty drastic changes. Right? And that’s something we should all be bracing for. I think it’s important to recognize that this can’t be done on the cheap and that people can’t expect to maintain our current levels of consumption through this transition process. So I think there needs to be an honest reckoning on everyone’s part for all stakeholders. And I think that Labor obviously should advance its agenda. I think some of the pushback that came when the Green New Deal was first introduced, I mean, I’m not really sure that was so much like the labor unions were sort of bristling at the fact that there wasn’t enough about the just transition so much as they did not like the fact that they weren’t at the table or they weren’t consulted.

Adam: Right.

Michelle Chen: It’s not really like if they had been consulted in advance they would have come up with like this awesome idea for a just transition. Right? That wouldn’t have happened anyway, but I think that was more about the politics and you know that’s not to be discounted either as a factor, but that was more about the politics of showing some deference to the labor movement as an equal partner in the just transition. So I think that operates on a political level, but that doesn’t really indicate very much about what a just transition really should look like. I don’t think anyone is particularly well equipped, not the IBEW and probably not AOC either to really map out step by step a just transition process. I mean, I think that is like a massive undertaking that will happen, that we’ll need to engage basically every institution in society.

Nima: Yeah. I’m really struck by how more progressive policies always get the kind of microscope scrutiny of, ‘Oh, well, this isn’t fleshed out enough where all the details?’ Whereas more say conservative policies like dropping bombs on people, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, no, sure. Like, you don’t have to show us your work. You can just go and do that. But if you’re going to propose maybe sort of saving the planet, we’re really going to need to see all the math or else we can just discount this.’ And I think that there’s this partisanship aspect that you’re really getting to, there’s the policy, but then there’s also the politics of it and kind of how that plays out. And as you know, observers of media seeing how, just by the mere mention of AOC or Green New Deal, how much do you think that is animating certain unions that say maybe lean Right politically are discounting something that actually doesn’t have to do with the policy itself, but just by who is presenting it?

Michelle Chen: Yeah, I mean I think that AOC and Representative Markey were strategic in the sense that they were spearheading this and they were putting their faces on the Green New Deal. Right? I mean there’s a politics about what they are doing too in terms of framing the Green New Deal. I think that labor leaders perhaps are positioning themselves trying to sort of, you know, give them a hard time about it. Not necessarily because they’re going to reject it outright, but the pushback there might be meant to just send a message like, ‘Oh look, you know, don’t think that you can just push us around or that we’re just going to blindly follow you whatever you do.’ So, I mean, I don’t really know about the inside baseball of that, but I’m sure it has to do with the fact that like labor, I mean when we’re talking about the AFL-CIO, you know, you’re talking about people with like deeply embedded links in the Washington establishment, right? I mean these are not political outsiders. AOC just positioned herself as an outsider and she sort of has proudly taken on the mantle of being a disruptor of sorts in Congress and that’s her bag, right? Like, that’s her shtick. Labor leaders probably find it politically safer for them to straddle both sides here and say, ‘Look, we’re not going to immediately buy in.’ You know, like you said, you know, show your math. Right? So there are always going to put a proposal that claims to be so sweeping under a microscope. I don’t think that it would be wise for them to really push back too hard because I mean it’s not really like, is the fossil fuel industry gonna I don’t know, back them up if they did? You know it’s not really like they can naturally sort of side with the fossil fuel industry like they’re natural allies in this, right? I mean labor is going to get screwed by corporations no matter what. They might also get screwed by environmentalists, but there’s a lesser chance of that happening I would wager. They’ve been following the same sort of tactic of going along with fossil fuel industries’ agenda for, you know, the better part of what the last two, three generations now. And they’ve sort of ridden that wave as long as they can, but it’s no longer sustainable. Right? And so you see this as well in an example that Trump always likes to invoke is of course the coal mine workers, right?

Nima: Sure.

Michelle Chen: And so the idea that he is somehow reviving coal, which is by any measure sort of in its death throes right now, I think many people still sort of cling to that because it is sort of the one thing that has been able to make them feel secure. Right? Sort of tethering their fate as workers to the fate of this industry, but right now, I mean I think labor knows that it really has to jump off of a sinking ship and then the one little life raft that is floating out there is probably this Green New Deal. And yes, it is sort of our great environmental moonshot, but there really is nothing else out there, right? Like if it’s not this, it’s not going to be anything else. So yeah, there aren’t many other fallbacks. There’s no Plan B.

Nima: I think that’s actually a really good place to leave it. Michelle Chen, contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, contributing editor at Dissent, co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. Thank you so much again for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Michelle Chen: Thank you.


Adam: Yeah. I think the, um, how we define workers and how we define the negative impacts on workers is fundamentally a question of very, very short term versus very long term. I’m super sensitive to the concerns of just transition. But I do think the media, it’s incumbent upon the media, if you’re gonna report on something like climate change, which has a sort of universal scientific consensus, is extremely urgent, that we don’t talk about it as if it’s, you know, ‘I like vanilla ice cream, you like chocolate.’

Nima: Right. This is not actually a choice of whether to do nothing or do one thing. It’s like something absolutely needs to happen. Something is already happening to us. Like this is already going on. There is no choice to just be like, ‘Let’s just keep it rolling the way we have it rolling. What’s the problem?’ It’s like we’re all going to be fucking underwater. So, like something actually does need to happen.

Adam: And these reports where they sort of cherry pick certain labor unions while ignoring the other 90 percent of labor and who’s affected by that labor. Both, you know, undocumented or non union labor in the United States and also of course throughout the world throughout the Global South is I think an interesting glaring hole, right? You’re only really talking about sort of like the corruption episode where we talked about we’re only talking about 3% of corruption. Really, we’re only talking about 3% of labor and I don’t think it’s too much to ask reporters who report on climate change to really talk about what the stakes are and, because in none of these articles do they really talk about what’s going to happen if we don’t do something, again, it’s treated as this, even in the Fox News report “liberal lead” but really need to talk about how it affects workers, how it affects actual workers, even just the ones that are stateside. And I know it can be a little bit pat or glib to say, you know, there’s no jobs in a boiling Earth that’s flooded because I do think that’s not very reassuring, you know, coal miners in Kentucky, but at the same time it is objectively true. Like its objectively true. So we have to reconcile those two competing forces in an earnest way, not in a way that some glib asshole reporter who just wants to troll both labor and the environment.

Nima: Right. Exactly. That both wind up being whiny and snide while this is actually a completely existential emergency for the entire planet. So I’m glad we discussed this today. I’m glad we had that conversation with Michelle and that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. You can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Research and newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Additional writing on this episode by Sarah Lazare. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, July 3, 2019.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.