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Economy

Can Unions Save Workers from the Heat?

Climate adaptation, from the people who brought you Saturdays

Shaking hands.
Heatmap Illustration / Getty Images

Between the delivery drivers, nurses, graduate students, dockworkers, school teachers, hotel workers, pilots, Starbucks employees, actors, writers, and — potentially — auto workers who have either gone on strike or threatened to go on strike, this summer has become what many are calling “hot labor summer.”

But it’s also just been hot — literally one of the hottest summers on record. And in one way or another the heat affected workers of all kinds around the country. A hot hot labor summer, if you will.

In Los Angeles, NBCUniversal aggressively trimmed the ficus trees that had provided striking writers with shade, which the studio claimed was unrelated to the strikes but nevertheless led to a $250 fine from the city for trimming the trees without a permit. The next week, UPS averted a strike by reaching an agreement with the Teamsters that would, among other things, lead to the installation of air-conditioning units inside delivery vans. Meanwhile, in Texas, the governor signed a bill that would invalidate mandatory water breaks for construction workers. The bill won’t take effect until September 1, but already a construction worker collapsed at a job site outside of Houston and later died from hyperthermia — in other words, he overheated.

This trend will continue: As the world heats up, working conditions will get worse. And unions are starting to become essential to climate adaptation.

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  • “Workers, particularly workers from communities of color and low-income communities, are on the front lines of climate change,” Lara Skinner, executive director of the Climate Jobs Institute at Cornell University, told me. “Unions are a key voice in figuring out how we deal with extreme weather and protect workers from it, but also in figuring out how we deal with the climate crisis more generally.”

    Unions are famously responsible for leading the fights that created the eight-hour workday and the weekend. Those standards quickly became the norm in society at large, not just for union members. Skinner and Mark Brenner, an economist at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, told me unions have a unique, generational chance to do the same thing for climate change.

    In Portland, Oregon, for example, teachers’ unions are organizing to develop standards that would establish minimum and maximum temperatures in the classroom. If they come to an agreement that leads to the installation of HVAC systems to keep classrooms comfortable, it won’t be just the unionized teachers who benefit — their students and other school staff will as well.

    “A lot of unions have kind of walked into this through an occupational safety and health lens,” Brenner told me. The last few summers, in particular, have been a wake-up call, he said. “I’ve seen a ton of unions, some of which I never would have expected, start to think about the ways that these questions are affecting their workforce and how they need to be addressing them on a longer-range horizon than what maybe they’ve historically thought about.”

    Construction unions are a good example. Major construction projects tend to happen over the summer, Brenner said, and the unions are concerned about the heat either negatively affecting workers’ health or causing work stoppages, which would affect their paychecks. So they’re increasingly seeing the value in supporting decarbonization projects, because the long-term benefits would, ideally, be lower temperatures and safer working conditions.

    The unions weren’t always so on board with climate legislation. In 2020, Politicoreported that trade unions representing workers who historically would find employment on projects linked to fossil fuels — including construction unions — had blocked multiple state-level initiatives aimed at combating climate change. But as extreme weather worsens, and as the economic opportunity in decarbonization becomes clearer, they’re starting to come around.

    It helps that the Biden administration has been vocal about the impact of heat on workers (and that President Biden has been aggressively wooing union members for years). In late July, the White House announced steps it was taking to protect workers from extreme heat, such as having the Department of Labor issue a hazard alert for heat, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is expected to release a long-awaited national heat safety standard sometime this year.

    And then there’s BIL and IRA — the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.

    “That legislative agenda coming out of the Biden administration had a huge impact because it took the issue out of the realm of right and wrong and moved it into the realm of policy,” Brenner said. Suddenly it became clear to unions, even ones that had historically been uninterested in climate change, that there was a significant economic opportunity in clean energy and climate adaptation. It was a reckoning, Brenner said. “Like, these things are going to happen. We’re either going to be part of addressing these problems, or we’re going to be completely sidelined.”

    Last year, I wrote about how clean energy jobs pay less than fossil fuel jobs, in part because fossil fuel workers have strong, storied unions that secured high pay and good benefits. If that continues, the workers who are responsible for building the infrastructure that will help the country decarbonize could end up with fewer protections and lower pay.

    “There are challenges around job loss and the proliferation of non-union jobs in these new sectors,” Skinner said. “But there’s also a ton of opportunities. The amount of work that we have to do to address climate change is astronomical, right? We just really have to get so much done in the next few decades.”

    The unions aren’t working alone. Around the country, unions have come together to create climate jobs coalitions that push for unionized jobs on clean energy projects and legislation that will protect workers’ health as climate change makes labor conditions more dangerous.

    “I’m pleasantly surprised at the ways in which many unions are responding to this and starting to embrace these questions, not just in the reactive short-term, but in a much more strategic, longer-term way,” Brenner said. “So I think there’s a lot of reason to be hopeful that the labor movement could be a force for good.”

    Read more about how jobs are adapting to a warmer world:

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    Neel Dhanesha profile image

    Neel Dhanesha

    Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan.

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