Labor: Negotiate Green to Protect Working People and Their Environment

The crisis facing our planet is one of historic proportions and will require an historically broad coalition to solve.
Mother Nature does not discriminate, but those willing to break her rules surely do.

For years the ugly relationship between economic injustice and environmental injustice has festered and flourished. While the environmental impacts of the way we produce, consume, and dispose of material goods and energy affect us all, low-income working families and communities get a particularly raw deal: from the landfills and power plants that contaminate air, land, and water in their communities; to limited job options that often require prolonged exposure to toxic substances; to the higher incidence of asthma among their children; to the devastating effects of hurricanes and floods on their budgets and livelihoods.

So what's a labor union to do? While we see the writing on the wall regarding environmental degradation, we also know that when changes in consumption are required, it is poor consumers who are hit the hardest. It's the double whammy: these needed changes often lead to higher prices for essential goods and services like food, electricity, and fuel; and they can jeopardize the jobs of lower-wage workers in energy-intensive industries.

Too often we as a society do all stakeholders a disservice by talking about climate change, toxicity, and unsustainable resource depletion as problems to be solved by elite sectors of society in their spare time. Workers and low-income people are not a liability or a line item in the debate. They are a part of the solution.

At SEIU, we stand up for a dual commitment to the environment and society not despite our role as the nation's fastest growing union, but because of it. With the strength of our 1.9 million members, we have a unique opportunity to be part of the solution and to improve the lives of working people and their children for generations to come.

Right now, SEIU members and leaders from across the country are putting forth concrete ideas for such "green contract provisions" as public transportation benefits to decrease automobile use; replacement of toxic cleaning supplies to protect workers, land, and water; the adoption of more sustainable methods and tools to deliver top-quality healthcare; and the establishment of labor-management environmental committees for ongoing monitoring of environmental issues in the workplace. Through SEIU's considerable collective bargaining power and our Negotiate Green initiative, we have the capacity to negotiate for contract provisions that will benefit us, our children, and the environment.

The crisis facing our planet is one of historic proportions and will require an historically broad coalition to solve.

At every level -- international, national, sector and workplace -- we are all stakeholders and we all have a part to play. At SEIU, we can and must "negotiate green," creatively and persistently advocating for environmentally responsible paths and policies that respect human and labor rights.
Gerry Hudson is international executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
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