By Tanace Matthiesen and Phyllis Hasbrouck

The pipeline industry offers (a limited number of) high-paying, unionized jobs that are understandably prized by workers. However, climate change, created by the burning of fossil fuels, is a huge threat to all jobs. This simply is no time to be building or replacing pipelines. Unless we stop and reverse the climate change process, labor union members and others will not be able to find decent, well-paying jobs. The economy will be in shambles, as one disaster after another strains our communities and nations.

The recent reports of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) show that in order to retain a livable climate, we must quickly transition away from fossil fuel extraction and use. A world constantly enduring massive wildfires, floods, hurricanes, droughts, and famines will not have good-paying union jobs. The only way to escape this possible nightmare is for all organizations, including the building trades unions, to come together and work out solutions that protect working people while also protecting the climate that is reeling from CO2 emissions.

Workers put themselves in danger every day while fighting the impacts of climate change, so unions, which have long fought workplace hazards, should be in the forefront of opposing the fossil fuel projects that cause these destructive events. Natural disasters due to a warming world are becoming more frequent, posing a grave threat to first responders like firefighters, who risk their lives to rescue people from more frequent flooding and wildfires.

Unions have understandable concerns, but we need to join forces, not fight each other.

Workers in coal mining, petroleum refining, and pipeline construction and maintenance understandably resist the idea of having to retrain and identify a new means of earning an income when their families may have been working in extractive economies for generations. In addition, these workers, when they are union members, generally make more money than workers in renewable energy.

However, a change is coming, and the sooner unions join with their natural allies, the more influence they will have in the new economy. The organizations that are opposing oil pipelines are also the ones that support workers’ rights to decent pay, better working conditions, and the unions that make these things possible. The huge corporations that lay oil pipelines and sell fossil fuels are the ones that oppose workers’ rights, including the right to a safe and health-promoting workplace. In the long run, unions will be better served by making an alliance with groups fighting climate change than by siding with their current employers.

With the federal money coming out of Washington, DC, in the Recovery Act and the pending infrastructure bill, our country should see enough economic growth to keep union members fully employed, even without pipeline construction–related jobs.

Unions and environmental groups are organizing to create new opportunities in the new economy.

There are numerous groups advocating for funding to ensure that workers are able to get jobs in the new economy. For example, there is the Good Jobs for All campaign, which calls for the federal climate response to include a jobs guarantee. The campaign for One Million Climate Jobs, organized by the Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union Group, has put workers at the forefront of its vision for tackling the climate crisis. The BlueGreen Alliance unites labor unions and environmental organizations to solve today’s environmental challenges in ways that create and maintain quality jobs. They recently sent a letter to President Biden and Congressional leaders calling for a recovery that addresses our nation’s persistent and unacceptably high levels of income inequality by creating millions of high-quality jobs in clean manufacturing, clean energy, restoration, and resilience. It’s a message the Biden administration seems to take seriously — the President’s infrastructure plan dedicates millions of dollars to train workers in fields like clean energy, mass transit, and building electrification.

We need to protect unions and workers who currently work in extractive industries.

Transitioning away from fossil fuels requires a massive workforce and consideration of the workers whose jobs will be lost in that change. As we move away from fossil fuels, we must ensure that those workers have decent pay and benefits. A new Sierra Club report, How to Build Back Better: A 10-Year Plan for Economic Renewal, discusses ways that upcoming legislation can address the concerns of both labor and environmentalists.

In addition to providing retraining funds, Congress must pass legislation that will give unions the ability and power to organize workers. The PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act would make it easier for workers around the country to organize. The infrastructure bill (H.R. 3684) includes provisions of the PRO Act. More than 100 industry associations, trade groups, and unions representing employers, workers, farmers, governors, mayors, and many others have announced their support for the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

We encourage unions to look again at where their interests lie in the long run and to join us in crafting new policies that will also protect their members in the short run. If unions join with those of us fighting to repair the damage to our climate, we will prove true the old maxim that “The cause of labor is the hope of the world.”