“We have to be realistic about moving forward with industrial transformation”


During the trade union climate summit in Paris, on September 14-15, Brad Markell, executive director of the Industrial Union Council at the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), told Equal Times about the challenges of regulating global warming whilst also protecting the livelihoods of workers.

Is there an official position of the AFL-CIO for the COP21?

We do not have an official position because that requires going through our executive council and having a vote. We have not done that and we will not have an official position for the COP. We are instead working on issues surrounding the COP and around climate change regulation in the United States.

Would you support a binding agreement?

It depends what you mean by binding. If you mean something like Kyoto where there are numeric targets and penalties around numeric targets, than I don’t think we will.

Why not?

It’s just not politically tenable in the United States to support international binding targets.

The AFL-CIO’s view is that the way to make climate agreements binding is by including climate provisions inside of trade agreements. Hence, if you are not meeting your climate commitments, or if you are not making climate commitments at all, then the full benefits of trade agreements don’t accrue to you.

But the US is one of the biggest polluters in the world. If the US is not supporting this, then the whole world will pay the consequences. Is there that kind of awareness in the US?

For sure there is. Everybody knows how much the United States emits, everybody is aware of the things that President Obama is doing to reduce emissions.

But the point is that we want, in the US, to be held to our own internal targets and not to submit to external targets because if that is the case, then it has to go through the senate and it will not pass.

It’s much better from our point of view to have voluntary targets because that’s something the administration can commit to without Congress.

So if there was a binding agreement at the US level, would the unions support that?

I think you have a large split across the union movement. Some unions like the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) are very troubled about what is happening with the coalfields and with their members and with their retirees. A lot of coal companies are in bankruptcy and people are afraid that they are going to lose their retirement.

A lot of union coal mines are in very depressed areas and we don’t have a program for taking care of those people or their communities so that’s very tough. They are other unions that are full steam ahead. But in general I think that the unions that are in the energy sector are supportive but cautious.

Studies have shown that setting targets for climate change will result in job loss but also job creation. Does the AFL-CIO believe we can change towards greener jobs, a greener economy?

Yes, we have been very aware of that. We have a study from the Economic Policy Institute, which is a union-oriented institute, showing that there will be net job gain from our clean power plant, which is dealing with the electric power sector.

The issue is that the jobs that will be lost are more unionised, by a factor of three, than the jobs that will be gained. The jobs that will be lost are higher paying than the jobs that will be gained.

So we are looking at sort of a position that: yes we are going to get new jobs in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and all the supply-chain. But we also think there will be a lot of materials coming from overseas and a lot of lower quality jobs because it’s so hard to organise a union in the United States. The new energy sector is mostly non-union.

Do you think we can go on with shale gas exploration in the United States, while also tackling climate change?

We really won’t stop fossil fuel extraction until we find technologies that can replace fossil fuels as carriers of energy.

So whether we want to say, “don’t do any fracking, or don’t do any oil”, it’s not going to happen.

So we have to be realistic about moving forward, with industrial transformation. That is what is going to get us where we need to be. Not exhortations just to keep fossil fuels in the ground.