Unions + Environmentalists = A Movement

Attendees of the Environment and Economics Workship for Movement Activists

By Vanessa Warheit
Originally published in Medium

Last week I had the enormous privilege of participating in a two-day pilot workshop designed to help organized labor and environmental groups build a movement together. The free workshop was co-sponsored by The Sierra Club, Blue-Green Alliance, Communication Workers of America, and the United Steel Workers, and hosted by USW Local 5 in the quaint oil-refinery town of Martinez, CA. I attended as the Science/Environment partnerships liaison for Indivisible Berkeley.

One thing that immediately struck me was the genuine goodwill in the room, and the sense that all of us — from refinery workers to climate activists to union managers to cable repair guys — just want a more equitable, safe planet for our families and our communities. I also confess to being somewhat surprised that the union folks were so open, and so friendly. (I think they were equally surprised to find us so open and friendly!) It was exciting, too, to see how well organized and committed they were (yes, I know, it’s called “organized labor” for a reason), as these are essential requirements for building our nascent resistance movement. I’m really looking forward to working more with them in the future, and I feel lucky to have these guys on our side.

Environmentalists sit down with refinery workers to discuss the “Just Transition” to a clean economy.

But OK —friendly or not, how do you get oil workers and climate activists on the same page? Easy: show them their common enemy.

Les Leopold presenting at the Environment & Economics Workshop in Martinez, CA.

Les Leopold of the NYC-based non-profit Labor Institute ran the workshop, and he presented us each with a copy of his fantastic book — Runaway Inequality. The workshop focused on what Leopold calls “financial strip-mining”, and the spiraling inequality it has created in the US. (Anyone familiar with Robert Reich’s work has heard part of this story.)

Notice the similarity between these two graphs? Turns out it’s not a coincidence.

The premise is this: The financial sector has managed — thanks to systematic deregulation since the 1970’s — to siphon off 50% of the profits from our economy’s increases in productivity. The corresponding shift in economic motivation — from reinvestment in workers and companies to short-term ‘shareholder value’ — has created a whole host of ills, all of which are now bearing their evil fruit.

Leopold is like a master gardener, who knows that to eradicate the weeds choking the garden, you have to find the root. Financialization, he claims, is that root. (To be fair, he claims it’s not the only one — but it’s the most powerful driver of inequality. Other drivers with more limited influence include globalization, technology, reductions in government programs and the diminished power of unions.) If you’re passionate about healthcare, or racial justice, or mass incarceration, or climate change — whatever your progressive issue — if you want to know how it has gotten so bad, you can actually draw a line back to financialization.

The financialization of our economy is the root of inequality, which affects everything else. And once we all know where that root is, it’ll be a lot easier to pull it out.

Leopold’s aim is to train thousands of trainers, and expand this workshop to a national level — getting people from various progressive causes and movements in many more rooms together, learning about the evils of financialization and together coming up with ways to beat it. I’ve brought the idea back to the folks at Indivisible Berkeley, and we’re hoping to bring Leopold out here again soon to do a mass training in northern CA. (Let me know if you’re interested in getting involved!)

Because right now, we’re losing. But if all of us join together, we still might win.

Vanessa Warheit

Science/Environment Partnerships Liaison for Indivisible Berkeley. @ClimateReality leader. Filmmaker/Mom/Creator of @worsethanpoop and the @insularempire. #Ω

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