Q&A with the Labor Network for Sustainability's Mike Cavanaugh

January 23, 2020

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(This article first appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of the American Postal Worker magazine) 

With carbon emissions continuing to rise, activists and organizers have pushed forward a “Green New Deal” to combat climate change and transition away from fossil fuels by 2030. Mike Cavanaugh, Senior Strategic Advisor and Organizer in the Labor Network for Sustainability, has been an active labor organizer since 1973 – including 19 years at the national AFL-CIO, the last five of which he served as Executive Assistant to Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre. Cavanaugh stopped by APWU headquarters to discuss how the Green New Deal affects workers and union members, the stakes of climate change, and a “just transition.” The interview below has been condensed and edited for space and clarity.

What is the Labor Network for Sustainability?

The Labor Network for Sustainability was an idea that [Founding President] Joe Uehlein had to focus our attention and energies on this critical issue of connecting labor to the climate movement and just as importantly, connecting the climate movement to labor. It’s really important that there be a labor perspective and a labor voice within the climate movement. One of our goals as the Labor Network for Sustainability is to help shape the Green New Deal, to be at the table to help make it what we need it to be for workers.

What is the Green New Deal?

The Green New Deal is a concept, and a framework that has been brought forward by a broad range of members of Congress, for a solution to dealing with climate change and income inequality by putting forth a bold mobilization like the New Deal of the 1930s. It is an all hands on deck, massive mobilization for addressing the climate crisis and the inequality crisis. The Green New Deal will create millions of new jobs building the climatesafe economy and many of them will be in the high-wage manufacturing and construction sectors. The idea behind it is to see that we are transitioning off of fossil fuels and decarbonizing the economy as quickly as possible with the urgency that’s required by the science – a 50 percent reduction by 2030 and by 2050, we must be completely carbon free.

One of the elements of the Green New Deal is the “just transition” for workers. Can you explain what that means?

The transition from a fossil fuel economy to a renewable energy economy is happening. The real question is whether it can happen fast enough to avoid the worst effects of a climate disaster, and whether its going to happen with us or happen to us. So people who live and work in communities that are dependent upon the fossil fuel economy have to be considered, protected, and involved in that transition. We have to address the economic underpinnings and transition people from working in the fossil fuel economy to a renewable energy economy. We need to see to it that the jobs that are created are union jobs, so that the wage and benefit standards that people have now are not diminished in the transition, but are enhanced, along with workers rights and protections to form unions and bargain collectively.

What can postal workers do in the fight against climate change?

Postal workers can present information at meetings and at conventions, and become a member of the Labor Network for Sustainability. We hold webinars once a month on different topics that we invite people to join, where people share what they’re doing in different states and communities. Locally, individuals can be active in your community around this fight, raising it up within labor bodies and Central Labor Councils. This has got to be a labor issue that we take a position on, educate our members on, and hold our organizations accountable as we push for the transition. Union members need to know the high costs of doing nothing in terms of our economy and environment. We're now spending billions of dollars tackling the effects of climate change, from wildfires to storm surges, rising sea levels and more. We cannot deny the reality of what’s happening – the situation is getting worse, not better. We can’t simply say that there’s nothing we can do individually. There’s no escaping this, and this is everybody’s responsibility. Labor needs to lead.

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