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Movement Roots

very brief histories of Indigenous, environmental justice, and labor organizing and suggestions for further readings

The environmental justice (EJ) movement organizes to protect the communities where people live, work, and play, and to build a world where everyone, regardless of their race or class, has access to clean water, air, and healthy food. It is a movement led by people of color, Indigenous peoples, the poor, and others who are hurt first and worst by environmental pollution and climate change.

The modern EJ movement was born in 1982 in Warren County, North Carolina, when a community of largely poor, Black people took non-violent direct action to stop the building of a hazardous waste landfill that would pollute their drinking water. While they lost the fight to stop the project, their efforts garnered significant media attention and helped community organizers around the country to shine a light on a common pattern: environmentally hazardous sites are disproportionately sited in communities of color and poor communities. This sparked and continues to inspire powerful community organizing that bridge issues of civil rights and environmentalism, and reframes pollution as an issue of injustice and inequity. Decades of EJ organizing is responsible for the centrality of racial and economic justice in how we think about climate change today, and the emphasis on justice in the Green New Deal.

National, majority-white environmental groups have a history of ignoring or undermining EJ advocates. This has been shifting in recent years, but it leaves a legacy of mistrust. As a result, some EJ groups have been initially skeptical of the Green New Deal or mistrustful of Sunrise. On the other hand, many have enthusiastically supported the GND, seeing it as a continuation of what they have been fighting for for a long time.

Further reading

Unions are a large portion of a broader labor movement that fights to protect and improve the rights and conditions of working people. Broadly speaking, workers build their power by collectively demanding adequate compensation and better working conditions. Unions provide organizing muscle, education, tools, legal power, and representation for their members and are organized by specific skill set (i.e. carpentry) or a specific industry (ie. education).

Unions are often national or international in scope and have local chapters that regionally organize people in their given skill set or industry. Unions also support politicians and policies locally and nationally, particularly when their members’ interests are directly at stake. On the state and local level, coalitions of local unions coordinate via a state body such as an “AFL-CIO state federation” or a regional body such as a “labor council.”

  • Union “local” (e.g. SEIU 517M).
  • Local/regional “labor council” (e.g. Springfield Labor Council). A labor council is a local or regional federation of most unions in that area. Most labor councils function as affiliates of the AFL-CIO.
  • National labor federation (e.g. AFL-CIO). Labor federations unite many national unions into a collective body for coordination and wielding shared power. AFL-CIO and Change to Win
  • Union “national” or “international” (e.g. SEIU).

Unions can take a position on an issue at the local, state, or national level. In cases when a national union has not taken a stance for-or-against an issue like the Green New Deal, its locals may still take a vote to support or oppose it. Often, media highlight the positions of unions in fossil fuel-intensive industries (e.g. pipefitters, coal miners) to tell a story of 'unions vs. environmentalists.' When you hear these stories, remember that the labor movement is in fact quite diverse and represents many different types of workers, including many who are in support or could be in support of a Green New Deal. These include but aren’t limited to teachers, service workers, and transit workers.

Further readings and resources

Fossil fuel extraction and combustion is the largest single cause of climate change and many groups focus their time and energy on organizing to Keep It In The Ground (KITG). This work ranges from direct action led by Indigenous tribes to stop fossil fuel infrastructure (i.e. NoDAPL) to federal policy work led by large environmental organizations. These groups view a plan to keep fossil fuels in the ground as a necessary prerequisite to an effective GND and are generally aligned with the big-picture goals of the GND resolution. Many of these groups are also actively campaigning for a GND.

Further readings:

“Big Greens” refers to national environmental organizations who traditionally control the vast majority of financial resources in the environmental and climate movement. They range from groups like the Environmental Defense Fund that are quite conservative and opposed to Sunrise’s efforts, to relatively aligned organizations like the Sierra Club or Due to the history of resource imbalances, and some Big Greens ignoring the racial justice or immigration implications of their policy proposals, there is ongoing tension between Big Greens and environmental justice groups. In recent years, some Big Greens have done a better job of incorporating justice into their efforts and some have come out in favor of a GND. In many cases, these groups have local chapters that are excited to support young leaders in Sunrise and are also organizing for a GND or similar local efforts.

Further readings