Words by Yessenia Funes
Photograph by Brandon Barela
In an interview with labor rights activist Dolores Huerta, The Frontline looks at the power organizing holds to achieve climate justice. The labor movement and climate movement must join hands to tackle our global crisis.
The pandemic has shown us the brutal underbelly of how the economy operates. People are suffering, and yet the economy is booming. We’ve seen how workers once deemed essential by our leaders are quickly disposed of and called low-skill. And we’ve seen how the climate crisis is making them even more vulnerable. If a super-contagious and deadly virus wasn’t enough to convince bosses to better support their employees, I’m not sure that slow-moving and complex changes to the Earth’s meteorological systems will fare any better.
That’s why the labor movement is so crucial to the well-being of the working class. At the helm of that movement has stood Dolores Huerta, one of history’s most influential labor activists and leader of the Chicano civil rights movement who cofounded the United Farmworkers Association in 1962 and is now president of the Dolores Huerta Association. Her fight for justice continues—and extends into the climate space.
Welcome to The Frontline, where Huerta is speaking out. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. Farmworkers are becoming even more vulnerable in a heating world—and they continue to be exposed to pesticides during their work. Meanwhile, we’re seeing an explosion of workplaces—from environmental groups to Starbucks—taking steps to unionize. Workers are a powerful force, but they need to come together to enact change. Huerta and I discuss below.
How would you define climate and environmental justice?
To have a planet that is sustainable for life. And that the work people are doing in their occupations fits into that framework. Everything that we have to do is to try to keep our climate one that will sustain life on planet Earth—and not only human life, but also animal life and plant species.
Beautifully said. Since you first began your advocacy back in the 1950s, how have you seen environmental or climate risks to farmworkers evolve? Pesticides continue to be a big concern. As is the growing threat of heat waves.
Well, unfortunately, these are risks that have been with us for many years—since I started working in the farmworker movement when I was in my 20s. And here I am in my 90s! And yet we see that there hasn’t been that much progress because even while we have been able to eliminate some of the more deadly pesticides, they keep inventing new ones. The United States of America has one of the highest cancer rates in the world. Here in the United States, we are, you might say, the leaders of all those processes that hurt not only our plants, but hurt human beings and animals.
Yeah. There’s been a lot of research tying the bee extinction crisis, for instance, to these pesticides.
Even the way that the cattle are fed. They’re fed corn, which is not part of their natural diet.
Definitely. I’m really curious to hear your thoughts on this so-called beef that people say exists between the labor and climate movements. There’s this long-standing belief that the labor movement and the climate movement are at odds because of how much of the fossil fuel sector is organized. I’m thinking about coal miners and the individuals building pipelines. What do you make of this? Many argue that the argument has been used to create fissures between these two movements.
Well, we know that people have to work. I wouldn’t call it a division. What you have are people who work in the oil fields all over the United States. We know that we have to transition those oil jobs to green jobs. But people need to get paid a living wage, a wage to support their families regardless of where they work. It’s not that they’re loyal to oil. I think the vast majority of oil workers or coal miners would be happy working in another industry as long as they’re paid adequately.
Unfortunately, the oil companies politicized this instead of looking at it as a transition that we need to make. If we don’t make it, everybody on Earth is going to be affected by global warming—as we are now being affected. We’ve seen the wildfires. We’ve seen the intensity of the hurricanes and the flooding. These are the outcomes right now, and if we don’t do something about that—and we don’t do it soon—it’s going to have a devastating effect on humanity, the animals, and the plants. We’re losing species right now as we speak.
“We need energy and activism on the part of the working people to put pressure on Congress and on those legislators who are not cooperating.”
What would you suggest the climate movement needs to do to better plug into those workers and ensure that this transition happens justly, equitably—but also at the speed necessary to address some of these issues that you’ve highlighted around extreme weather or extinction?
In terms of workers, what we have to do is educate the people working in these harmful industries. But, actually, that isn’t where the issue is. The issue is with the people who represent us in our state legislatures and Congress. These are the people we have to pressure. We need energy and activism on the part of the working people to put pressure on Congress and on those legislators who are not cooperating—like Joe Manchin from West Virginia or Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona. I mean, those are the two votes we needed to pass the Build Back Better Act. And the labor movement has to get really involved in putting pressure on these officials. I know that the coal miners union in West Virginia has tried to talk to Manchin, but he’s ignoring them. Still, we know that the labor movement has to grow in numbers and strength to have more influence than it now has.
On the flip side of that, I’m really encouraged by the organizing happening throughout the climate and environmental sector. For instance, the National Audubon Society voted in favor of a union last month. Workers with the League of Conservation Voters, Food and Water Watch, 350.org—they’ve all moved to form unions. What could an organized climate workforce mean for the movement more broadly as well?
I don’t think that’s where the issue is. It’s always good to have workers represented, but the big issue is that we’ve got to get the building trades organizations, the construction trades, and the oil workers. These are the people who need to be brought on board in terms of climate change.
What do you hope to see in the labor movement’s future as the climate crisis grows more severe? Are there any points or themes you feel needs to be addressed?
For one thing, the labor movement needs more support. Right now, the labor movement represents a very small number of people in the private sector. A lot of people in the labor movement are in the public sector—teachers, health workers—not in the private sector. That’s where the labor unions have really shrunk. Labor unions need more support so that they can actually represent more workers. This is really important.
Workers only have one organization that can represent them—and that is a labor union. And labor unions are vital to the democracy of our country because they are the ones that create the middle class. Without a middle class, you don’t have a real democracy. And that is what’s been happening to our country. Our middle class has been shrinking because there has been such an attack on labor unions, making it very difficult for them to organize. There are now laws that make it difficult to organize.
If we want labor to be effective in terms of fighting global warming, we’ve got to have laws that are gonna strengthen labor unions. Then, we’ve gotta put our focus on our political leadership. If we talk about transitioning workers from fossil fuels to green energy, you’ve got to have funding for the training and to sustain those workers while they’re in the transition.
100%. The connection to democracy feels really key, especially in this moment as we enter an election year, as we see a large number of states passing voting restrictions, and as Congress tries to move on voting rights bills. Dolores, I wonder if you have any words of advice for any readers who are thinking of organizing their own workplace, especially folks in the climate space who want to help build that bridge between these two movements?
Support labor organizing drives. For instance, Amazon. Here, you have a billionaire who can afford to fly into space—Jeff Bezos—but won’t give his workers a living wage. People could say, Hey, I’m not going to buy from Amazon unless they treat their workers better and allow them to have a union. And then we can think about, What could Amazon do better to support the green energy movement?
I’m going to go back to what I said before about how the focus has got to be on our political leaders. We’re going into an election here, as you mentioned, but what we have to do is make sure that the candidates we support are on board. Not only to combat global warming, but also on board in terms of supporting labor unions. Where we need to focus our energy right now and for the next year is in supporting candidates—whether it be on the school board, city council, board of supervisors, commissioners, state legislatures, or Congress—who support combating climate change and who will be willing to invest resources into transitioning workers.
That’s where our energy has to be focused.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.