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Ahead of the Labor Day holiday, we met with worker and environmental justice advocate Maritza Silva-Farrell. After more than two decades of organizing at the intersection of climate, housing, and workers’ rights, Maritza now leads the worker power and capital strategies portfolios at the Ford Foundation’s Future of Work(ers) program. She is passionate about finding common ground between the climate and labor movements through ending an economy based on practices that exploit workers, and allow the destruction of our planet’s resources..
Read on to hear more about her work in New York – empowering communities and shifting the way our economy runs.
How did you first become engaged in advocacy work related to labor rights and environmental justice?
For years I had been working mainly with construction workers, on housing and the labor movement in New York City and New York State with the organization ALIGN NY. When we thought about making buildings energy efficient, we were mainly focused on the cost savings advantage, and less about carbon emissions reductions.
But then Superstorm Sandy hit New York in 2012, and climate change became real to all of us. As neighbors helped neighbors clean up from the aftermath, I joined others in asking the bigger questions about our role as a society in working for climate solutions. I was also three months pregnant at the time, and wanted to bring my child into a different world, not one of uncertainty, pollution, and climate chaos.
This led me to start organizing at broader intersections of climate education and policy solutions integrated into the labor organizing I was already doing.
How do you see the labor movement and climate justice intersecting with each other? What are the common goals and challenges they face?
I love this question, because I strive to bring the two groups together.
Back in 2010, the unions I worked with didn’t see themselves in the climate movement. They thought it was only about polar bears and shutting down fossil fuel energy, which many workers were employed by and felt climate activism was a threat to their livelihoods.
But just as it was for me, Hurricane Sandy was a turning point for the labor movement in New York. We worked to connect the rebuilding efforts to career-oriented jobs and apprentice programs, especially for historically marginalized groups who hadn’t had the opportunity before, particularly low-income communities and Black and Brown workers. Many of these jobs were in building more climate-resilient and energy-efficient infrastructure.
Through the tragedy and crisis of Sandy, we saw the labor and climate movements’ goals align.
Some workers are often concerned that they may not be included in a shift to a clean energy economy. How can the labor movement and climate justice advocates work together to ensure an inclusive and just transition?
I have a great example of this. Over the years, climate justice advocates in New York were fighting to close a local power plant with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the utility union workers felt under attack by these efforts. The power plant employed thousands of workers and once the plant closure was announced – a win for the climate – union leaders were really upset and did not want to talk to climate groups.
My role in the movement has always been to not think in a binary way, but to find a third way, asking “What can we do together? What’s our end goal?” This leads to a common visioning of what we want for our kids and our neighborhoods. It moves us away from immediately asking “Do you support ABC policy?” to realizing we all want a healthy and safe community.
Because we live in a capitalist market, our goal has to be about shifting the economy – away from practices that hurt the environment and toward a clean, renewable energy future.
Asking the questions about our common vision leads to powerful coalitional work toward policy solutions – with climate and labor groups. Through this challenging yet rewarding work, we were able to see some significant progress. Local Law 97 was a major energy efficient and sustainable buildings law passed by New York City in 2019 to help achieve the city’s Green New Deal plan and carbon neutral goals. The new law creates job stability for workers in trade unions because it spurred massive retrofit projects for large buildings throughout the city. Think insulation work, updating windows, painting and so much more.
Another stride was the passage of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in the state of New York, serving as one of the most ambitious climate laws in the nation. The work of our coalition was truly cumulative, and built awareness on the implications of climate change on work, and how working people can and must be involved.
Unions understand the value of being part of the broader work for climate action – it expands their workforce, empowers their unions, and creates stability for their workers.
While climate and labor advocates may have different points of view, it doesn’t mean there aren’t common goals. That’s why I see community and labor as two sides of the same coin. We all want clean air to breathe. We all see the impacts of climate change and pollution in our communities.
What advice would you give to individuals who are passionate about both labor rights and climate justice and want to make a meaningful impact in both areas?
We have to shift the ways we’ve been doing things. It’s not enough to buy recycled products or recycle our waste. We must recognize the way we consume as a society and begin to be more mindful of the impact we make on others and on the planet.
I encourage everyone to take the first steps to changing our systems and going from there. Together we will improve our future.
What are your hopes for the future?
The better we treat workers and the environment, the better world we’ll be. Workers are the source of so much, and when we value workers and protect their health and safety, we also clean up our air, our water, and green spaces.
I have a vision of collaboration. Together we can tackle the systemic problems we’ve been facing for generations.