Before addressing the potential role of US labor unions in the climate transition, a bit of little-known history of the role played by industry leaders just after WWII will help understand the de-unionization and present situation.

In 1946, US business leaders were awed by the strength of the labor movement. The previous year exhibited a peak in union activities and successes. At General Electric (GE), they hired Lemuel Boulware, an enthusiastic business ideologist, as vice president of employee and community relations. He set out to defeat the unions and began to highlight the merits of the free market; redefine the role of business leaders, intermediate bosses, and the worker himself, the working class.

Boulware believed that GE's problems were shared by all corporations in modern America. He longed to build a political movement of businessmen, one that had the zeal, the savvy, and the organization to challenge the power of unions, and he spoke frequently to business audiences, admonishing them that "the really critical public relations problem is now almost purely a political one."1 Boulware's labor relations techniques began to spread through the business community. The new business strategy functioned well and applied to all the major business sectors. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 limited the right of labor unions to take solidarity action, also known as sympathy strikes initiated by workers in a separate corporation. It also enabled states to ban unions, restricting all people in a workplace from becoming union members. ‘Right-to-work’ laws allow bargaining unit members who reap union contract benefits and representation to opt out of paying their fair share in union dues or fees – without repercussions. These laws are often presented as being pro-worker, but they are anti-worker because they are intended to erode workplace security and eliminate organized worker unions. A majority of the states, a total of 28, have passed such laws. There are other laws that benefit the worker,7 but the state ‘right-to-work’ laws have helped keep private firm unionization to a minimum.

Within the public sector, union participation is much higher, at 35%. The Department of Labor administers more than 180 federal laws.6 The areas covered by this legislation include wages and hours, safety and health, compensation, benefit security, unions, and their members. Evidently, the public worker is more protected. In 2020, 19.7 million people were working for state and local governments in the US, representing 14% of the total number of workers.

As shown in the graph, the rate of unionization in the private sector is another story, as the history at GE and other companies suggest. The percentage of private workers belonging to unions peaked in the late 40s and early 50s at 34%. By 1975 it had decreased to 26%. The share of workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement dropped from this peak to 9% in 2019, meaning the union coverage rate is now less than one-half of where it was 40 years ago. Research shows that this de-unionization accounts for a sizable share of the growth in inequality over that period - around 13% to 20% for women and 33% to 37% for men.2


Income inequality is high: the top 10% earns 47% in the US (as shown on the graph) versus 36% in Europe, in the year 2021. Wealth distribution is even worse: the top 1% owns 35% of the wealth in the US versus 23% in Europe, and the bottom 50% owns only 2% and 5%, respectively, in 2020.3 The bottom 50% is of concern because it is where our major social problems lie. Most of them appear to live a rather hectic existence. Health care is expensive (almost double European costs), childcare is frequently out of reach, and college education is costly. Families often must take multiple jobs. The US lower half has not reached the state of welfare of most Europeans: they represent only 13% of the total income, compared to 18% in Europe.

Describing global labor union policies concerning climate change, Stevis and Felli have identified three main tendencies amongst international union organizations. "The shared solution approach refers to a vision in which dialogue, mutual understanding, and shared solutions are at the forefront. In this perspective, international trade unions should engage international organizations (such as the ILO, the UNEP and others) and take part in formal international negotiations (such as the UNFCCC process) and informal initiatives in order to make ‘workers' voices’ heard in these institutional settings… Therefore, a just transition is not framed as altering the balance of power, but rather as a mutually beneficial process that will allow for a socially acceptable greening of the economy.”4

The second approach, called differentiated responsibility, focuses on defending the sectors such as chemicals, energy, mining, and parts of manufacturing that will be negatively affected by the transition. Trade union participation implies the right to negotiate for these workers. It also means investment in research and development to help transform existing jobs into sustainable ones.

The third, more revolutionary approach, called eco-socialist, will require reorganization of the relations between state, capital, and labor. According to this approach, the present capitalist system is part of the cause of the climate crisis and must be changed. It is a minority position but with supporters in South Africa, the UK, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere.

In the European Union, the situation and history of labor unions differ significantly from that of the US. The number of workers in labor unions is 73%, and many labor unions sit on the board of directors of many private companies. In addition, the EU proposed in 2019 a very substantial Green Deal. The plan, delayed by the covid pandemic, is to review existing laws on climate merits, and introduce new legislation on the circular economy, building renovation, biodiversity, farming and innovation. In the meantime, to meet the new energy and climate targets for 2030, Member States must establish a 10-year plan for the next decade.

In this context, most of the European labor unions operate within the ‘shared solution’ approach. With three-fourths of workers unionized, their crucial issue is the degree to which they are consulted on climate issues. According to the guide of the European Trade Union Confederation, the level of consultation averages about 50% on sectoral decarbonization and 60% on national planning.

Of more relevance to the US is their outlook on training, which is:

  • to promote the development of national training strategies, which includes an early adaptation of education and vocational training systems and programs;
  • to negotiate agreements aiming to map the skills requirements at the sectoral and company levels, particularly of affected sectors such as the construction, transport, automotive, energy and manufacturing industries;
  • to monitor the company's training policies, and;
  • to promote initiatives aiming at retraining and relocating workers in developing sectors.5

The European Trade Union Confederation also supports projects involving technological innovation, R&D investments, green technology investments and economic diversification.

Recently in the US, the Biden administration's task force on worker organization and empowerment reported that 68% of Americans approve of labor unions and polls indicate 52% of non-union workers said they would vote for a union at their workplace if union elections were held today. The task force made the following three significant proposals.8

  1. Position the federal government as a model actor. The federal government will promote broader labor management engagement, as we know that such engagement helps to make the government more effective.
  2. Use the federal government’s authority to support worker empowerment by providing information, improving transparency, and making sure existing pro-worker services are delivered in a timely and helpful manner.
  3. Use longstanding authority to leverage the federal government’s purchasing and spending power to support workers who are organizing and pro-worker employers.

“Researchers also have found that union households earn up to 20 percent more than non-union households, with an even greater union advantage for workers with less formal education and workers of color. Meanwhile, research has shown that growing economic inequality, growing pay gaps for women and workers of color, and declining voice in our democracy for working class Americans are all caused, in part, by the declining percentage of workers represented by unions.”8

Recently, states and local governments are creating union jobs in their climate improvement agendas. For example, Washington state tied a clean electricity standard (CES) for utilities to tax incentives in the Clean Energy Transformation Act. The bill has the objective of reaching 80% clean energy generation by 2030. In New York in 2021, the state passed a law requiring developers of renewable energy projects over 5 megawatts to pay prevailing wage or enter into project labor agreements (PLAs) for construction work to receive state renewable energy credits. New Jersey has had similar legislation since 2013. This year the Oregon Legislature passed a law requiring 80% clean electricity by 2030 in addition to requiring large projects to pay prevailing wages, ensure benefits for their workers and encourage midsize projects to use PLAs and apprenticeship programs. The law commits to providing the minimum presence of people of color, women, veterans, or people with disabilities. In addition, this year, Connecticut enacted legislation requiring prevailing wages and CBAs for in-state renewable energy projects. Maine passed a Green New Deal with the backing of AFL-CIO in June of 2019. It requires training and retraining of workers and the development of registered apprenticeship programs.

Maryland’s Clean Energy Jobs Act of 2019 establishes a Clean Energy Workforce Account that provides grants for workforce development programs.9

The time is ripe to combine climate transition with increased unionization. It is proposed:

  • to realize the climate transition in the US by increasing the union participation in the private and public sectors;
  • to encourage investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency;
  • to facilitate the increase in the number of jobs in the new sectors. At the end of 2020, more than three million American workers were employed in clean energy jobs;
  • to diminish income inequality. “Naturally, the jobs should help increase the degree of unionization as a way of combating income inequity. Communities with high union density tend to have higher rates of economic mobility and reduce the pay gap for women, Black and Latin workers;”9
  • to promote the development of national training strategies for the most critical sectors of the climate transition, mapping the skill requirements, and involving the companies and public organizations in their application;
  • to encourage the compensation and retraining of workers in declining sectors and to support their reallocation in areas of expansion;
  • to maximize the collaboration between the federal government labor initiatives and private or government ones, as described in the task force report;
  • to take advantage of state and local government advances in climate improvement initiatives.

Beyond their role as an active counterweight to corporate dominance, unions are one of the few interest groups whose positions coincide with the interests of the middle class. This is the climate transition we need.


1 Phillips-Fein, Kim. (2009), Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade Against the New Deal, W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
2 Shierholz, H.., (2019), Labor Day 2019: Working people have been thwarted in their efforts to bargain for better wages by attacks on unions, Economic Policy Institute, August 27.
3 Chancel, L., Piketty, T., Saez, E., Zucman, G., (2022), World inequality Report 2022, World Inequity Lab.
4 Stevis, D., Felli R., (2014), Global labor unions and just transition to a green economy, 2 November.Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht.
5 European Trade Union Confederation, (2019), A Guide for Trade Unions Involving trade unions in climate action to build a just transition.
6 Department of Labor, (2021). Summary of the Major Laws of the Department of Labor, site of the Dept. of Labor.
7 United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) (2020). Major Laws Affecting Working People.
8 Harris, K., Walsh, M., (2022), Report to the President, White House Task Force on Worker Organization and Empowerment.
9 Center for American Progress, (2021), The Clean Economy Revolution Will Be Unionized, July 7.