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This year, I was fortunate to attend the United Nations Conference of Parties in Paris or COP21. COP is an opportunity for nations to come together and create a plan of action to address and solve climate disruption. At the core of the fight against the climate crisis is a concern for protecting communities and working families. If we accelerate toward clean energy without ensuring the people who power this inevitable transition are protected and work in good paying jobs, we’ll just be creating more problems and building more inequality.
Because of this, my conversations at COP mirrored those of many other working class advocates around the world, calling for a fair and just transition to a clean energy economy—a restructuring of the energy economy that includes the voices of working families who live and work with the effects of climate disruption and dangerous pollution.
A 100 percent clean energy world is one where clean energy develops alongside increased equity, where workers rights advance alongside the state of our environment. That’s why at this year’s COP, a coalition of prominent international climate action voices—including the Sierra Club, World Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Earth International and Dr. Robert Bullard (the “Father of Environmental Justice”)—launched the “Unjust Transition Award,” an annual corporate “greenwashing” award given to honor the type of corporate initiatives that fail to connect the dots between climate justice and a clean energy economy.
We awarded the inaugural Unjust Transition Award to Renault-Nissan, a company of which the French government owns a substantial portion and which is also a corporate sponsor of COP. Though Nissan is a key supporter of the UN climate change summit and has provided their Nissan Leaf electric vehicles for use at the COP, they have not shown that they respect workers’ rights and the need for a just transition.
Nissan has taken major positive steps on green transportation that deserve applause. Their investments in electric vehicles have helped open up the sector and driven innovation, but this is not an excuse for leaving workers behind.
This award comes on the heels of the U.S. National Labor Relations Board’s issuance of a formal complaint against Renault-Nissan for labor violations against workers seeking representation by the United Auto Workers (UAW) at their Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi, where workers manufacture batteries for the Nissan Leaf electric vehicle. Renault-Nissan is resisting demands for union representation by workers at several plants in Mississippi and Tennessee, including the plant in Canton. Renault-Nissan also previously rejected an offer of mediation by the U.S. State Department.
Renault-Nissan’s actions are reprehensible. Since the Canton plant opened, the company has pursued an aggressive campaign to block their employees’ right to unionize. Nissan’s anti-union campaign has included mandatory anti-union meetings, anti-union orientation sessions for new hires, retaliation against union leaders and repeated threats implying that the plant may close if the workers vote for the for representation by UAW.
To make matters worse, the workers of the Canton plant are primarily African American. Renault-Nissan is taking advantage of the long history of corporate and political repression based on race and class in Mississippi, Tennessee and the larger southern U.S.
Renault-Nissan’s position as the fourth largest car company in the world serves as an opportunity to become a corporate leader in the just transition away from outdated fossil fuels and toward clean technology. Sadly, the company is miring itself in the past with their labor practices.
Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn was invited to attend the ceremony and receive the award, but he declined to show. Instead, the award will travel to Mississippi with UAW representatives.
The historic, universal agreement on climate adopted in Paris by 195 nations includes an acknowledgement of the "imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs" as we move from dirty fuels to clean energy. Clean energy technology that is free of climate pollution is not possible without workers, which is why a clean, renewable energy economy must be a boon for all working families. Without building that political power, we will limit the potential of clean energy and with this award, we hope Renault-Nissan and the world will take notice.
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