Turning up the heat to reverse climate change

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The sense of doom that motivated an estimated 310,000 people to converge on the Upper West Side of New York City Sept. 21 for the People's Climate March did not dampen their hope and optimism for a vision of a green future.

AFT signs at climate change marchThe march attracted three times the number of participants predicted. Aerial shots captured four miles of Manhattan streets and avenues packed with people, signs, two-story-high puppets and banners. Swelling the crowd were hundreds of AFT members and thousands of trade unionists from the 70 or so labor organizations that were co-sponsors of the day's events. The AFT members wore blue shirts tagged with "Climate Justice" and held signs reading "Climate Change Is Real. TEACH SCIENCE."

"The first step to fixing a problem is to admit you have a problem," said Christopher Shelton, vice president of the Communication Workers of America District 1, kicking off a pre-march labor rally. "We all know we have the problem of global climate change. It's just Congress that hasn't figured it out!"

Barbara Bowen (pictured below), president of the Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York and an AFT vice president, addressed the rally, saying it's clearly time for labor to step forward. "Capitalism cannot change the problem it has created," she said. PSC had nearly 500 members and CUNY students in the crowd.

AFT Vice President Barbara Bowen"This is a monumental issue for labor," said Frederick Kowal, president of the United University Professions at the State University of New York and an AFT vice president, who also spoke at the rally. His members came from all over the state, jumping on buses provided by environmental groups like the Sierra Club. "This march is about taking steps to heal earth for our students, our patients and the next generation of citizens."

Also present at the rally was a superstorm named Sandy. Speaker after speaker described the shock, loss and heartbreak of a natural disaster that forced many to confront the implications of climate change. They also talked about union members rallying to support fellow union brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors in the aftermath.

AFT Vice President and New York State Public Employee Federation President Susan Kent and other public employee union leaders noted that public employees are first responders in a natural disaster. From healthcare workers to social workers, from engineers to cleanup crews, "our members live and work in the coastal cities of the East," said Hector Figueroa, president of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union.

"Climate change discriminates. Hurricane Sandy hurt the city's minority and poor communities disproportionately," said one leader.

Brian and Lexi Bisson with Reclaim t-shirtBrian Bisson, vice president of the State Vocational Federation of Teachers in Connecticut, and his 19-year-old daughter, Lexy (pictured at left), brought hundreds of t-shirts she designed to inspire teachers and students. He spoke to Ken Nash and Mimi Rosenberg, hosts of the WBAI /National Public Radio program "Building Bridges: Your Community and Labor Report," who were doing a live broadcast from the march and explained why they were there. This summer, SVFT worked with the Blue Green Alliance to develop lesson plans for their high school teachers "so our students can truly understand what is happening to the world around them." The t-shirt is part of that lesson, said Bisson, and it's designed on the AFT's Reclaiming the Promise theme. The message on the front says "Reduce Reuse Recycle Reconnect Reimagine Rebuild," and the back says "Reclaim the Planet." "It is about making sure the relationship we have with the earth is sustainable," he said.

AFT members from Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey brought along students. Brandyn Heppard, a philosophy professor who is teaching "Current Moral & Social Issues" this semester, said his students have been making the connection "that climate justice is social justice is economic justice, and it all intersects with human rights. The poor are marginalized, and their voices are not heard when people of power and privilege make decisions unilaterally." In addition to faculty from the Rutgers Council of AAUP Chapters, AAUP-AFT, Rutgers University was another of the more than 300 colleges and universities that sent students to the rally, according to the environmental group 350.org. More than 1,400 organizations helped put together the massive event.

Touted as the largest environmental march ever, it ended at the United Nations, where on Sept. 23, 120 leaders will hold a one-day summit on climate change. Next year, they'll be tackling negotiating an international agreement.

See more photos and coverage of the march from UUPPSC and AFT New Jersey.

[Barbara McKenna, Nat Bender, Karen Mattison/staff and affiliate photos; middle photo by Pat Arnow]