A March for Climate (and Labor Rights, and Immigration, and …)

A marcher offers some ancient wisdom. Photo: Manuel Villa

It was a fitting weather for a climate march that drew tens of thousands of protesters from across the country to Washington D.C. last Saturday, April 29. With scarcely any clouds and a temperature that reached the 90s, it almost seemed like the sun was trying to make a statement.

Onlookers of the march clustered under the shadows of buildings and trees. Clothes that would under normal circumstances display one uniform color became a bicolored design; their wet, darker spots contrasting with the areas of the cloth that still had not been invaded by the wearer’s sweat.

None of these people, however, seemed concerned or affected by the intense heat. Instead, their concern was directed to the anti-climate change policies of the Trump administration. Perhaps like the sun above them, they were here to make a statement. In fact, most where here to make several statements.

All for one... Photo: Manuel Villa

Last March, the Trump administration released its blueprint for the 2018 federal budget. Titled “A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” the section referring to the EPA begins by establishing “the President’s priority to ease the burden of unnecessary Federal regulations that impose significant costs for workers and consumers without justifiable environmental benefits.” It slashes $2.6 billion from the agency’s 2017 budget –a 31 percent reduction– bringing it down to $5.7 billion.

The Tweet

His view on the subject.

Earlier in the year, Trump rescinded president Obama’s decision to halt the construction of the Keystone pipeline to carry oil from Canada to refineries in the Midwest and Texas, a project that has generated environmental concerns and provoked much resistance.

These and other actions from the present administration –including declarations, many of them tweets, the president has made denying climate change– are what the marchers gathered to protest. But it became clear that marchers had not only environmental, but many other concerns in mind as they advanced through Pennsylvania Avenue, towards the White House. It was also noticeable that many groups from a type of organization not usually associated with climate activism were present: Labor unions were among the marchers.

Members of the SEIU 32BJ union march for their the planet they work on. Photo: Manuel Villa

Karlyne Mills, a Brooklyn resident and 17-year veteran delegate in 1199SEIU –the largest healthcare worker union in the country with over 400,000, according to its website, with over 400,000 members. “We’ve been to every rally. Women’s March, Fight for 15, protesting against the killing of Eric Garner. New York, Boston, Florida, Philly. You name it,” she said. “We are a union, but we would have come today even if we weren’t. Today is not about labor; it is about climate change.”

For nearly 30 years, Luz Garate, 49, has been f a member of the SEIU 32BJ, a union that represents property service workers, also the largest of its kind, with over 163,000 members. She has also served on the staff of the labor organization for the last 15 years. As a New Yorker, the link between climate change and labor is clear in her mind. “Many, many of our members lost their jobs because of Sandy,” she said. “It was climate change that created that hurricane. It damaged or destroyed a lot of property and, as a result, it destroyed the jobs of many of us.”

Environmental concerns, however, are not the only subjects relevant to the union members who participated n this march. Anger towards the border wall and deportations, support for the Black Lives Matter movement, public education and safe heaven cities, among other issues, were part of the crowd’s chants.

Use the Sun, Stupid!

A marcher offering advice. Photo: Manuel Villa

But climate change, for the most part, was front and center on Saturday.  “The proposed policies and budget don’t even address global warming,” said one employee from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Besides his preoccupation with the planet, there are other consequences that affect him, he said, that are much closer to home. “They are defunding programs designed to retrofit buildings and homes to make them energy efficient. That obviously will affect jobs in the housing department and, certainly, in the Environmental Protection Agency,” he added.

However, in contrast with union members, he was not as eager to speak out as they were and he agreed to do it on condition of anonymity. His reasons? The Holman Rule; a little-known piece of legislation that gives any member of Congress the power to propose an amendment that could eliminate a specific federal program, or the jobs of specific federal employees, by either slashing their salaries –down to $1– or downright terminating their positions. “Any of us could be targeted by members of the House and have our individual salaries cut or even our positions terminated.”

Rising Hopes. Photo: Manuel Villa

Named after the 19th century Indiana congressman who designed it, its original objective was to eliminate patronage jobs, particularly customs agents, during the days when the federal workforce had not yet been turned into a apolitical civil service. It was rescinded in 1983, but House Republicans reinstated the rule during the first week of January. Although such an amendment would still need to be approved by a majority of the House and the Senate, the rule makes the civil service vulnerable again to the volatility of politics, as it was more than a century ago.

“I have not met anybody in the Department of Housing that denies climate change,” says the federal employee. “But now I am afraid to speak out; just marching today is a risk. You could be identified and targeted. This was not a concern before, but Republicans are attacking basic labor rights.”

United. Photo: Manuel Villa

Beside the environment, there seemed to be one more element in common to all participants in the procession. As the crowds advanced over Pennsylvania Avenue and approached 11th street, their energetic mood seemed to change direction. Chants such as “Save the Earth!” gave way to booing and slightly more politically pointed phrases.  “We’re not going away! Welcome to your 100th day!” the crowd chanted. Demonstrators’ heads turned to the left side, turning toward a building that seemed to be the target of their displeasure. It was not long before it became clear why. In large, golden letters, the sign in front of the buiding was visible. It read: “TRUMP INTERNATIONAL HOTEL.”

Passing by the Trump International Hotel. Photo: Manuel Villa

Not everyone in the crowd seemed to appreciate the anti-Trump slogans. For undergraduate students, Agata Poniatowski, 21, from CUNY Brooklyn, and Baruch College’s Tamara Barbakova, 19, a “Dump Trump” spirit should not be the point of this march. “Everyone here is focusing on politics,” said Barbakova. “But we need to talk to him, to make him see. We shouldn’t be debating how we can get rid of him, but how we can work with him.”

Poniatowski agrees. “He’s hardheaded, he’s in just for himself. But we might resonate with people in his office, with corporations. He might listen to them,” she said.   “He’s our president. There is no use in denying it.”

Fighting for their future. New York students Tamara Barbakova (left) and Agata Poniatowski. Photo: Manuel Villa