UN Climate Talks May Force U.S. Government to Defer to International Labor Unions

Published December 8, 2015

PARIS — International labor unions may be granted unprecedented authority to set and legally enforce domestic labor policy in the United States, activists participating in United Nations climate talks in Paris hinted Friday. The revelation was presented at a UN-sanctioned Climate Action Network panel discussion and press briefing as part of the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP21) climate talks taking place in Paris.

Kelly Stone, a senior policy analyst at leftist activist group ActionAid, said language in any formal climate agreement emerging from the COP21 talks will include specific language regarding human rights. Stone said the main source of contention is whether such language will occur in preambles or in the legally enforceable “operative language” of a final climate agreement. Stone emphasized the position of participating activist groups that human rights language must be legally enforceable upon all nations and guaranteed in the operative language of an agreement.

During her initial comments, Stone gave few specifics regarding the precise human rights to be protected and how they would be enforced. The closest she came to this was vaguely mentioning gender equality and a “just transition to quality jobs in the workforce.”

During a question-and-answer segment after the panel discussion, I asked Stone if she could provide more specifics regarding what specific human rights would be in the language of an agreement, how these rights would be defined, what specific protections would be granted, how those rights would be enforced, and under what specific enforcement mechanisms. Stone remained vague regarding many of the inquiries, but stated negotiators had developed a paragraph specifically protecting gender equality, indigenous peoples, food security, and the plight of people “displaced” by climate change and actions to address climate change. As an example of anticipated displacement, she mentioned coal industry workers who will lose their jobs due to restrictions on coal power. Stone said the language of a final climate agreement would defer the resolution of displaced workers to “the labor movement, because they are the experts on the topic.”

Panelist Tonya Rawe, senior policy advisor at the CARE Action Now leftist activist group, added that key to any final language is the ability to make such language internationally legally enforceable against all nations.

“Thank God we have a constitution which places limits, even though they are often ignored by the President, the Congress, and the Courts, on the federal government’s power and limits the power of the executive to unilaterally impose binding international agreements,” said H. Sterling Burnett, research fellow for The Heartland Institute. “The Senate must approve any such agreement and there is no evidence the current Senate would ratify anything coming out of Paris.”

“What’s interesting is that organized labor, already has outsized legal influence in the U.S. based on actual membership, it has protections that workers in probably 90 percent of the countries meeting in Paris would envy,” Burnett added.