Q&A with a Local 117 member: Labor's role in a green economy

As we wrestle with the shift to a renewable economy, it's critical workers have a seat at the table. We spoke with Rick Reinlasoder, Livestock Program Specialist at King County about why environmental issues matter to union members.

Q: What got you interested in environmental issues?

A: I grew up on a dairy farm in western Montana and interacted with the environment (soil, water, plants and critters – wild and domestic) on a daily basis. I’m naturally curious and began to ask questions about natural resources and how they were managed. My brother and I questioned the use of conventional chemicals and practices on the farm and tried to find alternatives, where possible. We continue that effort today, as we now own most of the farm in partnership. 

Q: Why should environmental issues matter to union members?

A: We all interact with the environment and its health affects our lives directly. Environmental messes and degradation are left for future generations to deal with. Sometimes it takes a great deal of energy to make positive change and the strength of the union (many voices) might help influence that change.


Teamsters Local 117 has been a labor leader in the environmental movement by ensuring the transition to a green economy doesn't leave workers behind.



Our Union's Director of Organizing and Strategic Campaigns, Leonard Smith, speaks out during the Climate March last year.

In the past, the issue of climate change has been framed by corporations and some government agencies as a choice between the “environment or jobs”. That is a false choice that only divides workers and communities.  It is critical that, as the nation wrestles with the shift from a fossil fuel economy to a renewable economy, the voices of workers and their communities have a seat at the table.

Last year, while the labor movement in Seattle found itself divided over the issue of Shell Oil leasing Terminal 5 for its Arctic Drilling preparation, Local 117 played a leadership role in organizing labor opposition to the Port of Seattle’s lease with Shell and gained national attention for our work around Terminal 5. 

I was invited to attend a national convergence on climate change and labor sponsored by the Labor Network for Sustainability. 

In January, I joined the President of the Washington State Labor Council, Jeff Johnson, and the Executive Secretary of the Martin Luther King County Central Labor Council, Nicole Grant, to meet with other labor, community and religious leaders to engage in a debate and discussion around the issues of climate justice and a just transition for workers.

What emerged from the three-day conference was a determination to make certain that worker voices are part of the discussion on climate change solutions and that we all go back to our communities and work to move that discussion forward.

Local 117 intensified its participation in the Blue Green Alliance, a labor-sponsored forum that brings workers and environmental activists together.  We also became a major organizer and participant in the People's Climate March that took place last year.

But that’s not all.  At the last Washington State Labor Council Convention, we helped pass a major resolution on labor and the environment.  At the Martin Luther King County Central labor Council, we have started a Climate Caucus.  Local 117 is one of the founders and primary organizers of the caucus.

Meeting monthly, members from participating Unions discuss ways to engage more members in the process of understanding the full impacts of climate change and to develop tools to pressure governments to act more forcefully to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Among the Unions participating in the caucus is the UAW University of Washington graduate students union.  Their participation is leading to the formation of a speaker’s bureau to engage union members in discussions on climate change.  Graduate students who are conducting research on all aspects of the issue are putting together a presentation on what this means for workers and what we can do about it.  The goal is to make it available to Unions for their memberships.

The Climate Caucus is open to any members that want to attend.  The next meeting is on August 18, at 5PM at the Labor Temple in Seattle.

Your Union is committed to ensuring that workers are heard as our economy shifts. As many have already said: “If we are not at the table, then we’re on the menu”. We fully intend to be at the table.