A Conversation on Equity, Climate Change & Justice with Roxana Rivera

The daughter of Salvadoran immigrants to the United States, Roxana Rivera has been working to fight for immigrant and workers’ rights for 25 years. After working at SEIU Local 615 for nearly a decade, Rivera was appointed to head the New England chapter. 32BJ SEIU represents 20,000 service workers, including janitors, security officers, and workers in higher education across Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island, and over 175,000 members in eleven states and Washington DC.

Rivera recently signed a letter to House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka endorsing, on behalf of her union, carbon pollution pricing policy in the state of Massachusetts. We caught up with her to talk about the endorsement, the significance of climate change for 32BJ SEIU members, and the need to include equity and justice in finding policy solutions to the climate crisis.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Marc Breslow (MB): Could you start off just by telling us a bit about your background before getting to be director of New England 32 BJ?

Roxana Rivera (RR): My parents are from El Salvador, I was born and raised in California. I started working in the immigrant community in California on raids of day laborers and met the union that way, they asked me to be an organizer and I started working with the janitors union in 1995. I came out to the East Coast in 2005, and had been working here overseeing Massachusetts and Rhode Island, until 2014 when I became an elected officer of the union.

MB: Who does 32BJ represent, and what makes it a unique union?

RR: We have 175,000 members across 10 states and Washington DC, we represent property service workers. Here in Massachusetts we have a lot of workers in higher education, finance, biotech and the public sector like the MBTA. Our members help maintain property. Largely our members are people of color and immigrants, coming from different parts of the world. They have experienced the impacts of climate change in their home countries, and now also feel those impacts in the neighborhoods they live in.

MB: Why is climate change an important issue for SEIU 32BJ and your members?

RR: Our members really have felt the impacts of climate change and of this issue where they lived before coming to the United States. Many came to this country because they have had earthquakes or hurricanes in their countries, like in El Salvador for instance. It is therefore important for us as a union to advocate for social justice issues, and we see climate change as one. When we think about improving the quality of life for our members, that is not only in the workplace, but in their homes and communities as well, and climate change is very much impacting those communities.

We came out in full support of the Green New Deal, because of the nature of the work our members do, we have been part of other conversations such as moving towards safer and greener cleaning agents here in Massachusetts. In New York, our members started the Green Superintendents Program that trained thousands of workers on the issue around energy efficiency in buildings. And at the international level we are a part of the Green Blue Alliance, to advocate for policies that reduce carbon emissions, and talking about the issue of creating good union jobs. We think it’s important that there is a just transition, that there are new and green union jobs that people can be trained into.

MB: You signed a letter in support of carbon pricing policy. Why is carbon pricing a compelling policy for the union to support?

RR: We are happy to stand with our community allies to support climate policy, and carbon pricing is a part of that. The efforts being made at the state level to put a price tag on harmful gas emissions are very promising, and they include how to reinvest that revenue in the communities most affected, including those where most of our members live, that way they deal with inequality, too. A lot of the communities that are already most affected, who are seeing the highest rates of pollution, are also those dealing with economic challenges, so this is very important. In the Greater Boston Area for example, those are Dorchester and East Boston, so those efforts are important in trying to combat the overall issue.

In general, incentivizing investment and business, having an economy that works for us is part of the reason we are supportive of this. We want to be reflective of what we support at the federal level also at the state and local level, and carbon pricing represents a part of that.

MB: In terms of equity, what would you like to see included in carbon pricing proposals in MA to ensure the protection of low and moderate income earners?

We want to not just see policy that does no harm, but actually policies that help those who are most affected get ahead. At 32BJ we do represent workers who have been reliant on, or impacted by the fossil fuel economy. So we want to make sure that there is a conversation about a just transition for those communities as well, but we also want to make sure that if there is going to be a new economy in terms of new jobs created, we need to ensure people can be trained into those jobs and be a part of that transition.

MB: In terms of feedback you have received from your members in terms of your support for these climate policies?

RR: Our members are excited to see that the union is getting involved and advocating for this. It is a very personal issue for them, because of who our members are, they are not only dealing with climate change here, but they have family in other countries that are being devastated by climate change. So this is something they live with both from afar, and here in their communities too. I think when we started talking to members about this they were excited to see we were engaging with it. We know that it is going to be too late to reverse effects if we don’t start taking bolder action to address it.

MB: What is 32BJ prepared to do on behalf of good climate policy in Massachusetts and New England?

RR: We are going to continue to advocate and use our platform to push the ideals of what the Green New Deal speaks to. Because we are in various states, we want to make sure that we are involved in all those local efforts too and use our voice to be louder and support the policies that speak to those principles we defend. We are able to help frame the conversation even to our members internationally, on how we can be a part of different state initiatives. We need to continue our education of members, SEIU has 2 million members, so it really can be a loud voice that we bring to the table, and also want to encourage labor to get involved.

People are fearful of economies changing and what that means for workers, but in reality the economy is constantly changing, and climate change is something that we need to be in front of and not behind, in regards to talking about what kind of opportunities and jobs that can create

MB: What do you think is the best way to get other unions to support such policies in states around the country

RR: I think the first thing is, for folks it can be a personal thing in regards to the effects of climate change, so making that connection is important. But second, emphasizing that this transition will be just, and that this is also an opportunity not just a challenge. Speaking about good jobs and the opportunities of retraining is very important to not leave out of the conversation.

MB: What does the Green New Deal mean to you?

RR: It basically means intertwining the climate crisis and the economic crisis together for the first time. It is bold, but we have to start there, which is why we were happy to support it. It may already be too late to reverse the effects of climate change, we know that, and so we need to be bold in our approaches. The Green New Deal speaks to being bold, but also speaks about not only climate change, but also the economy that results from addressing it. And we want to be involved in that conversation, for workers to help shape what the policies are and not just be an afterthought in its outcomes.