You could not find a more striking physical contrast than that between AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka and 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Nohra Padilla. Trumka’s a big, strongly built son of the coal fields; Padilla a slight, waif-like women from Bogota, Colombia.
But both carry in their fiber the knowledge of what hard, dangerous physical labor feels like — and how fierce the struggle to get decent treatment and dignity for those who do it has been.
Padilla tells the audience that the world’s 15 million informal recyclers — rag pickers — “express in our bodies real green jobs… but the earnings we have are hunger earnings.” She led the effort to organize Bogota’s garbage recyclers into cooperatives that could demand decent treatment. She and her colleagues are preparing to negotiate new contracts with the City of Bogota, as are other members of her network of recyclers in far-flung cities in Brazil, Mexico and India.
Padilla’s organizing efforts were inspired, five years ago, by a visit with U.S. unions. She imagined a world in which informal recyclers received equal returns with those received by large multinational waste companies, and she has had to fight off efforts by the elite in Colombia to regain control of the value represented by recycled garbage.
Wages in Colombia are going up: “In the next few years we will keep moving forward, so that our children can not only go to schools but to universities, and to build their own companies to process the materials… If there are no borders for those who exploit, there cannot be borders for those who struggle for justice.”
Trumka, whose organization inspired Padilla, champions solidarity in another arena — domestically — calling on U.S. unions and environmentalists to embrace “the million things which unite us instead of the few things on which we differ” and recognize that what is required for continued environmental and social progress is a strong, long-term national strategy for jobs and climate protection.
Congress he says, must act, and must act boldly. He mocks the pundits who claim that action is impossible, saying, “A year ago they were equally convinced that a solution to our immigration problem was a political fantasy.”
Trumka lays down a searing challenge to the right-wing economic royalists who are funding climate change denial: “We must embrace science, and I am here to say that climate change is real and climate change is dangerous.” (more…)