Labor Troubadour Tackles Climate Change

Labor Troubadour Tackles Climate Change 1

Joe Uehlein, a former AFL-CIO official who now is President of the Labor Network for Sustainability, kicked off the final session of this year’s Just Giving conference—a summit of sorts bringing forward-looking foundations and activists under one roof to explore winning strategies for a green, equitable economy.

Instead of a speech, he offered a song he had written during a climate change meeting at Blue Mountain Center. (You can see Uehlein performing the song with his band, the U-Liners in this video.)

You Can’t Giddyup by Sayin’ Whoa!

You Can’t Giddyup by sayin’ whoa,
Ain’t gonna get ya where you want to go.
No time for movin’ slow;
You can’t giddyup by sayin’ whoa.

Well people often tell me, you can’t do things so fast.
Take it slow, be real careful, can’t upset the past.
Well I just don’t know, I don’t see things quite that way.
Best I can tell we’re about out of time so here’s what I’ve got to say!

You know we’re dumping carbon in the atmosphere,
It’s warming the earth, messin’ with the oceans, climate change is here.
We know what we’ve got to do, leave it the ground;
Look to the sun, feel the wind, listen to the sound.

The rich are getting richer, all across the land;
The poor are getting poorer, the middle class is slammed.
We know what we’ve got to do to solve this one as well,
Tax the rich, give the workers a raise, tell the bankers to go to hell.

When all is said and done, we want more done than said.
It seems like in this world of ours we just can’t get ahead.
We bailed out the bankers, real quick when they messed things up.
The rest of us left holding the bag, for me I’ve had enough; so—

You Can’t Giddyup by sayin’ whoa,
Ain’t gonna get ya where you want to go.
No time for movin; slow;
You can’t giddyup by sayin’ whoa.

A thunder of applause greeted the last verse of the song, underscoring how well Uehlein expressed one of the conference’s major themes: This is no time for moving slow.

His next song captured another current running through the Just Giving workshops, panels and corridor conversations: the simple fact that the future belongs to all of us together.

Somos el barco,
Somos el mar.
Yo navego en ti,
Tu navegas en mi.

We are the boat,
We are the sea.
I sail in you,
You sail in me.

This old song, written by Lorre Wyatt, and spread around the world by Peter Seeger, is an elegant encapsulation of the idea of the commons—the old idea, now reemerging, that the most important things in life are owned by us all. This includes air and water, knowledge and art, the Internet and the airwaves.

The commons has been consistent focus of Blue Mountain Center’s work for more than a decade, and BMC’s Harriet Barlow helped make Just Giving 2015 a showcase of the latest commons strategies and practices in her role as co-chair of the conference, sponsored by the Edge Funders Alliance. It was held April 8-10 at Baltimore’s Hyatt Regency Baltimore, whose union workers also received an ovation in the closing session.

Uehlein notes that he has written five songs at BMC during retreats for climate change and new economy activists. “I don’t know what it is about BMC—maybe the quiet, the solitude, the time allowed for contemplation. The beauty—being out on the lake in a canoe—is inspiring. The mountains are inspiring. And being in a space—the lodge where so many movement people have gathered and strategized over the years—is very inspiring.”

He became involved with the labor movement while working in an aluminum mill in central Pennsylvania, and eventually became Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department and Director for its Center for Strategic Campaigns. He helped make history as the chief labor organizer for the massive anti-corporate globalization rallies at the World Trade Organization’s Seattle meeting in 1999. He’s also been a member of the American Federation of Musicians for 40 years and helped launch the Labor Heritage Foundation to recognize the role of art in promoting working-class causes.

The Labor Network for Sustainability was founded in 2010 to build “the strong, broad movement that is needed to advance strategies for a transition from a world with an economy, society, and climate in crisis to one that has a sustainable future.”

“Pitting jobs versus the environment is a false choice,” he said in The American Prospect. “We need to figure out how to make a living on a living planet.”