Signaling the growing importance of ties between labor and environmental organizers on climate change, the AFL-CIO’s third-ranking official has announced that he was leaving to join Greenpeace USA.
The official, Tefere Gebre, the labor federation’s executive vice president, will become chief program officer for the environmental group on Tuesday. He will oversee all of Greenpeace USA’s campaigns, communications, direct action and organizing and report to the group’s co-executive directors.
“I’m not leaving the workers’ movement — I’m bringing workers to the environmental movement,” Mr. Gebre said in an interview.
Labor and environmental groups have forged alliances to reduce carbon emissions while providing a safety net for workers whose livelihoods are threatened by the shift and ensuring that green jobs will pay well. But these coalition-building efforts have occasionally hit snags that have hobbled climate legislation like President Biden’s Build Back Better bill, which is stalled in the Senate.
Mr. Gebre will continue those efforts, while taking a leading role on other issues related to environmental justice, like elevating the focus on people of color affected by pollution.
“I care about little kids in the 110 corridor in Los Angeles without a vote of their own, who wake up with asthma,” he said, referring to the area of South Los Angeles along Interstate 110. “They have nothing to do with polluting the environment, but they pay the price for it. We have to make it a movement for them.”
An independent organization affiliated with the international Greenpeace network, Greenpeace USA employs about 150 people with an annual budget of $50 million to $60 million, largely from the organization’s three million members.
Among the group’s prominent campaigns, said Annie Leonard, the co-executive director who helped recruit Mr. Gebre, are one focused on democracy, such as protecting the right to protest amid a flurry of bills that could threaten it, and another focused on protecting oceans. Mr. Gebre will oversee all of that work.
At the AFL-CIO, Mr. Gebre worked extensively on community and civil rights issues and was a key liaison to environmental groups, but he said he had often become frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm of powerful union presidents.
Internally, he said, he argued that the looming migration of hundreds of millions of people because of climate change could lead to xenophobia, right-wing populism and increasing authoritarianism and that climate was therefore a top priority for the labor movement.
“Our movement will never grow under authoritarianism,” he said, adding, “Everyone shook their head, but there was no action.”
Mr. Gebre, who was born in Ethiopia, came to the United States as a teenager after escaping to a refugee camp in Sudan in 1983. He rose to become the executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation in California, and has been executive vice president of the AFL-CIO since 2013.
As a top AFL-CIO official, he often clashed with members of the inner circle of Richard Trumka, the longtime president, who died in August. Mr. Gebre said he believed that the federation focused too much on electoral and legislative politics and not enough on movement-building and organizing, and that the labor movement was underinvesting in key industries like technology.
Officials including Liz Shuler, the current president, have said that the choice between organizing versus political objectives like passing pro-labor legislation is a false one, and that the federation needs to succeed at both.
“We are incredibly grateful for Tefere’s service and leadership as executive vice president,” Ms. Shuler said in a statement. “He understands that worker rights and climate justice can only be achieved together, and we will work closely with him in his new role.”