Building a Green Economy Means Bringing Workers in with a Commitment to Good Green Jobs

Laura ClawsonOne of the weapons the right uses to try to block better policies on energy and the environment is the specter of job loss: regulations or clean energy or the boogeyman of the day will close businesses and put people out of work. In fact, clean energy and environmental regulations could create jobs. But Republicans exploit a legitimate fear on the part of workers, because while jobs could and should be created by improved environmental policies, there would be inevitable reshuffling, jobs shifted around from one industry to another. The people who know their jobs would be on the line have a reasonable fear that they wouldn’t immediately get new jobs, or that the new, clean energy jobs wouldn’t be as good as the ones they lost.

“Reasonable fear” doesn’t mean “reason not to act,” though. For the health of the environment, of people, of the economy, we have to take action to address climate change and more. How, though, do we do that in a way that addresses the legitimate concerns of working people? That’s both a political and a policy problem—workers have to be convinced, and the policy has to follow through and ensure that the shift to a clean energy economy is not taken as an opportunity to drive down wages and working conditions for the average worker.

This effort, of course, will take place over the well-funded resistance of the 1 percent, seeking to divide us—to make workers desperate for jobs at any cost and to convince them that climate change is less of a threat to their lives than the people who seek to avert its damage; to make environmentalists see workers, not polluting corporations, as their opponent in this battle.

That’s the needle AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka had to thread this week in his address to the UN investor summit on climate risk. Trumka made clear the urgency he and others in the labor movement see in addressing climate change, and doing so comprehensively rather than relying on small fixes:

And to those who say climate risk is a far off problem, I can tell you that I have hunted the same woods in Western Pennsylvania my entire life and climate change is happening now—I see it in the summer droughts that kill the trees, the warm winter nights when flowers bloom in January, the snows that fall less frequently and melt more quickly.

Even so, some will ask, why should investors or working people focus on climate risk when we have so many economic problems across the world? The labor movement has a clear answer: Addressing climate risk is not a distraction from solving our economic problems. My friends, addressing climate risk means retooling our world—it means that every factory and power plant, every home and office, every rail line and highway, every vehicle, locomotive and plane, every school and hospital, must be modernized, upgraded, renovated or replaced with something cleaner, more efficient, less wasteful.

But to do that, he argued, workers have to be included in the dialogue about what to do and how to do it:

Too often, we have failed to consider who bears the cost of change and ensure that change is managed fairly and respectfully. And when we do that, no matter how important the reasons might seem, we sacrifice the chance to build the power to move forward. The only way for our democracy to act is for those who care about climate change to engage with the people whose livelihoods are tied up with carbon emissions. All of us—investors, companies, workers, environmental activists, governments—need to be part of this dialogue. Any other approach to addressing climate risk is not just fundamentally unfair, it simply won’t work in our democracy.

Remember that Trumka was a coal miner, and then the president of the United Mine Workers. The question of what happens to people who work with coal is a very direct and personal one for him. And while developing technologies that use less energy and investing in solar and wind and other forms of cleaner energy will create jobs in the long term:

So why, in an economy without an effective safety net, would the good men and women of my hometown and a thousand places like it surrender their whole lives and sit by while others try to force them to bear the cost of change.
The truth is that in many places – and not just places where coal is mined – there is fear that the “green economy” will turn into another version of the radical inequality that now haunts our society—another economy that works for the 1% and not for the 99%. […]

So how can all Americans sit down together and develop trust? I think it begins with a commitment—a challenging and difficult commitment—that we are going to measure our approach not by how well it fits the needs of the well-positioned. We must ask ourselves, “How well does this pathway serve the least, the hardest to reach, the most likely to be left behind?” Places like West Virginia and the Ohio Valley must come first, not last.

How can this happen? Let’s think about the new EPA emissions rules for power plants. All of the unions of the AFL-CIO want to see coal fired power plants retrofitted immediately to cut back on mercury and sulfur emissions—those retrofits create good jobs, save lives. We oppose anyone who would take away the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to keep our air and water clean. But power plant and mine workers want to know that if their employers commit to doing the retrofits, they will get the time to complete them. Surely through dialogue common ground can be found between workers who want the retrofit jobs and clean air and public health advocates.

This is a question the environmental movement has to grapple with. There are good jobs to be created in conservation, in clean energy, in doing things the right way for the planet. But that has to be a priority, not a talking point. As opposed as I am to Keystone XL, as much as I think it’s short-sighted and destructive, it’s distressing to hear opponents of the project dismiss thousands of construction jobs as merely temporary—basically all construction jobs are temporary. The unions that support the project because it will provide jobs for their members must engage seriously with research indicating that Keystone will provide far fewer jobs (PDF) than TransCanada is claiming. But building a LEED building is a temporary construction job. Retrofitting a home is a temporary construction job.

That environmentally bad jobs aren’t all they’re cracked up to be isn’t a helpful thing to say to unemployed construction workers unless you have concrete policies that are going to create better ones, or at least a strong commitment to fight for them, and a reason for the people who stand to lose “gray” jobs to believe that they will get a fair share of the green jobs created. Such jobs are possible. As we all know, it’s not even hard to identify how it could be done—there are members of the Steelworkers working on wind turbines; investments in public transit would create construction jobs as well as longer-term jobs driving trains and buses; on and on, the possibilities for good green jobs exist. But when you advocate for good environmental policy, the political bargain to get it done can’t involve shorting the workers involved. The costs cut to get that last vote in Congress can’t be the cost of workers’ health insurance and retirement. You can’t squeeze more building retrofits out of a block of funding by halving the pay rate of those (again, temporary) jobs.

There have been strong efforts on the part of both movements, environmental and labor, to address this. Environmental organizations and unions have joined in the BlueGreen Alliance to address exactly this; some environmental organizations supported the Employee Free Choice Act; unions and environmental groups have joined on campaigns to clean up port trucking; Trumka’s speech lists a number of investments that unions and their pension funds have made in job-creating green projects. These alliances are promising, but they must be built into the DNA of both movements. Not just leaders but the majority of rank and file activists have to believe in the partnership and its intertwined goals, no matter how hard the 1 percent tries to divide us.

This blog originally appeared in Daily Kos Labor on January 15, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos. She has a PhD in sociology from Princeton University and has taught at Dartmouth College. From 2008 to 2011, she was senior writer at Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.