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Why Every Job in the Renewable Energy Industry Must Be a Union Job

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We need millions of union jobs that are good for both workers and the climate.

The renew­able ener­gy indus­try in the Unit­ed States is boom­ing. Pri­or to the start of the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, which has put mil­lions out of work, over 3 mil­lion peo­ple worked in clean ener­gy?—?far more than those who worked in the fos­sil fuel indus­try. And though the decline of fos­sil fuel jobs appears unstop­pable, the unions that rep­re­sent those work­ers are very pro­tec­tive of their mem­bers’ jobs. Sim­i­lar­ly, they’ve also been resis­tant to leg­is­la­tion like the Green New Deal, which would cre­ate more green jobs while also tran­si­tion­ing away from work in extrac­tive indus­tries. Envi­ron­men­tal activists believe that green jobs are the future?—?for both work­ers and our world?—?but union­iza­tion rates in the renew­able ener­gy indus­try are extreme­ly low. In order to get unions on board with green jobs, the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment will have to fight for those jobs to be union. And unions will have to loosen their grip on fos­sil fuels in an effort to embrace renewables.

Fos­sil fuel jobs can pay well (both oil rig and refin­ery work­ers can take home around $100,000 per year), but due to automa­tion and decreased demand, the num­ber of jobs is shrink­ing. And so are the unions that rep­re­sent them. At its peak, the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca boast­ed 800,000 mem­bers, but hun­dreds of thou­sands of work­ers have been laid off in the last few decades. Now UMWA is most­ly a retirees’ orga­ni­za­tion and only orga­nizes a few thou­sand work­ers in the man­u­fac­tur­ing and health care indus­tries, as well as work­ers across the Nava­jo Nation. When a union like UMWA hem­or­rhages mem­bers, many see it as an insu­lar prob­lem that doesn’t con­cern any­body else?—?envi­ron­men­tal­ists may even cel­e­brate the clo­sure of mines and refiner­ies, poten­tial­ly pay­ing lip ser­vice to lost jobs, with­out doing much to cre­ate new ones.

“An injury to one is an injury to all” is not just a slo­gan in the labor move­ment because it sounds good, but because it’s true. When union den­si­ty is low and unions are weak, the jobs that are cre­at­ed are more like­ly to have low pay, lack ben­e­fits, and be unsafe. And because union den­si­ty in this coun­try is already so low (33.6% in the pub­lic sec­tor, 6.2% in the pri­vate), every time an employ­er of union labor out­sources or shuts down, it affects not only those new­ly unem­ployed work­ers, but all work­ers, union and not. When oil refiner­ies and oth­er fos­sil fuel employ­ers close their doors, union mem­bers and oth­er work­ers lose their jobs. And while that may feel like a win for envi­ron­men­tal­ists, it’s also a loss for all work­ing peo­ple, even those con­cerned about cli­mate change. Unions are one of the only ways work­ing peo­ple have pow­er in this coun­try?—?with­out them, there will be very few orga­ni­za­tions equipped to fight for the pro­grams and ser­vices we deserve, includ­ing ones that are tasked with fight­ing cli­mate change. These kinds of con­tra­dic­tions have caused ten­sion between both move­ments, and cor­rod­ed trust between them. And while there have been some inroads made in the last few years—includ­ing unions endors­ing the Green New Deal—there’s still a long way to go until unions eschew fos­sil fuels.

Upton Sin­clair once said that ?“it is dif­fi­cult to get a man to under­stand some­thing when his salary depends upon his not under­stand­ing it.” When you’re able to feed your fam­i­ly on wages paid for by fos­sil fuels, it’s hard to see those same fos­sil fuels as a direct threat to your life. Most of us can under­stand why fos­sil fuel work­ers want to hold onto their jobs. And we can also under­stand why a major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans want to sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce the use of fos­sil fuels.

But between these two con­flict­ing needs is a real oppor­tu­ni­ty: green jobs. The Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics pre­dicts that the two fastest grow­ing jobs through 2028 will both be in the renew­able ener­gy sec­tor. While an eco­nom­ic down­turn due to Covid-19 could slow job growth, pre-pan­dem­ic reports showed that solar installers and wind tur­bine tech­ni­cians were set to grow by 63%. None of the 20 jobs pro­ject­ed to grow over 20% in the next eight years are in the fos­sil fuel indus­try. But the open­ing cre­at­ed by the renew­able indus­try for a part­ner­ship between the envi­ron­men­tal and labor move­ments is being squan­dered: Unions aren’t engag­ing in enough new orga­niz­ing, and envi­ron­men­tal­ists aren’t encour­ag­ing them. There are, of course, some heart­en­ing exam­ples of unions and greens work­ing togeth­er, like the Revers­ing Inequal­i­ty, Com­bat­ing Cli­mate Change report out of the Work­er Insti­tute at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty, which con­vened unions and pol­i­cy experts to devel­op rec­om­men­da­tions for new union jobs which would also fight cli­mate change. But most of the green jobs being cre­at­ed are not union: Only 6% of work­ers in both wind pow­er gen­er­a­tion and solar pow­er con­cen­trat­ing sys­tem work are union­ized, and 4% of work­ers in pho­to­voltaics, which cre­ate solar cells to con­vert light to electricity.

There are cur­rent­ly near­ly 335,000 solar work­ers in the coun­try, rep­re­sent­ing a huge oppor­tu­ni­ty for the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (IBEW), which admits that ?“a dis­turbing­ly small per­cent­age of the elec­tri­cal work­ers who install res­i­den­tial solar pan­els in North Amer­i­ca belong to a union.” Work­ers on solar farms are more like­ly to be union­ized than rooftop solar installers, who can make as lit­tle as $12 per hour doing a dan­ger­ous job and risk­ing elec­tro­cu­tion or a dead­ly fall.

In These Times spoke with a for­mer solar installer, J., at Solar States, a solar installer and edu­ca­tor in Philadel­phia. Installers there start at $16 an hour and are offered paid time off, retire­ment and health care ben­e­fits. Most are Black and brown, and accord­ing to J., there’s a man­date for 50% of installers to live in the city lim­its. Lead installers can go up to $22 to $25, but that’s about the high­est they can make on res­i­den­tial jobs. This is why, accord­ing to J., solar installers try to get com­mer­cial work on large build­ings owned by the city, state or busi­ness­es, because it pays more and the jobs are longer—and they often work along­side union members.

On a recent instal­la­tion job on a city-owned build­ing, which trig­gered the pre­vail­ing wage pro­vi­sion, Solar States installers worked next to mem­bers of IBEW Local 98, lay­ing the solar pan­els while the union elec­tri­cians wired them. J. (who still works in the indus­try and wants to remain anony­mous) told In These Times that ?“there’s a lot of bad blood with the union, but I tried to tell my co-work­ers that the only rea­son we get pre­vail­ing wage is because of them.” Accord­ing to him, the ten­sion stems from inter­per­son­al issues when they work close­ly togeth­er, and the dif­fer­ences in their wages—IBEW can mem­bers make $72 an hour. Relat­ed­ly, the union is pre­dom­i­nate­ly white, and work­ers at Solar States are most­ly peo­ple of col­or, which has also caused ten­sion between the two groups.

Accord­ing to res­i­den­tial solar installers, Local 98 also hasn’t expressed any inter­est in bring­ing these work­ers into their union. (Local 98 didn’t return a request for com­ment.) J. told In These Times, ?“They don’t care about new orga­niz­ing. They want to make sure that all the white men that have been in IBEW for­ev­er con­tin­ue to com­mand a high wage. They have nev­er once tried to reach out to us, and we work side by side!” This may be because there is no cohe­sive man­date from the inter­na­tion­al union. In fact, dif­fer­ent IBEW locals in Cal­i­for­nia have had con­flict­ing opin­ions on green jobs: Local 18 has slammed the Green New Deal, while Local 428 has embraced job oppor­tu­ni­ties in the renew­able sec­tor. And while unions strug­gle inter­nal­ly over these issues, many envi­ron­men­tal­ists remain indif­fer­ent or unin­ter­est­ed in solar work­ers’ labor con­di­tions. J. said that ?“espe­cial­ly cus­tomers who are wealthy, they don’t real­ly think about it at all. Their ques­tion is not how much installers get paid, but how much is my car­bon foot­print offset.”

If envi­ron­men­tal­ists are tru­ly con­cerned about off­set­ting car­bon foot­prints and grow­ing the renew­able sec­tor, they’ll have to fight for gov­ern­ment inter­ven­tion—and to do so suc­cess­ful­ly, they’ll need unions on their side. In Philadel­phia, a Solar States cus­tomer can pay an aver­age of any­where between $21,000 and $26,000 for solar instal­la­tion on their home. With­out rebates, tax breaks and oth­er incen­tives, res­i­den­tial solar is finan­cial­ly out of reach for most peo­ple, mak­ing it seem more like a hob­by for the wealthy and less like an impor­tant step to fight cli­mate change. The Green New Deal, which calls for ?“meet­ing 100% of the pow­er demand in the Unit­ed States through clean, renew­able, and zero-emis­sion ener­gy sources,” could close this access gap. And with more than 12.5 mil­lion mem­bers, the AFL-CIO (the country’s largest labor fed­er­a­tion) is well poised to get more mod­er­ate Democ­rats on board with the leg­is­la­tion, which, if passed, would cre­ate mil­lions of jobs and expand unions’ ranks. But most unions see the Green New Deal as an attack on union jobs, rather than an oppor­tu­ni­ty to cre­ate more. And yet if renew­able ener­gy got the same kinds of sub­si­dies fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies have, mem­bers of build­ing trades unions would be clam­or­ing to install solar pan­els or wind turbines.

In the mean­time, if there’s a shared agree­ment between both the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment and the labor move­ment that cre­at­ing mil­lions of union jobs is a pri­or­i­ty, both need to actu­al­ly pri­or­i­tize it. Jobs that are good for the envi­ron­ment aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly good for work­ers, and jobs that are good for work­ers aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly good for the envi­ron­ment. We need jobs that are good for both, and to get there we need unions and envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions fight­ing for invest­ment, incen­tives and jobs—togeth­er. This could involve tying sub­si­dies to a cer­tain per­cent­age of union jobs, or fight­ing for project labor agree­ments at every poten­tial green job site. What­ev­er form it takes, this coali­tion must begin at the premise that a loss of union jobs is detri­men­tal to all work­ing peo­ple in this coun­try—and if we want to fight cli­mate change, the labor move­ment must take the lead, before it’s too late.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia. She is a frequent contributor to Working In These Times.


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Climate Activists Can’t Afford to Ignore Labor. A Shuttered Refinery in Philly Shows Why.

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In the early morning hours of June 21, 2019, a catastrophic explosion tore through the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) oil refinery in the southwest section of Philadelphia. The training and quick thinking of refinery workers, members of United Steelworkers Local 10-1, averted certain disaster and saved millions of lives. One month later, on July 21, PES declared bankruptcy—their second in as many years—and began to close down the refinery in the following months, laying off almost 2,000 people with no meaningful severance. According to workers who spoke with In These Times, the refinery stopped running crude oil in early August, although there are fewer than 100 workers who were kept on as caretakers for the waste water and steam generating units.

The fire on June 21 and the mass layoffs that followed impacted more than just the physical site of the refinery and the workers who made it run. It also ignited a debate throughout the city about what would become of the refinery site, which has been in operation for more than 150 years. On the one hand, the explosion underscored the dangers the refinery posed to the community immediately surrounding it, and the city as a whole. On the other, the subsequent closure of the refinery meant that workers were suddenly out of work, with no plan from PES or city officials of how to put them back to work.

This debate, while focused on Philadelphia, reflects much larger questions roiling supporters of a Green New Deal: how to ensure a just transition for fossil fuel workers who lose their jobs, and how to build bonds between unions looking out for their members, and climate organizers trying to stop fossil fuel extraction. Interviews with community organizers trying to curb the refinery’s toxic pollution, and workers laid off from the refinery, indicate that the answers are not easy, but require listening to workers, many of whom are already thinking about climate change—and forced, right now, to deal with the hardships of losing their jobs. In the words of Jim, a former worker who requested only his first name be used due to fear of retaliation, “Fossil fuels need to be phased out aggressively. That being said, I’m in the industry. You can’t just allow the people in that industry to become like the coal miners, just floundering.”

A toxic polluter

Such questions have been the focus of ongoing organizing by community members who have long been concerned about the health impacts the refinery has on the soil, water and air. The refinery is in the 19145 zip code, which has one of the highest rates of hospitalization for asthma in the city, along with one of the highest cancer mortality rates, in a city that has the “highest cancer rate of any large city in the United States,” according to the National Cancer Institute.

The connection between illnesses and the refinery is not lost on community members, nor on Philly Thrive, an organization founded in 2015 to “win a just transition of the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery, the largest and oldest oil refinery on the East Coast.” The organization knocked on doors around the refinery and embarked on a “listening project” in order to better understand the experiences of neighbors, most of whom are Black and low-income. Alexa Ross, co-founder of Philly Thrive, says that the organization exists outside of the “non-profit, white, middle class” environmental movement, and is currently focused solely on its “Right to Breathe” campaign, which is organizing around health and safety over profit, no fossil fuel expansion, and a green economy for all.

After hearing countless horror stories from neighbors about asthma, bronchitis, cancer and early deaths, Philly Thrive was unable to ignore the urgency of the crisis. Ross told In These Times that “you can compare the refinery to the next 100 sources of pollution all together, and the refinery is still the majority of toxic emissions.” The refinery was the number one source of air pollution in Philadelphia, responsible for 9% of the city’s fine particle emissions and 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Department of Public Health. It was also the single largest emitter of toxic pollutants, including known carcinogens, representing nearly 57% of such emissions in 2016.

A lack of trust

And although Philly Thrive also lists a commitment to a “just transition to clean energy and living wage green jobs” on its website, it also publicly acknowledges that “it has been very difficult to carve out substantial time in our organizing” to build relationships with workers at the refinery. Ross says Thrive was “told by our connections to USW that they wanted nothing to do with us if we were anti-fossil fuel. We’re one of the only environmental groups that hasn’t been invited to the table with labor, because we don’t think we can afford to say anything besides that we need to transition from fossil fuels now. So we’ve been denied access to the labor movement and USW in particular.”

This lack of trust between community members and refinery workers has been painful for both groups, and the challenges they’ve encountered connecting these two distinct, but ultimately connected, struggles have been difficult to transcend. Philly Thrive says that at public meetings about the future of the refinery, “fear, anger and grief have found likely targets in each other instead of the companies and executives responsible for the refinery.”

One former refinery worker even took to Twitter shortly after the explosion to slam Philly Thrive. Jim Savage, former President of USW Local 10-1, the union that represented workers at the refinery, wrote that “hypocritical opportunists ran to microphones, with fires still burning out of control, calling for the immediate shutdown of the refinery with an ‘oh, by the way, take care of the workers by doing x, y, and z.’ Workers that they didn’t bother to speak with first. A week later, they’re still doing it and still no conversation with the workers. Obviously, they prefer the flowery words of solidarity without any actual effort to create solidarity.”

Jim, the refinery worker mentioned earlier, says that workers saw Philly Thrive “as advocating for a total shutdown, no industrial use, which to people who work there is very scary. We talked about some transition with some relief for the workers and this wouldn’t fit that bill.” When pressed about what a transition with relief for workers would look like, he said that “it would include medical [insurance] while we are laid off with schooling or training included… A severance would have helped. This is just me though. A lot of workers wouldn’t agree but I think a substantial amount would. Some won’t be happy with anything less than their refinery jobs back.”

And it’s not hard to understand why. The PES refinery provided around 1,100 full-time jobs and as many as 850 contracted positions to workers largely in the Philadelphia area. Most of the workers I spoke with only had high school degrees, and ended up making at least $100,000 per year, often closer to $150,000 or $200,000 with overtime and bonuses, thanks to their strong union and the dangerous nature of their work.

B.N., who requested only his initials be used due to fear of retaliation, worked at the refinery since 2006 and is now a facilities manager at a university, making about half the money he previously made. He says “it’s much safer, but I do miss the money, and it’s very hard to go backwards.” He says that for his old coworkers, the job search is “brutal,” with people getting offered jobs that pay $17 an hour. Some haven’t found anything at all and are still relying on unemployment. Others have moved to Texas, Arkansas, or Louisiana, chasing refinery jobs on the Gulf Coast, leaving their families behind.

When faced with the option of either keeping well-paying jobs or putting what may feel like blind faith into hypothetical plans for a transition of the site in the spirit of the Green New Deal, it’s not hard to understand why refinery workers have fought to keep the refinery open—especially when they are not included in the discussions around what a transition could or should look like. The challenges facing community members and workers in Philadelphia over the future of the former PES refinery site are not unique, but rather, indicative of a wider gap that must be bridged in order to eventually win a Green New Deal.

The labor movement and climate movement have often been painted as unlikely allies, locked in a natural and consistent conflict. Although some unions have begun to embrace the need to move away from fossil fuels and seriously confront climate change, many unions have dug their heels in and reaffirmed their commitment to extractive industries, such as Laborers’ International Union of North AmericaInternational Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and United Mine Workers of America. The AFL-CIO infamously came out in support of building oil pipelines in the face of massive protests by Indigenous communities in the Dakotas.

While there’s a lot of talk of a “just transition” away from fossil fuels—both in Philadelphia around the refinery, and beyond—we don’t have any examples in this country to model this transition after yet. It makes sense that a union whose members work in the fossil fuel industry would see its interests as tied to the fate of that industry, especially given the tendency of many unions to see their role as fighting solely for the interests of their members, divorced from the interests of the working class as a whole.

A common enemy

It’s clear that a basis for a higher level of solidarity must be found to overcome this division. One potential way to do this is to identify a common enemy, one who is responsible for both exploiting and endangering the safety of the workers in these often dangerous industries, and for the devastation these industries have on the surrounding communities. This common enemy is, of course, the boss, who is often aided by tax breaks and political support from local and state governments.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania provided PES with $25 million for refinery equipment upgrades and rail car infrastructure in 2012, along with numerous other tax incentives and write-offs. PES was also granted protection by the state for liability related to historical environmental contamination at the site, or contamination resulting from Sunoco’s (the previous owner) operations. Following the June 21 explosion and subsequent bankruptcy filing, PES executives were paid $4.59 million in retention bonuses. In a November 22nd filing with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, PES requested to create an additional bonus pool to payout executives, ranging from $2.5 million to $20 million if the sale of the refinery generates $1 billion in net proceeds. Philadelphia Energy Industries, created by former PES chief executive Phil Rinaldi and S.G. Preston, a biofuels company, have put in a bid to purchase the refinery in order to reopen it. Rinaldi left PES in 2017, but other executives with whom he had worked closely for years were the ones who closed the refinery, filed for bankruptcy, and received massive payouts for themselves. And in the aftermath of the devastation caused to the lives of refinery workers and the surrounding community, Rinaldi has cynically emerged as a key figure calling to restart operations at the shuttered refinery site.

Even though USW Local 10-1 President Ryan O’Callaghan has publicly bashed the executives for their lavish payouts, he also said, “The idea of retraining us for jobs that don’t exist is not the answer. The idea to put a solar panel farm on the site is not the answer. The answer is to restart the refinery now.” So even though union members were sold out by the owners of PES—who took giant payouts while leaving them with nothing—the union is indirectly allying with them to work to re-open the refinery.

But is it really about the refinery, or is it about good jobs? B.N. said that “If it was a solar or a wind farm, and they were paying what the refinery paid, [the workers] would be there in a second. It’s about the money. They’re not defending the industry—they’re defending their job and their paycheck. If they could make the same money working for Greenpeace, they would do it.” When the only option is to either defend the fossil fuel industry or have a poorly paying, insecure job, the vast majority of workers are going to defend the industry—no matter their personal beliefs about climate change.

On January 17, the site will be put to auction, with multiple companies lining up to re-open the refinery. Residents and community groups like Philly Thrive don’t have a seat at the table in discussions about the refinery’s future, but USW does because it is a creditor in the refinery’s bankruptcy case. What would it be like if the union chose to partner with Philly Thrive instead of with the 1%, and signed on to their demands of health and safety over profit, no fossil fuel expansion, and a green economy for all? The union could stand with community members and commit to shutting down the refinery, for both the safety of the workers, the surrounding community, and our hope for any kind of fossil fuel-free future—but only if there is a plan for severance pay and health insurance for workers, along with training and job placements at either the old refinery site or elsewhere.

The people most affected by climate change will be in the working class, whether they’re members of USW Local 10-1, members of another union, or not union members at all. The Phil Rinaldis of the world, by contrast, will be much more insulated from climate catastrophe. This is a pressing challenge to both the labor and climate movement, given the particular urgency for drastic action to address the impacts of climate change before it’s too late. How can the labor movement move towards acting in the interests of their members, yes, but increasingly in the interests of workers as a whole? And how can the climate movement engage labor to help make the Green New Deal a more concrete program that workers can believe in? In order to fully confront the complexities of how to actually have a just transition away from fossil fuels, workers in those industries need to be at the front of those conversations.

As B.N. puts it, “We’ve done a lot of great things in this country. We can transition. Look at World War II, GM stopped making cars for commercial production—they started devoting all of their efforts to the war. We can do big things in this country.”

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on January 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.

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Cities Aren’t Waiting for a Federal Green New Deal

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In 1992, recognizing that not all countries had contributed equally to the climate crisis, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change codified the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.” This framework insists that developed countries “take the lead in combating climate change” by transitioning to clean energy more rapidly, in order to allow time for developing nations to catch up to the same standard of living.

But it’s not just countries that are disproportionately liable for decades of emissions. One hundred cities account for nearly a fifth of our global carbon footprint. Three of the top 10 are in the United States: New York (3), Los Angeles (5), and Chicago (8)—these cities alone make up nearly 10% of U.S. emissions.

This may seem counterintuitive. Dense cities, after all, are more energy efficient and data suggests that per capita emissions actually decrease with urban population growth. But after analyzing the carbon footprints of over 13,000 cities around the world, one study found that combined high population and high income made cities disproportionately high emitters.

Within wealthy cities, high-consumption lifestyles drive emissions, and those lifestyles are shaped by the architecture of our urban environment. Everything from the shape of the city and the length of commutes to bike- and pedestrian-friendliness, robustness of public transportation (and/or highway) infrastructure, and the physical buildings themselves drive emissions. Rather than simply insisting people change their lifestyles to tackle the climate crisis, we need to insist on changing the cities that shape those lifestyles. And—with the federal government unlikely to pass a Green New Deal until at least 2021—a number of cities are starting to do just that.

Just ahead of Earth Day, the New York City Council passed a historic package of climate legislation that many have called a Green New Deal for New York City. At the center of the Climate Mobilization Act is a bill that mandates buildings over 25,000 square feet reduce emissions 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. Behind the scenes, grassroots organizers had been forming a diverse coalition that united low-income communities of color with predominantly white climate activists over a period of several years. “In the end we won because of the coalition building and campaign work that we did,” says Pete Sikora, Climate & Inequality Campaigns Director for New York Communities for Change.

Buildings account for nearly 70% of carbon emissions in New York City, which has the largest carbon footprint of any urban area in the country. The city plans on implementing the policy through the creation of a new Office of Building Energy and Emissions Performance which would set performance standards, monitor building energy use and emissions, and determine penalties for buildings that fail to comply.

“There is no way to address the [energy] grid or the radical change needed to reach massive pollution cuts without prioritizing energy efficiency,” Sikora says. The goal is to reduce energy use to such a degree that large buildings, which often rely on fossil fueled-powered boilers and gas for heat and cooking, could be fully powered by the electric grid.

The importance of addressing buildings in general cannot be overstated. Globally, building operations, materials and construction account for nearly 40% of energy use. According to Architecture 2030, the global building stock will double by 2060. “This,” they say, “is the equivalent of adding an entire New York City every month for 40 years.”

While the federal government can set national emissions targets and provide federal funds to cities, much will be left to local governments to monitor and enforce energy efficiency standards—a task too big for the federal government to handle alone.

In July, Berkeley, Calif., became the first city in the United States to ban natural gas use in new buildings. Thirteen other cities across California followed shortly after, enacting new building codes that either require or encourage new construction to be run completely on electricity. In Philadelphia, organizers are pressuring the city council to pass similar legislation. This marks a significant first step towards long-term, government-enforced emissions standards. These progressive cities across the country are beginning to establish what will hopefully become a new normal.

Even with fossil fuel use eliminated within buildings, though, electricity is still only as clean as the grid that supplies it. In New York state, a grassroots organizing coalition successfully pushed for a recent state law requiring the grid to be 70% powered by renewable energy by 2030 and emissions-free by 2050. And around the country, local progressive groups are hard at work trying to put electric utilities under public ownership. The Chicago chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has been waging a fierce campaign, in collaboration with some of the city’s six socialist city council members, to bring their main electric utility company, ComEd, under municipal control. Similar DSA campaigns to take back the grid have appeared in New York City; Boston; New Haven, Conn.; East Bay, Calif.; and Providence, R.I.

“Our main campaign is energy democracy and we see that as a key aspect of winning a Green New Deal” say Sydney Ghazarian, who serves on the steering committee of DSA’s National Ecosocialist Working Group, which she helped found in 2017. (Full disclosure: This author is a member of DSA, though not involved with the ecosocialist working group.)

She and a few other members, Ghazarian says, “realized that [the climate crisis] was going to be the ultimate contradiction of capitalism” and would “require massive restructuring so socialists needed to be on the forefront of this issue.” The first priority for the Ecosocialist Working Group was infrastructure to implement municipal-level climate campaigns in local DSA chapters.
“We can’t wait until 2021 to start,” Ghazarian says. “What we can do is actually make real changes at the city level and the local level to start [the transition].” While supporting candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is pushing for a national Green New Deal, DSA chapters have also been on the ground organizing a working-class base of supporters by engaging with people where they are: overwhelmingly, in cities.

There is an additional political advantage to organizing at the city-level: dense urban areas, to a great degree, are more inclined to vote blue than their rural counterparts. And enough large cities, accounting for much of the country’s population, taking serious climate action can put pressure on the federal government to pass decisive legislation.
Over 1,200 cities around the world have already declared a state of “climate emergency,” Oxford Dictionary’s 2019 word of the year. It’s a necessary first step and one national governments have been disinclined to take. “We have to shift into emergency mode,” says Laura Berry, research and publications director at The Climate Mobilization (TCM), which has helped lead this movement through their Climate Emergency Declaration campaign.

The goal of the organization is to catalyze a World War II-scale mobilization to reverse the climate crisis. In 2016, Bernie Sanders embraced TCM’s demand, and helped introduced it to the Democratic Party platform. But when Trump won the election, the organization shifted its focus to the local level. With Republicans holding the White House, Senate and a majority of state legislatures, cities are proving the best option for short-term change.

The organization has laid out a template for local government to declare a state of emergency with the hopes of “building upward.”  “Federal and international negotiations have been incredibly ineffective in addressing the crisis that we are facing,” Berry says. “We see local governments as playing a really important role in advocating and pushing for stronger action at the state and national level.”

Nothing can substitute the need for international cooperation or a federal Green New Deal. But without municipal efforts to cooperate and enforce climate legislation, many of these policies, to borrow a pun from Sikora, will just be blowing a lot of hot air.

This article was originally published at InTheseTimes on December 17, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Indigo Olivier is an editorial intern at In These Times. Follow her on Twitter: @IndigoOlivier.

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Our Climate Choice: Thrive, or Barely Survive?

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Have you ever wondered why so many hundreds of thousands of kids around the world are suddenly passionate climate advocates? The flip answer is that they looked out their windows. The more rigorous answer can be found in the 2019 Lancet Countdown, just released, which offers an annual snapshot of how climate disruption is affecting our health.

According to the report, a global collaboration between 35 leading academic institutions and United Nations agencies:

“The life of every child born today will be profoundly affected by climate change. Without accelerated intervention, this new era will come to define the health of people at every stage of their lives.”

Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, 2019

The Lancet Countdown captures the existential terror of climate-savvy children in a series of 41 scientific indicators that are largely heading in the wrong direction.

One of the new elements in this year’s Lancet Countdown is an examination of food security. Despite my familiarity with the climate crisis, Figure 8 of the report was a shock. Globally, the crop yield potential of winter and spring wheat, soybeans, corn, and rice have fallen off a cliff since 1960. (You can explore the data in more detail yourself here, on The Lancet’s new visualization platform.) Declines in staple crops are particularly harmful to children under the age of 5, who can carry the cognitive and physical burdens of undernutrition for their entire lives.

Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, 2019

The Lancet Countdown also finds that climate change is exposing increasing numbers of people to deadly heatwaves, unhealthy wildfire smoke, and infectious illnesses like dengue fever and diarrheal disease. In 2018, for example, the equivalent of 220 million people worldwide suffered through one heat wave each—far surpassing the previous record of 209 million heat wave exposures in 2015.

Extreme heat is rough on young children, who rely on caregivers to keep them safe from dehydration, heat-related illnesses, and even severe burns on hot playgrounds. Heat also affects children when their parents lose work hours due to heat stress: According to the U.S. policy brief for this year’s Lancet Countdown, American workers lost nearly 1.1 billion work hours due to extreme heat from 2000 to 2018. In July 2018 alone, extreme heat led to the loss of 15 to 20 percent of possible daylight work hours for construction and other heavy labor in the southern United States. Lower wages paired with the sky-high medical costs of heat-related illnesses can spell disaster for low-income families who already struggle to make ends meet.

These health impacts of climate change are showing up with just 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of average global warming since the late 1800s. Without decisive, immediate action to slash the pollution causing climate change, children born today could experience the unthinkable consequences of 3 to 4 degrees Celsius (5.4 to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) of average global warming by the time they’re in their eighties.

But here’s the thing: Even with ambitious action to cut emissions, today’s children will face a worsening array of climate-related health hazards through their lifetimes. That’s why it’s critical for governments and healthcare providers to swiftly identify local climate vulnerabilities and take preventative steps to reduce current and future harms. Thankfully, there are signs of progress. In the United States, for instance, two-thirds of 136 U.S. city governments surveyed in 2018 had a climate risk assessment completed or underway.

Humans are tough, smart, and have managed to survive as a species through all manner of disasters both natural and of our own making. But simply surviving in a dramatically-altered climate sounds … awful, at best. To thrive in our climate-disrupted world—and to help our youngest members of society reach their full potential as productive, healthy, happy adults—we need to speed down a climate-friendly path instead of dithering at our current crossroad.

This article was originally published at NRDC on November 13, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Juanita Constible works with partners to advocate for strong federal and state action to cut carbon pollution and protect communities from the health effects of climate change. Prior to joining NRDC, Constible oversaw the science and solutions department at the Climate Reality Project and later served as an adviser to the Climate Action Campaign. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from the University of Victoria in Canada, and a climate change and health certificate from the Yale School of Public Health. Constible is based in NRDC’s Washington, D.C., office.

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8 Unions Have a Plan for Climate Action—But It Doesn’t Mention Fighting the Fossil Fuel Industry

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On June 24, the BlueGreen Alliance—a national coalition which includes eight large labor unions and six influential environmental groups—released an eight-page document laying out its vision to curb climate change and reduce inequality. The report, dubbed Solidarity for Climate Action, marks a significant development in the world of environmental politics. It argues the needs of working people must be front-and-center as the U.S. responds to climate change, and rejects the “false choice” between economic security and a healthy planet.

While the report’s focus on public investment, good jobs and justice shares much in common with the federal Green New Deal resolution introduced in February, it also stands in tension with environmentalists who demand the U.S. work to transition more quickly away from oil, coal and natural gas. “We’d really like them to be stronger and more concise about what it means to move away from fossil fuels and transition to renewables,” said José Bravo, executive director of the Just Transition Alliance and speaking on behalf of the Climate Justice Alliance. Members of the BlueGreen Alliance say the ultimate goal should be to decarbonize the economy—to reduce CO2 emissions, but not necessarily end the fossil fuel industry itself, with its tens of thousands of high-paying jobs. Other climate groups say that won’t be enough, and humanity cannot afford to preserve industries that have caused so much environmental harm. This difference in vision will stand as one of the most fundamental political questions facing progressives in the next decade.

The report spells out a series of principles, including limiting warming to 1.5°C, expanding union jobs, modernizing infrastructure, bolstering environmental protections and rebuilding the nation’s manufacturing sector with green technologies. It also elevates the issue of equity, calling to “inject justice into our nation’s economy by ensuring that economic and environmental benefits of climate change solutions support the hardest hit workers and communities.” The BlueGreen Alliance emphasizes the disproportionate impact low-income workers and communities of color will face, and says those affected by the energy transition must receive “a just and viable transition” to new, high-quality union jobs.

To make its platform a reality, the BlueGreen Alliance endorses a host of specific policies and timetables, like reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, while being “solidly on a path” to that goal by 2030. Among other things, the report calls for measures like restoring forests and wildlands, cracking down on empl­oyee misclassification, making it easier to unionize one’s workplace, winning universal access to high-speed Internet, and “massive” economic investing in deindustrialized areas, “including remediating any immediate loss of tax base or public services for communities.”

Labor groups in the coalition include the United Steelworkers, the Utility Workers Union of America, the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, the Communications Workers of America, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, the Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers. The environmental organizations include the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Wildlife Federation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Environmental Defense Action Fund, and the League of Conservation Voters.

Following the 2016 election, the coalition organized listening sessions with workers in communities that voted for Donald Trump, like in Macomb County, Michigan, and the Iron Range in Wisconsin. After those discussions, leaders started investing in broader polling, message-testing and focus groups. While opponents of regulating greenhouse gas emissions relish exploiting tensions between environmentalists and labor unions, Mike Williams, the deputy director of the BlueGreen Alliance, said it became clear from the research “that working people do quite care about climate change, but they also believe they should not be forced to make a choice between that and having a good job.”

“We went through a lot of iterations and a lot of conversations,” said Sara Chieffo, the vice president of government affairs for the League of Conservation Voters. “There was real unanimity that we were solving the twin crises of inequality and climate change.”

Jeremy Brecher, the co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability, which supports organized labor in tackling climate change, tells In These Times that he sees the Solidarity for Climate Action report as “quite a significant stepping out” for the BlueGreen Alliance. “The BGA was basically [created in 2006] to advocate for the growth and quality of jobs in the clean economy,” he said. “It did not take positions on targets and timetables for carbon reduction, clean coal and the KXL pipeline. It was a green jobs organization, which is important in terms of understanding where the BGA was coming from.” Brecher says the BlueGreen Alliance’s new statement “about the pace of greenhouse gas emission reductions and the absolute centrality and necessity of it is an extremely positive development.”

Evan Weber, the political director and co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, agrees. “I think the platform represents a really historic step forward for a number of the nation’s largest and most influential labor unions,” he said. “It leaves some questions about what needs to be done, and we’d like to see more ambition, but it is really meaningful that these groups and unions have come to the table and shown that they’re willing to move forward and not stay in the ways of the past.”

The Green New Deal resolution was introduced in Congress as the BlueGreen Alliance hashed out its own proposal. The leaders of some labor unions in the BlueGreen Alliance that represent workers in the fossil fuel industry—including the Steelworkers and the Utility Workers—have publicly voiced criticism of the Green New Deal, blasting it for a lack of specifics. The federal resolution “certainly took over a big portion of the national climate conversation, and a few of our partners were supportive, but there is also skepticism from the labor side,” said Williams. “As we were working we said we need to focus on our own process to see where we can forge alignment.”

Some hope the BlueGreen platform can serve as a policy blueprint for moving forward on the Green New Deal. SEIU, which represents 2 million workers, is both a BlueGreen coalition member and the first international union to back the federal Green New Deal resolution. “SEIU members know that we must take bold, immediate action on climate change, including holding corporations accountable for rampant pollution and ensuring good union jobs as we transition to a clean energy economy,” president Mary Kay Henry told In These Times. “That’s why we are proud to support both the Green New Deal, our North Star for what needs to be accomplished on climate change, and the BlueGreen Alliance’s platform, a roadmap for how we can get there.”

The League of Conservation Voters also endorsed the Green New Deal resolution back in February, and Chieffo told In These Timesthat her group sees the Solidarity for Climate Action report as “a really essential addition” to the conversation. “We are proud to endorse the Green New Deal and I think it’s incredibly valuable to have these eight powerful unions at the table laying out a proactive vision for how we tackle climate change.”

In These Times reached out to the original co-sponsors of the Green New Deal, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey of (D-Mass.), for comment on the BlueGreen Alliance’s report.

Anika Legrand-Wittich, a spokesperson for Ocasio-Cortez, said while she was unable to reach the Congresswoman for specific comment, she “confirmed with our staff that we have indeed worked with BlueGreen Alliance and share many of their goals.”

Giselle Barry, a spokesperson for Sen. Markey, pointed to a supportive tweet the senator posted following the report’s release. It signal boosted the BlueGreen Alliance platform, and reads, “Transforming our economy and combatting climate change will create millions of jobs, but it won’t be possible without our workers and their families. Great to see our allies in organized labor continuing to make climate action a top priority.”

New Consensus, a think tank working to develop policies for the Green New Deal, said in an email “We don’t have any comment on the BGA report at this time.”

Fossil fuels

Despite its generally positive reception, the Solidarity for Climate Action has not gone without critique — and some environmental groups and labor leaders have raised issues and questions about the platform.

“I don’t think it goes far enough in terms of moving us definitively off fossil fuels at the speed that is required,” said Weber of the Sunrise Movement.

Brecher, of the Labor Network for Sustainability, said while overall the report marks a “very big step forward” for unions, he thinks its language “can use a little tightening up” to prevent groups from having too much “wiggle room.” He specifically pointed to language that America should be “on a pathway” to reducing its emissions, and suggests that be more specific. “It is overall quite close to the Green New Deal resolution, which also has a little wiggle room,” he said. (For example, most action items in the Green New Deal come with the caveat of “as much as is technologically feasible.”)

Julian Brave NoiseCat, the director of Green New Deal strategy at Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, said his organization’s vision for climate action shares a lot of overlap with the BlueGreen Alliance platform. But he noted BlueGreen Alliance’s does not include a 100% clean energy commitment, nor explicit provisions to phase-out fossil fuels, and it does not include a 10-year mobilization, in line with the Green New Deal. He also said he wonders whether the BlueGreen Alliance would support a federal jobs guarantee, or some other federal work provision.

Erich Pica, the president of Friends of the Earth, a climate group, said while it’s significant to see the labor movement taking proactive steps on the environment, as well as seeing the report’s emphasis on justice and equity, he protested its lack of mention of fossil fuels, natural gas, oil or coal. “How do you have solidarity for climate action when you’re not proactively calling out the very fuel sources that we have to eliminate from the U.S. economy?” he asked. “It says a lot of great things about how we want the economy structured, but in many ways it papers over where some of the greatest disagreement is between parts of the labor movement and the environmental community.”

Pica also acknowledged that the Green New Deal resolution did not make any mention of fossil fuels. “We were critical of that, too,” he said.

Mike Williams, of the BlueGreen Alliance, said while he understands that critique, he also thinks “it’s a bit much” to expect this platform to call for banning fossil fuels. “Our goal is to get climate pollution out of our economy by a certain time to avoid as much warming as possible, so we established our platform with the methods we think will help get us to those goals,” he said. “The banning of fossil fuels — that’s pretty controversial to expect of the people who represent the human beings who work in that sector. This is tens of thousands of people who work in these industries, and for a union to step out and say we’re going to end your job and the promise of a new job is a wink and a nod and a handshake. Well America has never before followed through on any proper transition, save for maybe the New Deal for white dudes.”

From Williams’ perspective, demanding unions call for ending their own jobs, before any sort of real alternative agreement is in place, is simply unrealistic. “It’s so mind boggling to think that people who represent folks who work in those industries would jump so far out ahead of where their membership is, and without any real forthright and immediately implementable solution,” he said.

Pica, of Friends of the Earth, also critiqued the BlueGreen Alliance for making no gesture toward campaigns to keep fossil fuels in the ground. “It’s been the divestment fights, trying to get universities and cities to divest their money from fossil fuel companies, that has been the fuel of the climate movement over the last decade,” he said.

Williams said the absence of certain “buzzwords” doesn’t diminish from what the document accomplishes. “We’re on the same side, and I truly respect [the environmental critics] and I hear them, but this is about building a broader movement that can get bigger solutions across the line,” he said.

Carbon-capture technology

Perhaps the most polarizing policy endorsed by the Solidarity for Climate Action report is that of carbon-capture technology, a method backed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and supported by most of the labor movement. But among environmentalists it’s more divisive, as some argue it will prolong dependence on fossil fuels, be too costly, and make it harder to reduce emissions overall.

“The fact that it’s included in the BGA report I think is very unfortunate and something that realistically has no chance of making a significant contribution to climate protection,” Brecher said. “Some of the other environmental groups are more squishy.”

Pica called carbon-capture “an expensive detour to nowhere” that’s a “nonstarter and at worse feeds kind of feeds false hope.” In January more than 600 environmental groups sent a letter to Congress saying they will—among other things—“vigorously oppose” federal climate legislation that promotes “corporate schemes” like carbon-capture and storage. Brecher and Pica’s groups were among the signatories. While the Green New Deal resolution is ambiguous on carbon-capture, last week Sen. Bernie Sanders released his presidential climate plan, which includes opposition to the technology.

Phil Smith, a spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America, a labor union not represented in the BlueGreen Alliance, tells In These Times that there are aspects of the report his union agrees with, “especially with respect to carbon-capture technology.” But he critiqued it as not specific enough when it comes to defining what a “just transition” means. The platform calls for “guaranteed pensions and a bridge of wage support, healthcare and retirement security” until an impacted worker finds a new job or retires.

“Coal miners want to know what the hell you mean when you say you want a ‘just transition,’” Smith says. “Training to drive a truck is not a just transition. Training a miner to earn half of what they’re making now is not a just transition. … Our concern is once laws get passed to phase out carbon dioxide in 10 years, if we’re going to have a ‘just transition’ then we needed to be working on that 15 years ago. It’s just meaningless words on paper right now, and we keep seeing it over and over.”

Moving forward, members of the BlueGreen Alliance plan to promote the policies outlined in their new platform through legislative advocacy and local community organizing. In late July, the coalition sent a letter to the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), and its ranking member, John Shimkus (R-Ill.), encouraging them to consider the Solidarity for Climate Action platform as they proceed in Congress.

“I think the next phase of work is educating elected officials on what’s in the platform,” said Chieffo. “And then really rolling up our sleeves to craft the legislation and hopefully future executive branch options needed to deliver it.”

This article was originally published by In These Times on August 26, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Rachel M. Cohen is a journalist based in Washington D.C. Follow her on Twitter @rmc031


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Maine’s Green New Deal bill first in country to be backed by labor unions

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The Maine American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), which represents over 160 local labor unions across the state, announced its support Tuesday for the state’s recently introduced Green New Deal legislation.

This is the first Green New Deal-branded proposal to be backed by a state AFL affiliate.

“We face twin crises of skyrocketing inequality and increasing climate instability. Climate change and inequality pose dire threats to working people, to all that we love about Maine and to our democracy. The work of moving towards a renewable economy must be rooted in workers’ rights and economic and social justice,” Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, said in a statement, emphasizing the need for workers and unions to “have a seat at the table in crafting bold climate protection policies.”

This endorsement comes after members of the national arm of AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee, the country’s largest union federation, criticized the federal Green New Deal resolution proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), calling it “not achievable or realistic.”

Millennial state Rep. Chloe Maxmin (D), who was endorsed by the youth-led Sunrise Movement during the 2018 midterm elections, first introduced the “Act to Establish a Green New Deal for Maine” in March.

The legislation would require Maine reach 80% renewable electricity by 2040, provide solar power to schools, set up a task force for job and economic growth, and guarantee a just transition in the shift towards a low-carbon economy.

“From the very first conversation that we had… labor was involved,” Maxmin said. For the past year, Maxmin has been speaking with constituents who voiced a “deep need for economic growth,” she said, noting that this bill is “very specific to Maine and rooted in rural and working communities.”

The goal, she said, was to “bring in voices that are traditionally not part of this conversation.”

In a statement to ThinkProgress, Sunrise executive director Varshini Prakash celebrated labor unions’ support for the state initiative, calling the broader idea of a Green New Deal “America’s biggest union job creation program in a century.”

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Across the country, states and cities are seizing on the interest generated by the Green New Deal and introducing their own ambitious climate proposals. The federal version — currently a resolution, not a piece of legislation — calls for meeting 100% of the country’s power demand with renewable, emissions-free sources in around a decade, all while using the transition to create jobs and enshrine social justice principles, like equal access to education and universal health care.

Local level efforts vary in their focus and ambition. Often, initiatives are exclusive to the power sector; as of last month, at least 19 states are considering or have already set 100% clean or renewable electricity targets. But others are working to capture the full spirit of a Green New Deal — which means incorporating social justice tenets into the plan.

Last week, Minnesota introduced its own Green New Deal bill built on close collaboration between youth activists and state lawmakers. Officials and activists in New Mexico, New York, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, as well as the city of Los Angeles, have all used Green New Deal language to frame and market their clean energy and climate initiatives.

A key component of any Green New Deal is its timeframe. As the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned last fall, without dramatic change to cut greenhouse gasses, global emissions are set to rise to a level that would usher in catastrophic consequences in just over a decade.

In Maine, global warming of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures means more flooding along the coasts and inland, as well as increased drought and extreme heat. Scientists have found that the Gulf of Maine is already warming faster than 99% of the world’s oceans, disrupting fishery patters and, in turn, the fishing industry.

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Next week, lawmakers will hold a public hearing for Maine’s Green New Deal bill. A few weeks later, it will be put up for committee vote. And Maxmin thinks there’s a good chance the bill will pass.

“It has a name that is drawing attention to it … [and it’s] really bringing people from so many backgrounds together,” she said. “I think it has a really good chance because it’s basically an economic and job growth strategy for Maine.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 16, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Kyla Mandel is the deputy editor for the climate team. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Mother Jones, and Vice. She has a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, specializing in science, health, and environment reporting. 


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Polar Vortex Shows How Incarcerated Workers Are Bearing the Brunt of Extreme Weather

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On January 28, an image of Cook County Jail prisoners shoveling snow went viral after it was posted on the  La Villita community Facebook page and then shared by the Chicago Community Bond Fund. The city of Chicago was preparing for an arctic blast and the prisoners were seen working in cold temperatures wearing orange jumpsuits. Thousands of people shared the image and expressed concern about the well-being of the prisoners. This scenario is yet another example of how incarcerated workers—toiling for little or no pay—are on the frontlines of extreme weather.

Predictably, the office of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart sought to exonerate itself in the press. “The situation was entirely and intentionally misrepresented,” said Cara Smith, chief spokesperson for Dart’s office. Smith claimed the prisoners were actually wearing insulated jumpsuits, that there was a warming van nearby, and that prisoners were not allowed to work if the temperature dropped under 20 degrees. Numerous news outlets reported Smith’s quotes without digging into their veracity, even though she presented no evidence.

Smith admitted that prisoners were only paid $2 for the work assignment, in a jail where at roughly 2,700 people are incarcerated simply because they can’t afford to pay their bond. Smith sought to justify the nothing wage by claiming the prisoners were doing work as part of a vocational job training program called RENEW. Yet, as Sharlyn Grace, co-executive director of the Chicago Community Bond Fund, put it to The Chicago Tribune, “I don’t think that anyone is seriously suggesting that shoveling snow is a skilled form of labor that’s going to lead to job opportunities upon release.” Prisoners have little-to-no access to the press, and reporters often make no effort to contact them, so it’s no surprise that none have been quoted on the subject.

The latest example at Cook County Jail certainly isn’t the first time that prison labor has been used to respond to or prepare for extreme weather, nor is it the first time that such a controversy has made national headlines. In 2015, Think Progress reported that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority had used volunteer prison labor to shovel snow in Boston when the windchill was negative 25 degrees. The prisoners were paid $3 to $4 a day for their efforts, while non-prisoners doing the same work were paid $30 an hour.

After deadly wildfires hit California this past fall, more than 2,000 prisoners were used to help fight them. While the prisoners fight fires through a vocational program offered by the state, they’re incentivized by earning time off of their sentences and they’re only paid $2 a day and an additional $1 an hour if there is an active fire to fight. While the prisoners could use the work to reduce their sentence, once released, they often aren’t allowed work as firefighters due to their record of incarceration. In California, the job can legally be deniedto almost anyone with a criminal record.

Global warming is making wildfires, like the ones in California, more extreme.  “You warm the planet, you’re going to get more frequent and intense heat waves. You warm the soils, you dry them out, you get worse drought,” Michael Mann, an atmospheric science professor, told PBS last August. “You bring all that together and those are all the ingredients for unprecedented wildfires.”

Additionally, many scientists are now also connecting intense cold waves to the warming of the Arctic, which means that prisoners working in the cold could also technically be on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Prisoners have very little protections, are at great risk of exploitation, and details about their conditions are often scarce.

Panagioti Tsolkas, the coordinator for the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, tells In These Times that he also sees the intersection of climate change and mass incarceration in the wake of environmental disasters. “After hurricanes here in Florida, prisoners got called out to help with relief efforts,” he says.

While prisoners are being used to mitigate climate disasters, they’re among the most vulnerable to their impacts. Incarcerated people are often housed in prisons that experience extreme heat without air conditioning. A 2017 report from The Marshall Projectfound that four out of five people held in Texas prisons lack air conditioning. In 2014, state prisoners at Wallace Pack Unit in Grimes County sued their prison after a number of incarcerated people died as  a result of the extreme heat. Four years later, a settlement was reached, and the prison was required to provide air-conditioning.

In 2018, the Texas Inmate Families Association compiled reports from prisoners’ relatives and found that at least 30 Texas prisons had inadequate heating after freezing temperatures hit the state during the winter. Last year, the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons helped organize a prisoner strike in the state of Florida. The prisoners said one of their intentions was to “expose the environmental conditions we face, like extreme temperatures.”

Last summer, prisoners organized a nationwide strike across 17 prisons to highlight poor conditions and labor practices. Among their demands was an “immediate end to prison slavery. All persons imprisoned in any place of detention under United States jurisdiction must be paid the prevailing wage in their state or territory for their labor.”  The 13th Amendment abolished slavery but contains an exemption that allows involuntary servitude as part of a criminal punishment. Chicago’s minimum wage is set to increase to $13 an hour this summer, and the prisoners who shoveled snow this week lag far behind.

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 1, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

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