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'Green Jobs' Aren't Growing Quickly at Republic Factory in Chicago

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Photo by Kari Lydersen.

Workers from the former Republic Windows and Doors factory hope weatherization incentives will help them get their jobs back.

The phrase “green jobs” has been thrown out right and left recently, with everything from urban farming to building wind turbines and solar panels to producing plain old insulation described as a “green job.”

When the California company Serious Materials bought the former Republic Windows and Doors factory on Chicago’s Goose Island this spring, inspired by the Republic workers’ six-day factory occupation in December, company officials and national politicians—including President Obama and Vice President Biden—held up the operation as a poster child of “green jobs” and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), or stimulus, at work.

The idea was that stimulus funds for weatherization would exponentially increase demand for Serious Materials’ energy-efficient windows and ecological drywall.

The concept certainly makes sense. But the relatively slow ramp-up of production at the Serious Materials Goose Island plant shows how “green jobs” and, more generally, jobs created by the stimulus, don’t materialize as quickly and easily as people might have hoped.

Before buying the plant, Serious Materials signed a union contract with the UE union local 1110 and promised to hire back any of the 250 workers who still wanted their jobs. Union and company officials had originally said they planned for a full plant opening in May or June.

But even now, only about 15 former employees are back at work. This is perhaps not surprising, given the lead time needed for stimulus incentives to translate into actual orders, assuming that does in fact happen on a significant scale.

The stimulus does not give funds directly to a company like Serious Materials. The idea is that tax breaks for weatherization of government buildings and grants to low-income home owners would increase demand for energy-efficient building components.

Serious Materials officials said the company is working directly with different government agencies to plan green building renovations. But unbeknownst to many people, the stimulus actually did not cover new windows for homeowners until recently.

Now new results from the National Energy Audit Tool (NEAT) mean that low-income homeowners making up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level can get up to $6,500 for new windows as part of the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), the funding of which was increased by the stimulus. (The federal poverty level requirements mean a family of four making $44,000 a year would basically qualify for WAP funds.)

Serious Materials celebrated by launching its own line of WAP products. The company says their windows can cut energy costs by 40 percent a household, which would cut an average energy bill by almost $700 a year.

The grant means that, theoretically, workers awaiting rehire by Serious Materials could replace their own windows and save on energy expenditures—especially come winter. This spring, President Obama announced a goal of providing weatherization assistance to 1 million homeowners.

It appears that workers at Serious Materials on Goose Island are mixing hope with healthy skepticism, waiting eagerly for these incentives to kick in, but also remembering they have typically had to fight for every gain they’ve gotten. They know they can’t just sit back and wait for the stimulus or the factory’s new owner to make everything all right.

Kari Lydersen: Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island.

This article was originally posted on Working in These Times on July 25, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the source.


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Training Workers for The Green Jobs of Today and Tomorrow

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You’ve probably heard lots of buzz about “green jobs” lately. But, you may have wondered, what does all that buzz translate to in the real world? How is the green jobs movement affecting real people and real communities? And are new green jobs being created in ways that make them good jobs — jobs that can help a worker achieve the American Dream — too?

Here’s a good story that answers all those questions: Seattle NPR affiliate KPLU reports on how Washington state has allocated nearly $15 million of the Federal stimulus money they received to create good jobs “weatherizing” buildings to make them more energy efficient — and how the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA, a CtW affiliate) has created a training program to provide its workers with the skills they need to fill those jobs:

Inside an old home in west Seattle, 23-year-old Joseph Cortez is cutting insulation as an instructor looks on. He gets praise for catching on quickly. He’s a trainee with the Laborers International Union of North America. His new position is part of a demonstration project, meant to show what the federal government’s five billion dollars in stimulus spending for weatherization can do. The union says their training program could create thousands of high-quality jobs and upgrade millions of homes in Washington State alone.

Cortez is newly married and has a child on the way, so he’s grateful for the prospect of union career, specializing in green building.

“Not a job paying minimum wage,” he says, “but a job that’s paying $20 an hour, so that we can live comfortably and have a great success in our lives.”

Washington passed a law in May that guarantees access to these jobs for low-income and disadvantaged populations. Cortez fits the demographic. The union plans to train hundreds more this summer.

And the program isn’t just benefiting people like Cortez. The retrofitting of the single mom’s home where he’s working is being done at no cost to her – $3,500 worth of work, which will also save her an estimated $350 a year in heating costs.

LIUNA’s not just training workers for green jobs in Washington state, either. Green for All reported a few months back on LIUNA’s weatherization training work on the other side of the nation, in Newark, New Jersey:

On a snow covered street in a suburb of brick houses in Newark, a sea of green hard hats filled the street to celebrate the first house “weatherized” as part of this new pilot program…

Laborers Local 55 will train the first class of 25 Newark residents in green construction techniques this winter. The weatherization work on homes will continue through January, and the laborers will earn accreditation while being paid union rates, with health benefits.

Ray Pachino, Vice-president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, spoke of the immediate benefits of weatherization:

“In our training center, where we had some of these workers training on Saturday, they put some of their newly learned skills to work and did some insulating around the building, especially in the garage area. We got a call this morning that the temperature in the garage was ten degrees warmer with the thermostat ten degrees lower.

So it works! It does work.”

From coast to coast, there’s lots of work to be get our economy ready for the energy challenges of the 21st Century — and the working men and women of LIUNA are leading the way.

Jason Lefkowitz: Jason A. Lefkowitz is the Online Campaigns Organizer for Change to Win (http://www.changetowin.org/), a partnership of seven unions and six million workers united together to restore the American Dream for everybody. He built his first Web site in 1995 and has been building online communities professionally since 1998. To read more of his work, visit the Change to Win blog, CtW Connect, at http://www.changetowin.org/connect .

This article was originally posted at CtW Connect on July 1, 2009. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.


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