Doing Green Jobs Right | The Nation


Doing Green Jobs Right

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Phyllis Evans never gave much thought to the national debate over green jobs. As a mother of two, former substitute teacher and homeowner in Dorchester, Massachusetts, Evans was active with New England United for Justice, which is best known for organizing around housing and economic justice. But when her group joined the Green Justice Coalition and began partnering with the Boston Climate Action Network, she suddenly found herself educating members of her community on CO2 emissions, energy efficiency and low-carbon diets. These concepts had been foreign to her, yet Evans was now giving workshops on them to other low- and moderate-income residents. "We teach them how to weatherize their homes, caulk windows and different things they can do to cut down on CO2 emissions," she explains. "And we tell them different ways it will cut down on their utility bills."

About the Author

Amy B. Dean
Amy B. Dean is co-author of A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement. She worked...

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A group of thirty San Jose State students recently put their studies into practice and launched a campaign that has gained the support of young labor activists, community groups and faith-based organizations—and now the city of San Jose could see a pay raise because of it.

While there is much discussion of the green economy nationally, few people truly understand what the buzzwords mean, and members of the Green Justice Coalition are among the very small number who are working to create energy-conscious neighborhoods in the heart of cities, inhabited by working people and people of color. "Our community is really toxic," Evans says. "We have the highest rates of a lot of illnesses related to the environment, so it's necessary for us to be active. Being an African-American woman myself, I think I need to be part of the solution."

Evans is not alone in her beliefs, and the Green Justice Coalition has gone far beyond teaching people how to save energy—to actually shaping public policy in Massachusetts. In the process, it has created a model to connect the struggle for environmental justice with the fight for living-wage jobs, helping to lay the groundwork for a new generation of community-labor coalitions across the country. Largely below the radar, a growing number of activists are scoring important victories at the regional level through similar tactics, combining serious coalition building, astute policy research and aggressive political action, and paving the way for a new New Deal in America.

In October 2009, the Green Justice Coalition scored an important victory by getting environmental justice language inserted into Massachusetts's new, $1.4 billion energy efficiency plan, one of the first comprehensive plans in the nation. The plan takes steps to significantly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. But compared to similar initiatives in other states, the provisions pushed by activists in Massachusetts will ensure that the plan has a far more direct impact on residents' lives. There will be a financing plan to make energy-saving home improvements more affordable. Many of the 23,300 jobs to be generated by the plan will go to contractors who pay decent wages and meet "high road" employment standards. Finally, four pilot programs across the state will test a radically new outreach model by going door to door and mobilizing low- and moderate-income families in building greener neighborhoods.

These innovations already have national significance. The Obama administration's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes more than $30 billion for green construction—and this one-time stimulus is just a fraction of the money that state and federal agencies will spend to increase energy efficiency and reduce carbon consumption in the coming years. For social movements, such investments are only the beginning; their real mission will be to seize the opportunities made available in order to build campaigns with a series of escalating demands. In Boston, activists are committed to using the state program to score a triple win: delivering a blow to global warming, creating jobs needed to fuel economic recovery and addressing the exclusion of racially and economically marginalized communities from green development. The Green Justice Coalition has built momentum around each of these goals.

As the coalition began mobilizing, researchers worked to decipher the obscure inner workings of bodies like the state Energy Efficiency Advisory Council (EEAC). They were surprised to discover that although everyone in the state who paid an electricity bill contributed monthly to a program that gave incentives to homeowners to increase energy efficiency, only the wealthiest households were benefiting from the subsidies. Few residents of less-affluent communities could afford the thousands of dollars needed to green their homes in order to qualify for the initiative.

"Lower-income families are paying the most into the system because our homes are the oldest and draftiest," says Kellie Page, a leader of the Alliance to Develop Power in Springfield, Massachusetts. "But we don't have the hundreds or thousands of dollars it takes to benefit from it. Plus, the program isn't well advertised in our communities. It's higher-income communities that end up getting their homes weatherized and their bills reduced."

The activists set out to demand that the state's new energy efficiency plan include a financing mechanism that would allow for broader access. Coalition members became a vocal presence at EEAC sessions. "The meetings had been dense, long, difficult to follow and already in progress," says Khalida Smalls, organizing director of Alternatives for Community and Environment in Roxbury, Massachusetts. "So they really got a jolt when we organized over 100 members of our organizations to come and sit in and testify. They'd never seen anything like that happen."

On the labor front, the Boston campaigners realized that for all the talk about how green jobs would transform the economy, few people were asking what such jobs would look like. The coalition's research showed that wages in home weatherization were far below prevailing standards for the building trades. At the bottom of the spectrum, workers made just $11.26 per hour. Moreover, many low-end employers avoided payment for workers' compensation, health insurance or Social Security by improperly classifying their workers as independent contractors.

To address this, the Green Justice Coalition pushed for living wages of at least $18 per hour, plus benefits, for weatherization jobs. The group also promoted "first source" hiring to give residents of communities where projects were taking place priority for employment opportunities. In the end, the coalition won provisions in the state plan that launch pilot programs through which hundreds of homes needing weatherization will be bundled into one contract. Contractors who meet high-road standards will then be able to compete for these larger contracts.

Weatherization of individual homes is typically done by nonunion contractors, who often employ immigrant day laborers. Even under the state plan, the work will not be assigned to workers in the traditional building trades. However, those hired under the plan's pilot programs will become union members. In this way, the Green Justice Coalition has provided a means for the labor movement to reach out to immigrant workers and nontraditional employees who would ordinarily be ignored or derided because they fall outside the mainstream of the construction industry.

The Green Justice Coalition did not spring up as a short-term effort to capitalize on the push for energy efficiency. Rather, it was the product of long-term planning by Community Labor United (CLU). Founded in 2004 by the Greater Boston Labor Council, allied unions and community groups like the Chinese Progressive Association and City Life/Vida Urbana, CLU helps the labor movement go beyond bargaining over wages and benefits paid by specific employers to involvement in broader issues like promoting good schools and affordable housing for all working people.

Modeled on similarly successful community-labor organizations in San Jose and Los Angeles, CLU is an example of an innovative new breed of "think-and-act tanks" geared toward building power at the regional level. These organizations have proven vital over the past ten years in securing living-wage victories and community benefit agreements around the country—ensuring that when businesses receive tax breaks, zoning exemptions or other public support for their enterprises, the community at large sees a return on its investment. Influencing how public money for green jobs will be spent represents a new frontier in this work.

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