Doing Green Jobs Right
The Boston-area drive illustrates three components shared by campaigns of this emerging model for regional power building: deep coalitions, policy research and political action. The first forms an essential base—unions create deeper alliances with community partners than are typically produced by single-issue initiatives. CLU demonstrated a commitment to this idea when it founded the Green Justice Coalition in December 2008. Rather than first addressing its union base, it put the perspectives of community allies at the core of the campaign. CLU co-director Lisa Clauson explains, "We really looked at the issue from an environmental justice perspective. The community organizations in the coalition created a well-defined focus on racial and economic justice. That came first. Then we were able to pull in environmental groups with the climate element. And because there was a jobs component, we were able to bring in the unions as well."
Clauson's goal was not only to present a unified front in the green jobs debate but also to build a durable foundation for future alliances. "We spent a lot of time within our coalition steering committee meetings having people spell out what their self-interests were, making sure people really understood where organizations were coming to the table from," she says.
As a second element of regional power building, labor coalitions use the research capabilities and public policy savvy of nonprofits like CLU to enter broader economic debates, reframing discussions on the regional economy—and green development—in terms of how well it is meeting the needs of working people. In the case of the Green Justice Coalition, member organizations surveyed low- and middle-income communities to determine their weatherization needs, and the diverse local knowledge provided by coalition partners helped to shape the demands of the campaign. Activists argued that the advances of a low-carbon economy must be widely shared if they are to be meaningful.
Labor and environmental interests have not always coincided. Energy efficiency program consultants and directors have told Green Justice Coalition members that they can weatherize more homes by containing labor costs—in other words, holding down wages. A "low road" push based on such reasoning might have fractured the Green Justice Coalition's campaign. But CLU's careful coalition building helped to prevent this. "There was certainly a possibility for the utility companies to pick off certain of our environmental partners, to the detriment of what we were organizing around," says Clauson. "That didn't happen, because groups in the coalition, like Clean Water Action, were key bridges between the environmental sector and our community and labor partners. They really had a commitment to the broader focus of the campaign."
To successfully advocate for high-road jobs, CLU and its partners built relationships with public administrators sympathetic to their aims. Their efforts have reflected a third important element of regional power building: in cities where unions have embraced the strategy, labor flexes its political muscle in a new way. Central labor councils move away from merely supporting "lesser of two evils" candidates when elections come around and hoping that officials act in the movement's interest once elected. Rather, they use their influence to create allies within the system who can work with grassroots advocates on an ongoing basis.
"The inside–outside strategy was very powerful here—to be building relationships with decision-makers and people in on the restructuring of energy efficiency in Massachusetts at the same time that we're pressuring them from the outside," says Juan Leyton, director of Neighbor to Neighbor Massachusetts. "When people are looking for environmental and economic solutions together, and when you're dealing with a process that's as complicated as this one, it would be very difficult to do this just pushing from the outside."
Nationwide, other coalitions are learning similar lessons. In the South, traditionally considered hostile to unions and progressives, the Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council and a think-and-act tank called Georgia STAND-UP came together in 2005 to ensure that the concerns of labor and low-income communities were included in a plan to build a commuter and public park "green belt" around Atlanta. More recently, the national organization Green for All, under the leadership of former labor leader Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, has brought a regional-power-building mindset to bear in organizing green jobs and energy efficiency initiatives in places like New Mexico, Portland and Seattle.
Today, even as the Boston activists seek to build on their successes and ensure that the state energy efficiency plan is implemented with environmental justice goals at the fore, they are envisioning future campaigns, from waste management to water quality. The labor movement's involvement in far-reaching community partnerships won't eliminate the need to organize specific workplaces and negotiate good contracts. But building regional power and reaching out to a wide range of allies will allow unions to re-envision the interests of their members. As Clauson says, "You see that the constructs separating people—you're either a worker, or you're a community member, or you're an environmentalist—these are artificial." Khalida Smalls adds, "Our members are all of these. If we can reach the level of integration that these people are experiencing every day in their own lives, we've found a very powerful organizing model."