At the first Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference, held in Pittsburgh a year ago, advocates of green energy bemoaned their inability to get a modest renewable-energy tax credit through Congress over the opposition of the Bush administration. The idea of addressing the economic, energy and environmental crises through green jobs seemed a distant vision. So did the idea that a labor-environment coalition around green jobs could reach beyond the fringes of the two movements. But this year, things were different. Meeting in Washington, DC, February 4-6, speakers were reporting in from their BlackBerries on Congressional negotiations of the yet-to-be-approved stimulus package estimated by the Center for American Progress to include $80 billion for green jobs.
The Blue-Green Alliance, which sponsored this year’s conference, grew out of a coalition formed in 2006 by the Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers Union. A year ago, the Steelworkers stood alone; today the alliance includes the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the Laborers International Union of America (LIUNA), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters (IBT), all of which have active programs on green jobs.
It’s a challenging time for the labor movement. Union leaders appear genuinely thrilled about the election of President Obama; early in the conference Steelworkers’ president Leo Gerard proudly quoted Obama’s statement, “I see labor as the solution,” not the problem. The blind, neoliberal faith in markets and globalization has come crashing down along with the global financial system, vindicating the lonely labor voices who have long been calling for government guidance of the economy. But the Great Recession is decimating labor’s thinning ranks, and unions face budget cuts and layoffs not only by employers but also within their organizations. Two major unions, SEIU and UNITE HERE, are engaged in very public internecine battles, while representatives of the Obama administration are trying to nudge the two national labor federations to reunite.
In this context, the chance to grow membership through green jobs represents a rare opportunity, one that the labor movement is taking up with alacrity. “Global warming is a working families issue,” said AFL-CIO president John Sweeney at a press conference to announce a $1 million Green Jobs Center at the National Labor College.
Part of labor’s involvement reflects the concern that has grown among many constituencies as melting ice caps, burgeoning wildfires and devastating floods demonstrate the immediate threat of climate change. At Sweeney’s press conference, Mark Ayres, head of the union’s building trades department, endorsed green jobs as good policy and good for labor. “But there is a more important reason” to fight global warming, he said, showing the audience a photograph his granddaughters.
The labor movement acknowledges its self-interest in supporting climate protection. The stimulus package will provide jobs that may become union jobs, and future initiatives for transportation, carbon regulation and other “green” legislation may create additional jobs. Some unions have extensive training programs around the country, and Obama’s green job initiatives are likely to provide both students and funding. Gerard cited a study showing that a $100 billion investment would create 2 million good new jobs. “We gave AIG $125 billion, and what did we get for it?” he asked. “If we had invested in the real economy, we’d have 1 million new jobs and be on the way to reducing our carbon footprint.”
Many trade unionists emphasized that green jobs involve the same kinds of work and skills as other jobs already widespread in the economy. As Gerard put it, “A green job is any job that brings us toward the green economy.” The wind turbines being manufactured in the Midwest produce green jobs that are the same as traditional manufacturing jobs–steel, rebar, cement and assembly jobs. Energy-efficient windows use the established skills of unemployed flat-glass workers. Retrofitting public buildings and rebuilding the energy grid provide jobs that use the existing skills of construction workers, electricians and others who are often union members. Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Environment Program, told the conference that there are already more jobs in renewable energy worldwide than in the oil and gas industries.