Help Wanted for Green Jobs | The Nation


Help Wanted for Green Jobs

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The green jobs advocates are just finding their way around a changing Washington. Many are pleased with the proposed appointment of Hilda Solis as the new labor secretary, who as a California Congresswoman was a vocal advocate for green jobs and environmental justice. In mid-January, the Apollo Alliance was meeting with legislators on the Hill, where Green For All founder Van Jones was testifying to urge Congress to make green jobs central in the stimulus/recovery package. The Blue Green Alliance, which is setting up its DC office, will have an intense "advocacy day" in early February.

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Liza Featherstone
Liza Featherstone is a journalist based in New York City. Her work on student and youth activism has been...

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In the latest action against the union-busting low-wage retailer, labor organizers may have finally found a strategy that works.

Ha llegado el momento en que demócratas y progresistas conscientes sigan el ejemplo de Nueva York y tomen distancia de este oscuro seductor.

The question is, When they don't get what they want, who will take to the streets and fight? It's in everyone's interest to create decent jobs while fighting global warming, yet the constituency for a green jobs agenda is not always clear. Until recently, the most organized constituencies on energy issues were the few industries--like petroleum and auto companies--that stand to lose from a cleaner economy. Public enthusiasm for green jobs has evolved: Americans are more aware than ever about global warming, as well as what politicians like to call "energy independence" or "energy security." And growing numbers of Americans could use a job. Still, it is not clear how broadly or easily mobilized these desires are, and who has the capacity to organize people to make a serious green jobs policy happen, if and when Obama decides against doing anything "really big."

The Blue Green Alliance, founded by the Steelworkers and the Sierra Club, has organized town-hall meetings in blue-collar strongholds like Canton, Ohio, and Granite City, Illinois, where steelworkers have been bringing the green jobs case to others in the community. Dave Foster, formerly of the Steelworkers and now executive director of the Blue Green Alliance, describes these campaigns as "neighbor-to-neighbor, person-to-person--making the case that the person who lost their job in a plant in Akron could go back to work tomorrow if we passed a [federal] Renewable Energy Standard." Now that SEIU, the Laborers and the Communications Workers of America have joined the Blue Green Alliance, the coalition represents more than 6 million people. That's a lot of Americans, of course, but with SEIU, the largest of those organizations, in extreme disarray, and the rest of the labor movement occupied with trying to pass the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), the potential could go untapped.

Green jobs represent a great opportunity for the labor movement; if the new jobs are union jobs, labor could gain numbers and clout. This would be a boost to the economy, too, putting money in the pockets of working-class people. Hector Norat's work is demanding, highly skilled and cutting edge, but that's not why he makes such good money (he won't say how much, but his local says superintendents at his level make between $50,000 and $100,000). The reason is old school: his union card. Yet questions of union membership, and even organizing rights, haven't been central to the policy debate over green jobs.

Largely offstage in these discussions about labor advocacy on green jobs is one obvious actor: the United Auto Workers. It's hard to imagine an industry more in need of a green makeover; yet the UAW, following the lead of the automakers, is doing little to push for the kind of federal action that might reinvent the industry along greener lines--and save more of its members' jobs. Having been through steel's bankruptcy wave in 1998, Foster says, he understands what the UAW is going through. "You almost can't think strategically while something like that is going on," he says. "But the world does have a crying need for green transportation."

"It's hard to develop constituency for something that doesn't exist yet," says the Center for American Progress's Hendricks. This lack of constituency is particularly dire for some of the best green jobs ideas: serious investment in high-speed interstate rail, for example, could provide good jobs, revive small cities whose economies have been devastated by the decline in air travel, and lower carbon emissions by providing an alternative to air and car travel. But no member of Congress is going to lose her job or even see protesters outside her office because she didn't make sure high-speed rail was in the stimulus package.

Yet this, too, becomes another argument for huge investment in green jobs, whether through regulation, investment, tax breaks or training programs: this "new economy" gathers more supporters the more real it becomes. That's because as the green economy grows, more people benefit. In Puerto Rico, where he grew up, and where much of his family still lives, Norat owns ninety acres of windy land, which he is hoping to lease to a wind farm, to provide power for the island and, of course, profits for himself. (In the North Country and other rural areas, such revenues are a major boost to small landowners, mostly farmers, who enjoy substantial rents for hosting wind turbines on their property.) Paradoxically, environmental groups have, so far, kept windmills out of Puerto Rico. "They were worried about the birds flying into the turbines," Norat sighs, rolling his eyes. "Aren't the birds smarter than that? This is something that is so good for everybody!"

"I don't consider myself a fanatic of green energy," Norat says, his enthusiasm evident in his cautious smile, "because I don't believe in being a fanatic of anything." But he's going to Maine for a family wedding this summer, and he may drive along the Canadian border to see the Clinton County wind farms. "I am crazy about this," he admits, "and I want to get a little more crazy."

The North Country has wind to spare, but New York's rickety grid is at capacity. No new wind farms can be built in Clinton County until Obama delivers on this piece of the "Green New Deal." While the prospects for improving the grid are decent--judging from the most recent stimulus plans--it's one of many examples of how the slowly emerging green economy is in a state of suspension. As stimulus proposals emerge from the president and the House, it's clear that in many ways they already fall far short of what many green jobs advocates have championed. Job-creating, money-saving initiatives--like weatherization assistance for low-income Americans and grid upgrades--will be funded, but these will be, at best, tentative baby steps. Too much money is squandered on tax cuts, and of the dispiriting 14 percent allocated for infrastructure, conventional, old-economy projects like highways have fared much better than mass transit and other green priorities. When Van Jones testified before Congress in January on green jobs, he sympathized with members' efforts: "[You're] sweating over the details of how we can actually beat the recession and global warming at the same time.... And you're going to get a grade from our great-grandchildren. Yes or no. Pass or fail." There's a danger that in the rush to do just about anything to get the economy moving, we'll fumble a rare chance to revolutionize that economy.

As inspiring as it is to have a president who talks the talk on green-collar jobs, it will take an organized movement to ensure that we get, in a phrase popular among renewable-energy advocates, "megawatts, not just megawords." That movement must have the imagination to fight for our great-grandchildren, and for much that doesn't exist yet, with the "selflessness" and creativity that Obama, in his inaugural speech, urged upon the nation. "The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act--not only to create new jobs but to lay a new foundation for growth," President Obama said. "We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories." Let's hope we take his words to heart--and far beyond his modest proposals.

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