For most Americans, typically, making sure this month’s rent gets paid unfortunately ranks higher than stopping a future sea-level rise. So in his first term, President Obama framed his environmental messages around “green jobs,” with a focus on the economic benefits of “clean tech,” rather than the less politically popular imperative to curb dirty power industries or avert the impending ecological catastrophe.
But today, with chaotic weather and collapsing infrastructure turning climate change into an immediate social and economic crisis right in our communities, can the economic arguments for a green transition go beyond jobs and toward changing the way our neighborhoods and workplaces operate?
While Washington dithers, a few enterprising towns and cities have been figuring out locally based strategies to decarbonize, and revealing valuable global lessons about reorganizing their economies. In Massachusetts, the Green Justice Campaign, an offshoot of Community Labor United, an alliance of unions and advocacy groups, started with a simple plan: weatherize local homes and leverage public funds to curb carbon consumption and cut energy bills.
The organizers put grassroots muscle behind Washington’s feel-good rhetoric on the green economy and went to people’s doorsteps to recruit households and local workers, negotiated with vendors and pressed state officials to enact broad emissions-reduction standards and support for renewable energy transition. Though it operated on a small scale, the green agenda was ambitious in treating the community like an ecosystem—a collaborative climate adaptation fueled by their own labor and serving families’ material needs.
The coalition’s principles of “green justice” foregrounds economic equity for immigrants and people of color. Working-class communities of color do, after all, have a special stake in the climate change battle, since they are disproportionately burdened by the social and health problems posed by carbon-driven industries.
Under a set of new state policies aimed at promoting energy efficiency and green-technology development, the coalition crafted a weatherization project around a grassroots workforce program to give local workers a deep investment in the energy transition. Advocates worked with communities to push for structural changes in the home renovation sector, which was largely non-unionized and minimally regulated, and rife with abuses such as unsafe working conditions and wage theft.
To ensure decent working conditions, the coalition built solid labor standards into the contracting process, including protections for occupational safety and regulatory oversight of workplace conditions. The coalition also helped broaden access to jobs for poor and disadvantaged workers by pushing strong protections against employment discrimination and the misclassification of workers as independent contractors. The program also included commitments by the firms to subcontract with union workers to help raise wages and job security.