Doing Green Jobs Right

Doing Green Jobs Right

Activists in Boston shape energy policy through new community-labor alliances.


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."

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.

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."

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