As cities and states from New York to California to Minnesota race to invent policies to address global warming, new mandates for investment in green energy will produce many billions of investment dollars. In the short run, the Bush Administration stands in the way, but major federal legislation this year or next is almost a foregone conclusion–and the carbon market it will establish will generate hundreds of billions of dollars a year and create thousands, even millions, of new jobs. But the realities of how Americans will work and what jobs they will have in a green future are only beginning to be addressed.
Nearly 1,000 trade unionists, environmentalists, green businesspeople, political leaders and allies came together recently in Pittsburgh to explore these issues at the first annual conference on “ Good Jobs, Green Jobs,” sponsored by the Blue-Green Alliance of the United Steelworkers Union and the Sierra Club.
It has taken labor a long time to address the threat of global warming–the AFL-CIO even lobbied against the Kyoto Protocol. It doesn’t help when environmentalists don’t stand up to insist on protecting workers from the pain that may accompany environmental protections. But all that may be changing. For example, the AFL-CIO Executive Council issued a statement March 4 on “greening the economy” that said, “It is time for our nation to take bold steps to meet the 21st century challenges related to climate change.”
There are both risks and opportunities for labor in the shift to a green economy. For coal miners, for example, restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions might mean real job losses, and many environmentalists are deeply concerned by the insistence by some union leaders on continuing a coal-based economy. But for Midwestern steelworkers, the building of parts for wind turbines is already a source of thousands of jobs.
There is a growing consensus that greening will on aggregate produce more jobs, but they are likely to be spread across a wide range of occupations and industries. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters sent significant delegations to the conference but didn’t call attention to jobs that are threatened or those likely to expand as a result of new climate change policies. Indeed, the conference focused more on the overall implications of those policies than on their consequences for particular unions. Marianne McMullen, SEIU communications director, told the conference that in years to come, “The environmental movement may be the only movement” as different groups come together to build a new economy.
But session after session at this conference produced pointed questions, the answers to which could help define meaningful strategies for labor unions and environmentalists to tackle the climate change crisis. Here’s a sample:
What Are Green Jobs?
As Blue-Green Alliance executive director David Foster noted in his opening remarks, green jobs are about “both product and process.” They include jobs that produce low-carbon energy, such as solar and wind power. But they are also jobs that perform any kind of work in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions: a job on a farm that uses less fertilizer or in a steel plant that uses less electricity would also be green. And most green jobs will look a lot like the old jobs, because that’s what they are: welders fabricating windmill parts, HVAC mechanics retrofitting heating systems, construction workers building energy-efficient buildings. Each is using old skills in green ways.