Can Green Jobs Be Good Jobs?

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 Girard 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.
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
Girard 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.

The issue of green jobs is also giving rise to important alliances for
the labor movement. Sierra Club president Allison Chin joined labor
leaders at a Capitol Hill rally supporting the Employee Free
Choice Act
, calling it "one of our highest priorities." Labor
leaders seemed genuinely moved by the support. Teamsters' president
James Hoffa noted that the union's decision to quit the
ANWAR Coalition
, which supported Alaska drilling, and join the
Blue-Green Alliance was in part because environmentalists, unlike the
oil companies, were proving to be a friend to labor. "It's about finding
out who your friends are," he said. Hoffa praised the coalition of labor,
environmental and community organizations that forced the Port of Los
Angeles to radically improve labor and environmental
conditions. Hoffa and Gerard noted that the Green Jobs movement
represents a return to the labor-environmental alliance that had fought
the World Trade Organization during the 1999 "Battle of

Big Questions Remain

As the question of climate protection has moved from the "whether" of
the Bush era to the "how" of the Obama era, some of the underlying tensions
within and between environmental and labor movements are becoming more
pressing. Many of these same divisions are front and center in Congress
and even within the Obama administration, making the attitude of labor a
potentially important weight in the balance:

Are Green Jobs Good Jobs?

Road or Low Road? Job Quality in the New Green Economy
," a new
study commissioned by several union and environmental groups, described
some good green jobs but recounted others that involved low wages,
health and safety hazards, and gross violation of labor rights. It
recommended specific measures, including wage requirements for
subsidies; wage standards and prevailing wage requirements for
contractors; and web-based disclosure of company compliance. Unions
pushed to include such measures in Obama's stimulus package. Bob Baugh, the
AFL-CIO's energy policy point person, says that unions have
turned the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2008 into an
economic development bill by encouraging the inclusion of similar

Will 'Clean Coal' Split the Coalition?

It is possible to have both more green jobs and more greenhouse
gases. Even as the labor movement has touted green jobs, it has
advocated expanded use of coal based on "carbon capture and
storage" (CCS), or "clean coal" technology. But many scientists
doubt that CCS will work at affordable costs within the next twenty
years, if ever, leading most environmentalists to oppose expanded use of
coal. The lack of consensus on this subject was reflected in the fact
that the conference had two separate workshops on coal, one on the need
for so-called "clean coal," the other casting doubt on whether such
technology is realistic.

Trade and Globalization

Trade unionists at the conference were concerned--indeed,
preoccupied--with the question of whether green jobs created by climate
protection programs would take hold in America. "As we move to a green
economy, we aren't putting our jobs up for bid for China or Russia," Leo
Gerard said. "We won't give away our economic future to countries with slave
labor and no pollution laws." Resentment was particularly strong
against China; as one labor leader put it, "China threatens the planet."

But blaming other countries for what is in good measure a
made-in-America economic, energy and environmental crisis could
generate a right-wing backlash that would come back to haunt the labor

Unions can resist rather than feed the recession-linked xenophobia by
focusing on the critical role of global corporations in exporting US
jobs and exploiting workers in China and other poor countries. Gerard
pointed out that 58 percent of manufacturing inputs from China are from
companies that used to manufacture the same product in the United
States. Those US and global corporations should be the focus of
scrutiny. As Bama Athreya of the International Labor Rights Forum put
it, "People at the top are calling the shots. Wal-Mart and Coke are
treating people badly everywhere. We should look at corporations as the
target. We need solidarity across borders to hold corporations

Real Progress

As important as labor's support for green jobs is its move toward
greening the workplaces and communities of America. The Teamsters'
emerging focus is on building alliances with environmental and community
groups up and down the transportation supply chain. The
Laborers' Union is expanding training for green construction jobs and is
working with inner-city advocates like Van Jones's Green
for All. The Boilermakers Union is working to identify domestic
manufacturing niches where skilled metalworkers can use their skills
creating the hardware for the green economy. With these small but
significant steps, labor unions can provide the environmental movement
with needed muscle that can make a real difference for American workers
and for the planet.

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