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Labor Unions’ Green Efforts Are Cause For Celebration This Labor Day

Andrea Buffa

It may seem like labor unions don't have much to celebrate this Labor Day, considering the ongoing dismal state of the economy and its impact on their members' pocketbooks. But when it comes to green issues, Labor Day 2009 marks a high point for the U.S. labor movement. From national initiatives - like the AFL-CIO's inauguration of the Center for Green Jobs - to grassroots, member-driven projects like Oregon AFSCME's Environmental Caucus, labor unions have shifted into a new gear in their efforts to address climate change and other pressing environmental issues. The goals of these efforts are a healthier environment and a groundswell of high-quality green jobs.

"Our members are no different than the rest of the public. They're concerned about climate change. And as the issue becomes more talked about out in the world, our members put more pressure on leaders to step up and get involved in the policy work," said Barbara Byrd, who holds positions at the Oregon AFL-CIO and the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center.

"Labor unions are also becoming more involved in green jobs issues, now especially, because it's a question of economic development and it's a question of jobs. We're in the middle of a are hard to come by, and it's becoming more clear that the green jobs sector is growing faster than traditional jobs," Byrd explained.

National and International Labor Participation in Climate and Clean Energy Efforts

At the national level, the inauguration of the AFL-CIO Center for Green Jobs was announced at a press event in February at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference in Washington, D.C. The new center's mission is to help AFL-CIO affiliates implement green jobs initiatives that create and retain good union jobs. At the same press event, another innovative green labor program was announced: the Emerald Cities Initiative is a partnership between the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO and various social justice groups to make building and construction trades union apprenticeship and other training programs accessible to people of color and other community members who need a pathway out of poverty and into green, union construction jobs.

Labor unions were also intimately involved in national policy negotiations this year around the American Clean Energy and Security Act, green measures included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), and the new national clean car standards that were announced by the Obama administration. The AFL-CIO's Bob Baugh, the United Steelworkers' Leo Gerard, and many other labor leaders testified before Congress on these and other green issues. United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger stood next to President Obama in May as he announced new national clean car standards that will improve fuel efficiency and reduce vehicle greenhouse gas emissions. The UAW had urged the Obama administration to adopt the new standards.

Labor unions were also involved in international climate change negotiations this year. Since 2007, when the Cornell University Global Labor Institute organized a delegation of U.S. labor leaders to attend United Nations climate talks in Bali, U.S. labor representatives have been participating in international meetings, including this year's meeting in Bonn, Germany. The U.S. labor representatives work under the umbrella of the International Trade Union Commission to promote an international climate agreement that provides for a "just transition" to a global green economy. As Bob Baugh, executive director of the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Council, blogged from the international talks in Bonn, "The ITUC has emphasized the need for the U.N. climate change agreement to address employment and income, the inclusion of trade unions and other stakeholders in the decision-making process and a sensitivity to the needs of the poorest and least-developed nations."

State and Local "Green" Labor Activities Run the Gamut

While the labor movement's national and international efforts on climate change and other environmental issues are exciting, it's the local initiatives that are particularly creative and inspiring. Labor union members seem to be applying a coat of green to their activities - from the training programs that unions offer to the ongoing education that is being provided to union members and policy makers.

Labor union members are designing and constructing green buildings from one side of the country to the other. In Connecticut, members of Local 1 of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers helped build an ultra-green building that will house the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Its features include a rainwater-harvesting system, a 100-kilowatt rooftop array of photovoltaic panels, an energy-saving displacement ventilation system, and glass facades that enable daylight to provide much of the interior building illumination.

In New York, members of AFSMCE Local 375 designed the New York City Parks Department's first green building, a community center that features a vegetative roof with plants and solar panels, a bike path and bike racks, proximity to public transit, and a system of light controls and sensors to increase energy efficiency. All of the materials used to construct the building, many of them recyclable, will come from local suppliers within 500 miles of the community center. Members of Local 375 also developed a New York City Green Schools Guide, which sets sustainable design requirements for new school construction and major remodeling projects and awards points for features like low-water-use plumbing fixtures, high-efficiency boilers, and selection of sites that are near public transportation.

Labor unions are also training building superintendents and residential managers to maintain these new green facilities in a way that uses less energy, conserves water, reduces operating costs, and minimizes environmental impacts. SEIU's Local 32BJ participates in a joint labor-management training program, the Thomas Shortman Training Program, which has been teaching green building maintenance skills since 2005. 32BJ recently announced its intentions to dramatically expand this training as part of a "1,000 Supers" program to train 1,000 green superintendents in New York City in such skills as installing efficient light bulbs, fixing leaky toilets, installing motion sensors, and weather-stripping doors. "In some cases, where trained building service workers have put these state-of-the-art techniques into practice alongside retrofits, energy bills can drop by 20 percent," said James Barry, manager of program development of the 32BJ training program.


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Some unions are taking advantage of new trends in renewable energy and energy efficiency that are being created by state and government policies. In Nevada, which has a renewable energy standard requiring that 20 percent of the state's energy come from renewable sources by 2015, members of Local 357 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) recently helped install the largest solar photovoltaic power system in North America. The system is located on 140 acres of desert just outside of Nellis Air Force Base and is now providing 30 percent of the base's power.

Many IBEW locals are doing renewable energy system installation work and incorporating solar PV training into their apprenticeship programs. According to Tom Bowes of IBEW Local 58, who is the assistant director of the Electrical Industry Training Center in Warren, Mich., the national labor-management committee that develops curriculum for local IBEW training programs started incorporating information about photovoltaics into the apprenticeship curriculum about 10 years ago. In the Detroit area, they've been offering a journeyman-level PV training for the past four years. Nearly 500 people have attended the trainings, and 100 people have earned entry-level certificates in PV systems from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners. Bowes says it's not difficult for a person who already has thousands of hours of experience doing electrical work to learn the nuances of photovoltaics systems. "This fits very well with traditional skills, and it's had a huge interest from our members who are looking for new job opportunities," Bowes said.

Just as the IBEW is putting its expertise in electrical work to use to take advantage of new job opportunities created by renewable energy policies, LIUNA-the Laborers International Union of North America-is capitalizing on opportunities resulting from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's support for residential weatherization. ARRA will invest $5 billion in weatherizing U.S. homes so that they use less energy and emit fewer greenhouse gases, and LIUNA is working to ensure that jobs in weatherization are high-quality and that weatherization training is done by qualified, experienced training entities and is accessible to communities that have experienced barriers to employment. At the local level, this looks like a program that LIUNA's Local 55 is involved with in Newark, N.J., in partnership with the city of Newark and an economic justice group called the Garden State Alliance for a New Economy. The program trains people who have formerly been excluded from the workforce in green construction and weatherization and gives them hands-on experience weatherizing the homes of seniors and low-income families. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, weatherization reduces home energy use by 32 percent, on average.

Another green program that is developing within unions is the environmental committee or caucus. These tend to be driven by environmentally conscious union members, especially ones who work in government environmental agencies. The Environmental Committee of SEIU's Local 1000 in Sacramento, Calif., was established in March 2004 at the urging of committee chair and Local 1000 member Mike Roskey. Roskey asked Local 1000's governing council to inaugurate a committee that would work on reducing resource consumption, networking with labor organizations, and initiating programs and legislation. Roskey, who works at the California Department of Fish and Game, says the Committee has focused on educating labor unions and the general public about environmental issues and on developing green bargaining language. Their proposed bargaining language was used by SEIU for its national "Negotiating Green" handbook.

A similar process unfolded in Portland, Ore., where AFSCME members who worked at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality exhorted the union to start addressing matters beyond the usual bread and butter issues that are at the heart of labor unions' activities. The group started as a volunteer effort two years ago and has now received some funding from Oregon AFSME's executive board. Among other projects, they convened a legislative forum on pending environmental legislation for environmental groups, AFSMCE members and policy makers, and they organized a phone bank of members in key districts to help pass a bill that would implement a low-carbon fuel standard and other measures to reduce vehicle greenhouse gas emissions.

Steve Hughes, an organizer for Oregon AFSCME, explained why AFSCME members are concerned about climate change. Beyond the fact that some AFSCME members work in the environmental field, "Our union lives and dies by the public budget," Hughes said. "And if you look at any of the literature out there about the costs of mitigating the effects of climate change, there's going to be a huge strain on public dollars. If we're having to spend millions and billions mitigating the effects of something we should have stopped long ago, that's going to be less budget for all the other services and infrastructure that people care about."

Byrd of the Oregon AFL-CIO remarked that Oregon AFSCME's Environmental Caucus has drawn in young people who might not otherwise have become active in the union: "The issues of the environment and climate change motivate young workers in a big way. I've seen this in AFSCME here in Oregon, where a number of very smart, committed young people who were never involved in the union before get involved because the union is taking a position on an issue they care about. People who care about the environment deeply, when they see the union step up and make it a priority, they say, whoa, there is something in this union for me. The opportunity to engage young members [around green issues] is another opportunity that smart labor leaders are taking advantage of."

While labor unions' efforts on climate change and environmental issues have attracted youth, such efforts also have the potential to draw community groups closer to unions. A stellar example of potential community-labor collaboration is the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports. The coalition, spearheaded by the Teamsters and Change to Win, includes labor unions and environmental, public health and community groups and is targeting the ports in Oakland, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Seattle, Newark and Miami. Its goal is to address the fumes from dirty diesel gas trucks that pollute port communities and endanger public health. To fix the system, the campaign recommends that trucking companies buy cleaner trucks and directly hire the truck drivers as full-time employees.

"We feel we have a responsibility to the workers for them to have a clean environment to live in," said Frederick Potter, port division director for the Teamsters. "You spend a lot of your life at your job. The truck drivers are in this pollution all day long, and they bring it home to their families in the surrounding communities, because that's where they live. Essentially they're living next to the factory that's spouting pollution. The Teamsters looked at this and said, you know what, we've got to leave something for our children. We've got a responsibility to address global warming, and we have an obligation to provide our workers a clean and safe environment."

The clean ports campaign won a major victory in Los Angeles when the Port of L.A. approved a strong and sustainable diesel emissions-reduction plan in March 2008. So far, the result has been more than 5,000 new and cleaner trucks on the road at the L.A. port and an 80 percent reduction in harmful emissions. However, a lawsuit by the American Trucking Association has held up the adoption of similar clean truck plans at other ports and has delayed the piece of the L.A. plan that would make port truck drivers employees of the trucking companies rather than independent contractors.

There are dozens of other examples of labor union efforts on green issues-from labor unions' leadership in national coalitions like the Apollo Alliance and the Blue-Green Alliance, to labor education programs that are being developed to help union members understand how climate change will impact their jobs and industries, to advocacy efforts by western labor unions in the U.S. and Canada who are trying to improve a regional cap-and-trade program called the Western Climate Initiative. But United Steelworkers International President Leo Gerard-whose union has worked tirelessly on federal clean energy and climate legislation-summed up the sentiments of the movement that seems to developing among labor unions from coast to coast:

"We must make a national commitment to rebuild America clean and green with products built here, to develop new forms of clean, renewable energy and provide incentives to further their deployment," Gerard testified before Congress in March. "We must bring our power grid and energy infrastructure into the 21st century and train the American workforce to use these new technologies. We must create a revolution in our transportation sector, rebuilding the American auto industry to produce the best and cleanest vehicles in the world, and connect America's cities and neighborhoods with world class transit systems. And, of course, we must limit greenhouse gas emissions consistent with what the best science tells us."

Andrea Buffa is a senior writer and policy associate at the Apollo Alliance.

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