In 2005 General Electric launched their "EcoMagination" campaign, a marketing effort built around selling products that help solve environmental problems and create green jobs.
According to GE's CEO Jeffery Immelt "Our Ecomagination initiative has created tens of thousands of jobs at GE and in our supply chain." And if the U.S. steps up and takes the lead on climate mitigation, Immelt promises to "create 250,000 green jobs in the economy."
So what are GE's new green jobs of the future going to look like? According to one group of GE "green" workers who have filed a racial discrimination lawsuit in Alabama (complaint below), GE's vision for a green future looks more like a nightmare.
The case was brought by sixty-two employees of Lacy Enterprises, a company that leases workers to a subsidiary of GE to clean out baghouses at coal-fired power plants and manufacturing facilities. Mandated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act, baghouses are designed to reduce emissions of hazardous air pollutants with cloth or synthetic filters or "bags" that capture toxic particulates such as lime, coal black, lead, arsenic and mercury. On the front lines of emerging green economy, GE's work team traveled around the country cleaning and replacing the filters at coal and cement plants, steel mills and elsewhere.
According to deposition transcripts and interviews from the case the African American work crews were treated with abuse that represents an affront to human rights and dignity. On a regular basis they were called "boys", "monkeys", "lazy niggers" by their GE supervisor, according to transcripts. They were forced to work up to 12 hours a day, often with only one half-hour break for lunch, and denied bathroom and rest breaks. Workers were even refused requests for water or a chance "to just get some air because the temperature in the bag house was very high -- often over 100 degrees."
Work crews were denied adequate protection from the dangerous chemicals they handled on a daily basis -- including lime, coal black, lead, and arsenic. Their supervisor "resisted giving the crew new face masks because he did not want them to take the time to change them." On one job in Columbia, Georgia the particulates workers' handled "burnt their skin because the Tyvek suits they had on were insufficient to protect their skin from the toxins in the baghouse."
If the crew tried to take breaks when the heat or soot became unbearable they were called "lazy niggers" and told they'd be fired if they didn't get back to work, according to plaintiff testimony. One worker was fired from a job in Texas for merely trying to wash off coal debris that covered him head to toe.
According to the workers, if they got sick on the job they were denied medical treatment. Exposed to extreme cold on a job in Missouri, one worker's skin grafts began to ooze and peel off. When he asked for medical help he was called a "sorry ass chicken shit mother fucker" by his GE supervisor and ordered to get back to work. According to another crew member, while working at high altitude in the winter, he suffered a seizure due to hypothermia and almost fell to his death because his supervisor had denied him a break to warm up. When he was taken down by his crew mates, the supervisor refused to call for medical help. When a plant worked called an ambulance, the GE supervisor said "I don't care what happens to that nigger."
According to the plaintiff's lawyer Daniela Nanau, a senior attorney at the Law Offices of Joshua Friedman in New York:
The racial abuse went way beyond slurs. One of the victims suffered a nervous breakdown, was hospitalized as a result, and has not been able to work since. None of our clients, who worked their whole lives in Monroeville, AL, had ever experienced anything like this before. The most powerful industrial organization on the planet took advantage of their poverty, lack of education and opportunity. When they complained, they were sent home by their GE supervisor. Written complaints to his manager were literally forgotten.
Despite these and other damning claims, GE's fighting hard to block their "green" baghouse workers from having their day in court. This is evidence enough to expose GE's "Ecoimagination" as a mere marketing gimmick to lure us into forgetting that this the same company responsible for creating at least 78 Superfund sites and whose former CEO famously claimed that "PCBs do not pose adverse health risks."
The best thing that could happen to American workers would be the creation of massive employment converting America to a low-carbon economy. There is the potential to create millions of jobs, and they can be designed to be good jobs with security, decent pay, and good working conditions. But the support for the whole green jobs effort will be undermined if corporations are allowed to make it into "EcoMagination" writ large.
The abuses suffered by GE's "green" workers confirm our worst fears that there's little guarantee so far that green jobs are going to be good jobs. What are now touted as green jobs can all too easily instead be minimum wage jobs with poor working conditions without job security or benefits.
Those of us in the labor, environmental and civil rights movements need to come together to demand that, at minimum, green jobs programs have specific requirements for labor rights and standards with monitoring and enforcement mechanisms. We need to demand that hard-fought civil rights are respected. We need to demand corporations that are repeated violators of labor rights and standards should be banned from receiving green jobs funding. [For more on turning green jobs into good jobs, click here]
Otherwise, if we leave it up to the GE's of the world, the new green economy is going to be little more that a green-collar sweatshop.