Webinar Recap: The Power of Labor in a Green Economy

Transformational societal change to save the climate is closer than ever with President-elect Joe Biden’s star-studded climate cabinet and with the Georgia runoffs tipping the Senate to a Democratic majority. However, we are going to continue to need a diverse, broad coalition of advocates across the country to make sure our climate policies increase all American’s quality of life. 

Labor unions critically need to be at the decision making table to ensure that no workers are left behind in the renewable energy transition. This month’s Deep Dive webinar focused on the intersection of labor concerns and climate change, and how the two movements can work together to achieve a more just and equitable society.

Kevin Lee, the State Policy Director at the Blue Green Alliance, discussed how labor unions and environmental organizations across the country are coming together to create good jobs while protecting the environment. Carol Zabin, Director of the Green Economy Program at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, shared the latest research on the issues of job creation, access, and training in the emergent green economy. 

Jon Grossman, a union representative at the Service Employees International Union, brought a critical union perspective to this conversation. Finally, Cecilia Estolano, the CEO of A Better World Group, shared how a California coalition of environmental and labor groups helped enact some of the nation’s boldest climate policies.  

Kevin Lee, State Policy Director at the Blue Green Alliance

Kevin Lee started off his presentation by emphasizing the scale of the climate crisis. Because of its immensity, in order to successfully address climate change we are going to need an incredibly broad coalition focused on communities and jobs.

Currently, we are not accelerating the advent of renewable energy at nearly the speed needed. As of 2017, 79% of energy consumption was still reliant on fossil fuels. Lee also notes that our historical capacity additions to battery storage, solar, and wind have only contributed a fraction of the additions necessary to get to 100% clean energy.

Lee then dove into an analysis of fossil fuel jobs in the present day compared to renewable energy jobs. First, he examines the natural gas industry, where jobs are fairly highly paid and more highly unionized particularly when compared to solar installation jobs. Levels of unionization are important here since unions are typically the biggest advocates for projects.

He demonstrates this through a graphic showing solar and wind projects across the country. Every project on the map went through a lengthy process seeking approval from public utility commissions and city councils. If unions of clean energy workers entered as an actor in this space, the approval of these projects would become less of an uphill battle.

How does this happen? Clean energy projects need to be tied to labor standards including: Community Workforce Agreements, prevailing wage, local hiring, targeted hiring, organizing rights, and apprenticeship utilization. Projects that include these labor standards can receive tax exemptions increasing with each standard that is added to the policy.

Blue Green Alliance has also published a State Policy Toolkit, which provides policy concepts that tie climate policy to economic security and fairness. This includes examples of statutory or administrative language and resources for advocates crafting policy language or bill concepts. 

Lee closes by stressing that, “If the climate movement is asking people to give up well-paying, unionized jobs in fossil fuels for low-paying, non-unionized clean energy jobs that might be in a different location with a different skill set, then we are going to have some incredible headwinds […] If these projects contain tangible benefits for the local community and the workers that build these projects we’re going to be in a lot better place.”

Because of the scale of the climate crisis, it cannot be solved with the traditional environmental movements alone. Incorporating labor standards is instrumental to broadening the base of advocates. 

Carol Zabin, Director of the Green Economy Program at the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education

Carol Zabin’s presentation took a case study approach examining Putting California on the High Road: A Jobs and Climate Action Plan for 2030 of which Zabin was the lead author. The main question in this report was: how can we support workers as we transition to a low carbon economy? This focused on three concepts: are the new clean energy jobs good (unionized, well paid, etc), who is getting these jobs (people of color, women, low-income), and how do we address job loss in the fossil fuel industry.

The report tracked all of California’s climate policies to the jobs that they produced, which found that a high percentage of jobs in climate sectors are blue collar jobs that are not necessarily high quality. Zabin emphasizes that unless we address the quality of these clean energy jobs, we will never be able to appropriately address justice and equity and will face a big backlash from the labor community.

Impact on job quality has been variable between different policies and industries. For example, the jobs created by the Renewable Portfolio Standard drove an increase in jobs with good career training and inclusion of disadvantaged workers. Alternatively, a misclassification in the trucking industry meant that low-wage, immigrant truck drivers ended up being responsible for the cost of climate policy, which entails that emissions reductions weren’t realized, because truck drivers could not afford to comply. It is clear that we have to be intentional about protecting workers in climate policy design, otherwise we will perpetuate the growth of low-wage jobs and carbon emissions.

This report identifies low-wage trouble spots where labor standards in climate policy can improve the job quality. These industries include: distributed generation/rooftop solar, energy efficiency, trucking, ride-sourcing, waste management, fire prevention and forest management, agriculture, and manufacturing. 

A just transition requires deep planning to address potential job loss. Retraining is not enough to ensure that workers don’t get left behind. There needs to be community economic development and diversification and labor, business and community engagement.

Jon Grossman, Union Representative at the Service Employees International Union

Jon Grossman brought a distinct union perspective to the conversation. He began by describing the experience of a union member in a climate-vulnerable industry. These individuals typically live paycheck to paycheck or are dependent on inconsistent work. The more time they spend in their jobs, the more skills they learn and the better their experience gets. Climate change impacts seem far off, and they are primarily concerned with getting to the end of the month. Grossman remarks on behalf of workers, “you were not planning on being the sacrifice for climate change solutions.”

These workers are faced with the option of starting over and returning to school to learn a new trade, which is not practical for a person later in life who is supporting a family. What will happen to their pension or their health insurance? 

Grossman then shifts to the perspective of the union leaders in these vulnerable industries. Climate change seems important, but the policies being proposed seem to cost their members their jobs and potentially even cost them their entire organization. Climate rhetoric stresses that there are more green jobs available, but will their members get them and will they be union jobs?

The third group of individuals he focuses on are union members in an industry unaffected by climate change like teachers and nurses. This group is worried about climate change and is more free to do so, because their jobs are not at risk due to climate policies. From this perspective Grossman notes, “You do know that someone is making money off the way things are now, and they are not concerned about you.”

But, this group gets nervous when they hear about solutions that include taxes that might increase their financial burden. For this group he shares, “The market never really worked for me. That is why I have a union.” 

The last group of individuals are the union leaders for unaffected industries. They are aware that climate change will make the inequality their union is fighting against much worse; however, they have many day-to-day issues to address for their members, which keeps them very busy. These leaders also believe in solidarity, and they don’t want to leave anyone behind, which includes the unions in fossil fuel industries. 

Overall, Grossman concludes with four takeaways: (1) Labor is not monolith, (2) Unions will fight to survive, (3) The solutions have to work for us, and (4) Unions are justice organizations.

Cecilia Estolano, CEO of A Better World Group

Cecilia Estolano begins by saying that we cannot talk about the clean energy economy without addressing two key concepts. First, for the past several decades the benefits of our economic growth have only accrued to the top of the income distribution. One of the main reasons for that has been the decline in union membership, which has enabled the rewriting of regulations to further concentrate wealth. 44% of the population of workers in the United States are earning less than a family supporting wage.

Secondly, the racial wage gap has been growing alongside the concentration of wealth to the 1%. The white median family wealth is 10 times that of Black median family wealth — in 2016, that difference was $154,000. This creates a toxic combination of accumulated wealth to the top earning group and an expanding racial wealth gap. 

Because of this dual phenomenon, we need a broad coalition of labor unions and empowered people of color in order to successfully build an equitable green economy. Estolano argues that these two problems can be directly linked to the insurrection on the Capitol on January 6th. 

With this framing, Estolano begins with a story about the passage of Innovative Clean Transit Rule in 2018, which requires transit agencies to purchase new zero-emission buses exclusively beginning in 2029 and completely transition their fleets by 2040. She highlights that the reason why this policy was passed was due to partnership with community leaders and unions to come up with a strategy for purchasing these buses. This strategy included a plan to hire local people with high labor standards to manufacture the zero-emission buses. By including this provision, the coalition was able to leverage the power of labor unions and change the way the LA Metro procures buses. 

Another win Estolano features is the passage of the Advanced Clean Truck Rule, which sets the standard to increase the percentage of electric trucks that manufacturers have to sell in California beginning in 2024, with the goal of 100% of trucks sold in the state being zero-emission by 2040. It was clear that in order to get this standard across the finish line, labor unions would have to be on board.

At the same time, labor was in a fierce fight against the misclassification of independent contractors, which puts the onus of many climate policies on individuals like truckers and ride-sharing drivers. The environmental movement had to support the labor movement in this fight if they were to get labor support on the Advanced Clean Truck Rule. With the environmental movement in the fold, AB 5 passed, resolving this issue.

Unfortunately, due to backlash from ride-sharing companies, California Proposition 22 passed in the November 2020 election reverting back to the standard where these employees are considered independent contractors once more. 

As a movement who wants to address both issues of racial justice and economic inequality, it is important that we take advantage of this moment in the Biden administration. Estolano asserts, “We are not going to win this by saying this is just about climate change. We win this by saying we want to build a new economy that is fair and clean and equitable.” Labor unions have their own history of racism and sexism, and some of them are working to address this historical exclusion. The future of the labor movement is BIPOC and women, and we must hold these unions accountable for making this shift.

Supporting the Labor Movement in Climate Policies

The speakers on this panel did not mince words. The climate movement MUST embrace labor unions to make the type of transformational societal change needed to address climate change. This entails showing up for unions on the issues that affect their members and including intentional language in climate policies to create well-paying, unionized, clean energy jobs.

As Cecilia Estolano underscored, we have to seize this political moment. President-elect Joe Biden has made ambitious climate and labor commitments during his campaign. We have a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate. 2020 was the hottest year on record, and Americans are struggling with the highest levels of unemployment since the Great Depression. Dramatic action is needed imminently, and a broad, diverse coalition including both environmentalists and labor unions is the only way to hold the Biden administration accountable.

Featured Image: Illustration by Amanda Griffiths, Climate XChange