The Fight for a Green New Deal Can Start with Your Union Contract

Jared Odessky

Denver International Airport (DIA) baggage handlers and wheelchair agents employed by the contractor Prospect picket inside the terminal on June 18, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

News cov­er­age of the Green New Deal por­trays orga­nized labor as a major obsta­cle to its enact­ment. But our new report for Data for Progress paints a dif­fer­ent pic­ture. In a poll con­duct­ed for the think tank by YouGov Blue, union mem­bers over­whelm­ing­ly favored the pro­posed reforms, with 62 per­cent in sup­port and 22 per­cent against. In a memo for Data Progress, where I am a legal fel­low, I show how union con­tracts can be an effec­tive way to fight for a Green New Deal.

In step with the rank-and-file, some union lead­ers have already backed the ambi­tious plan. In a res­o­lu­tion adopt­ed in June by its exec­u­tive board, the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union called the Green New Deal an unprece­dent­ed oppor­tu­ni­ty to unite the fights for envi­ron­men­tal, racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice.” Los Ange­les Coun­ty Fed­er­a­tion of Labor sec­re­tary-trea­sur­er Rusty Hicks said in March the frame­work is vital to fight­ing” inequal­i­ty and cli­mate change. Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants pres­i­dent Sara Nel­son explained in April that it is not the solu­tions to cli­mate change that kills jobs,” but cli­mate change itself. To be sure, a hand­ful of union lead­ers, such as Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca pres­i­dent Cecil Roberts and Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers pres­i­dent Lon­nie Stephen­son, have come out against the pro­pos­al. Yet even Roberts has said that he and Green New Deal sup­port­ers agree on 75 percent.” 

Even as union sup­port for the mea­sure con­tin­ues to grow, the cur­rent polit­i­cal stale­mate in Wash­ing­ton means that pas­sage of the Green New Deal is unlike­ly in the near future. But labor lead­ers have an imme­di­ate way to trans­late mem­ber sup­port for the Green New Deal into tan­gi­ble wins: bar­gain­ing green union contracts.

Amer­i­can work­places are a major source of green­house gas emis­sions, even in indus­tries with­out a direct con­nec­tion to the pro­duc­tion of fos­sil fuels. Indi­vid­ual work­ers are rel­a­tive­ly pow­er­less to change a company’s car­bon cul­ture on their own, but through unions, work­ers can join togeth­er and put real pres­sure on employ­ers to agree to bind­ing com­mit­ments to com­bat a warm­ing world.

Efforts to build cli­mate pro­tec­tion goals direct­ly into col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments are already being under­tak­en by labor unions in coun­tries like Aus­tralia, Cana­da, and the Unit­ed King­dom. Work in a Warm­ing World (W3), a Cana­di­an research project link­ing aca­d­e­mics and com­mu­ni­ty part­ners to recen­ter the role of work in the fight against glob­al warm­ing, has under­tak­en an exten­sive project to doc­u­ment green claus­es in union con­tracts across the globe. Their research pro­vides a roadmap for Amer­i­can unions seek­ing to cre­ate sus­tain­able workplaces.

For one, unions can bar­gain for the estab­lish­ment of work­place envi­ron­ment com­mit­tees that give work­ers real pow­er to set sus­tain­abil­i­ty bench­marks and to play an active role in imple­men­ta­tion. In an agree­ment with a lead­ing Cana­di­an met­als and min­ing com­pa­ny, the Unit­ed Steel­work­ers Local 408 won con­tract lan­guage estab­lish­ing a com­mit­tee for work­ers and man­age­ment to joint­ly devel­op pro­grams aimed at pre­vent­ing pol­lu­tion, min­i­miz­ing envi­ron­men­tal impact and pro­tect­ing employ­ee health. The clause includ­ed an enforce­able require­ment that man­age­ment fur­nish the union with all rel­e­vant data about the company’s envi­ron­men­tal impact. Union involve­ment in design­ing sus­tain­abil­i­ty ini­tia­tives can be par­tic­u­lar­ly crit­i­cal to ensur­ing there is real bite behind green pro­grams that can oth­er­wise be emp­ty pub­lic rela­tions ploys. When sev­er­al Amer­i­can hotel chains rolled out a pro­gram that reward­ed guests who for­went house­keep­ing ser­vices, it was hotel staff who spoke out about the per­va­sive prob­lem of guests who cheat a bit” while reap­ing the program’s perks.

Unions can also demand that employ­ers com­mit to spe­cif­ic envi­ron­men­tal goals direct­ly in their con­tracts. Some activists have sought to get employ­ers to agree to annu­al car­bon foot­print reduc­tions, or to pur­chase union-approved car­bon off­sets if reduc­tions can­not be achieved. Oth­ers have suc­cess­ful­ly bar­gained for build­ing effi­cien­cy improve­ments and recy­cling pro­grams. Seek­ing to reduce green­house gas emis­sions caused by trans­porta­tion, some unions have even won tele­work pro­vi­sions that give employ­ees more flex­i­bil­i­ty to work from home. Where in-per­son work is required, unions have obtained employ­er sup­port for employ­ee tran­sit pro­grams that pro­mote the use of pub­lic trans­porta­tion, bikes and carpooling.

Bar­gain­ing green con­tracts will sure­ly be most dif­fi­cult in fos­sil fuel-linked indus­tries, where the work itself con­tributes to the degra­da­tion of the cli­mate. But union con­tracts have an impor­tant role to play in ensur­ing a just tran­si­tion to a green econ­o­my. Employ­ees wor­ried about a Wash­ing­ton-nego­ti­at­ed Green New Deal can take con­trol of plan­ning for our cli­mate change future at their own work­places. To ensure that work­ers can com­pete for the grow­ing num­ber of green jobs, unions can bar­gain for employ­er-spon­sored train­ing pro­grams that give employ­ees an oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn new skills. They can also nego­ti­ate for robust sev­er­ance pay and lay­off ben­e­fit plans and even ear­ly retire­ment to ensure work­ers and their fam­i­lies are not left behind as tran­si­tion nears. And while the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act does not require employ­ers to bar­gain with work­ers over entre­pre­neur­ial deci­sions about the firm, unions can push man­age­ment to pur­sue green projects them­selves, so that work­ers can stay on as the com­pa­ny itself shifts missions.

Each of these goals will be far eas­i­er to achieve with gov­ern­ment inter­ven­tion, which is why pass­ing the Green New Deal is para­mount. But we have no time to wait. Amer­i­can work­ers may not have a seat at the table in Wash­ing­ton, but unions can take advan­tage of their seat at the bar­gain­ing table now. If they nego­ti­ate green new deals at work, we can pro­mote good jobs while avert­ing a cli­mate disaster.

Jared Odessky is a legal fel­low at Data for Progress. He is also a law stu­dent at Har­vard, a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the blog OnLa­bor, and a for­mer union orga­niz­er. His writ­ing has been fea­tured in The New York Times, Slate, and the Har­vard Law and Pol­i­cy Review.
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