How an Old-School Electricians Union Got Behind a Socialist Running on the Green New Deal

Mindy Isser

(Photo courtesy of Nikal Saval/Facebook)

Nikil Saval is an unlikely Philadelphia politician. The socialist, writer, organizer and former editor of left-wing magazine n+1 beat long-time incumbent Larry Farnese for state senate in the First District in a surprise upset. Although the Covid-19 pandemic threatened to derail his campaign, the issues Saval embraced — a Homes Guarantee, Universal Family Care, and a Green New Deal — have grown more urgent as our economy has unraveled. And making him an even more unlikely candidate, he won the backing of a conservative electricians union — a rare feat for a Green New Deal advocate. His platform, which was proven popular enough to beat a fairly progressive legislator, will be extremely challenging to implement. In order to win life-changing reforms like a Green New Deal, Saval and his allies will need to build a broad and powerful coalition — including with some strange bedfellows. 

Saval’s Green New Deal platform includes cleaning up every toxic site in the city with the use of union labor; basing all tax incentives, subsidies and contracts on project labor standards; retrofitting schools, libraries and recreation centers; and establishing a Regional Energy Center, which would unite the state’s utilities around the goals of increased energy efficiency through green buildings retrofits, and full electrification of Pennsylvania’s buildings by 2040.” Much like the federal Green New Deal legislation, many of Saval’s potential policies could mean the creation of thousands of union jobs, as someone will have to drive the new Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) busses, clean up brownfields, and update buildings with green technology. Saval also wants to eliminate coal-generated electricity by 2025 and achieve 100% clean electricity by 2030. These aspirations would obviously mean that workers in extractive industries would lose their current jobs, which is why building trades unions — and their powerful labor federation, the AFL-CIO — have been wary of the Green New Deal nationally.

But toward the end of his campaign, Saval was endorsed by Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), a powerful union — and machine institution — in Philadelphia politics. John Dougherty (commonly referred to as Johnny Doc), business manager and principal officer of Local 98, and business manager of the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, was listed as one of the Next 40 Democrats” in Pennsylvania in the 2010 issue of Politics Magazine. His brother sits on the state’s Supreme Court, and he had a hand in getting current Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney elected. But he’s also suffered some losses: In 2018, DSA-endorsed Elizabeth Fiedler beat 98-backed Jonathan Rowan in a four-way election for a state house seat. And just last year, Working Families Party member Kendra Brooks became the first third-party member to make it to City Council, with no support from IBEW or the rest of the building trades (although Dougherty has since implied that they would support her when she runs for re-election).

Dougherty has also had a longstanding feud with Farnese after beating him for his state senate seat in 2008. Farnese’s supporters were reported screaming, Doc is dead! Doc is dead!” at his victory party. This has made many wonder if the union’s endorsement of Saval was a petty power play toward Farnese, if the union sees the leftward trend in politics and wants a piece of the action, if it actually supports a Green New Deal — or perhaps some combination of the three. Although Dougherty didn’t name specific aspects of Saval’s environmental platform that he was impressed by, he told In These Times, Nikil is an organizer, activist, father, fighter… and things have to be modernized — maybe that means green.”

While at least one IBEW local, Local 103, has endorsed the Green New Deal, the national union has been fairly silent on the issue, speaking up only to voice its opposition. In March 2019, right after Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) introduced the federal Green New Deal legislation, IBEW international president Lonnie Stephenson co-wrote a letter to them, which said, in part, We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families. We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered.” This fear is particularly present in Philadelphia, the poorest big city in the country, where around 2,000 union members lost their high-paying jobs when PES refinery was shut down last year. The environmental movement cheered at its closure, as the building trades, led by Dougherty, fought to keep it open.

Much of the building trades’ opposition to greening the economy is rooted in the fear that skilled workers will either lose their jobs entirely, or have to be re-trained and learn new skills after decades of hard work. And while job loss was a reality for the members of Local 10-1 at the refinery, it may not be the case for electricians. Daniel Aldana Cohen, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, helped Saval write his climate policy. He told In These Times, One of the slogans of the Green New Deal is electrify everything’ which would obviously be very big for electrical workers.”

But people have said that before. Mitch Chanin, a volunteer with 350 Philadelphia, an environmental organization addressing the climate crisis, mentioned the fractured trust caused by politicians’ broken promises about green jobs in the past. During Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for President, he promised to create 5 million green jobs — but the vast majority of these jobs never materialized, cementing already-existing skepticism around greening the economy. Chanin said, My sense since I started volunteering with 350 was that building with unions was critical…if the climate movement got our act together and had a clear agenda that seemed credible to labor, they would be on board, but that hasn’t really happened yet.”

But that’s where Saval comes in: He has endorsements from groups like Sunrise Movement and Food & Water Watch Action, and also two big players in the trades, Local 98 and Laborers’ District Council of Metropolitan Philadelphia and Vicinity. His institutional support from unions coupled with progressive organizations that were willing to knock thousands of doors (and make thousands of phone calls after Covid-19 hit) gives him credibility in both worlds, which have historically been fairly unconnected. Saval told In These Times, I didn’t come to this thinking, I believe in a Green New Deal and I also support labor. I support labor and I’ve come very slowly into being very serious about climate change. My instinctive sympathies are with the labor movement.”

This labor-first mentality, coupled with the understanding that climate change is very real and dangerous, could be enough to get Local 98 electricians — and other members of the trades — on board with a Green New Deal. Dave Kauffman, a fourth period apprentice with Local 98 North, is ready for a green jobs program, and thinks his coworkers may be too. A lot of guys straight-up don’t care as long as they’re getting paid. If you asked them about the Green New Deal, they’d say, I don’t care as long as I got paid for it.” And while he refers to himself as a social democrat, he admits that some electricians have conservative politics, but that ultimately they don’t care about the politics, they care about securing work.” Dougherty agrees that we have members who vote their jobs.” But if building trades’ jobs can become green jobs, union voters may become green voters.

Kauffman’s co-workers, for the most part, just want to feed their families. And on the other side of the coin, the environmental movement wants to stop climate change. While these two groups’ interests may seem parallel, they intersect in crucial ways. The labor movement and environmental movements need each other: If environmentalists want green infrastructure and an end to fossil fuels, they need unions, with their sizable influence, to support their projects. Similarly, unions will need support from environmental and other progressive organizations to ensure that any new green job comes with card check or some kind of guarantee for employees to organize without retaliation.

When 98 endorsed Saval, there were whispers about the union’s history of reactionary politics, as well as Dougherty’s legal troubles (he has been federally charged with embezzlement, bribery and theft). But Saval says, I bristle at blanket denunciations of sections of the labor movement. There is this notion that we can go around labor, rather than seeing it as a problem for us that we didn’t have them as part of our coalition.” In other words, there is no powerful progressive left without the buy-in from unions, the organizations that represent the interests of the working class, which is most helped by a jobs program — and most hurt by climate change.

If environmental groups want to gain power in state houses or senates, they may want to look at what just happened in Philadelphia: Groups like 350 Philadelphia and Sunrise Movement endorsed the same candidate as the electricians’ union. It is difficult to imagine the progressive Left building the kind of momentum, buy-in, and support necessary to pass the legislation Saval ran on without support from labor. Chanin agrees: How do we build enough power without unions? We don’t. We need to talk to the unions both because it’s the right thing to do, and also because we’ll get stuck if we don’t.”

John Dougherty, however, believes that a Green New Deal in Pennsylvania is closer than you realize. The world is changing quickly.” And now that IBEW Local 98 endorsed a self-described marxist, maybe we should believe him.

Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia.
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