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

Mindy Isser June 25, 2020

(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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