12 Reasons Labor Should Demand a Green New Deal

Jeremy Brecher and Joe Uehlein

Labor shouldn't just back the Green New Deal, it should help lead the way. (Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Work­ers have got­ten a raw deal. Employ­ers and their Repub­li­can allies are try­ing to elim­i­nate work­ers’ rights both in the work­place and at the bal­lot box. But even when Democ­rats con­trolled the pres­i­den­cy and both hous­es of Con­gress, they did lit­tle to pro­tect, let alone expand, the rights of work­ing peo­ple. Work­ers need a new deal.

Now, an alliance of social move­ments and mem­bers of Con­gress are propos­ing a Green New Deal to cre­ate mil­lions of jobs by putting Amer­i­cans to work mak­ing a cli­mate-safe econ­o­my. This pro­gram meets the needs of — and has the poten­tial to unite — the labor move­ment, envi­ron­men­tal­ists, and all those who have been the vic­tims of inequal­i­ty, dis­crim­i­na­tion, racism and, now, cli­mate change. 

In the week fol­low­ing the 2018 midterm elec­tions, a group of 150 pro­test­ers led by young peo­ple with the Sun­rise Move­ment occu­pied the office of like­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic House Major­i­ty Leader Nan­cy Pelosi, urg­ing her to sup­port a Green New Deal. New­ly-elect­ed House Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑NY) joined the protest with a res­o­lu­tion in hand to estab­lish a Select Com­mit­tee for a Green New Deal. The pro­pos­al has since amassed grow­ing sup­port among Con­gres­sion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tives, pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions and young peo­ple across the country. 

The Green New Deal is poised to become a fac­tor in the 2020 elec­tions. Labor unions should take this oppor­tu­ni­ty to embrace the pro­pos­al — and fight to make sure it’s a strong vehi­cle for advanc­ing work­ers’ rights.

What was the New Deal?

In the depths of the Great Depres­sion, U.S. Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt launched the New Deal — a set of gov­ern­ment pro­grams to pro­vide employ­ment and social secu­ri­ty, reform tax poli­cies and busi­ness prac­tices, and stim­u­late the econ­o­my. It includ­ed the build­ing of homes, hos­pi­tals, school, roads, dams and elec­tri­cal grids. The New Deal put mil­lions of peo­ple to work and cre­at­ed a new pol­i­cy frame­work for Amer­i­can democracy.

New Deal pro­grams includ­ed pub­lic employ­ment (Works Progress Admin­is­tra­tion and Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps); farm price sup­ports (Agri­cul­tur­al Adjust­ment Act); envi­ron­men­tal restora­tion (refor­esta­tion and land con­ser­va­tion); labor rights (Wag­n­er Act); min­i­mum wages and stan­dards (Nation­al Recov­ery Act and Fair Labor Stan­dards Act); coop­er­a­tive enter­pris­es (Works Progress Admin­is­tra­tion sup­port for self-help); pub­lic infra­struc­ture devel­op­ment (TVA and rur­al elec­tri­fi­ca­tion); sub­si­dized basic neces­si­ties (food com­mod­i­ty pro­grams and Fed­er­al Hous­ing Act); con­struc­tion of schools, parks, and hous­ing (Civ­il Works Admin­is­tra­tion); and income main­te­nance (Social Secu­ri­ty Act). 

Besides its famous alpha­bet soup” of Fed­er­al gov­ern­ment agen­cies, the New Deal was part of a larg­er process of social change that includ­ed exper­i­men­ta­tion at a state, region­al and local lev­el; orga­ni­za­tion among labor, unem­ployed, urban, the elder­ly and oth­er grass­roots con­stituen­cies; and live­ly debate on future alter­na­tives that went far beyond the poli­cies actu­al­ly implemented. 

What a Green New Deal would do 

The Green New Deal is a pro­gram that all trade union­ists and advo­cates for work­ing peo­ple can and should get behind.

While there are a vari­ety of detailed pro­pos­als for a Green New Deal, Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez’ pro­pos­al promis­es to cre­ate mil­lions of jobs through build­ing a new 100%-renewable elec­tri­cal sys­tem and a nation­al smart grid,” retro­fitting res­i­den­tial and indus­tri­al build­ings, and build­ing a new, low-emis­sion trans­porta­tion system.

It also seeks to end the epi­dem­ic of pover­ty by mit­i­gat­ing deeply entrenched racial, region­al and gen­der-based inequal­i­ties in income and wealth and dis­trib­ut­ing fed­er­al aid and oth­er invest­ment equi­tably to his­tor­i­cal­ly impov­er­ished and mar­gin­al­ized communities.

At its core, the Green New Deal would work toward sav­ing the cli­mate by meet­ing sci­en­tif­ic tar­gets for the reduc­tion of green­house gas­es, invest­ing in the draw­down and cap­ture of green­house gas­es, and mak­ing green” tech­nol­o­gy a major export of the Unit­ed States to help oth­er coun­tries tran­si­tion to car­bon-neu­tral economies.

Why labor should sup­port a Green New Deal 

Amer­i­can work­ers, like most Amer­i­cans, are dis­sat­is­fied with the sta­tus quo and want change. Orga­nized labor is in a posi­tion to help lead that change. But all too rarely is labor’s pro­gram direct­ed to a vision of what we want for the future.

The Green New Deal pro­vides a vision­ary pro­gram for labor and can pro­vide a role for unions in defin­ing and lead­ing a new vision for America.

At the same time, the Green New Deal projects a pro­gram that is not far-fetched. It includes plans for a pub­lic works pro­grams, the expan­sion of human rights and new enti­tle­ment pro­grams. Amer­i­cans have made such goals a real­i­ty before in U.S. his­to­ry — with orga­nized labor play­ing a lead­ing role. 

Why a Green New Deal? Only pro­tect­ing human­i­ty from cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe can uni­fy the polit­i­cal forces need­ed to meet labor’s demands for jobs, union rights, eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty, full employ­ment, and work­er empowerment.

There are 12 key rea­sons why labor should get on board with a Green New Deal:

  1. Avert cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe: We are in a cli­mate emer­gency. The cur­rent threat to human­i­ty rivals that of Nazi armies that once threat­ened to estab­lish a thou­sand-year Reich” whose mas­ter race would rule the world. Mil­lions of work­ers mobi­lized to build the tanks, planes and ammu­ni­tion that defeat­ed the Nazis. Today we need a mobi­liza­tion that sim­i­lar­ly puts mil­lions to work build­ing the wind­mills, solar col­lec­tors, grids and oth­er tools need­ed to defeat cli­mate change. Work­ing peo­ple have no greater col­lec­tive interest.
  2. Pro­vide jobs for all: The pro­duc­tion of equip­ment and con­struc­tion of infra­struc­ture for the new cli­mate-safe econ­o­my will pro­vide man­u­fac­tur­ing and con­struc­tion jobs for mil­lions of work­ers. The Cli­mate Jobs Guar­an­tee con­tained with­in the Green New Deal would pro­vide jobs for all who want them at a base wage of $15, includ­ing health­care and oth­er ben­e­fits. The ongo­ing con­ver­sion to a sus­tain­able econ­o­my will con­tin­ue to pro­vide good jobs for generations.
  3. Abol­ish pover­ty: In addi­tion to a jobs guar­an­tee pro­vid­ing wages that will lift work­ers out of pover­ty, the Green New Deal will also include basic income pro­grams and uni­ver­sal health care for those who are not in the workforce.
  4. Rebuild the labor movement: Put sim­ply, a Green New Deal can help rebuild the U.S. labor move­ment. With input from labor, the plan can guar­an­tee the right to orga­nize, bar­gain col­lec­tive­ly, engage in con­cert­ed action and retain basic Con­sti­tu­tion­al rights on the job for all workers. 
  5. Unite the work­ing class: Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, the Repub­li­can Par­ty and cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca have been work­ing over­time to divide the work­ing class. The Green New Deal embod­ies the com­mon inter­ests of all work­ing peo­ple in cli­mate pro­tec­tion, jobs for all and greater equal­i­ty. At the same time, it address­es the lega­cy of race, gen­der, and oth­er forms of dis­crim­i­na­tion and injus­tice. And it express­es human val­ues that rec­og­nize the equal worth and com­mon fate of all people. 
  6. Win wide pop­u­lar sup­port for a labor-friend­ly pro­gram: Pub­lic opin­ion polling shows that the pro­grams of the Green New Deal are extra­or­di­nar­i­ly pop­u­lar. A recent poll shows that over half of vot­ing-eli­gi­ble adults said they would be more like­ly to sup­port a can­di­date run­ning on a Green Job Guar­an­tee, includ­ing 35 per­cent of Trump vot­ers. And young peo­ple are far more like­ly to sup­port a can­di­date run­ning on a plat­form of 100 per­cent renew­able ener­gy and Green jobs.
  7. Build a pow­er­ful labor-friend­ly coali­tion: The orig­i­nal New Deal coali­tion brought togeth­er diverse con­stituen­cies includ­ing labor, African Amer­i­cans, city dwellers and farm­ers. That coali­tion was a dom­i­nant force in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics for more than 40 years. The Green New Deal sim­i­lar­ly pro­vides the basis for a broad, long-last­ing coali­tion that can again trans­form Amer­i­can pol­i­tics and soci­ety. By help­ing lead that coali­tion, orga­nized labor can secure the rights and well-being of all workers.
  8. Uni­fy envi­ron­men­tal and labor forces in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty: Labor and envi­ron­men­tal­ists have too often been at log­ger­heads in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. This has under­mined both the pro­tec­tion of the envi­ron­ment and of work­ers. A Green New Deal can become a com­mon pro­gram uni­fy­ing the envi­ron­men­tal and labor con­stituen­cies of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty. By mak­ing pro­tect­ing the cli­mate the way to pro­vide jobs for all, it puts an end to the pho­ny con­flict between jobs and the environment.”
  9. Chal­lenge cor­po­rate dom­i­nance of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty: For far too long, the Democ­rats’ cor­po­rate wing, rep­re­sent­ing the inter­ests of the wealthy, has dom­i­nat­ed the par­ty. Even when Democ­rats con­trolled the Pres­i­den­cy and both hous­es of Con­gress, the cor­po­rate wing of the par­ty helped stymie both labor law reform and effec­tive cli­mate pro­tec­tion — screw­ing work­ers twice. The Green New Deal pro­vides a pro­gram that rep­re­sents the views of the great major­i­ty of Democ­rats that can allow the party’s rank-and-file to take con­trol and advance both work­ers’ rights and cli­mate protection. 
  10. Strength­en work­ers bar­gain­ing pow­er: The tremen­dous demand for labor cre­at­ed by the tran­si­tion to a fos­sil-free econ­o­my, com­bined with the Cli­mate Jobs Guar­an­tee, will elim­i­nate that long line of work­ers at the gate” that employ­ers use to strength­en their hands in nego­ti­a­tions. The Cli­mate Jobs Guar­an­tee will set a new floor for wages and ben­e­fits that all employ­ers will need to exceed if they wish to sus­tain a workforce.
  11. Expand union appren­tice­ship and train­ing: As with the eco­nom­ic mobi­liza­tion for World War II, cli­mate mobi­liza­tion will require train­ing a new work­force. The Green New Deal defines union appren­tice­ships and oth­er train­ing pro­grams as a cen­tral way to do so. That will pro­vide both a major source of finan­cial sup­port for unions and a chance to show the ben­e­fits of union­iza­tion to mil­lions of work­ers enter­ing the work­force or being retrained for new jobs.
  12. Estab­lish a stan­dard for those who claim to be labor’s friends: One rea­son for orga­nized labor’s declin­ing clout has been the lack of a clear stan­dard for those who seek labor’s sup­port. The Green New Deal pro­vides a clear state­ment of how can­di­dates and orga­ni­za­tions can show sup­port for labor — and there­fore what politi­cians must fight for if they want labor’s support. 

What the New Deal did for labor 

The New Deal estab­lished jobs pro­grams such as the Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corp (CCC), Civ­il Works Admin­is­tra­tion (CWA), and the Works Progress Admin­is­tra­tion (WPA). The WPA employed more than 8.5 mil­lion work­ers who built 650,000 miles of high­ways and roads, 125,000 pub­lic build­ings, as well as schools, bridges, reser­voirs, irri­ga­tion sys­tems, parks and playgrounds.

In 1936, when many Amer­i­can employ­ers were vio­lent­ly oppos­ing unions, WPA direc­tor Har­ry Hop­kins signed an agree­ment assur­ing the Work­ers Alliance of Amer­i­ca, a merg­er of sev­er­al unem­ployed orga­ni­za­tions, the right to orga­nize relief workers.

The Work­ers Alliance func­tioned as a pro­to-union in the WPA, strik­ing, protest­ing griev­ances, and orga­niz­ing mass demon­stra­tions and march­es to main­tain and expand the pro­gram. It worked with the AFL and the nascent CIO to demand union scale for skilled work­ers, a min­i­mum pay­ment for WPA work­ers and col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing for all work­ers on work-relief projects. Many WPA work­ers used their expe­ri­ence to become orga­niz­ers in the new CIO. As the WPA wound down and the pri­vate econ­o­my revived, many for­mer Work­ers Alliance activists became lead­ers in the new indus­tri­al unions.

The 1935 Social Secu­ri­ty Act estab­lished retire­ment pen­sions, unem­ploy­ment insur­ance, and wel­fare pro­grams that remain the pri­ma­ry basis for eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty for many Amer­i­can work­ers to this day.

The 1935 Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act — aka the Wag­n­er Act — guar­an­teed work­ers the right to bar­gain col­lec­tive­ly through unions of their own choos­ing. Union mem­ber­ship vir­tu­al­ly tripled in the decade fol­low­ing the pas­sage of the act. 

The 1938 Fair Labor Stan­dards Act set max­i­mum hours, min­i­mum wages and abol­ished child labor.

Through its role in the admin­is­tra­tive agen­cies of the New Deal and its grow­ing role in the New Deal coali­tion, orga­nized labor achieved an unprece­dent­ed, if still sub­or­di­nate, voice in the halls of gov­ern­men­tal and polit­i­cal power.

What labor should ask of a Green New Deal

While cur­rent pro­pos­als for a Green New Deal align with work­ers’ inter­ests, orga­nized labor brings tra­di­tions and insights that can make them even more compelling. 

Incor­po­rat­ing work­er demands in the Green New Deal pro­gram will pay ben­e­fits long before they can be imple­ment­ed at a nation­al lev­el. It will ensure that labor’s approach is under­stood and adopt­ed by a wide coali­tion. And it will pro­vide guide­lines for what poli­cies that coali­tion will fight for at a local, state, region­al and indus­try level.

Labor needs to begin the dis­cus­sion on what it wants in a Green New Deal. It needs a pro­gram that will trans­form the role of orga­nized work­ing peo­ple at least as pro­found­ly as the pro­grams of the New Deal. But that can’t sim­ply be a mat­ter of going back to labor’s past glories. 

The rights of work­ing peo­ple have been erod­ed under both Demo­c­ra­t­ic and Repub­li­can admin­is­tra­tions. Labor law as amend­ed by Con­gress and inter­pret­ed by the courts has become less a pro­tec­tion for work­ers and unions than a means to restrict their free­dom. Sim­ply rolling back recent con­ser­v­a­tive vic­to­ries like the Supreme Court’s Janus deci­sion is not enough. Labor can and should demand that the Green New Deal — like the orig­i­nal New Deal — estab­lish a new frame­work that pro­tects work­ers’ fun­da­men­tal Con­sti­tu­tion­al and human rights. 

Labor should demand that any Green New Deal:

Restore the right to orga­nize, bar­gain col­lec­tive­ly and engage in con­cert­ed action on the job: These rights were orig­i­nal­ly pro­tect­ed by the New Deal’s Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act, but they have been erod­ed by leg­is­la­tion, court deci­sions and the pow­er of employ­ers to dis­ci­pline and fire their workers. 

Guar­an­tee the Con­sti­tu­tion­al rights to free­dom of speech and assem­bly in the work­place: These rights are essen­tial to work­ers’ free­dom to orga­nize as they see fit. They are also essen­tial aspects of human rights and human dig­ni­ty that should not be elim­i­nat­ed once you enter the workplace.

Restore the right to strike: In the half-cen­tu­ry fol­low­ing the Civ­il War, Amer­i­can work­ers’ move­ments main­tained that the right to strike was a fun­da­men­tal Con­sti­tu­tion­al right, guar­an­teed by the 13th Amendment’s pro­hi­bi­tion of invol­un­tary servi­tude.” It’s time to enforce that right. 

Guar­an­tee the right to a safe and healthy work envi­ron­ment: The Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970 sup­pos­ed­ly assured safe and health­ful work­ing con­di­tions for work­ing men and women,” but it was deeply flawed from the out­set and has been gut­ted over time. A Green New Deal can help meet both labor and envi­ron­men­tal goals by ban­ning all unsafe prac­tices in workplaces. 

Pro­vide a fair and just tran­si­tion for work­ers whose jobs may be threat­ened by eco­nom­ic change: This should include but not be lim­it­ed to change that results from the tran­si­tion to a cli­mate-safe econ­o­my. It should include an updat­ed ver­sion of the GI Bill of Rights that gave return­ing World War II vet­er­ans edu­ca­tion, hous­ing, med­ical and oth­er ben­e­fits to make a new start on life and eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment sup­port for com­mu­ni­ties affect­ed by eco­nom­ic transition. 

Estab­lish fair labor stan­dards: The 1938 Fair Labor Stan­dards Act (FLSA) pro­vid­ed min­i­mum wages, lim­it­ed the hours of work, and estab­lished oth­er pro­tec­tions for work­ers. Today the min­i­mum wage is so low that it fails to ensure even a pover­ty-lev­el income. In prac­tice, work­ers can be made to work for as few or as many hours as their employ­ers want. New labor stan­dards should ensure that any­one who works gets a liv­ing wage; employ­ees are pro­vid­ed pre­dictable hours of labor; and that work­ers may not be fired with­out just cause. 

Estab­lish strong state and local pre­vail­ing wage laws: The Davis-Bacon Act, passed on the eve of the New Deal, requires that all con­trac­tors and sub­con­trac­tors per­form­ing fed­er­al­ly-fund­ed con­struc­tion, alter­ation, or repair work must pay their work­ers no less than the pre­vail­ing wages and ben­e­fits for cor­re­spond­ing work on sim­i­lar projects in the area. A Green New Deal should imple­ment pre­vail­ing wage laws for all cli­mate-pro­tec­tion jobs, all state- and local­ly-fund­ed projects, as well as oth­er industries.

Encour­age indus­try-wide bar­gain­ing: The labor rela­tions sys­tem estab­lished by the New Deal often led to indus­try-wide col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing in which all steel­work­ers or auto work­ers were unit­ed in their con­fronta­tions with man­age­ment. Today, work­ers in each indus­try and each cor­po­ra­tion are often rep­re­sent­ed by dozens of dif­fer­ent unions who all bar­gain sep­a­rate­ly with lit­tle coor­di­na­tion. A Green New Deal can encour­age bar­gain­ing coun­cils and oth­er forms of coor­di­na­tion that pro­mote high­er wages and pre­vent a race to the bot­tom by tak­ing wages out of competition. 

Estab­lish a buy fair” and buy local” pro­cure­ment pol­i­cy: A Green New Deal can pro­vide incen­tives for qual­i­ty jobs which pro­vide fam­i­ly-sus­tain­ing wages and ben­e­fits; the right to form a union and engage in col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing free of intim­i­da­tion and reprisal; and hir­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for work­ers in dis­ad­van­taged communities.

What trade union­ists can do right now to win a Green New Deal

The idea of a Green New Deal has rapid­ly and unex­pect­ed­ly bro­ken through into pub­lic dis­cus­sion. Here’s how unions can build on this momen­tum right now:

Sup­port the Sun­rise Movement’s Green New Deal actions: Show up for demon­stra­tions at your Con­gres­sion­al representative’s office to demand they sup­port a Green New Deal. 

Ask politi­cians who depend on labor sup­port to sign on to Con­gres­sion­al res­o­lu­tions call­ing for a Green New Deal

Edu­cate your mem­ber­ship about the Green New Deal: Mate­ri­als are avail­able at the Labor Net­work for Sus­tain­abil­i­ty web­site.

Pass a res­o­lu­tion demand­ing a Green New Deal: The orga­ni­za­tion Labor for Sin­gle Pay­er first passed res­o­lu­tions through hun­dreds of local unions, then dozens of nation­al unions, and ulti­mate­ly turned the labor move­ment into a pow­er­ful advo­cate for uni­ver­sal health­care. The labor movement’s sup­port for a Green New Deal can send a strong mes­sage that the plan is crit­i­cal to build­ing work­ing-class pow­er.

Push for ele­ments of the Green New Deal in your col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing demands: Bar­gain­ing for the com­mon good” is a grow­ing trend for Amer­i­can unions. Many aspects of the Green New Deal can be won through union bar­gain­ing. For exam­ple, unions can bar­gain for their employ­ers to rapid­ly reduce green­house gas emis­sions and to apply pre­vail­ing wage stan­dards to their own work­ers or out­side con­trac­tors who per­form the nec­es­sary work. 

Join togeth­er with oth­er unions and allies to demand a Green New Deal: Coali­tions that advo­cate for pro­tec­tion for both work­ers and the cli­mate have emerged at the local, state and nation­al lev­els. You can join with them to form a pow­er­ful force to ulti­mate­ly win a strong and bold Green New Deal.

Jere­my Brech­er is the author of more than a dozen books on labor and social move­ments, includ­ing his clas­sic labor his­to­ry Strike! and most recent­ly Against Doom: A Cli­mate Insur­gency Man­u­al (PM Press, 2017). His book Cli­mate Insur­gency: A Strat­e­gy for Sur­vival (Stone Soup, 2016) is avail­able for free down­load at www​.jere​my​brech​er​.org. He is a co-founder of the Labor Net­work for Sus­tain­abil­i­ty www​.labor4​sus​tain​abil​i​ty​.org.Joe Uehlein is the for­mer sec­re­tary-trea­sur­er of the AFL-CIO’s Indus­tri­al Union Depart­ment and for­mer direc­tor of the AFL-CIO Cen­ter for Strate­gic Cam­paigns. He is found­ing pres­i­dent of the Labor Net­work for Sus­tain­abil­i­ty www​.labor4​sus​tain​abil​i​ty​.org.
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