Maine AFL-CIO Becomes First State Federation to Support a Green New Deal Bill

Rachel M. Cohen April 22, 2019

Members of the Maine State Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989, and members of the Maine AFL-CIO Protest outside the Holiday Inn By the Bay, to raise the federal minimum wage. (Photo by Carl D. Walsh/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

On Tues­day, Maine law­mak­ers will hold a hear­ing for An Act to Estab­lish a Green New Deal for Maine”—a new cli­mate and jobs bill that has the notable sup­port of Maine’s AFL-CIO, the first state labor fed­er­a­tion to endorse a Green New Deal-themed piece of leg­is­la­tion. The bill calls for 80 per­cent renew­able elec­tric­i­ty con­sump­tion by 2040, solar pow­er for pub­lic schools, the cre­ation of a task force to study eco­nom­ic and job growth, and a com­mis­sion to help facil­i­tate a just tran­si­tion to a low-car­bon econ­o­my. Its back­ing from a coali­tion of over 160 labor unions offers an instruc­tive les­son for oth­er states look­ing to build union pow­er to tack­le a warm­ing planet.

The bill is the brain­child of Chloe Maxmin, a 26-year-old state law­mak­er elect­ed in Novem­ber, and the first Demo­c­rat to ever rep­re­sent her dis­trict. Maxmin, who has been an envi­ron­men­tal activist since she was 12 years old, and co-found­ed the Har­vard fos­sil fuel divest­ment cam­paign while in col­lege, said she knew if she was vot­ed into office she would approach cli­mate pol­i­tics in a dif­fer­ent way.

One of the crit­i­cisms of the nation­al Green New Res­o­lu­tion spon­sored by Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) and Sen­a­tor Ed Markey (D‑Mass.) is that it lacked a broad coali­tion of sup­port­ers when it was first intro­duced. But Oca­sio-Cortez and Markey’s polit­i­cal strat­e­gy, they’ve explained, is to use the aspi­ra­tional frame­work as an orga­niz­ing tool over the next two years, to bring more key part­ners on board.

Maxmin, by con­trast, sought to bring allies into her coali­tion pri­or to going pub­lic with the leg­is­la­tion, and Maine labor and envi­ron­men­tal groups did not have a deep his­to­ry of work­ing togeth­er before. I’ve been an orga­niz­er for a long time, and to build pow­er and to real­ly cre­ate some­thing inclu­sive I knew it had to be inclu­sive from the begin­ning,” she told In These Times. The tra­di­tion­al strate­gies that we’ve used around cli­mate and cli­mate pol­i­cy just have not real­ly got­ten us very far.”

Maine has some unique char­ac­ter­is­tics: It is the most rur­al state in the nation, the whitest (rough­ly ­tied with Ver­mont), and the old­est. It’s also, as of 2019, one of just 14 states where Democ­rats con­trol all three branch­es of state government.

While she knows her bill will be asso­ci­at­ed with the fed­er­al res­o­lu­tion, Maxmin stress­es that hers should be under­stood as tar­get­ed leg­is­la­tion, specif­i­cal­ly tai­lored to her state’s needs. Of course, there are nation­al par­al­lels with not only the name but also echo­ing the themes of eco­nom­ic jus­tice and oppor­tu­ni­ty, but it’s a very Maine-spe­cif­ic bill, and not meant to cov­er every com­po­nent of the cli­mate cri­sis,” she said.

Matt Schlobohm, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Maine AFL-CIO, praised Maxmin for her delib­er­ate efforts to cre­ate a pol­i­cy that was ambi­tious, aspi­ra­tional and do-able” for work­ing-class peo­ple. Maine’s labor com­mu­ni­ty, which has about 12 per­cent union den­si­ty, has not his­tor­i­cal­ly focused on cli­mate issues or cli­mate jus­tice. Schlobohm thinks this leg­is­la­tion is a real chance for unions to build trust and devel­op their analy­sis and capac­i­ty” in a mean­ing­ful way.

The bill sets less ambi­tious tar­gets than the nation­al Green New Deal res­o­lu­tion, which, among oth­er things, calls for 100 per­cent renew­able ener­gy in 10 years, and includes lan­guage around reduc­ing emis­sions from trans­porta­tion and agri­cul­tur­al sec­tors. While the Maine Sier­ra Club sup­ports the leg­is­la­tion, Maxmin acknowl­edged that some envi­ron­men­tal activists have crit­i­cized her bill for not going far enough.

Our approach was tar­get­ed leg­is­la­tion focused on eco­nom­ic and job growth in Maine,” she said, point­ing to the solar projects for schools, and the jobs-focused task force which would report on its find­ings by next Jan­u­ary. Like the state’s opi­oid task force which has paved the way to new state poli­cies, Maxmin said she expects to be able to intro­duce more spe­cif­ic job leg­is­la­tion gen­er­at­ed by the task force’s research next year. There are oth­er [envi­ron­men­tal] bills going through the State House around trans­porta­tion and agri­cul­ture,” she said. This [bill] is for work­ers, low-income Main­ers, and eco­nom­ic growth in Maine.”

Haley Mau­rice, a junior at Bow­doin Col­lege involved in the Bow­doin Cli­mate Action group and a stu­dent leader with the nation­al Sun­rise Move­ment, has been involved in dis­cus­sions with Rep. Maxmin to shape the bill. (Sun­rise also endorsed Maxmin’s bid for office.)

We start­ed meet­ing in ear­ly Feb­ru­ary, and [Rep. Maxmin] was just real­ly for­ward in say­ing we need young peo­ple involved,” she said. I’ve been very impressed by her adamant belief in the demo­c­ra­t­ic nature of the bill and in mak­ing sure that every­one who is affect­ed by this is con­sid­ered and at the table.”

Mau­rice said that while oth­er cli­mate bills pro­posed in the Maine leg­is­la­ture have very ambi­tious time­lines,” this is the first bill she believes real­ly pri­or­i­tizes how the ener­gy tran­si­tion will take place, and con­sti­tutes a very strong start­ing point” for Maine. The leg­is­la­tion out­lines require­ments for a com­mis­sion to study and track progress towards a low-car­bon econ­o­my, par­tic­u­lar­ly for those most adverse­ly impact­ed: peo­ple from demo­graph­ic groups that have been his­tor­i­cal­ly affect­ed, and peo­ple who are low-income and can­not par­tic­i­pate in ener­gy effi­cien­cy programs.

More­over, Mau­rice doesn’t think a state bill on a less ambi­tious time­line is at odds with the work that she and her Sun­rise col­leagues are push­ing for on the nation­al lev­el. If any­thing, Mau­rice said, it just rein­forces why the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment needs to also be involved in the process.

When you say we need 100 per­cent renew­able ener­gy by 2030, and we need a faster time­line, you need to think about the bur­den that places on Main­ers here,” she said. And if state bills have a slow­er time­line than what sci­ence is say­ing we need, I don’t think that is nec­es­sar­i­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry to our val­ues. States need to push for­ward in the ways we can now while ensur­ing these tran­si­tions are hap­pen­ing in an equi­table way, and we need a fed­er­al Green New Deal to bol­ster the work of the states.” 

The Maine AFL-CIO’s sup­port for the bill is an impor­tant mile­stone, as labor remains divid­ed on the Green New Deal nation­al­ly. While the AFL-CIO’s Ener­gy Com­mit­tee respond­ed crit­i­cal­ly to the Green New Deal res­o­lu­tion, unhap­py with both some of its spe­cif­ic lan­guage and its lack of specifics, oth­er labor orga­ni­za­tions have start­ed to mobi­lize in sup­port. In late March the Los Ange­les Coun­ty Fed­er­a­tion of Labor approved a res­o­lu­tion in sup­port of a Green New Deal or sim­i­lar effort” to address cli­mate change and eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty. In mid-April, Sara Nel­son, the inter­na­tion­al pres­i­dent of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants, which rep­re­sents 50,000 flight atten­dants across 20 air­lines, wrote an op-ed in in sup­port of the Green New Deal, and the gen­er­al urgency of tack­ling cli­mate change.

Schlobohm said if he were to give advice to envi­ron­men­tal lead­ers about how to orga­nize effec­tive­ly with labor, he’d encour­age them to make delib­er­ate efforts to under­stand unions, and engage them in a good-faith process. And I think just the basic orga­niz­ing 101 of show­ing up for each oth­er,” he said. There’s a lot of strikes and pick­et lines these days. Do envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions show up at teacher strikes and gro­cery work­er strikes? The same ques­tion should be asked of unions, but I think there’s just oppor­tu­ni­ty to build sol­i­dar­i­ty in this moment.”

For his labor allies, Schlobohm says the ener­gy tran­si­tion is going to hap­pen, so it can either hap­pen with us or to us” and one option is far supe­ri­or than the other.”

Ulti­mate­ly Schlobohm feels opti­mistic about the future of cli­mate-labor orga­niz­ing, says there are lots of oppor­tu­ni­ties for win-wins” — and points to the recent orga­niz­ing done by cli­mate and labor groups in New York.

There are renew­able ener­gy poli­cies mov­ing in every state in the coun­try,” he said. And every sin­gle one of those pol­i­cy frame­works has the oppor­tu­ni­ty and levers for job qual­i­ty and labor rights standards.”

Rachel M. Cohen is a jour­nal­ist based in Wash­ing­ton D.C. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rmc031
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