Making the Green New Deal Work for Workers

A true just transition means robust training, guaranteed jobs and pensions for fossil fuel industry workers.

Jeremy Brecher April 22, 2019

(Illustration by Ryan Johnson)

The Green New Deal presents the Amer­i­can work­ing class with the great­est oppor­tu­ni­ty for improv­ing our lives and gain­ing pow­er since the orig­i­nal New Deal of the 1930s. Respond­ing to cli­mate change will require the cre­ation of mil­lions of jobs, from pip­efit­ters and machin­ists to sci­en­tists and edu­ca­tors, which has the poten­tial to estab­lish a new pol­i­cy frame­work that makes work­ers’ rights and orga­niz­ing cen­tral to the way our econ­o­my works.

The Green New Deal resolution calls for the government to guarantee a job for anyone who wants one, another counter to the concern that climate protection may lead to job losses.

But cur­rent­ly, the Green New Deal exists only as an out­line of goals—as usu­al, there are some dev­ils in the details. If fos­sil fuel use is elim­i­nat­ed, then work­ers who extract, process, trans­port and use fos­sil fuels are like­ly to lose their jobs. If a zero-car­bon air­plane can’t be built, work­ers in avi­a­tion — not to men­tion the mil­i­tary — will also face loss­es. If elim­i­nat­ing the use of fos­sil fuels were to lead to mass eco­nom­ic dis­rup­tion, then all work­ers would suffer.

Of course, when economies and indus­tries are desta­bi­lized, some work­ers suf­fer more than oth­ers. Under the estab­lished pat­terns, work­ers who cur­rent­ly expe­ri­ence racial and gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion would con­tin­ue to have less access to bet­ter jobs. And should the new cli­mate-safe econ­o­my replace good jobs with poor ones, then work­ers who take those new jobs will receive lit­tle ben­e­fit while the con­di­tions of their fel­low work­ers would be sub­ject to down­ward pres­sure. Green New Deal labor strate­gies must address all of these con­cerns in an inte­grat­ed way.

The orig­i­nal New Deal of the 1930s was not a sin­gle pro­gram or piece of leg­is­la­tion — it was a whole era of tur­moil. Besides its famous alpha­bet soup of fed­er­al agency names, the New Deal includ­ed exper­i­men­ta­tion at state, region­al and local lev­els; orga­niz­ing by unem­ployed, rur­al, urban, elder­ly and oth­er grass­roots con­stituen­cies, as well as labor; and live­ly debate on future alter­na­tives that went far beyond the poli­cies actu­al­ly imple­ment­ed. The Green New Deal will require a sim­i­lar process of social change — and la-bor can play a pow­er­ful role in shap­ing it.

Cur­rent­ly, orga­nized labor is divid­ed on the Green New Deal. A March let­ter by 10 unions on the AFL-CIO’s en-ergy com­mit­tee said that, while ener­gy effi­cien­cy ini­tia­tives and strong labor stan­dards were need­ed, the Green New Deal res­o­lu­tion is far too short on spe­cif­ic solu­tions” and could cause imme­di­ate harm to mil­lions of our mem­bers and their fam­i­lies.” On the oth­er hand, cen­tral labor coun­cils in California’s San Diego and Impe­r­i­al coun­ties and Los Ange­les Coun­ty have endorsed the Green New Deal, as have the large 32BJ and 1199 locals of the SEIU. We reside in coastal cities that have been flood­ed by storms like Hur­ri­canes Sandy and Maria, so we know this kind of ambi­tious, large-scale vision to reduce green­house gas­es and switch to renew-able ener­gies is both doable and indis-pens­able,” reads 32BJ’s state­ment. This is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to tack­le eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty and rein­dus­tri­al­ize Amer­i­ca with a green econ­o­my through jobs that, with the right train­ing, can pro­vide career lad­ders for many low-wage work­ers who strug­gle to afford the high cost of living.”

An analy­sis by the Solu­tions Project found that a tran­si­tion to 100 per­cent renew­ables would cre­ate 4 mil­lion long-term jobs and mil­lions more short-term jobs — more, in total, than would be lost. Already, clean ener-gy jobs out­num­ber fos­sil fuel jobs 3 to 1. But to com­pen­sate work­ers who lose jobs in fos­sil fuel-relat­ed indus­tries and to aid fos­sil-fuel-depen­dent com­mu­ni­ties, new labor poli­cies will be needed.

While the Green New Deal res­o­lu­tion acknowl­edges this need, actu­al leg­is­la­tion will require more details. To get a new start in life, those who lose their jobs will need a sig­nif­i­cant cush­ion and tran­si­tion peri­od. Work­ers harmed by cli­mate pro­tec­tion poli­cies should receive full wages and ben­e­fits for at least four years, accom­pa­nied by access to no-cost edu­ca­tion or train­ing. Those ready to retire should be offered pen­sions with healthcare.

The edu­ca­tion and train­ing would har­mo­nize with the need to devel­op new labor force capa­bil­i­ties for the emerg­ing green econ­o­my. It could also help dis­trib­ute good jobs more just­ly. The U.S. work­force has long been divid­ed into a low-wage, low-qual­i­ty job sec­tor in which peo­ple of col­or, women, youth and oth­er mar­gin­al­ized groups have been con­cen­trat­ed, and a high­er-wage, more secure sec­tor that dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly includes white men. By giv­ing pri­or­i­ty to those who have been exclud­ed from bet­ter train­ing and jobs, the Green New Deal could help end these inequalities.

The Green New Deal res­o­lu­tion calls for the gov­ern­ment to guar­an­tee a job for any­one who wants one, anoth­er counter to the con­cern that cli­mate pro­tec­tion may lead to job loss­es. This jobs for all” pro­gram, or cli­mate jobs guar­an­tee,” builds from the con­cept of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment as the employ­er of last resort. Recent pro­pos­als envi­sion a fed­er­al pro­gram to pro­vide funds for non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tions, local gov­ern­ments and oth­er pub­lic-ser­vice agen­cies to employ any­one who wants a job at approx­i­mate­ly $15 an hour plus health insur­ance and oth­er ben­e­fits, sim­i­lar to the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration.

Such a jobs guar­an­tee is pos­si­ble because the tran­si­tion to a cli­mate-safe, fos­sil-free econ­o­my entails mil­lions of jobs that do not require a high skill lev­el. Work­ers with min­i­mal expe­ri­ence could weath­er­ize homes, install ener­gy effi­cien­cy improve­ments and serve as appren­tices on new con­struc­tion. They could con­duct waste removal and recy­cling, and plant trees to store car­bon. Work­ers with some expe­ri­ence, edu­ca­tion or cer­ti­fi­ca­tions could restore wet­lands, pro­vide ener­gy audit­ing, work on renew­able ener­gy instal­la­tions, elec­tri­fy build­ings, build new tran­sit infra­struc­ture, and work as dri­vers and atten­dants on an expand­ed tran­sit sys­tem. Or they could engage in food pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion, as well as the admin­is­tra­tive and cler­i­cal work that all of this entails. While the cli­mate jobs guar­an­tee would focus on jobs that help address the cli­mate cri­sis, it could also offer need­ed ser­vices in under­served, low-income communities.

To ensure that these gov­ern­ment-fund­ed jobs do not dri­ve down the stan­dards of oth­er jobs (by sup­ply­ing a cheap, com­pet­ing labor pool), the Green New Deal res­o­lu­tion right­ly stip­u­lates that they be high-qual­i­ty union jobs, offer robust ben­e­fits, hire local work­ers, and include train­ing and advance­ment opportunities.

But future Green New Deal leg­is­la­tion can go much fur­ther. By cre­at­ing large new indus­tri­al sec­tors depen­dent on the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, the Green New Deal — like the orig­i­nal New Deal — offers an open­ing for the gov­ern­ment to expand labor pro­tec­tions. It can start by build­ing in fair labor stan­dards and the right to a safe and healthy work envi­ron­ment. Then, in order to gar­ner broad work­ing-class sup­port, the gov­ern­ment can restore the right to orga­nize, strike and engage in con­cert­ed action on the job; estab­lish strong state and local pre­vail­ing wage laws; and encour­age indus­try-wide bar­gain­ing. These pro­vi­sions are nec­es­sary to accom­plish the basic Green New Deal objec­tives of coun­ter­ing inequal­i­ty and abol­ish­ing poverty.

Orga­nized labor has been under siege so long that any change can be per­ceived as a threat, rather than an oppor­tu­ni­ty. Labor was sim­i­lar­ly wary of New Deal-era pro­grams that actu­al­ly offered it great oppor­tu­ni­ties for expand­ing its mem­ber­ship and pow­er. The Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor (AFL — the pre­de­ces­sor to today’s AFL-CIO) ini­tial­ly opposed unem­ploy­ment insur­ance, a min­i­mum wage (except for women) and such New Deal pro­grams as the Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps, which pro­vid­ed jobs for 3 mil­lion young men between 1933 and 1942. While the AFL ini­tial­ly sup­port­ed the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act’s estab­lish­ment of a Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB), the AFL soon became con­vinced the board was biased toward the rival fed­er­a­tion, the Con­gress of Indus­tri­al Orga­ni­za­tions, and became hos­tile to the act and the board,” accord­ing to the NLRB’s offi­cial his­to­ry. The act and the board helped make pos­si­ble an increase in union mem­ber­ship from 3.5 mil­lion in 1935 to more than 14 mil­lion a decade later.

Orga­nized labor has a chance right now to avoid being on the wrong side of his­to­ry again.

Jere­my Brech­er is research and pol­i­cy direc­tor of the Labor Net­work for Sus­tain­abil­i­ty and the author of 15 books on labor and social move­ments, includ­ing Strike! and Cli­mate Sol­i­dar­i­ty: Work­ers vs. Warming.
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