In the beginning of this summer, the US state of Connecticut passed legislation to guarantee prevailing wage and benefits are provided to workers on clean energy projects.
The law was a product of labor unions and environmental groups working together to educate workers about the climate crisis and develop solutions, with a focus on creating good-paying, unionized jobs and opportunities to combat economic inequities.
Through organizing led in part by the Climate Jobs National Resource Center and the Workers Institute at Cornell University, this strategy has been adopted in other states around the US, such as New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Illinois and Texas. For the labor movement and environmentalists it seems a win-win: tackle the ever more urgent climate crisis while at the same time address inequality by strengthening America’s labor movement.
Aziz Dekhan, executive director of the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs, a coalition of local labor unions and environmental groups, explained the legislation in the state was built on efforts to ensure that a large solar project in New Windsor employed local, union workers rather than out of state or low-wage workers. The project also provided opportunities for individuals to enter apprenticeship programs and access jobs created through renewable energy projects.
“It came naturally to us that for every renewables project, we can’t keep going after individual projects,” said Dekhan. “If we don’t do it this way, we’re not going to be able to meet the standards in Connecticut to get close to zero carbon emissions by at least 2030.”
The coalition is also working on carbon-free schools and public transit equity campaigns.
“If we really believe that labor needs to lead on climate, this is what we have to do. We have to make sure that those jobs are available not just to the current workforce, but that they’re committed to workforce development, apprenticeship programs, especially bringing in people of color and people from marginalized communities,” added Dekhan. “I think it’s a model that other states and other unions can start to follow.”
Across America similar endeavors are under way. Mike Fishman, executive director of the Climate Jobs National Resource Center, and Lara Skinner, executive director of the Workers Institute at Cornell University, said that Hurricane Sandy’s impact on New York prompted their initial organizing efforts. The effects of the storm – especially on workers and marginalized communities – was a devastating sign of what’s to come if action isn’t swiftly taken to address the climate crisis.
Skinner described a strategy to reframe the climate crisis with an emphasis on addressing economic and racial inequalities by developing climate plans, conducting research on labor and employment issues related to the climate crisis, and developing outreach and education programs to get labor unions involved in developing such plans at an early stage.
“The goal is at least a 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, compared to 1990 levels, or getting to net zero emissions. Those climate science-based emission reduction targets are really important. We are making sure what we’re proposing meets those targets, but we put it in a different language focused on jobs and investment,” said Skinner.
‘What we’re saying is ‘what needs to be built to get to 100% renewables, what needs to be built to get to net zero emissions, how much is it going to cost, how many jobs are going to be created, how do we make those high-quality union jobs, and how do we expand access to those jobs for frontline communities?’”
An analysis published in March 2021 by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst estimated an annual investment of about $950bn over 10 years would create about 15.5m new jobs.
Labor unions, worker groups, environmental organizations and other stakeholders are developing these plans at the state level to build support for these investments and plans, and to combat fears over the consequences of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
“Climate change is an issue that affects working people first and worst, and there’s no doubt, during the middle of a climate crisis, it’s only going to get worse. We have to add our voices to the action on climate change,” said Fishman, who previously served as secretary treasurer of the SEIU before taking the helm of the Climate Jobs National Resource Center. “Labor needs to be taking a lead in the discussion about climate change.”
Fishman cited typical examples of communities around the US that have historically relied on the fossil fuel industry as an economic lifeline, such as the coal industry in West Virginia or the oil and gas industry in the Gulf of Mexico states. As those industries die out or change there are widespread burdens from job losses and hard-hit local tax bases that public services such as education rely on.
“You really have to think holistically about the community, and how you support the community through the transition, including the businesses, including the schools,” he added. “As we’re taking those workers and retraining them, think about a whole community and how you support building a new industry there, or support people iwhile they’re either looking for a new job or learning a new job, and to provide resources to help them do that was a difficult conversation.”
It is often not an easy conversation.
In Texas, 121 labor unions, including several that represent thousands of workers in the fossil fuel industry, voted overwhelmingly in support of a resolution at the AFL-CIO convention in July 2021 for a climate jobs program. Rick Levy, president of the Texas AFL-CIO, said that addressing the climate crisis in Texas among the organization’s union affiliates had a rough beginning, with several local unions and workers initially apprehensive about taking strong positions on climate change given the fossil fuel industry’s size and scope in the state.
Rather than rely on infighting over climate crisis solutions in response to political leaders seeking union endorsements, Levy and other union leaders sought to educate union affiliates about the climate crisis and from there develop a plan focused on labor and economic equity.
“Our philosophy was that sometimes solidarity means you show up on a picket line to show your support, but sometimes it means sitting in a room with folks you may not agree with and figuring out what is the basis we can all come together and be a united labor movement going forward,” said Levy. “That’s what feels so special about this process and this project – it really has the potential to transform the conversation around climate change and jobs in Texas.”
Now, Levy noted, the goal moving forward from developing and approving a long-term and comprehensive climate jobs plan for Texas is to begin to run campaigns to achieve the policy objectives outlined in the plan through the Texas Climate Jobs Project.
One of the first campaigns is a carbon-free schools program, aimed at developing infrastructure within the public education system to decarbonize schools, and tying labor standards to create good, unionized jobs in the process.
“The world is changing,” added Levy. “And the question is: what’s our role going to be in that? Are we gonna just watch it happen, and watch jobs disappear and watch new jobs created in a way that doesn’t lift up working people, or can we actually sit at the table and try to direct that change?”