A Green New Deal for American Labor?

Two workers installing solar energy at Garfield County Fairgrounds

Solar energy installation provides good, union jobs for electrical workers. Photo: Clean Energy Economy for the Region, CC BY 2.0.

The simple yellow protest signs were stenciled “Green Jobs for All.” Speaker after speaker stepped into the middle of the office floor, marked with a U.S. House of Representatives seal. Representative-Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, fresh off her election win, gave the protesters high fives.

That was the scene in November when the youth climate justice organization Sunrise Movement held a sit-in at the office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who was soon to be the Speaker of the House.

Most Americans had never heard of the “Green New Deal” at the time.

Now, it’s on the mainstream radar. The New York Times and the Washington Post ran multiple stories when Ocasio-Cortez introduced a resolution on February 7 to reduce carbon emissions through a massive good jobs program. The resolution has 67 House co-sponsors, while the Senate version has 12.

Even stronger than the original New Deal in the ’30s, her version of a Green New Deal would include a federal guarantee of living-wage employment—that is, anyone who wanted a job could get one at a salary that could support a family, with an emphasis on union jobs and protecting the right to organize.

The plan would also include public investments in clean energy infrastructure. But “there are millions of good, high-wage jobs that will be available through the Green New Deal, and they’re not just jobs that are in the manufacture of clean energy,” said security officer Judith Howell, a Service Employees 32BJ shop steward. For instance, she said, it will take work to clean up the environment where it’s already been damaged.

Howell has been an environmental activist since hearing Ray Charles sing “America the Beautiful” on Earth Day. Last year she helped push through a carbon tax in her hometown of Washington, D.C.

Activists like her are responding to the acute necessity to deal with climate change before the earth is drastically damaged.

It’s not too soon. Scientists now estimate that humanity has 12 years to cut carbon pollution by 45 percent to avert dramatic increases in droughts, flooding, heat, and poverty. Among the costs will be exposure to deadly heat illnesses for 350 million more people around the world by 2050 and $500 billion lost annually to the U.S. economy by 2100.


Not everyone is on board, though. In fact, significant forces in the labor movement are actively opposed to a Green New Deal.

“It is difficult to take this unrealistic manifesto seriously, but the economic and social devastation it would cause if it moves forward is serious and real,” said Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers union, in a statement about the Green New Deal resolution.

The Laborers are worried that members will lose their jobs in fossil fuel industries, which they say are paid much more than current jobs in the renewable energy sector.

The American labor movement has a long history of mistrusting environmental groups as job-killers. Frequently the Building Trades are at odds with environmental groups over projects like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines.

Most often, the AFL-CIO backs the Building Trades, though some unions, like National Nurses United, Steelworkers, and Service Employees, have forged ties with environmental groups.

“A small group of unions with close ties to the fossil fuel industry appear to be setting the definition of what the millions and millions of union members in America want and need,” said historian Jeremy Brecher, a staff member at the Labor Network for Sustainability.

It’s not hard to see that a huge gap exists between current labor-environment collaboration and what it will take to win a massive, federally mandated good jobs program to combat climate change.


One union that finds itself in a unique position is the Electrical Workers (IBEW), which benefits from solar energy construction but has traditionally allied with the other Building Trades and still supports coal and nuclear energy production, anathema to environmentalists.

The IBEW has offered career training for electricians in the solar energy industry in New York, Los Angeles, Alameda County in California, and Washington state.



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Kevin Norton is a member and former assistant business manager of IBEW Local 11 in Los Angeles. He supports the Green New Deal but is suspicious of Washington, D.C.'s ability to execute the idea.

"I like the concept," he said, but "I would like to see it fleshed out better." He's wary because he has so often seen jobs hyped as green that turn out to offer meager wages.


California is a good example, he said—the state has created a “whole wave” of green jobs, and good ones at that. Local 11 has had as many as 1,000 electricians working on a solar project at a given time. Why not do the same in Appalachia and Detroit?

In New York state, a coalition called Climate Jobs NY has used pre-hire collective bargaining agreements, called project labor agreements, to win guarantees that workers will be paid prevailing wages in $1.5 billion in renewable energy projects. These are in wind energy construction, solar, and the retrofitting of schools and other public buildings to make them more energy-efficient.

The Worker Institute at Cornell University spearheaded the project alongside IBEW Local 3, the New York State Nurses, 32BJ, and other unions, aiming to create unionized jobs while investing in sustainable energy. Importantly, the project has the support of the local Building Trades council.

Lina Lopez is a journeywoman electrician in New York. She has taken two classes at Local 3, one to install solar panels and the other to learn how to work with electric car charging stations. She likes doing the work.

“It’s to help a little bit,” she said, “to help keep this climate clean for the next generation.”

These local and state projects are examples that a federal Green New Deal might draw upon—and they offer a glimpse at how the slogan “Green Jobs for All” could be made real.

Organizing the Environmentalists and Greening Contracts

One interesting step that’s helped bridge the gap between organized labor and the green movement is the unionization of a major environmental organization, the Sierra Club, which is represented by two unions originating in a labor-management dispute in the 1990s.

“It is leading to a much deeper understanding of trade unionism and worker concerns,” Jeremy Brecher said, “certainly on the part of the Sierra Club, but that’s also having an effect on the rest of the environmental movement.”

Sierra Employees Alliance, which is now part of an Auto Workers local, represents staff at the Sierra Club’s national headquarters in California. The other union, originally a company union but now reformed as the Progressive Workers Union, signed its first card-check agreement last week to represent 200 staffers in Sierra Club chapters.

Sierra Club management publicly supported a union drive at the Tesla solar-panel factory in Buffalo, New York, only after PWU and SEA wrote letters to the board and spoke to management, said PWU President Neha Mathew-Shah.

Unions and environmental groups team up formally in high-level partnerships like the BlueGreen Alliance, which the Sierra Club founded with the Steelworkers in 2006.

But Elaine Bernard, a researcher retired from Harvard, thinks grassroots work is more important. She points to instances where unions, mostly outside the United States, have used collective bargaining to negotiate provisions into their contracts that promote a cleaner environment.

A project called “Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces” lists scores of provisions that unions—mostly Canadian and Australian—have negotiated to secure protections for the environment, including green procurement, whistleblower protection, and the promotion of carpooling and bicycling.

For example, a 2012 agreement between Steelworkers Local 480 and Teck Metals provided that the union would “participate in formal assessments and investigations to prevent the occurrence or recurrence of environmental and health impacts” and that the company would have to disclose “information and monitoring data” to the union. Teck Metals is a Canadian metals and mining company that has been cited multiple times for polluting the Columbia River in British Columbia.

This article was updated to reflect that the Green New Deal's job guarantee provisions are stronger than the original New Deal's and to more accurately convey Kevin Norton's sentiments on the Green New Deal.

Saurav Sarkar is a former Assistant Editor of Labor Notes.saurav@labornotes.org