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Union Locals Build Support for the Green New Deal’s “Just Transition”

By Candice Bernd - Truthout, April 6, 2019

Undeterred by the Senate’s recent dismissal of the Green New Deal, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) recently accepted Congressional Coal Caucus member Rep. Andy Barr’s (R-Kentucky) invitation to tour a coal mine in his district and meet with mine workers and voters in Appalachia to talk about how they could benefit from the resolution’s “just transition.”

That transition, as laid out in Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s plan, would include a federal jobs guarantee for U.S. workers. This includes former fossil fuel sector workers as they transition to build the infrastructure needed to shift the country to 100 percent renewable energy within 10 years.

Even as many of the resolution’s proponents are now turning their focus away from passing the Green New Deal on the heels of March’s procedural vote in the Senate, climate change legislation remains a priority for the Democratic Party. The resolution’s supporters are now looking at multiple bills in hopes of advancing standalone elements of the broader initiative as grassroots groups like the Sunrise Movement continue efforts to build support for the plan.

But what exactly would a Green New Deal or another piece of climate chance legislation focused on transitioning to renewables mean for the Kentucky coal workers Ocasio-Cortez is set to meet?

The plan backs union jobs and outlines commitments to “wage and benefit parity for workers” affected by the energy transition. The resolution also supports collective bargaining rights for workers while calling for “trade rules, procurement standards, and border adjustments” with strong labor protections.

Still, labor leaders like those on the AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee remain skeptical of the resolution’s call for a just transition. The Energy Committee sent an open letter to the resolution’s authors, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Ocasio-Cortez, blasting the resolution last month. “We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered,” wrote Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

The March 8 letter comes on the heels of a February letter sent to the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey), and its ranking member, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon), outlining the “grave concerns about unrealistic solutions such as those advocated in the ‘Green New Deal,’” by seven unions representing workers in the building industry.

The strongest support for the plan has come from the joint executive board of the 163,000-member East Coast property service union, 32BJ SEIU, which passed its own resolution in February in support of the Green New Deal. Union President Héctor Figueroa recently condemned the Senate’s procedural vote to reject the plan, saying in a statement that, “Creating good jobs in this exciting new industry is as doable as it is necessary, but only if we work together in unity rather than giving into Washington’s divisive tactics.”

Rank-and-File Support Is Key

But even while national leadership among unions like the IBEW and others have shown an early reluctance toward such legislation, leaders at the local level are working to build support for the plan among their membership in hopes of pushing their unions in the right direction.

Dave Campbell, treasurer-secretary of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 675 in Los Angeles, whose membership largely works in oil production and refining, told Truthout he is working through legitimate critiques that have been raised by the local’s members whose livelihoods would be impacted by a transition to green jobs. “The thought of losing their jobs is so horrifying to them that they can’t even wrap their head around it,” he said.

While USW has not taken a position on the Green New Deal at the national level, Campbell, who is on union leave from Chevron, has worked to build support among his local’s membership by engaging with leaders of the union’s NextGen program, which works to educate the union’s youth members. In fact, his local’s executive board even recently passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal that was adopted last month by the second-largest Central Labor Council in the country, the AFL-CIO’s LA County Federation of Labor.

How environmentalists and Green New Deal proponents respond to workers’ concerns, Campbell says, is paramount in building the critical mass of support from labor needed to move forward on any comprehensive climate legislation.

Among those concerns is whether such workers will continue to be paid what they’re currently earning and maintain comparable benefits. Further, some workers have expressed skepticism about renewable jobs, saying renewable energy firms have been less gracious than the oil and gas sector on wages. Their criticism “is right on the money,” Campbell says, “But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to enact a Green New Deal that holds up the concepts of just transition for workers and the community.”

Campbell invited members of the local’s NextGen committee to attend a convergence in LA being put on by the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS), which trains environmentalists in how to effectively engage with the labor movement. LNS is currently in dialogue with some of the AFL-CIO Energy Committee unions like the IBEW that authored last month’s letter.

LNS Founding President Joe Uehlein tells Truthout that these unions can’t be “pushed” on this issue. Instead, he says, it’s much more crucial that rank-and-file members engage with leadership in such a way as to make clear that a just transition is in their own self-interest. The real job killer, according to Uehlein, isn’t the Green New Deal — it’s climate change itself.

Further, he adds that, “all these good fossil fuel jobs did not start as ‘good’ jobs. No job does. So there’s a certain level of disingenuousness to say, ‘Well, those renewable energy jobs don’t pay as much.’” The Green New Deal’s federal jobs guarantee, he says, “is the best way to tighten labor markets, which then forces wages and benefits up because companies are competing to get the best workers. That allows unions then to do their core function the best, which is negotiate good contracts that ripple through the economy.”

LNS Executive Director Michael Guerrero also stresses that the IBEW is a good example of a nationally reticent union that, at the local level, has gotten out in front of the issue in places like California, where some locals have developed apprenticeship and training programs “that have shown that it’s possible to actually do this work” with prevailing wages and benefits.

“So models are already there, where unions are taking the lead on a transition that works for workers in these industries,” Guerrero says. “That’s what it’s going to take: It’s going to take the unions stepping up and organizing in these industries to strengthen them, and if the Green New Deal can create the political space for that to happen, than I think it helps everybody.”

But if labor doesn’t get on board and play a leadership role soon, he says, then some unions are going to be left behind as policies are shaped without them. “This is an all-in moment,” he stresses.

Likewise, Uehlein adds that it’s workers who must make sure that the resolution recognizes collective and non-collective bargaining forms of worker representation. “It needs to have things in it that unions would look at and see that as a path to the future for them,” he says.

A Green New Rural Electrification Administration?

The New York City-based Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is another organization currently in dialogue with a number of unions about the Green New Deal’s objectives. TUED Director Sean Sweeney says it’s just a matter of separating the good-faith criticisms of progressive labor unions from those of energy-sector unions looking to position themselves to benefit from the Trump administration’s energy export agenda.

These unions — such as the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which support the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, for instance — can’t be won over. Meanwhile, progressive unions with earnest concerns are looking dig in to the resolution’s promises a bit more programmatically to determine what’s actually possible at this stage. “Those unions tend to like what AOC is saying; they like the new Democrats coming through, and they’re in constructive conversations with them,” Sweeney says.

For him, the more important question is whether the renewable energy sector and, potentially, emerging carbon-capture technology, will come under public control. He points to the original New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration (REA), which Congress backed in 1936 by passing legislation that provided federal loans to member-owned cooperative electric companies to power the country’s rural areas.

The privatized renewable energy sector, Sweeney says, has completely failed to survive without subsidies, and has only recently become cost effective, in part, because of cheap imports of materials from China and a reliance on non-union labor. “Emissions reductions are a public good. That means everybody should contribute to it because everybody will benefit, and if we’re trying to find some way to make money out of it then it’s a neoliberal approach that can’t solve the problem.”

Sweeney says Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1935 REA represents the type of “means of implementation” that public transport, construction and electricity unions working in the energy sector would understand. Instead of heading in this direction, he says, “too many people in the environmental movement believe that carbon pricing is a good idea,” even though it does not reduce emissions or change investment practices, and passes carbon prices “downstream to consumers.”

Indeed, organizations like the BlueGreen Alliance — which partners unions like USW with environmental groups — backed a 2009 cap-and-trade bill, but still has not taken a position on the Green New Deal, recently denying Truthout’s request for comment. The organization’s hesitancy comes after the Laborer’s International Union quit the alliance in 2012 amid clashes over the Keystone XL pipeline.

“The environmental narrative has filled a gap for labor so the progressive unions have tended to support the environmental narrative, including the progressive-sounding ‘polluter-pays’ principle, but in fact it’s the ‘worker-pays’ principle,” Sweeney told Truthout.

Uehlein cautions, however, that bringing newly created jobs into the public sector could drive private-sector unions farther away. “I think it would create a different kind of a fight within organized labor than what we already have over what a Green New Deal is.”

Further, publicly reticent energy-sector unions are backing emerging technologies for capturing carbon from the atmosphere, which the Green New Deal resolution doesn’t explicitly rule out of its 10-year plan.

While the fossil fuel industry and its energy-sector unions may be eyeing carbon capture as critical to their ability to continue polluting in the future, scientific evidence is mounting that large-scale implementation of such technology may be necessary for reducing emissions globally.

“Unions can call for carbon capture, but I think it’s a ritualistic call, because unless the economic problems and the problems of storage are solved, it’s a non-starter,” Sweeney says. “It becomes an environmental policy [for unions] because they don’t have one. They can’t just say, ‘Well, carry on burning coal.’”

Still, such technology, developed to scale, would necessitate publicly controlled infrastructure in any case, argues Uehlein, because it’s not likely that it could become cost competitive so quickly. “It’s kind of like when the unions say, ‘the Green New Deal is unrealistic,’ I would say carbon capture and sequestration is equally unrealistic, so if we’re going to choose our ‘unrealistic’ paths, I’d go with the Green New Deal,” Uehlein says.

The Sunrise Movement — which largely touched off support for the resolution after young members occupied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in November — is continuing to build support for the resolution with its #road2GND tour. Beginning this month, activists will hold more than 100 town halls across the U.S. ahead of the 2020 election.

“The labor movement, unless it changes, dramatically, quickly, is going to alienate an entire generation of young people who will be going to work someday. That’s I think just a tragic mistake for organized labor to make,” Uehlein says.

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