We attended the third annual Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference in Washington, DC, May 4-6, organized by the Blue Green Alliance, a “national, strategic partnership between labor unions and environmental organizations dedicated to expanding the number and quality of jobs in the green economy.” The scientific case for reducing carbon emissions underlies the clean energy and climate legislation now under consideration, but it was in the background at the conference, which was attended by thousands of participants. In his speech Senator John Kerry acknowledged the course we’re on today will lead to “catastrophic” climate change. But he said of the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act bill released May 12: “This bill is above all a jobs bill…. this revolution we’re talking about is above all a jobs revolution.”

Post by Alexa Jay

The conference culminated in the Green Jobs Advocacy Day, which brought hundreds of advocates to the Hill to lobby their members of Congress for action on comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation, chemicals reform, OSHA reform, and investments in transportation. 

Founded in 2006 by the United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club, the Blue Green Alliance has grown to include the Communications Workers of America (CWA), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), and the Sheet Metal Workers’ International Association, for a total of more than eight and a half million members.

The Blue Green Alliance is working to:

•  Pass comprehensive clean energy and climate change legislation that is based on two overriding principles – the best scientific advice on reduction targets and solutions that create and save millions of American jobs;

•  Restore the rights of workers in the United States to organize and bargain collectively;

•  Establish a 21st Century trade policy that promotes growth and prosperity across all sectors of global society, and embeds enforceable labor, environmental, and human rights standards in our trade agreements; and

•  Create an informed 21st century policy on toxic chemicals that protects workers and communities from dangerous chemicals, enhances public health and promotes safer alternatives.

The Blue Green Alliance and similar coalitions represent a convergence of labor and environmental interests around the push to incentivize the growth of a clean energy economy.  The relationship between labor and the environmental movement has a rocky history, with clashes in the 1980s and ‘90s around logging, industrial emissions, and auto-efficiency standards , but in recent years a constituency has emerged around the fight for clean energy jobs, with corporate accountability a key point of convergence. 

There are many factors in play in this movement: the decline of American manufacturing and the American middle-class, grinding unemployment wrought by the economic crisis, and acute concern about the effect of fossil fuel use on the climate, environment, public health, and national security.

Leo Gerard, current International President of the United Steelworkers, has played a key role in assembling a coalition around clean energy jobs.  Under his leadership, the Steelworkers became the chief union backer of the Apollo Alliance, a labor-business-environmental-community leadership coalition formed in the wake of 9/11 to promote robust investments that would spur a clean energy revolution and provide a new generation. 

Gerard views the green jobs movement through the lens of corporate accountability, responding to the “double challenge of disappearing middle-income jobs and the advent of global warming by linking the two causes.”
At the conference, Gerard said we must reject the false choice between good jobs and a clean environment—we will either have both or we will have neither. 

For the creation of green jobs to be sustainable and meaningful to working people, they must be safe, provide a living wage, and offer fair benefits, and union members are in a better position to fight for high-quality jobs, according to  the Blue Green Alliance.  They argue that “unions historically have been strong and effective advocates for policies that support the industries in which their members work.  A highly unionized green economy will provide high-road jobs and a skilled, organized workforce that will play a dynamic role in supporting the continued transformation of our economy as we push for global warming solutions in the decades ahead.” 

Labor union support and participation in the creation of comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation may stand the best chance at countering the narrative that comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation would be a “job killer,” one that has been used by business interests in the past to pit environmentalists and laborers against one another.  It is currently a chief argument used by opponents of comprehensive legislation, despite multiple independent analyses of the legislative proposals to date projecting net job creation. 

Senator John Kerry’s speech reflected the political craftsmanship that went into the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act, released yesterday in discussion draft form: the attempt to bring key business interests on board with calculated compromises, put its job creation and consumer protection elements front and center, and ultimately, win the few Republican votes needed to get to 60.
“This bill is above all a jobs bill,” Kerry said.  “Now I know climate is an issue out there, and I’m not going to run away from it and pretend that it isn’t.  You know, twenty nations got together in Italy last year they all decided together that we’ve got to keep the Earth’s temperature from rising above 2 degrees Centigrade.  That’s the decision they made…The fact is, on the course we are today, we’re going to rise somewhere between 7 and 9 degrees and it’s catastrophic.  And on the course we are today we’re not going to keep our emissions at a level where we won’t see that increase, because scientists tell us you’ve got to keep it at 350 to 450, and we’re going up to 600 to 900, right now.  Even with the best proposals that are on the table.  Now that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Because the truth is, this revolution we’re talking about is above all a jobs revolution.”

The scientific case for reducing carbon emissions underlies the policy proposals on the table today, but it was in the background at the conference.  For better or for worse, these cues have been taken up by the Democratic leadership in their attempt to develop a broad base of support for comprehensive legislation. 

Additional labor-environmental resources:

Labor Network for Sustainability
Apollo Alliance