A Good Working Environment

Not since the Great Depression has the plight of American workers been held in such urgent regard by Americans in general and by their government in particular. And never before has so much taxpayer money been directed at creating jobs that also protect and repair the environment.

The current economic crisis and the unprecedented federal response may solidify the sometimes uneasy relationship between the labor and environmental movements, potentially creating a new political force with intersecting interests. Years in the political wilderness, along with the crush of the collapsing economy, have created a conciliatory mood on the left that is making coalition-building easier.

Today, Vice President Joe Biden will be in Philadelphia touting the administration's green-jobs program. One union organizer told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he is so eager for more of these jobs that he is no longer concerned if they are unionized.

"I'm not even preaching that they have to be union jobs here," said Patrick Eiding, who heads the Philadelphia Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO. "We'll worry about that later. My real concern is that we don't have any places for people to work."

Biden will highlight the work of The Energy Coordinating Agency, a Philadelphia nonprofit that will get about $900,000 of stimulus money to convert one floor of a former textile factory in the city's distressed Kensington section into an academy to teach green-jobs skills.

The president’s stimulus package contains almost $75 billion in grant and tax credits aimed at creating green jobs, and the budget the White House sent to Congress yesterday outlines even more spending on green jobs: $500 million for worker-training projects like the Philadelphia academy; $2.4 billion for carbon-capture programs, $5 billion for home weatherization, $20 billion in tax incentives for wind power; $30 billion for development of an electric smart grid and battery storage, and a whole lot more.

In the midst of this crisis, the environmental labor movement may be moving into a new golden age.

"It is a chance to rewrite the American economy again with a focus on the middle class," said Jeff Rickert, the new director of the AFL-CIO's Center for Green Jobs. And environmental protections are at the center of that revision.

Labor is particularly excited that almost all the job provisions in the stimulus package -- the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- are subject to Davis-Bacon prevailing-wage determinations, which require that workers on federally assisted construction contracts over $2,000 be paid the prevailing wage for the region in which the work is being performed. The Depression-era law is the chief mechanism that prevents employers from hiring cheap outside labor to avoid paying union wages.

The president's plan also extends Davis-Bacon determinations to most of the tax-incentive programs in the package, marking the first time Davis-Bacon has found a solid foothold in tax law.

Labor and environmentalists have been core elements of the progressive political coalition for more than a century, but that alliance has often been an uneasy one. Often the conflict has been the result of incompatible priorities in tough times. At other times, it has taken on the flavor of a class struggle, with working-class interests clashing with middle-class priorities. But a generation of hostile conservative rule, from Reagan to Bush, has forced both sides to rise above their differences. The last eight years of the Bush administration were particularly frustrating. The Bush administration was notoriously ambivalent about the perils of climate change and consistently sided with employers over workers.

Having depended so heavily on labor for his success at the polls, Barack Obama is as labor-friendly as one might expect. After some early questions about whether he would stiff-arm labor to affirm his centrist credential, Obama has been unequivocally in labor's camp. His choice of Congresswoman Hilda Solis of California as labor secretary set off cheers in union halls all across the country. Solis, an eight-term House veteran, has been close to labor from her very first congressional run in 2008. She is the first Latina to head the Labor Department, and she has been hailed as a "committed environmentalist" by those in the movement. After her nomination, green-jobs guru Van Jones wrote, “The green jobs movement is jumping for joy not only because she's brown. It's because she's green.”

But it is the president's environmental hyperawareness that has the potential to radically change the dynamics of the debate. "He represents that spectrum of progressive politics at a time when focusing on the economy is the priority, and he understands the perils of our environmental situation," Rickert told me.

Obama sent an unmistakable signal that a new era had begun when, less than a week into his administration, he ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review a Bush administration directive preventing California from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles within the state.

The Bush administration EPA had refused California's request for a federal waiver allowing greenhouse gas regulation. If California gets its waiver, 13 other states may follow with similar requests. This week, The New York Times praised new EPA administrator Lisa Jackson for achieving an "astonishing turnaround" at the agency: "She has pledged to reverse or review three Bush administration directives that had slowed the government's response to global warming and has brought a new sense of urgency to an issue that President Bush treated indifferently."

The chief opponents to the California plan, of course, have been auto company executives, who recently came to Washington on bended knee and -- because so many jobs depend on their survival -- found a sympathetic ear in President Obama. "As for our auto industry, everyone recognizes that years of bad decision-making and a global recession have pushed our automakers to the brink," the president declared in his speech to Congress this week. "But we are committed to the goal of a re-tooled, re-imagined auto industry that can compete and win. Millions of jobs depend on it. Scores of communities depend on it. And I believe the nation that invented the automobile cannot walk away from it."

There was probably no greater tension between the environmental group and big labor than the feud between environmentalists and the autoworkers unions. But the president's stimulus package includes a $7,500 tax credit for the purchase of hybrid electric cars, which both sides are thrilled about, and the environmentalists have been quietly supportive of, or at least quiet about, the federal bailout of the Big Three automakers.

"We are looking for our platinum age now," Rickert said.