Labor Champions a New Deal—with a Clean Environment and Good Jobs

Michael Nigro/Sipa via AP Images

Unions like the United Steelworkers have been working with environmental groups for a green new deal for more than a decade. Here, thousands of students march for climate action during a worldwide student strike in New York City. 

Seven years ago, in Richmond, California, a massive fire at a Chevron oil refinery raged for more than five hours, spewing a black cloud of toxic smoke for miles over the Bay Area community. Hospitals treated more than 15,000 residents suffering nausea, difficulty breathing, and raw throats.

Afterward, the United Steelworkers (USW) union, which represents workers at the refinery, joined environmental organizations and community groups to demand change. Ultimately, the coalition won local ordinances and state law strengthening workplace and environmental safety.

That is what the USW is about. That is what organized labor is about. Labor unions fight to protect workers, their children, their families, and their communities. Chevron exposed USW members to the threat of immediate death by fire. The workers were damn lucky to escape with minor injuries. Chevron also exposed the entire Richmond community to noxious smoke, sickening thousands, including the spouses, children, and neighbors of refinery workers. The USW upholds its responsibility to safeguard its communities. That includes the environment. And industrial unions have shouldered this duty for decades.

The USW has long been a leader in pushing for comprehensive energy and climate policies that will create good jobs for American workers. Thirty years ago, it created a task force to report on the state of the environment. In that 1990 report, “Our Children’s World, Steelworkers and the Environment,” the task force wrote, “We believe the greatest threat to our children’s future may lie in the destruction of their environment.” It rejected the canard that black smoke billowing from industrial stacks is essential to good jobs. In fact, that report and its sister document released in 2005 titled “Securing Our Children’s World” said that maintaining a decent environment safeguards jobs.

The USW also helped create alliances between union members and environmental activists, united in a commitment to good jobs and a clean environment, including the National Clean Air Coalition, the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, the Apollo Alliance for Good Jobs and Clean Energy, as well as dozens of regional and local coalitions.

The USW partnered with the Sierra Club in 2006 to create the BlueGreen Alliance (BGA). Its mission is to promote good jobs in a cleaner economy. The coalition now includes 14 of the nation’s largest labor unions and most influential environmental organizations.

BGA has worked toward a green new deal for more than a decade. We didn’t call it that. But we share with the originators of the official Green New Deal a vision of an American economy that creates high-quality union jobs while also ensuring safe, healthy, and environmentally friendly workplaces and communities.

The USW supported the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and climate bills including the Waxman-Markey bill in 2009. We support net-zero emissions, with policies like carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), industrial energy efficiency, and investment in additional carbon sinks offsetting emissions that are unavoidable in the necessary manufacture of primary commodities such as metals, cement, and paper.

At the USW’s most recent Constitutional Convention, the delegates passed a resolution on economic and environmental sustainability pledging to embrace “balanced approaches to address climate change that assure diverse, abundant, affordable energy supplies, create and maintain family-sustaining jobs, and advance our societies toward energy independence, while preventing the loss of manufacturing jobs.”

That resolution contains this cautionary statement, however: Any policies to address climate change must contain a border measure or other trade mechanism, along with transition assistance for U.S. industries. This would enable U.S. corporations that do the right thing and abide by strict environmental standards to remain globally competitive, even with countries that don’t enforce pollution laws.

In addition, the USW has aggressively demanded that climate policies include strong trade measures to ensure American jobs in energy-intensive and trade-exposed industries are not decimated by U.S. corporations evading pollution-control regulations by shipping factories to countries that ignore pollution.

Organized labor stated its green positions in a letter last month from the AFL-CIO to the main congressional sponsors of the nonbinding Green New Deal resolution, Senator Edward Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “America’s labor unions agree that climate change must be addressed, and we agree on the need to invest in the development and deployment of technologies like solar, wind, nuclear, hydro-electric, carbon capture and utilization, battery storage, and high-speed rail that limit or eliminate carbon emissions,” the letter says.

Right. But getting there is an issue. The letter from the AFL-CIO contains a warning: “We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families.”

Let me just repeat: Labor leaders bear an obligation to protect their members. Some USW members work at oil refineries in good, family-supporting jobs that enable them to buy homes and help their kids pay college tuition. It is arrogant and unacceptable for out-of-touch policy wonks to suggest that they simply retrain to become non-union rooftop solar panel installers at $19 an hour with no benefits, and that their communities simply swallow the resultant loss in tax revenue and commerce. That’s no kind of “just” transition.

The details of climate policy matter. The Green New Deal resolution was big on goals but short on specifics. Negotiating any comprehensive climate legislation requires caution, thought, and broad stakeholder engagement to ensure it protects the planet and the economy, because millions of hard-working Americans’ livelihoods are at stake.

Organized labor believes that environmental issues must be addressed quickly, but it must be done in ways that include all workers, families, and communities. “Cleaner,” “greener” corporations should not grow at the expense of American workers, their families, and their communities. We need a future in which workers in environmentally sustaining jobs earn good, family-supporting wages. For that to occur, workers need to be able to organize and collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions more easily.

Right now, the USW and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) are helping workers at the Tesla solar panel factory in Buffalo, New York, form a union. The facility stands on the site of a former USW-represented Republic Steel mill, and the area has a long tradition of unionization. The state gave Tesla $750 million in subsidies, and workers there say they are excited to be engaged in a sector they see as the future. But they also say they want a union so they can guarantee that these green-energy jobs are good, family-sustaining jobs.

However, since 1945, right-wing politicians have given corporations tools that have made it increasingly difficult for workers who want a union to get one. Clean-technology corporations don’t have clean hands in this regard. These new industries consistently use union-avoidance tactics to intimidate and prevent workers from exercising their rights to organize and collectively bargain. Tesla is no exception. It has been fighting workers’ efforts to organize tooth and nail—in Buffalo and at other Tesla manufacturing sites.

The USW has witnessed industry and government abandon too many workers and families. Bad trade is a major culprit. Crappy trade deals pushed and approved by Democrats and Republicans over the past several decades encouraged American manufacturers to ship factories south of the border or overseas where they could blithely pollute and pay workers slave wages. Corporations offshored factories that once sustained the nation’s entire industrial midsection.

Unionization and offshoring are the kinds of issues that must be discussed and dealt with in any comprehensive climate policy. Organized labor plans to ensure they are. Industry in the United States could be the cleanest in the world while treating its workers fairly. To accomplish that, we need climate policies that prevent offshoring of jobs and pollution, that reinforce workers’ rights, that invest in domestic industry, that build strong local economies, and that promote sensible science-based emissions reductions.

We believe corporations and Congress must do much more to prevent massive black clouds of refinery fire smoke as well as invisible carbon emissions from desecrating the Earth and endangering us all. That’s what organized labor has long supported and will push for now.

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