A recent United Nations report alerted us that in order to avoid the most catastrophic and permanent impacts of climate change, global greenhouse gas emissions must begin falling by 7.6 percent each year, starting next year, 2020. Is it possible to realize this dramatic reversal while centering workers’ rights and good jobs and ensuring that no one is left behind?

This was the proposition posed to a panel of experts at an event on December 3, 2019, hosted by The Century Foundation’s Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative and co-sponsored by Data for Progress. Jeff Madrick, director of the Rediscovering Government Initiative, kicked off the event with fitting context for the conversation. Since the 1970s, he said, a pervasive anti-government ideology has led to the abandonment of the government’s role in providing opportunity and public goods. There have been especially perverse impacts on workers and the poor, he said, and climate change is another big challenge to good jobs, fairness, and gender and racial equality. 

Accordingly, government is and will increasingly be a necessary institutional force driving the fight against climate change—a fight that will require a massive mobilization of resources, not least including policies and programs that will support workers. 

Green Economy Narratives

The panel, moderated by Alexander Kaufman, a senior reporter at the Huffington Post, kicked off with compelling examples of how workers across the country shape and inform the green economy and its potential. For example, in New York City, Allison Ziogas, a journeywoman electrician and member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 who leads green energy deployment projects, helped build P.S. 62 R, the first net-zero energy school in the city, in Staten Island. The school generates as much energy as it uses in a year, and was built entirely by union labor—and in no small part by technicians like Allison, who has had the opportunity to engage in training and apprenticeship programs related to clean technology. This is an example of why a healthy environment and good jobs don’t have to be mutually exclusive: there can be both when the terms are coordinated between all stakeholders, including labor. The project was also publicly funded, not only ensuring adequate resources for good wages but also giving leverage to unions to demand quality jobs through project–labor agreements. 

Another example of the necessity of government resources and programs in supporting a just transition came from Julian Noisecat, director of Green New Deal Strategy at Data for Progress. While the transition will be a massive effort, there are reasons to believe it’s well within reach. Julian told a story of Alan Jealous, who, after devastating floods in South Dakota earlier this year, scraped together state and federal funds to start a construction cooperative to build homes for those who had lost them. If Alan could build this company in the midst of an immediate environmental crisis, in one of the poorest communities in the industrialized world, Julian said, there’s no reason why there can’t be programs like it across the nation. 

Panelists at Workers’ Rights in an Era of Climate Crisis event held at The Century Foundation. Source: The Century Foundation

But as Madrick said in his opening remarks, beyond the government’s role as a provider of capital for infrastructure, like schools and housing, it should also provide widespread access to opportunity and good jobs. Ensuring that the needs of workers are front and center in the fight against climate change is the founding mission of Blue Green Alliance (BGA), a coalition of environmental and labor organizations started by the Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers. 

Jason Walsh, executive director of BGA, presented the organization’s Solidarity for Climate Action plan, which was written in collaboration between all of its partners, and was informed by extensive first-hand research in the members’ cities and states—many of which had voted for Trump in the 2016 election. “These voters,” Walsh said, “believe that climate change is real, and want to see action on climate, on clean air and clean water.” However, he said, “at the same time, they don’t want solutions to be the expense of their jobs. They are extremely concerned about their day-to-day economic conditions … Our message is that we don’t have to choose between good jobs and a clean environment, we can have both, and have to have both.”

Notably, the plan includes reaching net zero emissions economy-wide by 2050, which was difficult, but still entirely possible, for unions like the Steelworkers (into which the oil workers have merged), to sign onto. The plan would also ensure that jobs in renewable energy and energy efficiency are good jobs, characterized by, as Walsh put it, “mandatory labor standards that include prevailing wages, safety and health protections, project labor agreements, community benefit agreements, local hire, and other provisions and practices that prioritize improving training, working conditions, and project benefits.”

Toward a Vision of a Sustainable Economy

This constellation of narratives about an indigenous post-disaster home builder in South Dakota, a zero-emissions school in New York City, and the efforts of environmentalists and unions truly working together illustrates the diversity of the green economy and of workers’ experiences within it.

One big takeaway from this discussion, and the subject of a recent Century Foundation and Data for Progress report, is that a unified vision of green jobs would make policymaking for a green transition a much easier process, and also a more equitable one. Green jobs, according to the report, should be defined as those that support the pursuit of environmental and social sustainability, and that do not work counter to those goals, including low-carbon, socially necessary work like care work. And in order for jobs to be economically sustainable, they need to provide living wages and benefits. At the same time, a just transition, according to the report, must include support for workers displaced from high-carbon jobs, but also investment in low-carbon work. 

Reframing the green jobs conversation toward a vision of a sustainable economy would go a long way toward investing in social infrastructure that is not limited to roads and bridges, but extends to our community and child care centers, schools, and the people who will care for one another throughout the climate crisis. Educators are responsible for teaching the nation’s youth (a potential climate change mitigation strategy), and care workers, including home care and health care workers, are first responders to natural disasters (crucial roles in climate change adaptation). Building the capacity of, and investing in, these low-carbon workers will improve resilience and provide alternatives to work in higher-carbon sectors. Creating millions of good green jobs that does not include these workers and their kind of work—a majority of which are women, and women of color in particular—could relegate them to the sidelines of yet another major, historic mobilization of resources, like many of them were during, and since, the original New Deal. 

Moving Forward

A few weeks ago, when a solar company in New York State laid off all its construction workers for trying to form a union, the climate movement made the layoffs national news and demanded the workers be rehired. Their message was clear: without strong labor protections, there might be an energy transition, but it will not be just, and therefore it won’t be sustainable. Also in New York, union-led coalitions have won some of the most progressive and ambitious climate policy in the country. In many ways, the strength of the climate movement is tied directly to the strength of the labor movement: without strong workers’ rights and protections, it will be highly unlikely that a green transition will be as aggressive and wide-reaching as needed, in the time we have.

Without strong workers’ rights and protections, it will be highly unlikely that a green transition will be as aggressive and wide-reaching as needed, in the time we have.

The policies discussed in this December event represent crucial components of a just transition—from prevailing wages and project labor agreements, to lifting up the care economy, to fundamental labor law reform through policies like the PRO Act. Incorporating them into climate policy would go a long way toward lifting workers’ voices and building consensus in what has historically been a divisive fight for climate justice.