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The Green New Deal is fracturing a critical base for Democrats: unions

National labor leaders oppose the Green New Deal but some state unions endorse it. That’s a challenge for presidential contenders.

A solar photovoltaic array on top of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 332 union hall in San Jose, California. Some labor unions have recently come out against aggressive clean energy proposals like the Green New Deal, while others
A solar photovoltaic array on top of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 332 union hall in San Jose, California.
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

As a statement of principles and goals, the Green New Deal seems to take economic justice and workers’ rights pretty seriously. It calls for a federal jobs guarantee. It says we need workforce retraining, strengthening collective bargaining rights, retirement security, and universal health care.

The resolution decries “antilabor policies” and says it must be fleshed out with input from “frontline and vulnerable communities, labor unions, [and] worker cooperatives,” with the goal of creating “high-quality union jobs.”

Which is why it was so surprising that the leader of the national AFL-CIO — the largest federation of labor unions in the United States, representing more than 12.5 million workers — recently came out against the proposal.

“We weren’t part of the process, so the worker’s interest wasn’t really figured into it,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said in April. “We would want a whole bunch of changes made so that workers and our jobs are protected in the process.”

(Disclosure: I was on the bargaining committee of the Vox Media Union. We organized with Writers Guild of America, East, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO.)

But this week, Maine Gov. Janet Mills signed her state’s version of a Green New Deal with the backing of labor unions.

It’s the latest example of how the transition to a cleaner economy is becoming a growing tension point for the labor movement. Some labor activists are strongly backing aggressive climate policies, and there is growing union support for clean energy in some states like Maine. Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, called the Green New Deal “the moonshot of our time.”

But the fact that Trumka has been so publicly skeptical shows some unions think that an abrupt turn away from fossil fuels will leave workers behind, despite the Green New Deal’s efforts to prevent it.

This divide in labor is likely to flare up for the Democrats running for president. They will have to find a way to coax an energized movement that is demanding robust action on climate change alongside a core Democratic contingent that may be hesitant about such drastic changes.

Some Democratic White House contenders have taken this to heart. Already former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) have put out comprehensive climate change policies with specifically calling for collaboration with organized labor.

So the key questions to answer are why some labor groups are opposed to the Green New Deal, and what it would take to bring them on board. The state-level decarbonization bills like the one from Maine could prove instructive.

The Green New Deal was written with labor in mind

The Green New Deal resolution proposed by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) set out to blend environmental ambitions with social justice goals.

It calls for a steep drop in greenhouse gas emissions by curbing the use of fossil fuels and switching to cleaner energy. In the process, the resolution aims to cushion the blow of a rapid economy-wide lurch with “a fair and just transition for all communities and workers.”

For workers in fossil fuels who would lose their jobs, this would entail retraining workers who’ve lost their jobs and making sure they remain paid at comparable levels. Under the language of the resolution, unions would be the engine for this transition.

The aim was to secure buy-in from labor unions, including those most likely to be impacted by the move toward cleaner energy.

But some labor groups are upset they weren’t at the table

In a March letter to Sen. Markey and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, members of the AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee said the Green New Deal was too vague, but also said that it would hurt its members:

We welcome the call for labor rights and dialogue with labor, but the Green New Deal resolution is far too short on specific solutions that speak to the jobs of our members and the critical sectors of our economy. It is not rooted in an engineering-based approach and makes promises that are not achievable or realistic.

We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families. We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered.

The letter was signed by Cecil Roberts, the international president of the United Mine Workers of America, and by Lonnie Stephenson, the international president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

IBEW declined to comment beyond the letter. Phil Smith, director of communications at the UMWA, said that while some union representatives may have been involved in drafting the resolution, energy unions were not at the table.

“The nature of the proposal itself would lead to the loss of every job associated with coal-fired power and very quick loss of jobs for power generated by natural gas,” Smith said. “We felt like if you are going to do something that represents energy workers, you should talk to energy unions.”

He acknowledged that there have been subsequent conversations between energy unions and groups promoting the Green New Deal, like the Sunrise Movement. However, UMWA would have liked to have seen stronger language in the resolution about technology, namely carbon capture and sequestration. Such technology aims to allow for the continued use of coal, but with less of the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.

Some unions don’t think that the Green New Deal can pull off its pro-union agenda. But others are optimistic.

The UMWA and other energy unions are skeptical that the Green New Deal builds a bridge sturdy enough to carry workers over to a future with cleaner energy. While there’s language about a jobs guarantee, there is no mechanism in the resolution to fund those jobs nor any specifics about how much they will pay, where they will be, and what benefits will be provided. The average starting salary for a coal mine worker is $60,000, while the average salary for a solar installer is $53,000, so for some workers, a straight switch would be a downgrade.

Filling in the gaps to ensure no one is left at a loss would be an unprecedented endeavor in US history and would demand a vast amount of political capital that may not ever materialize.

“The whole notion of a ‘just transition’ for workers simply does not exist,” Smith said. “There never has been an example of a just transition in this country.”

This pushback from unions over the prospect of a massive shift away from coal, oil, and natural gas toward renewables and cleaner energy sources is making it harder for Democrats to build up a base of support on climate change. But it’s also important to remember is that union members are not uniformly Democrats. About 37 percent of union members voted for Donald Trump in the last presidential election.

And not every labor organization is against the Green New Deal.

Joe Uehlein, president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, said its federal job guarantee provision has been a longstanding goal for unions and marks one of the biggest organizing opportunities for labor since the original New Deal.

“Frankly, I’m a little confused why national labor leaders felt the need to speak out against it,” said Uehlein, who was a former director of the AFL-CIO Center for Strategic Campaigns. “I’m not sure any of them read it.”

The clean energy sector is not as unionized as fossil fuels, but that’s changing

The UMWA, the Utility Workers Union of America, and North America’s Building Trades Union are well-established organizations with large segments of their memberships employed in coal, oil, and natural gas. According to a 2017 report from the US Department of Energy, the coal power generation sector is 9.3 percent unionized. Natural gas power workers have a union membership rate of 13.2 percent. Oil power generation is at 3.2 percent.

But for solar photovoltaic workers, the rate is 3.4 percent. For wind, 4 percent; hydropower, 6 percent. Workers in energy efficiency — like HVAC, lighting, and insulation installers — are 14 percent unionized.

So even though unionization has been declining for decades and clean energy jobs are among the fastest-growing in the United States, fossil fuels have a louder voice within the labor movement for now.

Nonetheless, some unions have already taken the initiative in preparing for the shift to cleaner energy. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, for example, already operates one of the best clean energy job training and apprenticeship programs in the country, according to Uehlein.

There’s also a push for more union organizing in clean energy. Workers at a Tesla solar panel plant in Buffalo, New York, launched an organizing campaign late last year.

But Tesla, like many other Silicon Valley companies investing in clean energy, is notoriously anti-union. Many labor practices in clean energy, like forcing solar installers to register as independent contractors, also hamper organizing. The fact that so many of the new companies aiming to fight climate change are led by entrepreneurs hostile to collective bargaining is a major obstacle to bringing unions on board.

So if climate change campaigners want to make inroads with labor and get backing for plans like the Green New Deal, they have to pressure clean-tech leaders on their opposition to collective bargaining. “The environmentalists need to call them out on this question,” Uehlein said.

Maine managed to bring labor on board with its version of the Green New Deal, but the proposal was watered down

One state has found a formula for a clean energy transition that has gained the support of labor unions.

In April, the Maine AFL-CIO endorsed “An Act To Establish a Green New Deal for Maine” introduced by Democratic state Rep. Chloe Maxmin. The organization represents more than 40,000 workers and is the first state labor organization to back a bill with “Green New Deal” branding.

The Maine Green New Deal originally called for the state to generate 80 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2040, though this target was dropped in the version signed into law on June 17. The final version included language that requires the Efficiency Maine Trust to help install solar panels and facilitate efficiency upgrades for schools. It also contains provisions for clean energy workforce development.

While its ambitions were tempered, Maine’s Green New Deal is laying the foundation for a more comprehensive climate change bill. In April, Maine Gov. Mills announced a climate change bill that directs the state to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 and generate all of its power from renewables by 2050.

“What we’ve done in Maine is not rocket science. It’s not radical policy,” said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO. “It’s good policy.”

Part of the reason for this support is that labor groups were closely involved in drafting the Maine Green New Deal from the outset. Unions managed to secure language that would require a growing percentage of the workforce for energy projects be registered apprentices, for example. “Registered apprenticeship is one of the best tools out there to build a trained workforce and try to ensure that workers, as they gain more skills, get better pay and benefits,” Schlobohm said.

The task force overseeing the implementation of the Maine Green New Deal would also have creating and retaining good-paying union jobs as part of its mandate, as well as protecting collective bargaining rights.

Schlobohm said that there will definitely be members of the union that will be adversely affected by a shift to cleaner energy. That makes all the guardrails and safety nets built into the Maine bill all the more important to strengthen. And even without a Green New Deal, the state is moving toward more clean energy on its own, but without the mechanisms to ensure that no one is left jobless or worse off.

“We know that the energy transition is coming,” Schlobohm said. “It either happens to us, or with us, and we think ‘with us’ is a much better process.”

However, part of the reason Maine labor groups backed their Green New Deal is the state is most of the way there. There are no fossil energy reserves in Maine, and the state already gets three-quarters of its electricity from renewables.

Schlobohm said he nonetheless thinks other states can follow Maine’s model and tailor their Green New Deal-like proposals to better address local labor concerns.

Other states like Washington are also drawing support from labor organizations for their clean energy proposals. New York commissioned a report from Cornell University in 2016 that recommended that the state pursue its own aggressive decarbonization target coupled to a jobs program modeled on the New Deal. But the biggest test case might be in California, where Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is weighing whether or not to end new fossil fuel development. It’s a move that would leave no future for the state’s oil and gas industry, so it’s worth watching to see what Newsom might do to build support to pull it off.

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