Todd E. Vachon Labor Education Action Research Network Rutgers AAUP-AFT and UAW Local 1981

Humankind is facing a climate emergency. Bold and immediate solutions are required to avert the worst impacts of climate change. We are also facing unprecedented levels of income and wealth inequality—often along the lines of race and gender—which threaten the very foundations of democratic governance. Previous attempts to address these two problems separately have often erupted in conflicts of “jobs vs. the environment” and ended with losses of both. From the struggles over old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest to oil pipeline projects in the heartland to natural gas fracking here in the Mid-Atlantic, it is abundantly clear that efforts to protect the environment which place the economic burden solely on workers are both unjust and likely doomed to fail in the court of public opinion.

Enter the Green New Deal (GND). In a resolution proposed last week, Representative Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Markey (D-MA) lay out a bold vision for how we can address the duel crises of climate change and runaway inequality. While slim on details at this nascent stage, the resolution portends the creation of millions of good, high-paying jobs. Through investments in infrastructure projects including the expansion of renewable energy technologies, clean vehicle infrastructure, mass transit, and energy efficiency programs for public and commercial buildings, the GND would simultaneously reduce our levels of harmful greenhouse gas emissions while creating job opportunities for out of work or under-employed workers. In a forthcoming report that I completed for the New Jersey Governor’s Task Force on the Future of Work, I outline the types of occupations that would experience growth from these sorts of investments in New Jersey. Suffice it to say, there are many.

To ensure that these new jobs are good jobs, the GND resolution calls for prevailing wage measures for construction projects, local hiring policies, jobs training programs, strong workplace health and safety enforcement, paid leave, vacation time, retirement security and the right to organize a union free from coercion and intimidation. Prevailing wage laws give law-abiding, in-state contractors a fair shot in the commercial bidding process while ensuring middle class wages and benefits for blue-collar construction workers in the state. Apprenticeships and training programs increase the overall human capital in the state while creating pathways to the middle class for workers with less than a college education. For generations, collective bargaining has helped to make what used to be bad jobs in the fossil fuels sector into some of the best paying blue collar jobs in the state. Together, these and other labor standards measures would help to break workers free from the inertia of wage stagnation that has plagued the U.S. economy since the 1970s.

Importantly, the GND resolution also outlines a variety of policy tools to ensure the green transition is fair for all workers, including those that have historically suffered rather than benefitted from the existing energy system as well as those that would face job displacement as a result of decarbonizing the economy. Climate change has exacerbated systemic social, environmental, and economic injustices by disproportionately affecting communities of color, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, and the elderly. All realistic solutions to climate change will inevitably involve the reduction of jobs in the fossil fuel sector. The GND seeks to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers.

Perhaps the most important line in the resolution appears on page 10 and reads: “A Green New Deal must be developed through transparent and inclusive consultation, collaboration, and partnership with frontline and vulnerable communities, labor unions, worker cooperatives, civil society groups, academia, and businesses.” In my own research, I have found that unionized workers are more likely to support environmental measures than the general population in the U.S. and that when unions are strong and have a voice in policy formation, they help to expedite the transition toward sustainability. This past November, more than 90 labor leaders from the northeast convened at the Labor Education Center at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, organized by the Labor Network for Sustainability, to build cooperation and inspire local unions and activists to engage with climate justice organizations and activists in their own communities and to begin developing a plan to simultaneously address climate change and gross levels of inequality. The GND could serve as a vehicle for these efforts.

Ensuring a seat at the table for those that are most negatively impacted by climate change as well as for those who may be harmed by the policies required to address climate change is the right and just thing to do. It is also a prerequisite for building the broad base of support that is needed to develop and implement the climate policies that are needed to save us from ourselves. The Green New Deal creates a unique opportunity to have those conversations and forge those alliances, which makes it a good deal for workers in New Jersey and across the U.S.

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