Climate change will directly affect most American workplaces not in some theoretical future but in the working lives of those now in the industry.  And their unions will be affected right along with them.  New Orleans was perhaps the most highly unionized city in the South.  But when Katrina hit, unions representing everyone from teachers to hospitality industry workers to municipal employees were decimated along with the industries and workers they represented.  The tourism industry, which represented more than a third of the city’s employment and one of its most unionized sectors, was virtually wiped out.  And even as the city has gradually recovered, union jobs have been eliminated and union representation terminated.

Add to that the economic side effects of climate change.  The British government’s Stern report on the economics of global warming predicted disruptions “on a scale similar to those associated with the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century.”  Surely organized labor has a self-interest in forestalling disruptions of that kind.

Green jobs

There’s one aspect of climate protection that labor has begun to embrace with alacrity: green jobs.  Many unions, Boilermakers and Sheetmetal workers, for example, are already gaining jobs from the expansion of solar and wind energy.  The opportunity for “green jobs” – and the election of a President who is actually working to create millions of green jobs – has jump-started labor’s positive involvement with climate protection.  Green jobs is where job growth is going to be.  Although there are a lot of reasons to be for solving the climate crisis, the fact that a lot of jobs are going to be created is at the heart of labor’s self-interest.

President Obama’s stimulus package will provide jobs that may become union jobs, and future initiatives for transportation, carbon reduction, and other “green” legislation may create additional jobs. Some unions have extensive training programs around the country, and Obama’s green job initiatives are likely to provide both students and funding.  Leo Gerard, president of the Steelworkers, cites a study showing that a $100 billion investment would create 2 million good new jobs. “We gave AIG $125 billion, and what did we get for it?” he asked. “If we had invested in the real economy, we’d have one million new jobs and be on the way to reducing our carbon footprint.”

We typically think of green jobs as solar installation or retrofitting buildings.  But if you extrapolate that out a little bit and you think about the aluminum and the glass that goes into a solar panel, there’s manufacturing jobs there as well.  That’s a self-interest angle for organized labor.

Green jobs involve the same kinds of work and skills as other jobs already widespread in the economy.  As Gerard put it, “A green job is any job that brings us toward the green economy.” The wind turbines being manufactured in the Midwest produce green jobs that are the same as traditional manufacturing jobs–steel, rebar, cement and assembly jobs.  Energy-efficient windows use the established skills of unemployed flat-glass workers.  Retrofitting public buildings and rebuilding the energy grid provide jobs that use the existing skills of construction workers, electricians, and others who are often union members.  Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Environment Program, says that there are already more jobs in renewable energy worldwide than in the oil and gas industries.

Greening existing jobs is also critical for preserving them.  One of the U.S. auto industry has taken a huge hit is that it failed embrace smaller cars and fuel efficiency – indeed, it fought them every step of the way.  Labor, unfortunately, went along.  And now we’re paying for it.  If the auto industry is going to be saved, it is going to be through a focus on environmentally sound automobiles.  Unions in other industries should take note.

Some union spokespeople have complained that climate protection will involve costs that will hurt jobs by making U.S. products less competitive internationally.  But in reality, we are likely to face a competitive disadvantage if we don’t address global warming.  As Steelworkers president Leo Gerard put it,

“The future of manufacturing in the global economy will belong to those nations who solve the problem of the world’s growing shortage of fossil fuels through energy efficiency technology and building redesign, mass transportation systems, and new forms of renewable energy.”

Labor can also play a critical role in determining the quality of the new green jobs.  “High Road or Low Road? Job Quality in the New Green Economy,” a recent study jointly commissioned by several union and environmental groups, describes some good green jobs but recounted others that involve low wages, health and safety hazards, and gross violation of labor rights.  It recommended specific measures to make green jobs be good jobs, including wage requirements for subsidies; wage standards and prevailing wage requirements for contractors; and web-based disclosure of company compliance.

Unions pushed to include such measures in Obama’s stimulus package and they can do the same with climate legislation.  Bob Baugh, the AFL-CIO’s point person on energy policy, says that unions last year turned the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act of 2008 into an economic development bill by encouraging the inclusion of similar measures.  And once labor has made sure climate legislation includes such protections, it can fight on the ground to make sure they are implemented – and by doing so show why organization is good for workers.

By being part of the green jobs solution to climate change, labor can help bring about a rebirth of the labor movement.  Climate protection will mean massive growth in jobs.  But unless labor is there at the top as part of the coalition fighting to create them, they are unlikely to be union jobs.  And unless labor is there at the bottom helping train workers for the new green jobs — and helping them organize — the opportunity to reverse labor’s decline will be lost.

Protecting workers from the side effects of climate protection

One reason unions are concerned about climate protection is the threat that it will eliminate jobs.  So far that has led to a negative response.  But labor has the opportunity to lead a national effort to strengthen the support for effective climate protection by ensuring that it includes protection for the workers it affects.

It’s nothing new for workers to feel threatened by measures to protect the environment.  Today such fears are likely to be augmented, especially in a time of soaring unemployment, by the large changes necessary to protect the climate from global warming.

Environmentalists have often addressed this challenge by pointing out that a transition to green energy would create far more jobs than it would eliminate.  While that may be true, it entirely misses the point.  The fact that some people get new jobs provides little solace for the individuals and communities who have lost theirs.

A critical case for labor is the coal industry.  Mineworkers president Cecil Roberts recently cited studies showing that an earlier effort at carbon reduction legislation, the Climate Stewardship Act of 2003, would have reduced coal production by 78 percent by 2025, which would have “just about wiped out the coal industry in southern West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia.”  He added that the more recent Lieberman-McCain bill would cut Appalachian coal production by thirty percent.

American labor has a strong traditional identification with miners.  The Steelworkers, Auto Workers, and many other industrial unions owe their very existence to support from the Mineworkers union.  Miners have walked the picket lines in support of virtually every union in America.  They embody labor’s culture of solidarity, and other trade unionists are loathe to abandon them when they are threatened with extinction.  Despite declining numbers, the UMW is still in a position of power, especially on energy policy, within the labor movement and in the political arena.

And it’s not just miners.  Carl Wood of the Utility Workers cited mechanics in a Southeastern Ohio coal-fired power plant represented by his union whose jobs would be eliminated by the phasing out of coal.  That’s a very real example of how climate protection could threaten specific workers, even if it produced more jobs in general.

Labor’s principal response so far has been to advocate expanded use of coal based on “carbon capture and storage” (CCS), or “clean coal” technology.  But most environmental scientists say that the technology for low-carbon emission coal is twenty years away at best; that in the meantime coal will produce massive carbon emissions; and even if it can be produced some day, “clean coal” is likely to be far more expensive than low-carbon alternatives like solar and wind.

So far, labor has often responded to the downsides of climate protection by saying that the time isn’t right, that climate protection must wait until “clean coal” and other new technologies are available.  But that is totally inappropriate and inadequate for the actual trajectory of the climate crisis.  Now is the only time.  We can’t wait ten years because then we won’t stem the rise of carbon in the atmosphere. Until it’s there in front of your face, people don’t want to believe it.  But all signs of global warming that were predicted 20 years ago are happening even sooner than predicted.

The contribution of coal emissions to global warming has recently generated a powerful campaign to reduce the use of coal — including recent mass civil disobedience at a Washington, D.C. coal-fired power plant.  That campaign could easily become a poster child for the threat posed to workers by climate protection.  (I had conversations about this with several environmental leaders on the eve of the demonstrations and I am happy to report that they immediately got the point and added worker concerns to their speeches.)  But for that very reason the coal question also provides an opportunity for climate protection advocates to paint a new picture of themselves as the advocates and protectors of miners, railroad workers, utility workers, and others whose jobs and communities may be threatened by climate protection measures.

There are initiatives in the coal mining regions, for example, to develop alternatives to the declining and often destructive industry.  For example, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth have created the “Canary Project” which advocates “a new economy to sustain, instead of exploit, our communities” and “supporting new energy sources that will replace the burning of coal.”

It has also developed, in collaboration with the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, a “High Road Initiative” that lays out an economic development program for the coalfield regions.  Such programs could be the basis for a powerful coalition of environmentalists, labor, and community advocates to insist that the cost of protecting the climate not be placed on the workers who produce and use coal.

The 2009 stimulus package includes an estimated eighty billion dollars for programs that will create “green jobs.”  These funds can be used to make Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and the rest of the Appalachian coalfield a model of job-positive transition from coal to renewable energy and conservation.  Green jobs can be specifically targeted to the communities that will be affected by coal production to preemptively create local jobs that will provide an alternative source of employment.  Just as the New Deal created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as a regional development program to transform one of America’s poorest regions into a center of energy production, so Obama’s “green new deal” could turn Appalachia into a center for the production of renewable energy.

Labor leaders will have to exercise their best judgment about how to protect their working members, and at the same time look forward and protect those same interests in the future.  And that’s going to be a different and a difficult analysis.  It’s going to take some brave actions on the part of labor.  Some workers are at risk for getting hurt in this process – and it’s labor’s job to see that they don’t.  That can be done.  It’s going to take something much more robust than the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program.  But it can be done.  And if labor fights for such a program, it can make a central contribution to building the public support necessary to solve the climate crisis.