[This is the first in a series of posts designed to provide a strategy for addressing organized labor’s stake in climate change. Its goal is to provide activists inside and outside the labor movement with the information they need to help shape effective, worker friendly climate protection policies and garner support for them from organized labor.]
The building trades unions of the AFL-CIO are among the unions most immediately affected by climate change mitigation programs. They are also among the most active labor movement players on climate change issues. They have been enthusiastic backers of green jobs programs and in particular the green jobs components of the Obama stimulus package.
Most of the building trades unions, including some unions that do not belong to the AFL-CIO like the Teamsters and the Laborers, belong to the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO. The Building Trades Department has itself taken a strong position promoting green jobs.
Building trades unions like the Sheet Metal Workers, the Boilermakers Union, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) represent skilled workers that both build and maintain the energy and transportation infrastructure and construct big buildings that consume large amounts of energy. These jobs include everything from power plant construction to installing boilers and heating and air conditioning systems to maintaining the electrical grid.
Big capital intensive projects depend on public funding and regulatory support. Not surprisingly, even relatively small building trades unions spend a great deal of money on national and local political campaigns and lobbying. For instance, the 150,000 Sheet Metal Workers Union is the 37th largest political contributor in the country.
Building trades operate under a unique set of rules within US labor law. In many ways they are similar to temp agencies in that they dispatch skilled workers, including front line supervisors, to employers for time limited projects. In effect, the building trades unions organize employers rather than workers by getting employers to sign “pre-hire agreements”. These agreements set the wages and working conditions for workers before the job begins and before any workers are hired. Then the union selects and dispatches workers to a job on an as-needed basis. Pre-hire agreements are only legal in the construction and maritime trades where work is project based. In all other sectors of the economy unions must organize workers already on a job and win a majority vote in a government supervised election or get an employer to voluntarily recognize a union based on some other measurement of employee wishes.
One consequence of this unique arrangement is that building trades unions develop very close relationships with contractors with whom they do business. Unions and contractors work together on industry lobbying and on efforts to attract new work. Unions often belong to industry associations and jointly sponsor meetings and reports on industry-specific issues.
Unions and employers also operate joint apprenticeship programs to train journeymen workers. These apprenticeship programs””generally licensed by the states””serve to regulate the entry of new workers into a trade. In the past these programs were often used to exclude minorities and women and to perpetuate family and ethic continuity within a trade. Allegations that unions blocked the hiring of minorities and women generally stem from the building trades where unions actually have a say in the hiring process. Such discrimination has been widely condemned in the labor movement and is now generally outlawed.
Green jobs are widely considered a route out of the current recession in the labor movement, but especially in the building trades, which have been hard hit by the downturn in building. Building trades unions regard the construction of wind, solar, biofuel, and hydro-thermal alternative energy sources as a potential bright spot. A recent report, widely cited by the building trades, supports the widespread view that the building trades will benefit from the switch to green power alternatives. The report””Green Recovery: A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low Carbon Economy “” done by UMass’s Political Economy Research for the Center for American Progress””claims that a $100 billion green economic recovery package would create 800,000 construction jobs, a majority of which will pay decent wages (over $16 per hour). Most of the jobs would be in already existing occupations and would be geographically dispersed. Areas where the stimulus money should be focused, according to the report, are in sectors that currently employ trades workers, including:
“¢ retrofitting buildings to improve energy efficiency
“¢ expanding mass transit and freight rail
“¢ constructing ‘smart’ electrical grid transmission systems
“¢ wind power
“¢ solar power
“¢ next-generation biofuels
The report influenced the Obama’s stimulus package, which received strong backing from the trades.
Green training is now standard in apprenticeship and post-apprenticeship training throughout the construction industry. Building trades unions are also active lobbying at the national, state, and local level for the permitting of alternative power sources such as wind farms. High level meetings have been held at the White House with strong union participation for programs like the Emerald City Program to get energy efficiency projects up and running.
The Building Trades worry that some new construction could be non-union, but think that they are positioned to “capture” new jobs in their core industries and geographic localities because they can provide highly skilled workers already up to speed on new technologies.
Nonetheless, the Building Trades continue to strongly support the expansion of conventional fossil fuel and nuclear based power sources. The construction and maintenance of existing energy sources employs significant numbers of trades workers. Holding on to these jobs is a union priority.
A new awareness about climate change is emerging within building trades unions, however. This is reflected by Boilermakers Union president Newton Jones, who recently said, “The long-term prospects for a warmer planet are not pleasant to contemplate. By now we’re all familiar with the danger . . . rising sea levels”¦heavy storms, changing rainfall patterns, drought in some areas, excessive rains in others, crop failures.” He believes it is “economic suicide for labor unions to ignore or minimize the potential negative effects of the world’s use of fossil fuels.”
Building Trades delegations have participated in international climate change meetings like the Copenhagen climate summit in December, 2009 where they have been exposed to the international dimensions of the climate change issue and to a broader range of perspectives.
[The extended version of the LNS briefing paper on Labor and Climate Change is available here]