While Washington struggles over job and climate programs, unions around the country are making their own climate-protecting, justice-promoting jobs programs.
While unions have been divided on the Green New Deal as a national policy platform, many national and local unions have initiated projects that embody the principles and goals of the Green New Deal in their own industries and locations. Indeed, some unions have been implementing the principles of the Green New Deal since long before the Green New Deal hit the headlines, developing projects that help protect the climate while creating good jobs and reducing racial, economic, and social injustice.
Even some of the unions that have been most dubious about climate protection policies are getting on the clean energy jobs bandwagon. The United Mine Workers announced in March that it will partner with energy startup SPARKZ to build an electric battery factory in West Virginia in 2022 that will employ 350 workers. The UMWA will recruit and train dislocated miners to be the factory’s first production workers. According to UMWA International Secretary-Treasurer Brian Sanson, “We need good, union jobs in the coalfields no matter what industry they are in. This is a start toward putting the tens of thousands of already-dislocated coal miners to work in decent jobs in the communities where they live.”
Electrical Workers Fight for Climate, Jobs, and Justice
What does it look like when a local union engages with the Green New Deal goals of jobs and justice through climate protection? International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 569 in California’s San Diego and Imperial Counties provides one answer.
The Salton Sea area at the southern end of California is a hotspot for geothermal energy. It also covers one of the world’s largest deposits of lithium – a critical component for lithium batteries and solar energy. With the necessity to replace fossil fuels in order to protect the climate, mining the “Lithium Valley” for lithium and geothermal heat is projected to produce thousands of jobs in Imperial County, one of California’s most impoverished regions. A prototype has already begun. But whether those jobs will be good jobs and who will get them remain open questions.
One of the groups trying to answer those questions is IBEW Local 569. It represents over 3,600 union electricians, power professionals, and other workers in San Diego and Imperial County. In 1999 it was one of the first IBEW locals in the nation to start training on solar technologies. From there, its training programs grew to include energy efficiency, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and energy storage. The union office was a test site for a utility program that installs electric vehicle charging stations at workplaces around San Diego County. IBEW members installed the charging units and can power up their plug-in electric vehicles at the union hall. These green technologies are helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and creating jobs for Local 569’s membership. The Local even hired an Environmental Organizer to be a member of its staff – as far as I know the first to do so in the country.
With industry partners, IBEW 569 owns and operates the San Diego and Imperial Electrical Training Centers, which provide state-approved electrical apprenticeships with good wages, family healthcare, retirement benefits, and college credits. The union’s apprenticeship program recruits from the local community, including high schools and veteran programs, and is currently training more than 550 apprentices. Trained workers are critical to the Green New Deal goals of climate protection combined with good jobs and justice on the job.
The electricians in Local 569 play a key role in reaching the city of San Diego’s goal of 100% clean energy by 2035. These programs at the same time provide good jobs for local electrical workers. IBEW 569 workers in San Diego and Imperial Counties have:
- Constructed over 1,500 MW of solar and wind;
- Completed more than 10,000 rooftop solar installations on homes and businesses;
- Built over 550 MW of energy storage, including two of North America’s largest projects;
- Installed hundreds of electric vehicle charging stations;
- Achieved 65% – 90% local hire for community residents on Imperial County renewable energy projects, thanks to Local Hire Agreements: and
- Operated the largest certified electrical apprenticeship program in San Diego & Imperial Counties.
IBEW 569 members have logged millions of work hours building more than a gigawatt of solar and wind projects, installing rooftop solar and electric vehicle charging stations at homes and businesses, and constructing some of the largest energy storage projects in the western U.S.
In addition to creating jobs for the existing IBEW workforce, renewable energy projects have also created new pathways into union careers for residents in Imperial County, one of the most disadvantaged areas in California. After investing in an electrical apprenticeship training facility, Local 569 brought hundreds of local residents into the IBEW who were able to build renewable energy projects in their local community while receiving training, good wages and benefits, and a voice on the job through union representation.
Local 569 is also playing a role in shaping the San Diego’s policies to protect the climate, provide good union jobs, and address the needs of disadvantaged communities – the basic goals of the Green New Deal. They have advocated local hire agreements, joint labor-management apprenticeship partnering, workforce safety standards and certifications, and responsible contractor criteria to create family-sustaining green jobs that provide upward mobility and career opportunities. And they have fought to include the following requirements for every energy provider in San Diego’s 100% Renewable Energy Program Implementation Plan:
Energy Identification: Inform customers of the percentage of renewable, greenhouse-gas-free electricity offered. Power may be labeled as “clean” or “green” if it comes from renewable energy generated from solar, wind, [or] geothermal.
Exclude Renewable Energy Certificates: Provide renewable energy from actual renewable sources customers can trust while creating union jobs in the community for local workers. Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) must not be marketed as “clean” or “green” so as not to mislead the public.
Communication to Consumers: Send at least three written notices to potential customers, and each notice will include a description of the percentage of the power mix that comes from California solar, wind, geothermal, small hydro-electric or other state certified green power sources.
Creating Union Jobs: Procure power from union-generated sources; employ unionized customer service representatives; sign Project Labor Agreements on each Power Generation Project; sign Project Labor Agreements on Energy Efficiency Projects/Programs; agree in writing to neutrality in the event employees or subcontractor employees wish to unionize.
Community Benefits: Sign Community Benefits Agreements to include local projects and local hiring and prioritizing projects, programs and actions to reduce emissions in disadvantaged communities.
Local Project Build-Out: Emphasize development of new renewable resources from proven developers in San Diego and adjacent counties and strictly limit the use of non-renewable energy sources.
Energy Efficiency: Develop a resource plan that integrates supply-side resources with programs that will help customers reduce their energy costs through improved energy efficiency and other demand-side measures.
Workforce Impacts: Determine 1) if the program will result in negative impacts for employees of the incumbent utility (including layoffs, work hour reductions, etc.) and 2) if the wages, fringe benefits and job protections are similar to those offered by the utility to employees in comparable job classifications.
Local 569 is trying to incorporate these principles into city and county climate action plans and into the Regional Decarbonization Framework. And they are working with several coalitions to shape the new Regional Transportation Plan to include more investment in building mass transit hubs, electrifying transit with zero emission EV buses, and developing multi-unit affordable housing along transit corridors, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Will these Green New Deal principles be applied in the new Lithium Valley mining-and-geothermal industry? Local 569’s Environmental Organizer Cristin Marquez says the union wants to make sure there are high road, high wage jobs and that those jobs are available to the people of Imperial County. IBEW 569 has more than 250 electricians and many more apprentices ready to work in Imperial Valley. The union has been presenting its program to the Lithium Valley Commission and other governmental bodies that will determine the shape of the industry. If it can incorporate its principles and policies into the lithium industry, that will mean a new building block for a climate-safe economy and a transformation for one of the most impoverished areas in California.
The Laborers International Union of North America (known as LIUNA or simply the Laborers’) has a reputation as one of the unions most hostile to the movement against fossil fuel infrastructure. LIUNA said the Green New Deal “threatens to destroy workers’ livelihoods” and “increase divisions and inequality.” During the fight over the KXL Pipeline its president Terry O’Sullivan was widely known for his attacks on “delusional environmentalists” and their supporters within labor. The LIUNA website is proudly plastered with pictures and descriptions of fossil fuel projects ranging from the Dakota Access Pipeline to the Maine Natural Gas Pipeline that the union’s members have helped to construct. But right alongside them it is also proudly plastered with pictures of climate-protecting renewable energy, energy-efficiency, and energy-use-reduction projects that LIUNA members have constructed. For example:
- LIUNA local 271 members helped build Deep Water Wind, the nation’s first offshore 30 megawatt wind farm off the waters of Rhode Island. The $451 million dollar project created 80-100 good jobs and reduces dependence on foreign sources of energy.
- LIUNA members were vital to the construction of the Central Light Rail Transit project which connects St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis. It includes 9.8 miles of underground track and 18 stations in addition to five shared with the METRO Blue Line in downtown Minneapolis. The $1 billion project was funded by federal, state, as well as local sources. In 2016, the Green lines provided approximately 12.7 million rides.
- LIUNA members are building many solar power plants in California, including the Mojave Solar Plant. The project received $1.2 billion in funding from the federal government and created 830 construction jobs and 70 permanent operation jobs as well as thousands of indirect jobs. The plant is expected to generate 617,000 MWh of power annually, enough power for more than 88,000 households.
- In Boston, LIUNA Local 7 members assisted in a $63 million project to rebuild and improve public housing buildings by implementing energy efficiency and renewable energy measures that will save the Housing Authority over $56 million annually. The project created more than 600 local jobs.
These green projects don’t make up for the climate-destroying projects LIUNA members work on or the union’s unremitting hostility toward those who oppose them. But it does show that the direct interest of workers in climate protection and a Green New Deal is so powerful that even the unions that fight climate protection also have to recognize their members’ interest in advancing it.
Minneapolis janitors strike for a green training fund
On February 27, 2020 thousands of Minneapolis cleaning workers walked off their jobs and struck their downtown commercial high-rises. Among their key demands was that their employers take action on climate change. It was one of the first—as far as I have been able to discover, the very first—union sanctioned strike in the U.S. for climate protection demands.
The janitors are members of Service Employees International Union Local 26. They are employed by over a dozen different subcontractors to clean corporate buildings like IDS, Capella Tower, EcoLab, U.S Bank, Wells Fargo, United Health Group, Ameriprise and many more across the Twin Cities. The workers are overwhelmingly immigrants and people of color.
Local 26’s concern with climate goes back at least to 2009. Lots of people both on staff and in the leadership of the union care about issues of climate and the environment, which came up frequently in conversations. Climate was a popular issue that resonated for the union’s members. A high proportion of them were immigrants, and many of them were well aware of the impact of climate change on their homelands. Elsa Guaman, a janitor at ABM who cleans the United Health Group headquarters, said,
We are people from the countryside in Ecuador, and when I was young it was a fertile place. But then the droughts began, and the land didn’t produce anymore. As people who lived on what we took from the earth, we had to leave. We were not alone, millions of people from the areas near my village left too, in one of the biggest migrations ever out of South America. Now I clean buildings that are some of the biggest polluters in Minnesota, which furthers the same problem that made me immigrate. This must be addressed. I think if we win green cleaning, we can send a message.
But what could their union do about climate change besides put out statements and support other organizations? They learned a partial answer from California janitors who had won demands for “green cleaning.” Local 26 included green cleaning demands in their 2009 negotiations. They won contract language establishing in each company an “Ad Hoc Committee” of union and company representatives. It would “review the use of green chemicals.” It recognized company responsibility for a safe and healthy workplace and “the use of materials that contribute to a healthy and sustainable ecological environment.” The employer would provide training to employees on the “use, mixing and storage” of cleaning chemicals. The employer “shall make every effort to use only green, sustainable cleaning products where possible.”
The janitors continued trying to strengthen the environmental language in subsequent contracts. In 2019, the union presented a demand for the creation of a green technician janitorial training program. It brought in janitors from California who already had such a training fund. According to Local 26’s bargaining update for its members,
Our members are uniquely positioned to help lead the change we all need, in helping to convert to clean energy in this especially important sector. Top down policies won’t work if the people who will be responsible for implementing these changes on a day to day basis don’t have a voice. One key is training for front line janitors, as green technicians, so that they have the skills.
Local 26 demanded a “training program for Green Technicians (including $0.20 differential) and expanded use of green cleaning.” The union also proposed to create a “table” with building owners and community groups focused on climate to develop “bold solutions.” They would include “GREEN NEW DEAL” policies, getting Minnesota to 100% renewable energy, reducing waste, and closing the HERC incinerator that burns trash from downtown office buildings and pollutes nearby neighborhoods.
On February 27, 2020 the janitors walked out for one day as planned. They set up picket lines outside the downtown buildings. Then they were joined by youth climate strikers and other supporters in a march through downtown. Former local 26 staffer Steve Payne said,
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more powerful union action. There were at least a couple hundred environmental allies that joined the picket lines – which is really impressive. The chants shifted from English to Spanish to Somali, people were dancing to hip hop and Latino music. It was a great mixing of all the parts of our movement we need: white middle class environmental activists, young diverse climate strikers, low wage immigrant workers – all fighting for the same set of demands.
After their one-day warning strike, the janitors went back to work as planned. Then they announced they would strike again – whereupon, after a marathon 22-hour bargaining session, they won a contract that included funding for a Labor-Management Cooperation Fund for a green education initiative as well as significant wage, sick day, and other demands. The janitors approved the new contract unanimously.
Minneapolis janitors have started taking classes paid for by the new labor management fund. Thanks to the fund they received their regular pay while taking classes. As a prelude to the green education initiative, in 2021 the first class of 15 janitors graduated from English language classes.
These examples represent only a small fraction of union-based programs that embody the climate-protecting, job-creating, justice-expanding principles of the Green New Deal. The workers involved in these “Green New Deal from Below” programs range from electrical workers to construction laborers to commercial building cleaners. Their unions include the IBEW, LIUNA, and SEIU. They are training the workers who are essential to building the new economy. They are fighting for policies that increase jobs and justice by protecting the climate. And they are actually creating the products and services that are necessary for a prosperous climate-safe future.
The next commentary will explore additional examples of union-based, job-and-justice expanding climate protection.
 “Energy startup to bring electric battery factory to W. Va,” United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) https://umwa.org/news-media/news/energy-startup-to-bring-electric-battery-factory-to-w-va/?fbclid=IwAR3AWzODf01003MPwRBsOtboSYyCgkoas2h5eY8Do-ExwJa-4GNDzBNj7BI
 “IBEW 569 Position on Reaching 100% Renewable Energy,” IBEW Local 569. https://ibew569.org/news/ibew-569-position-reaching-100-renewable-energy
 Interview with Micah Mitrosky, June 2017. https://www.labor4sustainability.org/uncategorized/san-diego-areas-local-569-is-helping-to-lead-the-transition-to-a-low-carbon-economy/
 “IBEW 569 Position on Decarbonization & Electrification,” IBEW 569. https://www.ibew569.org/news/ibew-569-position-decarbonization-electrification
 “IBEW 569 Position on Reaching 100% Renewable Energy,” IBEW 569. https://ibew569.org/news/ibew-569-position-reaching-100-renewable-energy
 “IBEW 569 Position on Decarbonization & Electrification,” Ibid.
 “IBEW 569 Position on Reaching 100% Renewable Energy,” Ibid. https://ibew569.org/news/ibew-569-position-reaching-100-renewable-energy
 Renewable Energy Certificates allow a company to meet its minimum renewable electricity requirements by purchasing the certificates rather than by increasing its renewable energy or reducing its fossil fuel use.
 Terry O’Sullivan, “LIUNA on the Green New Deal,” LIUNA!, February 7, 2019. https://www.liuna.org/news/story/liuna-on-the-green-new-deal
 Jeremy Brecher, “First U.S. Union-Authorized Climate Strike?” Labor Network for Sustainability. https://www.labor4sustainability.org/strike/first-u-s-union-authorized-climate-strike/
 Jeremy Brecher, “Did We Just Witness the First -Authorized Climate Strike in the United States?, Common Dreams, March 1, 2020. https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/03/01/did-we-just-witness-first-union-authorized-climate-strike-united-states
 Jeremy Brecher, “First Union-Backed Strike to Protect the Climate wins Contract,” Labor Network for Sustainability, March 31, 2020. https://www.labor4sustainability.org/articles/first-union-backed-strike-to-protect-the-climate-wins-contract/