US labour and the green jobs of the future

US labour unions are struggling to save jobs in the car industry. But before they fight to save outdated jobs making gas guzzlers, writes Brendan Smith, they should consider the promising future of “green-collar” work.

US auto workers and the trade union United Auto Workers (UAW) have been struggling – and even striking – to try to save their members' jobs.  In the last round of negotiations with General Motors (GM) and Chrysler, the union won job guarantees for a segment of its shrinking membership. But tragically, most of the jobs it saved are jobs of the past, not jobs the future.

The UAW rescued jobs that will soon evaporate as the US transitions into a green economy. Most are for building inferior gas guzzlers that not enough people want to buy. GM did announce during the negotiations that it would produce a new electric car, called the Volt, at a Michigan plant beginning in 2010. But according to some, the technology and the production plans are still very tentative.

(It should also be noted that GM announced this week that it would open a major new research facility to develop green technologies—in China. GM’s US and Australian engineers who currently do this kind of work are worried.)

By failing to mount a full scale challenge to GM’s product decisions and by joining GM in opposing stricter mileage standards, the UAW has helped make it likely that whatever jobs it “saved” under the new contract will soon be eliminated by environmental regulation – and global competition from vehicles with a smaller carbon footprint.

Job security for auto workers no longer means simply limiting outsourcing; it requires shifting to cleaner, more energy efficient vehicles that offer genuine anchor for future job security. The UAW could have used this contract to demand that GM produce quality cars that address global warming concerns and that people want to buy. Instead, it let the automakers cast it in the role of “junior dinosaur.”

There is an alternative. Organised labour should actively promote the transition to a green economy. By doing so it can help create and retain decent union jobs with a future. The good news is that some parts of the labour movement are already hard at work on new strategies.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, rarely a friend of labour, recently described the labour-backed Oakland Apollo Alliance’s successful creation of a "green-collar" union jobs program to train young low-income workers to install solar panels and weatherise buildings. A campaign by unions and allies persuaded the Oakland city government in California to kick in US$250,000.  The effort has recently gone national, launching the "Green for All" campaign designed to pressure Congress to allocate US$125 million to train 30,000 young people a year in green trades.

Friedman writes: “It’s about jobs. The more government requires buildings to be more energy efficient, the more work there will be retrofitting buildings all across America with solar panels, insulation and other weatherising materials. Those are manual-labour jobs that can’t be outsourced.”

According to Van Jones, one of the leaders of the campaign: “You can’t take a building you want to weatherise, put it on a ship to China and then have them do it and send it back…So we are going to have to put people to work in this country — weatherising millions of buildings, putting up solar panels, constructing wind farms. Those green-collar jobs can provide a pathway out of poverty for someone who has not gone to college…[A] big chunk of the African-American community is economically stranded. The blue-collar, stepping-stone, manufacturing jobs are leaving. And they’re not being replaced by anything. So you have this whole generation of young blacks who are basically in economic free fall.”

Friedman thinks that “Green-collar retrofitting jobs are a great way to catch them." I agree.

But will it catch on with organised labour?

US labour is caught in an internal stalemate among those who fear job loss from efforts to deal with global warming, those who have not considered global warming an important union issue, and those who see the climate crisis as a call for immediate action and an opportunity for sustainable economic development.   

Often the public face of US labour has been its official policy positions.  Those positions have included opposing the Kyoto Protocol, blocking high standards for auto energy efficiency, and supporting new proposals for coal gasification—estimated to double the rate of greenhouse-gas production. 

But as we travel around and talk to various segments of the labour movement, it is increasingly clear that large numbers of trade unionists and their allies are deeply worried about the environmental crisis. When labour adopts environmentally unfriendly policies, it is often responding to a small group of unions who – understandably – desperately hope they will preserve threatened jobs for their members in energy, auto, and related industries.

A few unions, like the Steelworkers, are aggressively supporting policies to reduce greenhouse gases. But there’s been little research on how many union leaders and rank-and-file members share the growing concern of Americans in all walks of life about global warming and the conviction that more needs to be done to combat it.

It may actually be a lot, and at least one study supports this view.  According to a series of in-depth interviews conducted by Good Jobs First of 50 union federation leaders in 2003:

• 80% believe that air pollution is a bigger public health problem today than it was 5-10 years ago;

• 72% believe that their health or the health of someone in their family has been harmed by environmental pollution;

• 62% report they have participated in coalitions with environmental groups on environmental issues within the last 5 years;

• 18% said they personally belong to an environmental organisation—that’s higher than the national average. (In 2000, 5% of Americans belonged to a national or international environmental organization; 9% belonged to a local or regional environmental group.)

These figures are stunning, especially considering how much has changed in the global warming debate since 2003—this was before Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, before president George Bush publicly acknowledged global warming as a major concern, and before the 2000 Democratic nominee won the Nobel Peace Prize.

If organised labour, following the path pioneered by the Steelworkers, decides to fight for good jobs that fight global warming, it will find a strong resonance in labour’s own ranks.  And so will environmental groups who appeal to labour’s rank-and-file leadership to join the fight against global warming.


Brendan Smith is the co-director of Global Labor Strategies,

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