[This article first appeared in the TheNation.com, available here.]
At the first Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference, held in Pittsburgh a year ago, advocates of green energy bemoaned their inability to get a modest renewable-energy tax credit through Congress over the opposition of the Bush administration. The idea of addressing the economic, energy and environmental crises through green jobs seemed a distant vision. So did the idea that a labor-environment coalition around green jobs could reach beyond the fringes of the two movements. But this year, things were different. Meeting in Washington, DC, February 4-6, speakers were reporting in from their BlackBerries on Congressional negotiations of the yet-to-be-approved stimulus package estimated by the Center for American Progress to include $80 billion for green jobs.
The Blue-Green Alliance, which sponsored this year's conference, grew out of a coalition formed in 2006 by the Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers Union. A year ago, the Steelworkers stood alone; today the alliance includes the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the Laborers International Union of America (LIUNA), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters (IBT), all of which have active programs on green jobs.
It's a challenging time for the labor movement. Union leaders appear genuinely thrilled about the election of President Obama; early in the conference Steelworkers' president Leo Girard proudly quoted Obama's statement, "I see labor as the solution," not the problem. The blind, neoliberal faith in markets and globalization has come crashing down along with the global financial system, vindicating the lonely labor voices who have long been calling for government guidance of the economy. But the Great Recession is decimating labor's thinning ranks, and unions face budget cuts and layoffs not only by employers but also within their organizations. Two major unions, SEIU and UNITE HERE, are engaged in very public internecine battles, while representatives of the Obama administration are trying to nudge the two national labor federations to reunite.
In this context, the chance to grow membership through green jobs represents a rare opportunity, one that the labor movement is taking up with alacrity. "Global warming is a working families issue," said AFL-CIO president John Sweeney at a press conference to announce a $1 million Green Jobs Center at the National Labor College.
Part of labor's involvement reflects the concern that has grown among many constituencies as melting ice caps, burgeoning wildfires and devastating floods demonstrate the immediate threat of climate change. At Sweeney's press conference, Mark Ayres, head of the union's building trades department, endorsed green jobs as good policy and good for labor. "But there is a more important reason" to fight global warming, he said, showing the audience a photograph his granddaughters.