Labor Unions Are Skeptical of the Green New Deal, And They Want Activists To Hear Them Out

Originally published in The Intercept on Feb. 28, 2019.
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Deciding whether to sign onto the Green New Deal resolution is not an easy call for many members of Congress. They have to contend with the usual opponents: coal, utilities, oil companies, and other big-pocketed interests who like today’s economic order just fine. But even on the left, coalition-building can be complicated.

After signing onto the Green New Deal as an original sponsor, one House Democrat felt that acutely when he traveled back to his district and met with two top local labor leaders. The congressperson, who asked not to be named, said he faced harsh criticism from building trade representatives who worried the plan would put their members out of work. He pushed back, arguing that their members will actually fare better with a green infrastructure plan that can drive up wages for blue collar work, pointing to jobs like retrofitting buildings and constructing renewable energy infrastructure.

Recent polling has found strong bipartisan support for a Green New Deal, but unions, a key constituency, have been less than enthused by — and in some cases, downright hostile to — the ambitious proposal to tackle climate change.

Terry O’Sullivan, the general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, or LIUNA, denounced the Green New Deal the day it was introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. In a blistering statement, O’Sullivan said it was “exactly how not to enact a progressive agenda to address our nation’s dangerous income inequality” and “exactly how not to win support for critical measures to curb climate change.”

For many observers, the construction union’s opposition was not too surprising. LIUNA had ardently supported the Dakota Access pipeline and said in 2016 that the labor organizations who opposed the project were “self-righteous” and “display[ing] a truly amazing level of hypocrisy and ignorance.” In January 2017, shortly after Donald Trump’s inauguration, LIUNA was one of several building trade unions to meet with the president, later praising Trump’s “remarkable courtesy” and affirmed that LIUNA “look[s] forward” to partnering with the White House on infrastructure.

Some climate activists have said that support for the Green New Deal should be a litmus test for progressives. Writing for The Intercept, Naomi Klein argued recently that the labor movement should “confront and isolate” LiUNA over its opposition. “That could take the form of LIUNA members, confident that the Green New Deal will not leave them behind, voting out their pro-boss leaders,” she wrote. “Or it could end with LIUNA being tossed out of the AFL-CIO” — the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the country’s largest umbrella group for unions — “for planetary malpractice.”

As advocates of the Green New Deal work to gin up more support for the resolution, they face the challenge of parsing out bad-faith criticisms from legitimate critiques by those whose livelihoods would be impacted by a transition to green jobs. The way they straddle that line and respond to those concerns could make all the difference in getting the critical mass of support needed for the Green New Deal to pass.

Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s nonbinding resolution includes explicit language backing union jobs that pay prevailing wages and a commitment for “wage and benefit parity for workers” affected by the energy transition. The Green New Deal also calls for “strengthening and protecting” the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain, and for “enacting and enforcing trade rules, procurement standards, and border adjustments” with strong labor protections.

Despite those promises, only one big union, 32BJ SEIU, has come out swinging in support of the Green New Deal. The majority of labor organizations have so far stayed quiet or voiced skepticism or criticism. The opposition, particularly for those in the building industry, is rooted in concerns about jobs and wages, as well as the approaches favored in the resolution for decreasing carbon emissions. There is also a political thread, with Trump-voting Republican coal miners, for example, hesitant to embrace a policy that has been sponsored only by members of the Democratic caucus.

Evan Weber, political director at Sunrise Movement, the youth advocacy organization credited with putting the Green New Deal on the political map, suggested that his group is not too worried about labor’s early response. “Since the resolution launched, a few [unions] have put out negative and less-than-enthusiastic statements about the Green New Deal,” he said, “but most are remaining silent and choosing to view this as a potential opportunity.”

Two weeks ago, seven unions representing workers in the building industry sent a letter to the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and its ranking member, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., saying they “have grave concerns about unrealistic solutions such as those advocated in the ‘Green New Deal.’” The unions have also used the letter — which outlines their climate legislative priorities — in meetings with House members and senators since January, according to Phil Smith, spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America.

Despite advocating their position in Congress, the signatories have not yet made public statements on the Green New Deal. Mark Brueggenjohann, spokesperson for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which signed the letter, told The Intercept that his union is not commenting now on the resolution, but “will be better prepared to do so” when actual legislation is available.

One climate strategy that many unions have said is important is investing in carbon capture technology and storage — a conceivable, if yet to be realized, way to prevent most of the carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuel plants from entering the atmosphere. This method has already generated a bit of controversy in the rollout of the Green New Deal. 

In November, the Sunrise Movement called for a Green New Deal Select Committeethat included “funding massive investment in the drawdown and capture of greenhouse gases.” This language appeared to endorse research and development in carbon capture technology, something many climate experts say is necessary to keep the planet from overheating. But in January, as Robinson Meyer from The Atlantic reported, the drafters of the final version of that resolution quietly removed any reference to “capturing” greenhouse gases. Meyer noted that the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which last fall warned that a failure to make major changes to reduce global warming in the next 12 years will be catastrophic for the planet, “has not produced any projection that shows us hitting that [necessary decarbonization] target without massively deploying carbon-capture technology.”

Carbon capture technology is somewhat polarizing. Critics say it’s risky to bank on pricey technology that does not really exist yet, and they say that the fossil fuel industry uses the prospect of carbon capture as an excuse to avoid reining in their environmentally harmful businesses.

Supporters, however, argue that investing in carbon capture is scientifically necessary for reducing emissions globally and vital for maintaining economic stability. “Our union does not question the science about climate change, and we’ve been working for some time on ways to mitigate it,” said Smith, the spokesperson for the mine workers union. “The answer, to us, is not quit using coal, but to spend the kind of money that needs to be spent on carbon-capture technology, on a commercial scale in this country and across the world. The fact of the matter is, if you don’t do that, you’ll never solve the global crisis.”

The Green New Deal resolution doesn’t explicitly rule out carbon capture technology, but in a section that deals with removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, the authors endorse “proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage,” like protecting land and planting new trees. Other vaguely written sections of the resolution, however, could open the door for carbon-capture technology. The resolution endorses “creating solutions to remove” emissions, and endorses the international exchange of technology, products, and services to address climate change.

The resolution is nonbinding, so the inclusion or exclusion of a provision does not dictate how future legislation will be written, but it does suggest some hesitancy to embrace carbon capture technology and storage.

The Sunrise Movement does not see “a heavy role for carbon capture and storage,” said Weber, the group’s political director, though he said it could be worth investing in some research and development for so-called heavy industry like steelmaking and shipbuilding. He noted that carbon capture technology is “pretty expensive compared to just reducing emissions by moving toward alternative forms of energy.” Ocasio-Cortez’s and Markey’s offices did not return requests for comment.

As an alternative, Weber said photosynthesis should be seen as an optimal way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. “We think there’s a lot of upward potential here in the U.S. to do ecosystem restoration and preservation,” he said. “A number of studies have shown that that can really help us get toward our climate goals and we’re most interested in investing in those proven solutions.”

Laborers are also skeptical of what the Green New Deal’s promise for a “just transition” would mean in practice. “We think it’s very important to find out what a ‘just transition’ actually means and who gets to define it,” said Smith of the mine workers union. “And will people be paid what they’re earning now, with the same level of benefits? None of that has been clarified.”

Members of the United Mine Workers of America earn an average of $30 an hour, along with employer contributions to a 401(k), paid sick leave, paid vacation, and ample health benefits, according to Smith. “I think, frankly, if you’re able to say to these folks, here’s a $30-an-hour job with all the rest of the stuff you’re used to, and you’ll pretty much work the same hours, you’ll have folks say, ‘OK, I’ll consider this,’” he said. “But that’s not what anyone is saying. And it seems to us there’s a very naive view about what this is going to cost and where the money is going to come from.”

Saikat Chakrabati, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, responded to early criticisms of the Green New Deal by saying that they envision future legislation that would provide economic security to miners who would find a switch to a new career challenging.

When asked if his members see an urgency to address climate change, Smith said they haven’t done formal polling, but that “anecdotally, our membership is very split on that issue.” He noted that plenty of miners voted for Trump and tend to agree with his perspective on climate change.

Sean McGarvey, president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, or NABTU, told Reuters that his members were skeptical of promises of “green jobs” and noted that “renewable energy firms have been less generous” than the oil and gas sector when it comes to paying their workers. Renewable jobs, notably, are generally safer than fossil fuel jobs and can be done anywhere in the country, unlike jobs that are dependent on the location of a mine or an oil rig.

Like the mine workers, when it comes to NABTU and other critics of the Green New Deal, members’ political orientations are relevant.

In 2016, NABTU, along with LIUNA and a handful of other unions, sent a letter to the AFL-CIO, calling on the federation to cut ties with Democratic billionaire donor Tom Steyer, a vocal critic of the Keystone oil pipeline. (Since Trump’s election, Steyer has also frequently called for the president’s impeachment.) Despite their agreement over Keystone, the groups’ partisan leanings are a bit divergent. In the 2018 cycle, NABTU gave 41 percent of its political action committee contributions to Democratic candidates and 59 percent to Republicans. More than 75 percent of LIUNA’s contributions, by contrast, went to Democrats in the last election.

NABTU and LIUNA did not return multiple requests for comment.

Weber, the Sunrise Movement’s political director, said some of the concerns unions have raised about needing more specificity are “completely valid,” though he accused LIUNA of lying about what the resolution contains and misrepresenting climate science. “It’s always kind of disappointing to see potential allies resort to tactics that we see the right wing and our common enemies using,” he said.

With respect to labor issues, Weber said, the Green New Deal is “leaps and bounds ahead of previous climate proposals.” From his group’s perspective, if energy workers cannot find new jobs that pay them equal to what they’re currently earning, then “the government should step in and make up that difference,” he said.

“I think the job guarantee is a really critical element of the Green New Deal,” he said. “It doesn’t say if you’re a coal miner, you’re now going to go work on installing solar panels, it asks what are the jobs that make sense for your community and have this transition be something that’s locally determined.”

The union that has offered the most enthusiasm for the Green New Deal has been 32BJ, which represents 163,000 doormen, security officers, cleaners, and airport workers along the east coast. On February 6, the Joint Executive Board of 32BJ passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal and “reaffirm[ed] its commitment to a 100 percent clean and renewable energy economy.”

In an interview with The Intercept, 32BJ’s New York City-based president, Héctor Figueroa, proudly noted that his union was the first to come out in support of the Green New Deal. “We can build unity in labor if we can recognize the urgency of the climate crisis” and effectively link the fight for climate justice to economic justice, he said.

Figueroa’s rhetoric is similar to that of Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise activists. He emphasized the need to take action “in a big, bold way” that addresses climate “concurrent to the problems of income inequality and declining labor standards.” He noted his personal connection — his family comes from Puerto Rico and has been dealing with the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria — and he said two-thirds of their membership was born outside of the United States. “They know the impact of climate change back in their home countries,” he said. “They understand this is a global problem.”

32BJ’s February resolution on the Green New Deal “marked a new phase” in the union’s engagement on climate change, as for the past two decades, they’ve focused primarily on advocating for green jobs and energy efficiency standards, Figueroa said. “Now we’re taking another step, which is to very clearly and categorically say we need to build a future without fossil fuel,” he explained.

Their next task will be to pressure their national union, SEIU, to support the Green New Deal. “We are very passionate about it, and we believe it’s the right place for labor,” he said.

Other locals may also play a role in pressing their parent unions for support. Out in California, the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, of which an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local is a member, issued a resolution in support of the Green New Deal.

Aside from that, most unions have stayed silent — even those that have contributed to the discourse around climate change in the past. The AFL-CIO, for example, passed a resolution in October 2017 on “Climate Change, Energy, and Union Jobs.” The resolution affirmed the labor federation’s commitment to passing “energy and environmental policies with a focus on ensuring high labor standards, the creation of union jobs and environmental sustainability,” and also affirmed its support for enacting “comprehensive energy and climate legislation that creates good jobs and addresses the threat of climate change.” In 2009, the AFL-CIO worked to shape the House’s cap-and-trade bill. The American Clean Energy and Security Act — the name of which is conspicuously missing the term “climate change” — died in the Senate without a vote.

While the AFL-CIO has yet to issue a statement on the Green New Deal, in September, the federation’s president, Richard Trumka, gave a speech on fighting climate change that is telling of the group’s perspective. He said that “strategies that leave coal miners’ pension funds bankrupt, power plant workers unemployed, construction workers making less than they do now … plans that devastate communities today, while offering vague promises about the future … they are more than unjust. … They fundamentally undermine the power of the political coalition needed to address the climate crisis.”

The BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership of 14 unions and environmental organizations — including the Sierra Club and United Steelworkers — backed the cap-and-trade bill in 2009, but has not commented on the Green New Deal. (Spokesperson Abby Harvey declined The Intercept’s request for comment.) Critics have noted that BlueGreen Alliance tends to avoid weighing in on more controversial issues, like the Keystone XL pipeline. (LIUNA, which supported the pipeline, quit the alliance in 2012 over related disagreements.)

David Foster, the former executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, wrote an op-ed in The Hill earlier this month, urging the public to study the lessons from a decade ago, the last time leaders called for a global Green New Deal. “Unless the transition to a clean energy economy is based on unifying politics, this next iteration will also prove another adventure in pyrrhic rhetoric,” Foster warned. A decade ago, unemployment was high and the price of oil was also skyrocketing. While neither are true today, he noted, inequality remains terrible and working conditions throughout the entire economy feel even more precarious.

The Sunrise Movement plans to launch a campaign in March to build more support for the Green New Deal, with events planned in states like Michigan, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. “We’ve been working to get a lot of support from the grassroots and the grasstops,” Weber said, “and we’re going to keep doing that going forward.”

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The Wrong Way to Revitalize A City

Originally published in the February 2015 print issue of In These Times Magazine.
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Baltimore workers rally for fair urban development near the Horseshoe Casino construction site on April 20, 2013.

The pro-corporate American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has come up with yet another strategy to bolster the power of big business. Republican lawmakers in Michigan plan to introduce an ALEC-backed bill that would ban “community benefits agreements” (CBAs), one of the few options local activists have to fight for equitable development. A CBA is a contract between community groups and developers of publicly subsidized projects. In exchange for community support, a developer might agree to offer quality jobs, living wages, affordable housing or environmental protections. ALEC’s CBA ban, which specifically prohibits a local minimum wage, would be unprecedented.

The contrasting stories of Baltimore and Buffalo, New York, two economically depressed cities that launched ambitious development plans, show what happens to workers and the poor when safeguards like CBAs are–and aren’t–in place.

The Inner Harbor myth

Baltimore was one of the first U.S. cities to rebrand itself as a tourist and entertainment hotspot in response to the painful post-war impact of deindustrialization and white flight. Beginning in the 1950s, Baltimore poured millions of dollars, through tax breaks and subsidies, into building up its Inner Harbor entertainment district and other attractions. By the early 1980s, these projects were bringing more than 18 million visitors to the city annually, leading many politicians and pundits to proclaim that Baltimore was in the midst of a terrific revival.

But it was never an equitable one. Between 1959 and 1995, Baltimore lost 75 percent of its industrial jobs, and by 2008, the city had lost a third of its population. Despite the tall, shiny buildings and bustling shopping centers downtown, blight and abandonment plague many corners of Charm City. As anthropology professor David Harvey wrote in 1992, “If people could live on images alone, Baltimore’s populace would have been rich indeed.” Instead, in 2012, more than 25 percent of the city lived in poverty, including 37 percent of the city’s children.

Meanwhile, the Inner Harbor is still drawing 14 million visitors a year and remains a point of pride for local leaders. In 2013, the city released plans to build up the Harbor even more over the next few decades. “Anything that’s great for tourists is great for locals,” Tom Noonan, CEO of Visit Baltimore, told the Baltimore Business Journal.

The approximately 1,500 restaurant and retail workers at the Inner Harbor might disagree. In 2011, United Workers–a human-rights organization led by low-wage workers–and the nonprofit National Economic & Social Rights Initiative co-published a report on Inner Harbor’s labor conditions that documented abuses such as chronic wage theft. The report profiled many workers, including Nadja Martens, a server at Hard Rock Café, and Jason Bandy, a server at Capitol City Brewing Company. Both saw big paycheck decreases during the winter months, when tourism was slow and tips were scarce. “During … November, December, January, February, 100 percent of the time I was not paid minimum wage,” said Bandy.

This report was the first investigation of its kind. “The formal measure of success for these public investments [in the Inner Harbor] has been a superficial assessment of whether a rundown area has been ‘cleaned up,’ whether customers are happy, whether businesses and investors are making money,” the report stated. “Job creation has been addressed as a simple matter of quantity–how many jobs are created–not of quality.”

Todd Cherkis, a Baltimore organizer with United Workers, puts it this way: “There’s the myth about the Inner Harbor, and then there’s the reality.”

A different approach

In 1994, in response to the bleak conditions, Baltimore citizens mobilized the nation’s first grassroots living wage campaign, fighting to establish higher wage standards for businesses that receive government subsidies. The campaign was historic, but activists won a watered-down victory: The new requirements applied only to city contractors, not all publicly subsidized developers.

Since 1994, more than 120 other municipalities have seen their own living wage campaigns, inspired by the original Baltimore activists. One was Los Angeles, which enacted a living wage ordinance in 1997. A year later, LA residents pushed for what would become the nation’s first CBA–a labor agreement tied to an incoming Hollywood shopping mall and entertainment complex. Dozens of cities have since negotiated their own CBAs; 28 were in effect nationwide as of 2012.

The story of the waterfront development in Buffalo, New York, provides a strong contrast to Baltimore’s. In 2004, the state-run Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation (ECHDC) embarked on a plan to transform Buffalo’s waterways into a Great Lakes version of the Inner Harbor. Using a $350 million grant from the New York Power Authority, the ECDHC planned to give approximately $40 million in public subsidies to outdoor-sporting goods store Bass Pro, to be the anchor tenant, and Benderson Development, to build the retail store.

“When we found out about all this, we were really concerned about the size of public subsidies for private businesses, particularly for Bass Pro, a low-wage employer,” says Andy Reynolds, a communications organizer with the Buffalo-based non-profit Coalition for Economic Justice (CEJ). “We began to learn about community benefits agreements as a best practice, so we started a coalition to launch one of our own.” The result was the Canal Side Community Alliance, a coalition of more than 60 community organizations launched in 2009 to put public pressure on both developers and local political leaders. By 2013, the Canal Side Community Alliance was able to get the state to agree to a CBA. The project is still underway, but with less emphasis on retail and a greater commitment to local needs like good jobs, Buffalo’s Inner Harbor–in theory–will look quite different from Baltimore’s.

To be sure, CBAs are no panacea. If developers do not hold up their end of a CBA agreement, the community coalition must hold them accountable, which in many cases means going to court. Such sustained oversight is challenging and sometimes unsuccessful. And, as Peter Marcuse, professor emeritus of urban planning at Columbia University, writes, “CBAs … often provide only a limited reach for alternative means of making the planning process truly democratic.”

Still, CBAs are far better than nothing, and the fact that they are in ALEC’s crosshairs is a testament to their efficacy. As Matthew Raffol writes in Advocates’ Forum, “By organizing residents of low-income communities and granting them access to development planning processes, CBA coalitions transform these residents from objects of urban development policy to subjects who actively shape development decisions [and] exact a price on private capital that it would not otherwise incur.” In other words, when faith, labor and community groups come together to make demands on municipal projects, they shift the dynamics of urban power and set the stage for further demands.

Hope yet for Baltimore

In April 2013, hundreds of Baltimoreans rallied at the site of the new Horseshoe casino to celebrate a deal that local unions, with the help of Maryland state officials, had brokered with Caesars Entertainment Corp. The 1,200 permanent casino staff would be allowed to organize without management opposition, using a simple-majority “card check” process.

That victory is being used to fuel a push for fair development throughout the city. In October 2014, a new group called One Baltimore United–comprised of labor, faith and community organizations–rallied outside City Hall for higher-wage jobs, improved schools and better public services. “Our goal is to show that the Inner Harbor model is outdated,” says United Workers’ Cherkis. The coalition is keeping a close watch on future development projects and sees CBAs as one tool in its arsenal.

Cherkis expresses cautious optimism: “The landscape to address these issues is definitely changing.”