But some labor groups are upset they weren’t at the table
In a March letter to Sen. Markey and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, members of the AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee said the Green New Deal was too vague, but also said that it would hurt its members:
We welcome the call for labor rights and dialogue with labor, but the Green New Deal resolution is far too short on specific solutions that speak to the jobs of our members and the critical sectors of our economy. It is not rooted in an engineering-based approach and makes promises that are not achievable or realistic.We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families. We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered.
The letter was signed by Cecil Roberts, the international president of the United Mine Workers of America, and by Lonnie Stephenson, the international president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.IBEW declined to comment beyond the letter. Phil Smith, director of communications at the UMWA, said that while some union representatives may have been involved in drafting the resolution, energy unions were not at the table.“The nature of the proposal itself would lead to the loss of every job associated with coal-fired power and very quick loss of jobs for power generated by natural gas,” Smith said. “We felt like if you are going to do something that represents energy workers, you should talk to energy unions.”He acknowledged that there have been subsequent conversations between energy unions and groups promoting the Green New Deal, like the Sunrise Movement. However, UMWA would have liked to have seen stronger language in the resolution about technology, namely carbon capture and sequestration. Such technology aims to allow for the continued use of coal, but with less of the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.
Some unions don’t think that the Green New Deal can pull off its pro-union agenda. But others are optimistic.
The UMWA and other energy unions are skeptical that the Green New Deal builds a bridge sturdy enough to carry workers over to a future with cleaner energy. While there’s language about a jobs guarantee, there is no mechanism in the resolution to fund those jobs nor any specifics about how much they will pay, where they will be, and what benefits will be provided. The average starting salary for a coal mine worker is $60,000, while the average salary for a solar installer is $53,000, so for some workers, a straight switch would be a downgrade.Filling in the gaps to ensure no one is left at a loss would be an unprecedented endeavor in US history and would demand a vast amount of political capital that may not ever materialize.“The whole notion of a ‘just transition’ for workers simply does not exist,” Smith said. “There never has been an example of a just transition in this country.”This pushback from unions over the prospect of a massive shift away from coal, oil, and natural gas toward renewables and cleaner energy sources is making it harder for Democrats to build up a base of support on climate change. But it’s also important to remember is that union members are not uniformly Democrats. About 37 percent of union members voted for Donald Trump in the last presidential election.And not every labor organization is against the Green New Deal.Joe Uehlein, president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, said its federal job guarantee provision has been a longstanding goal for unions and marks one of the biggest organizing opportunities for labor since the original New Deal.“Frankly, I’m a little confused why national labor leaders felt the need to speak out against it,” said Uehlein, who was a former director of the AFL-CIO Center for Strategic Campaigns. “I’m not sure any of them read it.”
The clean energy sector is not as unionized as fossil fuels, but that’s changing
The UMWA, the Utility Workers Union of America, and North America’s Building Trades Union are well-established organizations with large segments of their memberships employed in coal, oil, and natural gas. According to a 2017 report from the US Department of Energy, the coal power generation sector is 9.3 percent unionized. Natural gas power workers have a union membership rate of 13.2 percent. Oil power generation is at 3.2 percent.But for solar photovoltaic workers, the rate is 3.4 percent. For wind, 4 percent; hydropower, 6 percent. Workers in energy efficiency — like HVAC, lighting, and insulation installers — are 14 percent unionized.So even though unionization has been declining for decades and clean energy jobs are among the fastest-growing in the United States, fossil fuels have a louder voice within the labor movement for now.Nonetheless, some unions have already taken the initiative in preparing for the shift to cleaner energy. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, for example, already operates one of the best clean energy job training and apprenticeship programs in the country, according to Uehlein.
Maine managed to bring labor on board with its version of the Green New Deal. Other states may follow.
One state has found a formula for a clean energy transition that has gained the support of labor unions.In April, the Maine AFL-CIO endorsed “An Act To Establish a Green New Deal for Maine” introduced by Democratic state Rep. Chloe Maxmin. The organization represents more than 40,000 workers and is the first state labor organization to back a bill with “Green New Deal” branding.The Maine act calls for the state to generate 80 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2040. “What we’ve done in Maine is not rocket science. It’s not radical policy,” said Matt Schlobohm, Executive Director of the Maine AFL-CIO. “It’s good policy.”Part of the reason for this support is that labor groups were closely involved in drafting the Maine Green New Deal from the outset. Unions managed to secure language that would require a growing percentage of the workforce for energy projects be registered apprentices, for example. “Registered apprenticeship is one of the best tools out there to build a trained workforce and try to ensure that workers, as they gain more skills, get better pay and benefits,” Schlobohm said.
The task force overseeing the implementation of the Maine Green New Deal would also have creating and retaining good-paying union jobs as part of its mandate, as well as protecting collective bargaining rights.