Good job! New York State shows climate work can be union work

By Shaun Richman,

What if we could take bold steps to create thousands of good union jobs that also help save the environment? That’s the proposal of a New York State coalition of unions and environmentalists. Building trades, energy and transport workers unions have banded together to address the dual problems of inequality and climate change across New York State – and they’re winning.

Without public policy that protects workers’ livelihoods as part of protecting the environment, many workers have to choose between good jobs or a healthy environment – a growing concern in New York State, and elsewhere. Climate change has hit New York hard. There was Super Storm Sandy as well as Hurricane Irene, unprecedented snowstorms, and more recently, Lake Ontario flooding, all of which have devastated communities across the state.

To ensure cleanup and prevention jobs are good ones, Climate Jobs NY (CJNY) is a union-driven campaign to implement a pro-worker, pro-union, good-climate program in New York State. CJNY has already won an increase in funding for solar and energy efficiency work in public buildings along with a Project Labor Agreement requirement for the work, labor representatives on a statewide working group, and a prevailing wage requirement for all of the state’s renewable energy solicitations. But CJNY has bigger ambitions: a plan to construct high-speed rail, develop a robust offshore wind industry in New York, and put solar on as many public buildings as possible.

The plan for the building sector calls for reducing energy use in all public buildings by 40% and retrofitting all public schools to reach peak energy efficiency by the year 2025. That’s an ambitious timeline, considering the 212 million square feet of real estate owned by the state. It would also be huge for workers: every $1 million dollar investment in commercial building retrofits creates between 13 to 17 new jobs, all of which, under this plan, would be good jobs.  

The energy plan calls for using the 100 million square feet of public school rooftops to harness two billion watts of solar energy, with a further two billion watts produced through the construction of large solar utilities throughout the state. Meeting those energy goals could create up to 210,000 new jobs in construction and installation of solar panels. The plan also calls for the generation of 7.5 billion watts through offshore wind – a project that would generate another 17,000 jobs.

“This initiative represents the best hope for protecting my members,” said Utility Workers Local 1-2 President James Slevin, while simultaneously “ensuring new energy jobs are good union jobs, and addressing climate change."

The transportation plan calls for a $20 billion investment in restoring the New York City subway system to a state of good repair and an additional $14.71 billion for expanding statewide regional railroads. The subway work would create 20,000 jobs, while the statewide railroad investment could add almost 300,000 more.

This campaign grew out of a Cornell University initiative to find the overlapping self-interest in addressing the inequality and climate crises facing all New York State workers and residents, according to Lara Skinner, associate director of the Cornell Worker Institute. "The Climate Jobs NY campaign shows that ‘jobs versus the environment’ is a false choice."

“We started by asking the people who do the work what might help. By starting with people who do the work of building our buildings, moving New Yorkers around, and powering both, we knew we’d find solutions that the usual debate leaves out,” Skinner said.

The “usual debate” might be best reflected in the battle over the proposed construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which bitterly divided unions over the question of creating jobs or protecting the environment. Some politicians and corporations like to stoke those divisions, offering environmental exploitation as an engine of good jobs. President Trump’s campaign bluster about bringing coal mining back to West Virginia is just one example of this.

After Super Storm Sandy, Skinner launched a four-year process of figuring out a pro-worker, pro-union environmental agenda would look like, called Labor Leading on Climate. The slow and steady approach, which included a lot of meetings, trainings, and a research report) paid off, as unions created the CJNY campaign and now champion what’s known as a “just transition” to a more equal economy and one that respects environmental limits. “Unless we’re talking about good jobs and a good environment, the conversation just doesn’t go anywhere productive,” says Skinner.

That’s why CJNY calls for a “just transition” for workers who lose their jobs due to climate protection policies. Without public policy that protects workers’ livelihoods as part of protecting the environment, many workers feel the need to cheer environmentally harmful job creation.

But Christopher Erikson, Business Manager of IBEW Local 3, points in another direction "We need an energy transition to clean energy and we need to do it so we protect the good union jobs of those who construct, operate, and maintain power plants in this country,” he says.

Skinner agrees. “Jobs in the clean energy sector are growing – solar and wind installers are among the fastest growing jobs in the U.S. right now,” says Skinner. “If labor isn’t involved, there’s a good chance these won’t be union jobs.” For example, a 2014 plan by New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio to install solar panels on two-dozen school building was going to be done on a non-union basis until a coalition of unions, environmental justice organizations and community groups intervened to negotiate a Project Labor Agreement.

Labor leaders – from stewards to the New York State AFL-CIO president– see the potential. “Expanding the state's commitment to renewable energy projects is not only an opportunity to make New York a leader in the clean energy industry,” adds NYS AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento, “it's an investment in long term, sustainable middle class jobs in our state.”

Editor’s note: Are you interested in developing a Climate Jobs program in your city or state? Lara Skinner invites inquiries from stewards, local union officers, and others about how the Worker Institute research and approach might be useful in your state or province. Email her at [email protected].



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