Solidarity is a rallying cry of unions and the labor movement. The limits of that unity will be tested by the Green New Deal being formulated in Congress.
Democrats unveiled a 14-page resolution (H.Res. 109) earlier this month that outlines priorities for the Green New Deal. It includes creating high-wage jobs to eliminate poverty and shifting to 100 percent renewable and zero-emission energy sources within 10 years.
The Green New Deal hasn’t yet produced substantive legislation but some unions already are pushing back. LIUNA, one of the nation’s largest construction unions, said the Green New Deal “is exactly how not to win support for critical measures to curb climate change.”
As the Green New Deal goes from vague outline to proposed legislation, it could expose union rifts similar to those that emerged in 2014 over the Keystone XL Pipeline. At the time, construction unions with jobs in the energy sector attacked unions that opposed the project for environmental reasons.
The division puts U.S. union leaders in an “unenviable” position, according to researcher Todd Vachon, a postdoctoral associate in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. He conducted a study with Allen Hyde from the Georgia Institute of Technology that looks at the effect of unions on greenhouse gas emissions.
The research found that unions worldwide are generally a force for lower emissions. But some construction unions with few members in renewable jobs face a difficult choice in opposing climate change measures. Some members benefit, others are devastated.
“You have this set of locals in the Northeast who will benefit greatly from renewable energy,” Vachon said of a typical construction union. “And then you have a subgroup in the Midwest who will lose all of their members because of renewable energy.”
It’s in the Jobs
Labor unions aren’t necessarily against environmental protections.
But a shift to renewable energy is a move away from an industry with union jobs. The renewable energy sector largely lacks union representation and the work tends to be lower-paying than traditional energy jobs, according to Vachon.
“Those power plant and fossil fuel jobs 50 years ago were lousy jobs, too,” Vachon said. “And then they organized unions and after several decades of collective bargaining agreements, they became better and better jobs.”
Overall, 4.7 percent of workers employed in mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction were union members in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That equates to 721,000 union members in those industries.
Construction unions also caution against unobtainable zero emission targets that ignore the reality of energy needs.
“We enthusiastically support real measures to move toward a carbon-free energy future,” LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan said in a statement earlier this month. “We also believe in science, which dictates that we will never reach that goal without lower-carbon bridge fuels such as natural gas and carbon-free fuels such as nuclear power.”
That view was repeated in a Valentine’s Day letter from LIUNA to members of Congress criticizing a pledge circulating to not take campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry. At least 43 members of Congress have signed a version of the pledge, according to the group No Fossil Fuel Money. Signatories include Democratic establishment figures like Sen.
Getting Unions Involved
Democrats may get unions to the table on a Green New Deal by putting workers at the heart of any policy; with workers involved in writing legislation, the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is more likely to take employment realities into account, according to the Rutgers study.
The Green New Deal’s outline makes note of worker needs. One goal is creating “high-quality union jobs that pay prevailing wages, hires local workers, offers training and advancement opportunities, and guarantees wage and benefit parity for workers affected by the transition.”
The job guarantee is “part of a broader approach to having a just transition plan,” Vachon said.
A spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez, one of the principal authors of the Green New Deal, said the congresswoman’s office hadn’t yet heard any substantial input from unions on the plan. He added that a central challenge will be convincing stakeholders across the country—unions included—that transitioning to renewable energy is in their interest.
“I think there’s going to be strong support for an effort to create tens of millions of union-wage jobs and transition this economy to 100 percent renewable,” Communications Director Corbin Trent told Bloomberg Law.
More Unions, Fewer Emissions
Environmental activists will want the union voice on their side. Research shows that countries with higher union density tend to have lower greenhouse gas emissions.
The Rutgers study looked at the greenhouse gas emissions of 18 affluent countries between 1990 and 2010. The results show that the countries with the highest emissions were those with the lowest levels of employment protection and union participation in governance.
Employment protection legislation tends to weaken the ability for unions to reduce emissions, although more research needs to be done on the subject, according to the Rutgers study.
Service industry unions, such as the SEIU and National Nurses United, take an interest in climate change because there’s a lot at stake for members, Vachon said.
“They’re more likely to have members that are in the neighborhoods that are devastated by climate change and extreme climate events,” Vachon said. “We know it’s typically the poorest folks that get hurt most and worst.”