Organizing the fight for green jobs
in conservative political climate
By Carl Davidson / The Rag Blog / February 14, 2011
‘What brings us together is the commitment to make those jobs green jobs and to make them good jobs.’
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Nearly 2,000 people gathered at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel over three bitterly cold days in Washington, DC, Feb. 8-10, for the fourth annual Good Job, Green Jobs conference. The attendees were a vibrant mixture of seasoned trade union organizers, representatives of government agencies, and young environmental activists waging a variety of battles around climate change and the green economy.
“We want everyone to work at a green job in a green and clean economy,” declared David Foster, executive director of the sponsor, the Blue-Green Alliance, opening the first plenary. “But what stands in our way?” The answer was a new Congress stalemated by neoliberal resurgence centered in a bloc of the GOP and the far right. “It’s not going to be easy. We’re going to have to fight for it the old-fashioned way, from the bottom up, brick by brick, and floor by floor.”
The Blue-Green Alliance today is a coalition of hundreds of environmental groups, trade unions, and green business enterprises. It was founded less than five years ago, largely by the efforts of Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, one of the largest U.S. environmental nonprofits, and Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers, one of the country’s largest industrial unions.
“We’ve come a long way,” said USW’s Leo Gerard, the next speaker up. “Today we have dozens of affiliated sponsors and members with a combined membership of 14.5 million. Those fighting harder against us are going to meet some serious resistance.” The participants at the conference represented more than 700 organizations and came from 48 of the 50 states.
Still, attendance was down from the past two years. The solid core of trade unionists and environmental youth were present, but wider allies like the hip-hop community mobilized by Green For All were absent or only had small representation.
Gerard went on to explain the core idea of the alliance. The old notion that one had to chose between job growth and environmental protection was dead wrong. “Rather than ‘either-or’ we’ve come to see that’s it’s ‘both-or-neither.’ We will have both good green jobs in a green and clean economy, or we will have neither. That’s what it boils down to.”
“I also want to raise a new idea,” Gerard continued. “Sustainable development is something we hear a lot. But what about ‘restorative development’? It’s not enough simply to build sustainable new things, we have to repair and recover the damage we’ve done with the old ones. He went on to describe the “Smart Grid,” the need to deliver clean electric power to the same high standards as the internet and telecommunications, retrofitting the old grids in the process. “In the process, we create an abundance of new high-skilled green jobs that pay for themselves by saving energy and cleaning the environment at the same time.”
Labor opposed to austerity solutions
Along with other labor leaders, Gerard spoke several times throughout the conference, often on panels with Obama’s cabinet officials. Even though they greeted each other warmly, there was a noticeable distancing from officialdom on the part of labor. However valuable any proposals made in Congress, the labor officials were astute enough to know that an anti-deficit “austerity” was still the watchword of the period, and any gains would have to be fought for at the grassroots and in the streets.
Gerard symbolized the problem when he introduced Lisa Jackson, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and part of Obama’s cabinet. Noting that it was her birthday, he presented her not only with a card from the BGA, but also a huge pair of boxing gloves as a gift “for going into the battles ahead of us.”
Jackson’s speech was an effort to turn the tables on the right-wing effort to gut or neuter what they termed “the job killing EPA.” “When people turn of the water to cook their oatmeal or take a shower,” she explained, “they don’t want to worry whether toxic wastes or sewage sludge is going to come out of the faucet. Our regulations enhance markets and create economic benefits, with a $2 savings for every dollar invested.”
Regulations in health and safety, in the end, created far more jobs than they eliminated by creating confidence in products, safety for workers, and stability for markets in clean-up equipment.
“Winning the future also means winning the race for innovation,” explained Jackson.
“The history of environmental protection has been a history of innovation. Innovation made everything we do cleaner, healthier, and more efficient — and led to the creation of good jobs. The catalytic converters that are manufactured to reduce toxic air pollution from our cars, the invention of more effective water treatment mechanisms to free our drinking water of lead, or smokestack scrubbers that are installed to keep sulfuric acid pollution out of the air we breathe mean new orders for American companies and jobs for American workers.”
All the speakers from the administration hammered away on the “win the future” theme from President Obama’s State of the Union speech — likewise with the phrases about “out-innovating” and “out-performing” against all contenders in every critical sector of the economy. But given the relation of forces in Congress and even his own Cabinet, and the slashing of programs that the deficit-cutters had already launched, the participants tended to take it all with a grain of salt.
Frustration with resistance at the top
If one key word popped up in nearly every workshop, it was “frustration.” The participants, after all, had been working steadily for nearly four years researching, designing, and organizing for solutions to a range of critical problems — jobs, clean energy, toxic waste, youth entrepreneurship and so on. The first two conferences were full of hope and energy, especially with Obama’s victory and the appointment of Van Jones to head up green jobs. The third year was marked by going deeper into practical solutions, and growing concern about the political climate.
But now, armed with an array of practical programs, the young people especially seemed to conclude that they were banging their heads against a brick wall created by Blue Dogs, neoliberals, and the far right. One option was discussed repeatedly: stop wasting too much time in DC and return to the base. Build organization at the county and state level, and try to win some local victories, even if done piecemeal, and gather more strength.
A case in point was an early workshop on “Building a Movement to Change America: Strategies to Forge Ahead to Create Good, Green Jobs.” It asked participants to step back and assess their alliances, their adversaries, and their tactics. It’s worth examining in some detail to see the overall problems facing the conference.
“We took a beating in the 2010 elections,” said Cathy Duvall of the Sierra Club, opening up the subject. “Our campaign for a comprehensive climate change bill with a cap on carbon got turned around into the ‘job killing energy tax.’ We learned that we simply don’t yet have the power to do what we want to do.”
Duvall’s answer was to go back to localities, and focus on setting standards and regulating markets “in favor of Main Street over Wall Street.” She summed up with three points: 1) the need for industrial policy with high domestic content, 2) the need for broader coalitions with people who don’t always agree, and 3) to mount head-on challenges to the oil-military complexes preventing productive investment. “But most of all, we need new coalitions at the local base.”
Ron Collins, a vice president of the Communications Workers of America, picked up where Duvall left off. “We have to do things differently,” he said, “or we have to turn off the lights.” The “One Nation” rally in October, he continued, was a good start, but not much has happened at the local or state level. “‘We need to be building ‘One Maryland’ or ‘One Virginia’ or ‘One Baltimore.’ We need a deeper unity at the base, or the right is going to take us out, one by one. As for some of our fair-weather friends, we have to say, ‘If you’re not with us on the issues, then we’re not with you,’ and then act on it.”
In this context, the issue of immigrant rights was rising as a difficult wedge issue, and was taken up by Ali Noorani of the Immigration Forum. “People don’t like to move from their home countries lightly,” he said, “but only do so for compelling reasons of survival.” Noorani gave the example of U.S. agribusiness dumping corn in Mexico at prices below its cost of production, thereby bankrupting Mexican farmers and driving them to border town factories. When those factories closed, many had little choice but to move across the border.
“Look at every player in this drama,” he continued. “There is only one beneficiary, the crooked employer. We need to stop pointing fingers in the wrong directions, and start finding solutions. Our method in the past has been to mobilize our base, persuade the middle and isolate the opposition. If we can combine that with a view that the pie can grow bigger, then we can all win.”
Melanie Campbell of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation closed up the panel. “I think we have to be mad and strategic at the same time,” she declared. She went on to observe some lessons from the Tea Party, noting that while they had considerable differences, they were able to come together to fight. “But what did we do after the ‘One Nation’ rally? Too many of us just went back to our separate silos.”
Need for ‘street heat’ from the bottom up
In the discussion, one participant offered a critical point from the floor: “For our strategy to work, we need some cracks at the top, but with Obama’s ‘bipartisan’ center-right bloc, all the cracks have closed up, at least for now. It seems we need more organized strength from the bottom up, more street heat to break things open again.” “Exactly,” said Collins from CWA. ‘We need to be drawing some lessons from the people in Egypt.”
There was a lot of discussion about the need to build new alliances. This was not just a search for common ground. Rather it was recognition of the necessity for respecting the traditions, the work, and the sacrifice of potential allies in a situation in which conditions, for them, are changing.
A good example is the attitude expressed toward coal and miners. “We have to recognize that without coal miners we would not have the standard of living that we have, the technology that we have, that makes it possible to talk about a sustainable economy with good jobs and a rising quality of life,” said one workshop speaker. “These men and women, the coal miners and their communities, should be our heroes. They are not our enemies.”
There were also warnings to stay away from language that stimulates a fear reaction about what those organizers are trying to win. Examples from coal: solar power and wind that are presented as if they will replace the jobs of miners, with not enough attention given to conversion and re-employment.
Other workshops over the two-day period covered a wide range. Topics included wind manufacturing opportunities, workforce training for solar industries, women in the green economy, sustainable agribusiness, inner city school reform, protecting workers and their families from toxics, high-speed rail, and fighting right-wing science-deniers in elections, among many others.
One Tuesday afternoon workshop, entitled “Building the Wind Energy Supply Chain: Moving from Rhetoric to Reality,” brought together a number of issues — job creation, domestic productive capacity, and industrial policy. Wind energy as a vital part of a clean energy economy was taken as a given. The key question was whether it would lead to new manufacturing and green jobs in the U.S., since the more mature technologies and factories had been developed in Spain, the Netherlands, and China.
Dillep Thatte of the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a federal agency, was optimistic. “Anything you need for wind energy can be competitively obtained domestically; the problem is simply in making the connections and relationships.” He was particularly strong on smaller businesses with less than 500 workers: “These are the innovators creating new jobs today.”
Rob Witherell of the United Steel Workers was skeptical. “High-speed rail is in the news today; Obama wants to spend some major money on it. But how many plants in the country right now can actually build high-speed train cars? Only a handful. Can we do it? The answer is, ‘Yes, but…’ It will take some time and investment to get domestic firms up and running.”
Helping to form supply chains of small component manufacturers, however, was something the USW could do fairly easily, he added, since the union was connected with some 6,000 firms.
As for the quality of production, Dee Holdy of the Global Wind Network explained how her group’s task was to sort out who could effectively be in or out of global competition. “We take a lot of surveys and analyze a lot of reports, but some of it is done by walking around production facilities to find any duct tape or C-clamps holding equipment together.”
Taking on the neoliberal alliance with the far right
Another workshop narrowed the target on the far right. Entitled “Confronting Science Deniers: Lessons from Minnesota’s Sixth District,” it featured Tarryl Clark, the former assistant majority leader of the Minnesota State Senate. Clark had run and lost against Tea Party firebrand Michele Bachman, who got 52 percent of the vote.
“Michele Bachman was perhaps the only member of Congress to stick up for BP during the Gulf Oil spill crisis,” Clark started off, “but she’s more widely known for calling on people to become ‘armed and dangerous’ against legislators working for Cap and Trade and Climate Change laws.”
She explained that the race became one of the most expensive in the state’s history, with Bachman raising over $13 million, largely from wealthy rightists, while she raised some $5 million in smaller contributions, and from labor unions.
“We did well in televised debates,” Clack continued, “but there was no way we could match her massive direct mail operation, which were filled with falsehoods. They were not above absolutely fabricating information while being very good at playing the victim.” One example of a bold headline from a Tea Party website: “Tarryl Clark… Backed by Foreign Contributors Who Murder Irish-American Korean War Veterans in U.S. Healthcare Facilities!”
Despite the lies and wackiness, Clark explained that, even with her crafted persona of being slightly unhinged, “Bachman is very smart; she knows exactly what she’s doing, and she knows that most of her claims are misleading at best. The truth simply doesn’t matter to her; it’s the results that count.” Clark concluded that the only alternative was to keep organizing and keep fighting, or “otherwise the Darth Vader side wins.”
The final plenary on Wednesday morning focused on green transportation. The session was opened by AFL-CIO vice president Arlene Holt Baker, who noted the prevalence of clean energy manufacturing and high-speed rail in Europe and China, and the need to promote it here:
“What brings us together here,” Baker explained, “is the commitment to make those jobs green jobs and to make them good jobs. Good jobs that provide the wages and benefits needed to sustain families and enable them to buy the products we will be making. Good jobs that can put our economy back in working order. Good jobs that afford workers the opportunity to choose for themselves whether to join a union to have a strong voice on the job for quality American-made products and services.”
Baker went on to give the examples of several new high-design battery plants, including one near New Castle, PA, that had been aided by stimulus money from Obama initiatives. “We are opposed to the idea that the only way out of this crisis is through austerity; we have to invest in the ways to build our way out.”
Baker was followed by Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari. A strong advocate of high-speed rail, he noted that our current transportation system consumes one-third of our oil and produces more than one third of harmful emissions. “Modern high-speed trains can operate at one-third less energy per mile than either planes or trucks. For decades, we have blindly refused to invest in our rail system, and we have to turn this around.”
The need for ‘industrial policy’ of a new type
The case for Obama’s current economic policies was presented next by Jared Bernstein, the chief economic advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. “Let me start by declaring that neither five-year planners nor laissez-faire ideologues are going to get us what we want.”
The former, he explained, could never get pricing right, while the latter ignores “externalities” like pollution and waste. No single firm or cluster of firms could rise to the task of basic research, less than 20 percent of which is privately funded. Nor is a major and vital infrastructure project like the “smart grid” even conceivable without a role for government in public-private partnerships.
The conference organizers prepared a summary panel on stage to take off from these final presentations, guided by talk show host Kojo Nnamdi. Panel participants included Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), Lawrence Hanley of the Transit Workers Union, Kathy Gerwig of Kaiser-Permanente, and Clark Manus of the American Institute of Architects.
“Good jobs, clean energy, sustainable communities — everyone wants these things,” said Nnamdi, posing a question to the group. “But how do we get there? That’s where we differ, isn’t it?
“Some mean it, and some don’t,” replied Congressman Ellison. “The fact is, we have no urban policy; we have no energy policy. We need a multi-city campaign of town meetings, culminating in a national rally in DC. We need to organize and strengthen the progressive Democratic base, and we need to expand the Progressive Caucus.”
Hanley added that where there’s no will, there’s no money. In mass transit, people are facing massive fare increases along with cutbacks in service and mass layoffs. “Yet we have money for wars and the military,” he noted. “There no way out of this without taking on the War Lobby.
“We are living on our grandparent’s infrastructure,” added Ellison. “The rich got tax cuts while we got school cuts.”
The prospect of hard struggle against a recalcitrant neoliberal-dominated Congress, and key parts of the White House as well, were duly taken as a challenge. For many, it also suggested the shift to more local base-building that was a common theme of many panels and workshops.
The issues that seem best suited for local focus are diverse:
- Green building codes for new construction;
- Mass transit investment and lower fares;
- Local tax credits/deductions for green capital investment for companies, and for individuals (homes, cars, etc.);
- Local renewable energy goals and requirements;
- Local vehicle fuel economy standards;
- Incentives for local/urban agriculture.
In the last round of workshops, there were some hopeful signs for the future. One panel on partnership for technical education and green jobs was presented by Erica Swinney of the Center for Labor and Community Research and focused on the Austin Polytechical Academy, an innovative neighborhood public school on Chicago’s West Side.
Swinney, who serves as the school’s communications director, started with a PBS NewsHour clip on the school’s achievements, bringing together unions and dozens of manufacturing firms to create both a high school and an engine for community economic development.
Another workshop following hers focused on a high school in a low-income West Philadelphia neighborhood with a unique after-school program. They design and build hybrid gas-electric “X-Cars” that can get over 150 miles per gallon, and have won in design fairs over teams from MIT and industry groups.
Students from both schools stressed a common theme: “We are problem solvers, not test takers.”They voiced their opposition to a one-sided and undue emphasis on standardized testing, rather than more creative approaches to education needed for a clean-energy and green-economy future.
The final day, February 10, was “Advocacy Day,” where attendees headed for Capitol Hill. David Foster estimated that there were more people participating in this event than last year. Several delegations were very large, mainly from the Steelworkers, Teamsters, and Electrical Workers. They flooded the House and Senate Office Buildings for meetings with congrespeople and senatorial staffs.
“Large groups of workers roaming the halls of Congress were an inspiring sight,” said Ted Pearson, a national committee member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism from Chicago, who was attending the conference.
“Union members and other activists from Illinois, for instance, met with 5th CD Representative Mike Quigley and his legislative aide, who pledged support for all the Blue-Green target issues. Other meetings were held with staff for Jerry Costello (D-12th CD, Southeastern Illinois), and Chicago’s Bobby Rush and Danny Davis.”
Whether it will all amount to a winning campaign for a new clean energy and green manufacturing industrial policy to replace the old oil-military-industrial policy remains to be seen. But the ongoing work of the Blue Green Alliance and its annual conferences have helped to draw clear and informed lines of demarcation in the battlefield.
[Carl Davidson is a USW (United Steelworkers) associate member now living in Aliquippa, Pa. He is a national board member of the Solidarity Economy Network and a National Co-Chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, and was a leader in the 60’s New Left. Together with Jerry Harris, a former Chicago steelworker, he is author of CyberRadicalism: A New Left for a Global Age and editor of Solidarity Economy: Building Alternatives for People and Planet. Carl also writes and lectures on the topic of the Mondragon Cooperatives, a network of 120 worker-owned factories centered in Spain, and writes for The Rag Blog and the Beaver County Blue, where this article was also posted.]