Green Jobs 2009: Steelworkers, Hip-Hoppers and Tree-Huggers Get It On!

AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka at Green Jobs 2009.

Van Jones heads Green For All, an organization rooted among inner city youth.

Blue-Green insurgency gets fired up at the DC Green Jobs Conference

By Carl Davidson / The Rag Blog / February 8, 2009

When you walk into a large and stately Washington, DC hotel lobby and find it teeming with thousands of smiling, buzzing people-half in labor union jackets and ball caps, the other half dressed in 30-something hip-hop causal-you know some special is happening.

This was the lively, energized scene for three cold wintry days this Feb 4-6 at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, as nearly 3000 activists and organizers gathered for the “Good Jobs, Green Jobs” National Conference. The gathering was convened by more than 100 organizations, representing every major trade union and every major environmental group in the country, among others.

It’s called the “blue-green alliance,” the core of which is the United Steel Workers and the Sierra Club, which jointly launched the “Green Jobs” movement nationally at a conference in Pittsburgh, PA a year ago. The turnout this year is triple in size and highly energized by both the victory of President Barack Obama and the looming onset of an economic crisis unmatched in scope since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In addition to the steelworkers, the building trades were well represented, and the green groups spanned a wide range of concerns, for toxics to alternative energy to climate change. Also notable was the participation of a contingent of “high road” corporations rooted in the growing “green economy.” Gamesa, a major Spanish firm specializing in wind turbines, and Piper Jaffray, a large paper company focused on recycled paper products, are two examples.

But a critical new dimension was added by Green For All, an organization rooted among inner city youth, and headed up by Van Jones. Jones is the author of “The Green Collar Economy” and an inspirational voice for a rising generation of multinational, multicultural insurgent youth.

The conference started off with ‘Advocacy Day,’ with a well-organized deployment of buses and team leaders that took hundreds of participants to Capitol Hill, and got them headed in the direction of the offices of their respective Senators and Representatives. With remarkable serendipity, the Senate was deadlocked that same day over details of the Obama stimulus package, with the GOP Right trying to gut many of the Green Jobs components as “wasteful,” while seeking tax cuts and bailouts for the rich. The voices and pressure from the conference activists come not have been timelier.

“A trickle has become a torrent,’ said plenary speaker Margie Alt from Environment America the next morning, comparing their present efforts with the organizing and direct action campaign of the civil rights movement of the early 1960s. There are two paths in repowering America with clean energy, she explained. “One would have us chase short-term profits; the other has us moving on new public transit and plug-in hybrid cars, built in the USA and powered by the sun and the wind. Only the second puts us back to work. It means that when the clean energy revolution is done right, when each does their part, all benefit.”

Alt warmed up the session for Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO’s Secretary-Treasurer and a former leader of the United Mine Workers. Trumka was a hero to millions in the Obama campaign for the no-nonsense way he took on the question of racism in rallying trade union organizers to win over white workers to vote for a Black candidate in the Appalachian areas.

“What a year!” Trumka proclaimed as he took the podium, referring not only to the election, but the Blue-Green Alliance’s growth since Pittsburgh. “It’s brought forward all the issues of race and class, and there’s no going back. Good ideas and loud voices are desperately needed. In the mines, we were often told, jobs or the environment was the choice. But now we know the truth. It’s not one or the other; it’s both or neither. So get over it! This blue-green alliance isn’t going away. We’re in this together for the long haul.”

Trumka had warm praise for Obama, but a sharp rebuke for the GOP Right. “All they can do is say, No!-No to fair trade, no to the Employee Free Choice Act, no to protecting the environment, no to domestic investment in new manufacturing. In the face of this, we have no guarantees; we’ll get nothing here without a fight.”

Expo Booths at Green Jobs 2009

One topic discussed across many panels and workshop was the theme of the conference, “What is a Green Job?” and “What is a ‘Good Job’?” The later was easily defined: a good job was a union job, a living wage with decent benefits. Green jobs were viewed from a number of angles. Trumka defined it as every job that contributes to a low-carbon future. Nuclear power and ‘clean coal’ efforts might come under that, but would be opposed by a good number in the coalition. There was no effort, moreover, to enforce unanimity on the point; debate and discussion would continue. There was wide agreement, however, on the Green jobs most in reach of unemployed youth: solar panel installations, ‘winterizing’ older housing stock to Green standards, urban agriculture plans, and expansion of mass transit.

The conference planners stressed the issue in a booklet distributed to all attendees, entitled “High Road or Low Road? Job Quality in the New Economy.” It was aimed at Green corporations trying to do things on the cheap, paying workers at near the minimum wage. Terence O’Sullivan, president of the Laborer’s International Union, exposed the problem:

“We did a survey of every job currently being called ‘Green’ by employers, and found the majority of them didn’t pay enough to support a family of two.” There was no sustainability, he suggested, without the working class itself being sustained. Borrowing from Henry Ford, he said, “Every worker building a Green product should be able to afford a plug-in hybrid car. It’s very possible to build green, pay union wages, and still make a profit. There’s no caring for the Earth that doesn’t also include caring for the people on it.”

Labor, government and business could be partners, O’Sullivan explained further, so long as the focus was “good jobs, at a living wage and the prevailing wage.” The dynamic union leader, whose union represents some 500,000 building trades workers, stressed that “low road businesses and policies must not be rewarded….This fight isn’t over; it’s just started. The Republicans can’t lead us anywhere; they couldn’t find the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and today they can’t find even a trace of the first half of $700 billion given to the banks on Wall Street.” To tremendous applause, he concluded by saying “No retreat, no surrender!” and that a “workers revolution” had to be paired with the “green revolution.”

The conference participants got to speak their minds in the nearly 50 workshops spread over the three days. These covered a wide range on topics, from prison re-entry and green jobs to high road capital strategies for new wealth creation in a green economy. Everywhere, however, there was the common theme of expanding employment and guarding the environment.

In a workshop on capital strategies, for instance, about 100 people discussed methods for investing in a green economy. One case in point was Ontario’s Algoma Steel, one of the largest worker-owned coops in North America, now thriving after a worker buyout assisted by venture capital and government funds. Fred Richmond, USW International Vice President, presented the example of his union’s cooperation with Gamesa, a Spanish firm specializing in building wind turbines. One mill has been recently reopened in Bucks County in Eastern Pennsylvania, and another is underway in Western PA, creating 1000 new USW jobs. The ensuing demand for structural steel for the turbines has directly meant 250 steelworker jobs in Northwest Indiana.

Another workshop of 200 people went deeply into the energy policy of the state of Colorado, which now has the target of 20 percent ‘clean energy’ consumption set by the state legislature. Discussion focused on the transformation of two isolated minorities, green militants and labor unions, in a traditionally GOP-dominated ‘Red’ state. By coming to see each other as allies rather than adversaries, they were able to reframe common issues and win majorities. Said one presenter: “When you explain to farmers how the royalties from a wind turbine in their county can pay their local school budget and lower their taxes, and bring some new jobs as well, you have their attention. That’s what we did, and as you know, Colorado turned ‘Blue’ in the last election, with the blue-green alliance playing a key role.”

James Hoffa of the Teamsters also spoke to the blue-green alliance and how it started in the streets of Seattle in the massive street battles of “Teamsters and Turtles” on one side, and the World Trade Organization and the police on the other. “You learn who your friends are,” he declared, ‘and you learn a few things in the process. We originally supported drilling in ANWAR. I’d like to announce to you today that we no longer do.”

Some of the most powerful presentations came on the last day. First up was Winona LaDuke, member of the Ojibwe (Chippewa) Tribe living in the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota. She was the Vice Presidential Candidate with Ralph Nader on the Green Party ticket in 2000, but endorsed John Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008.

After greeting the crowd in her traditional language, LaDuke proclaimed with a smile, “I must admit it’s a treat to come here from Minnesota to the home of the Great Black Father!” which brought down the house.

But she quickly turned serious, and the need to break with a petroleum-centered economy. “We can’t build a society based on conquest. We are addicted, and like addicts, we hang out with dealers and do bad stuff. Our people lived in a green economy on this continent for nearly 30,000 years, and knew how to live within their means.” She also took aim at the nuclear industry, noting that two-thirds of uranium was mined on Indian lands, and all of the proposals of where to store hazardous nuclear waste were Indian lands as well. “In what was the largest uranium mine in New Mexico, they’ve now build three prisons. How’s that for a future?” For a Green solution, she pointed out that Indian lands were also “the windiest and sunniest’ places in the country, and welcomed wind turbines and solar collectors, “but we want local ownership and control” as part of the package.

Fred Richmond of the steelworkers took the platform next and declared to the several thousand now present, “Feel the spirit of our sister, Winona LaDuke! Feel her passion for this land, as opposed to those global corporations with no loyalty to anyone apart from themselves!”

Richmond went on to give a history of how the blue-green alliance started and evolved, beginning with the USW and the Sierra Club. “We both came to understand that we cannot get good jobs without a clean environment, and that we can’t get a clean environment without good jobs. We both needed unconventional allies to fight the low road’s worldwide race to the bottom.” Speaking about decades of fathers and grandfathers killed and poisoned in the mills, he ended with “We need to take our planet back!”

Now it was time for Green For All, which fired everyone up with the Hip-Hop video, “Green Anthem 1,” (available on YouTube) a powerful portrayal of the entry of multicultural youth into the mix of “unconventional” but very natural allies. It brought Van Jones to the stage.

“We started this because we were tired of going to funerals,” Jones began. “We were tired of police killing kids, and kids killing kids.” These were rooted in the oppression of the inner city’s joblessness and hopelessness, he explained and described initial work with the Ella Baker Center to fight for home repair and cleanup jobs, and called it “Green Jobs, Not Jails.” Later the concept deepened into major structural reforms described in his book, “The Green Collar Economy.”

“This is a profound movement that goes deeper than installing solar panels,” Jones went on. This is showing the world a new America…. But no change can come in one day. We have to work every day. We have to change the economy, not just with green proposals, but with solidarity back in the center of it. We have to move democracy from the ballot box to the workplace. We are the human family coming back to itself. Think long and hard on this question: in the final hour, who are we? Who are we on this planet? Are we a swarm of locusts, devouring everything? Or are we honeybees, building together and adding to life?”

“This is our world historic moment, am I right, brother steelworkers?” Jones said gesturing to Richmond. “I’m not working for a lot of grants and awards on a dead planet….The clean energy movement can’t be stopped, and labor is the pillar of the whole pro-democracy movement we need.” To the Green For All youth, Jones added, “You are Ground Zero in this fight. To green the planet, we must green the city, and there’s no greening the city without greening the ghetto. This is a movement that let’s you rise!

Jones was adamant on the need to organize and mobilize at the base, to go back to the union halls and neighborhoods, and speak to all those not yet involved. He was warmly supportive of Obama, and the need to back him up. “But there will be times to push him, and times to be a few steps in front on him.”

The question of war and militarism was brought front and center by Rev. Lenox Yearwood, who followed Jones. Yearwood is president of the Hip-Hop Caucus and a minister who serves as an ambassador for the hip-hop generation. Formerly an Air Force officer and chaplain, he raised a ruckus when he delivered a sermon to the Joint Chiefs of Staff entitled, “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” and was further radicalized by the events around Hurricane Katrina. Trying to enter a Capitol Hill hearing featuring General Petraeus, he was arrested and severely beaten.

“”No War, No Warming!’ is a slogan that has to link our struggles,” said Yearwood. “I recall the words of our departed brother, Damu Smith, asking me if my job was to keep to myself, or fight for my people. This is our generation’s lunch-counter moment. One hundred years from now, not of us in this room will be here; but we have to make sure the planet will still be inhabitable for our children and grandchildren. Organize everywhere, mobilize everyone, and lift up all! Power to the people!”

It was a fitting summation of the spirit of the conference participants. Their next task was clear enough: to take the nature of the unity and the wide alliances in the room at this national gathering, and replicate them at the grassroots in every state and major city in the country.

[Carl Davidson posts at Keep on Keeping On and writes for Beaver County Blue, a website anchored in Western Pennsylvania and for The Rag Blog. He is also a steering committee member of the U.S. Solidarity Economy Network and a national committee member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, as well as webmaster for Progressives for Obama.]

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