Van Jones and the Green Jobs Initiative
By Carl Davidson / The Rag Blog / June 13, 2009
[Prepared as a Memo for the Working Class Studies Association Conference, June 6-8 2009, at the University of Pittsburgh.]
1. One of the more important progressive measures launched in the first 100 days of the Obama administration is the Green Jobs Initiative within the broader Economic Recovery Act. There is substantial money allocated to it, and the appointee brought on to shepherd its development, Van Jones, is one of the few Obama appointees clearly from the left. Green Jobs is also a product of the Blue-Green Alliance, a joint effort by labor unions and environmental groups, which has funded advocacy for the program for years.
2. There are two aspects to Green Jobs, the immediate and the structural. The immediate has to do with bringing living-wage employment with a future to those who need it most, the unemployed and under-employed youth of the inner city. The structural has to do with Green Jobs being part of a larger effort to shift the country’s energy system from one based on burning carbon and uranium to one based on sustainable renewables — solar, wind, wave, hydro and geothermal. All these require major upgrading of the country’s infrastructure and a retooling of its manufacturing for more advanced products and production. Both aspects require a new Green industrial policy, alongside an erosion of the country’s traditional military-industrial policy and more recent neoliberal market fundamentalism.
3. The neoliberal diehards in the House and Senate GOP, together with the right-wing populism stirred up by the Fox-Limbaugh-Hannity media reactionaries, are preparing an all-out attack of Green Jobs on several fronts. First, they attack the whole concept that there is any urgency to anything Green. In their view, global warming and climate change are simply left-wing hoaxes used as a cover to attack the free market and promote government planning, leading to socialism. Second, they attack it as affirmative action for people of color, supposedly masking moral failure and public schools as the real reason for the problems of the inner city. Third, they are preparing a red-baiting campaign against Van Jones in particular, as part of a wider effort to red-bait Obama and deny the legitimacy of his election.
4. Green Jobs will require more than White House and Congressional Democrat support in order to survive this resistance and counter-attack. Getting a program adopted by Congress is only the first step on a long road to its deployment. Community and youth organizations, environmental groups and the trade unions are facing the task of launching a social movement to see to it that Green Jobs is not gutted, delayed or otherwise sabotaged.
5. Green Jobs can be undermined indirectly as well. The program ultimately has to be deployed locally, and pass through state, county and city governments and their hangers-on. Left to their own inclinations, funds for Green Jobs may be diverted to parks or highway projects that shore up existing government worker payrolls with little new employment of those most in need. Alternately, new construction can be turned over to firms importing non-union labor, or using labor at minimum wage rather than living wage standards. Only local coalitions mobilized with some clout at the base can prevent this, and the ball is in the court of the left to organize them.
6. Green Jobs is a natural for the left to build coalitions of diversity in working-class and low-income communities. Start with organizations close to those who need Green Jobs most-inner city youth service agencies, neighborhood churches and their youth groups, sports groups-then approach others needed to make a collaborative work, such as trade union apprenticeship programs, community college trade skills teachers, local home building or remodeling companies looking for new projects. With this assembled, find the local political incumbents, especially at the state level, ready to go to bat for your project. Connect with Green for All, Van Jones’ group, if it’s in a major city near you, for advice.
7. The left has its own approach to bring to the Green Jobs table, apart from being a catalytic organizer. Green Jobs can be implemented in a “low road” way, by giving funds to contractors who hire youth at minimum wage, who in turn winterize a few public buildings, bypass the unions and dump the youth when it’s over. Obviously, this is to be avoided. But there’s a high road, solidarity economy approach that builds a stakeholder collaborative on businesses, unions, credit unions and schools, with a strategic view of a lasting green construction worker cooperative as an outcome, together with higher-tech career paths through community college partnership with high-tech green firms. The solidarity economy, in turn, serves as a way to educate concretely about the prospects for a socialist future.
8. Green Jobs is a product of a long and complex series of working-class and youth struggles. One part reaches back to the global justice battles in the streets of Seattle more than a decade ago. The unions joined this to battle NAFTA, and the youth came out of green and global justice concerns. Both found themselves on the same side of the barricades battling police in the streets — ‘Teamsters and Turtles Forever!’ was a spontaneous slogan. Some in the Steelworkers’ Union and the Sierra Club took it further, and in a paradigm shift, began to see each other as natural allies rather than natural adversaries. The tons of steel and 19,000 machined parts in every wind turbine had to be manufactured and assembled somewhere, after all. This was formally put together and funded as the Blue-Green Alliance. The other component came from the anger of inner city youth facing jails and police harassment and brutality. Demanding jobs for youth was not new and often ignored, but when Van Jones in Oakland put out “Green Jobs, Not Jails” to put kids to work insulating buildings and installing solar panels, he suddenly had people listening in a new way. There is more to the story, but this is the heart of it, and organic development from class struggle, labor-community alliances and youth insurgency. There will be more battles, but with this energy to build on, the prospects are very bright.
[Carl Davidson is webmaster for SolidarityEconomy.net, a national committee member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, and a coordinating committee member of the US Solidarity Economy Network. Together with Jerry Harris, he is author of Cyber-Radicalism: A New Left for a Global Age, available at lulu.com. This article was also posted to Keep on Keeping On.]
You failed to mention another issue with green jobs. While they should be an accompaniment to other programs which attack climate change by offering ways to cut carbon emissions, unfortunately, in some circles they have become both the means and the end. Some groups are afraid to discuss the real facts about climate change because of simplistic, Limbaugh-esque attacks from the right, and they couch their environmental goals in terms of green jobs, and green jobs only. I’ve been chided by members of other environmental groups for talking about real consequences to business as usual. “Green jobs” are a nice-nice concept to many, designed to layer acceptability on top of what is a difficult issue. Let’s quit treating the American public like they’re children and tell them the reality that everyone else in the world knows.
I read an article by Van Jones recently, and he does appear to be the real thing, a community organizer with a touch of economic savvy, and a history of 3-dimensional personal development. I saw him at the Net Roots conference in Austin this past Summer, and his major message was that getting Obama elected this past November was not the problem, it was getting him re-elected in 4 years.
Personally, I was impressed with the challenge of getting him elected last November; although it was an electoral landside, the margin of victory was only about 4 % in the electorate.
The overwhelming reality in the electorate is that so many of us have disengaged from genuine public dialogue. This is, shall I say, very serious.
Green jobs is a new metaphor for hope, for opportunity, for believing that we can feed ourselves and our families, however we define our families. And families must start including not merely those that we live with, but those that we live nearby. Those need green jobs too. They also need love.
Connecting that local geography is the fundamental anchoring of the future for the “Green Jobs”. Touting such a future requires that we need to understand why it has not happened in the past. Environmental degradgation has not been accidential. It has happened intentionally. Unless we understand that, the “Green Jobs” future can be as bleak as Obama’s attempt to find a way through our economic fiasco-present. And Obama’s present failure can be our failure unless we honor him for being there. What has been done over the last decade is the prelude to Obama’s present failure. The fact that we now have a thinking President, in my mind, is huge. Short of that, we collectively are not conscious of the horrible ways that the last decade has shaped up. It is ironic that this last decade has been responsible for pushing us into a defacto socialism. We do not do centralized control well. We need to do that local populism locally, and not worry so much about right-wing populism. We need to do so much more than blame. We need to build.
At any rate, these are the things that concern me as I move through the opportunities and tribulations that I have as a Trustee at Austin Community College. Recently I attended a training for new Trustees in Washington DC, and I was impressed with the quality of new Trustees (most of them are not young). However, they, as the people on the front lines of our culture of creating the new “Green Jobs” culture manifested the angst that is appropriate for this time. Frequently when I have told people for the last year that we are going into a major structural Depression, I have been accused of being pessimistic! Those on the Community College front lines know that I am realistic. What are we to do if we create a “Green Jobs” culture, it requires that we have jobs at the end of the rainbow, at the end of Workforce training, at the end of what passes as hope for working class people. The opportunities that I have as a Community College Trustee await challenges deal not only with Board dynamics, but with Community College structural constituencies, and, that does not even get to the electorate at large, which meets once every two years to elect three of us. My next election is in 4 years…
Meanwhile, I am working with other ACC Trustees and the ACC Administration in building the “Green Jobs” future, and knowing that as a representative of ACC, ACC is probably the most important and collaborative governmental institution in Central Texas. It is not enough. We need to do more. We need to get you involved. How can you get involved?
We need to have more than a slogan of “Green Jobs” forever!
Thanks for a great comment, Tim, ‘Green Jobs’ is just the tactical front on a much larger transition, one from burning coal and uranium to making use of renewable. That’s a much larger structural reform that, if done right, can lead to economic democracy on all fronts.
But I wouldn’t underplay the problem of rightwing populism. The are being used as the shock troop against any progressive change, especially that coming from DC.
Alyssa and Tim both point to the centrality of having jobs at the end of the green rainbow. This is the necessary antidote to rightwing populism. Right now, people are trying to retrofit themselves for a green future, but basic technologies remain fluid, underfunded, and underutilized.
Texas power companies want to build new nuclear and coal-fired electrical plants on the Gulf Coast. Those projects would bring jobs and boost the tax base, and unless wind, wave, and/or solar can be realistically deployed to replace those jobs, taxes, and energy, I fear the old-style energy technologies will continue to be supported. Why are wind turbines not made so that birds and other creatures can’t be hurt by them? Why hasn’t solar cell storage been perfected yet? Let’s hope we’re not training a generation of buggy-whip makers!
The Blue-Green Alliance is as big a farce as Barack Obama himself.
This so-called “Alliance” is nothing but the concoction of a bunch of worthless labor sell-outs like Leo Girard and the environmental charlatan Carl Pope… the two of them, like Van Jones are all talk and no action.
All the so-called “Green Jobs” have been poverty wage jobs.
Mariah Power, supported by the Blue-Green Alliance has received a one-hundred percent free ride on the backs of tax-payers while paying former auto workers to produce their windmills in Manistee, Michigan $12.00 an hour while they have contracted with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota to produce and repair the generators in a plant where workers have nor rights under state, federal or tribal labor laws working for minimum wage. The Green-Blue Alliance and their affiliated members have made no attempt to organize these workers. We need to ask: Why?
If Obama’s plans for creating this new “green industry” were being done as a public works project with all profiteering removed, this would be another matter.
However, Carl Davidson and those supporting Obama’s green initiative do not even have the moral or political courage to challenge how much people will be paid for the energy their alternative enegy producers pump into the existing power grid, from which corporations will profit.
We need to ask why those who invest thousands of dollars in purchasing these alternative energy sources are not reimbursed on the basis of the cost of every kilowatt their systems put into the energy grid on a fair basis.
Furthermore, both Carl Pope and Leo Girard stood at the entrance to the St. Paul Ford Twin Cities Assembly Plant pledging a fight and a struggle to keep the plant from closing and its power-plant, a tax-payer subsidized hydro-generating facility from falling into private hands… as soon as their press conference was over we in Minnesota never heard from these two big blowhards again and Carl Davidson’s beloved Van Jones refused all comment… apparently knowing ifhe added his voice to saving the St. Paul Ford Twin Cities Assembly Plant, the hydro dam— and most importantly— the 2,000 jobs he would not have been considered by Obama for the position he now holds.
As far as any of these new technologies being “more affordable than ever”… go tell that to people having their homes, farms and small businesses foreclosed on.
As far as the “right-wing;” Barack Obama is the frontman for Wall Street— it is hard to get more right-wing than that.
In fact, because all of Obama’s programs are designed to shore up the profits of banks, big-business and the multi-national corporations, Obama has created a huge vacuum from which the right-wing now operates.
Had Obama come through with the kind of changes he led people to believe he was for in order to get their votes, such programs which would have helped people save their homes, farms and small businesses would have provided the barriers to right-wing extremism… not to mention had Obama pushed single-payer universal health care through congress with the same rapidity he pushed through legislation to save the bankers and insurance companies and had he brought the troops home rather than expanding Bush’s wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan… then we would have had the funds to undertake a real “green initiative.”
Alan L. Maki