Stimulus creates opportunities for unions in the new clean-energy economy


President Barack Obama last month signed into law a $787 billion economic stimulus package that invests heavily in sweeping clean-energy and energy-efficiency programs. Proponents of the stimulus, including labor unions, say the investments will create the middle class jobs – the so-called “green jobs” – necessary to rally a slumping economy.

The inclusion of green energy provisions in the stimulus bill represents a watershed moment in U.S. public policy. After decades of squabbling over the existence of global warming – a debate that sometimes seemed to pit environmentalists and the labor movement against each other – the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act solidifies the U.S. commitment to reducing its carbon emissions and its reliance on fossil fuels.

Inherent in that commitment to a different kind of energy policy is a commitment to a new, green economy as well.

In the short term, the nation’s success at transitioning out of an economy driven by fossil fuels and into an economy that runs on clean, renewable energy will go a long way toward determining the success of the economic recovery. And the labor movement’s willingness to embrace – and to organize – the emerging green economy will go a long way toward determining its future, for better or worse.

With that idea in mind, the United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club formed the Blue Green Alliance four years ago, and the partnership between unions and environmental organizations has since grown to include the Communications Workers of America, the Natural Resource Defense Council, the Service Employees International Union and the Laborers’ International Union of North America.

Blue Green Alliance Executive Director Dave Foster likened the transition to a green economy already underway to the transition from horse and buggy to the automobile a century ago.

“If you had been a blacksmith at the turn of the 20th century, you might have thought automobiles were awfully stupid contraptions,” Foster said, “but there’s no question that the blacksmith of the 19th century gave way to the autoworker of the 20th century.

“Occasionally in the labor movement, we’ve said if things aren’t done our way, they ought not be done at all. We need to be embrace the future and focus on creating the labor movement of the clean-energy economy, and not think there’s any stake in holding it back.”

A boon for workers
So far, it appears the labor movement is on board for a green recovery. Unions pressed hard for passage of the stimulus bill, which included about $60 billion in green investments. Some of the specifics include:

$11 billion for the creation of a smart energy grid.

$8.4 billion for public transit.

$6.3 billion in state and local energy-efficiency grants.

$4.5 billion to make federal buildings more environmentally friendly.

$500 million for green jobs training.

These investments are sure to translate into green jobs – blue-collar jobs that serve an environmental purpose – within the next year. Many of those jobs will be in the building and construction trades, which have been hit hard by the slowdown in the housing market. Electricians will be needed to upgrade the energy grid, construction workers to retrofit public buildings and homes and laborers to build railways for public transportation.

Indeed, a big reason investment in the green economy holds so much promise for U.S. economic recovery is that green jobs are nearly impossible to outsource. It’s not cost-effective to retrofit a building in St. Paul by shipping it to China.

Additionally, jobs producing renewable energy are much more labor intensive than jobs in the fossil fuel industry. An article in The Nation by Robert Pollin, “Doing the Recovery Right,” claims that every $1 million in green investment creates about 17 jobs, while every $1 million invested in the oil and coal industries creates about 5.5 jobs.

The stimulus package also includes provisions to ensure the materials used to expand public transportation, retrofit buildings and improve the energy grid will come from U.S. manufacturers. The challenge, Foster said, will be in getting federal regulators to enforce the provision.

Foster pointed to the Department of Homeland Security’s work to erect thousands of miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexican border using steel produced in China, in direct violation of federal procurement policies.

“That was a clear demonstration of how poorly the Bush administration enforced the ‘buy-American’ provisions that already existed in federal law and cover over a dozen agencies,” Foster said. “We have to focus on making sure the enforcement is of a very different nature, because there are all kinds of administrative loopholes in procurement policies.”

How many jobs?

Last fall the Blue Green Alliance co-sponsored a study with the Center for American Progress and the University of Massachusetts that showed a $100 billion investment in the green economy over two years would create roughly 2 million jobs. That may be a generous estimate for the stimulus bill, but Foster said it gets the ball rolling in the right direction.

“Across the board, these were very significant investments in making sure that we head into the clean energy economy,” he said.

But the stimulus package is only the beginning – a down payment, Foster called it. Several installments remain, he said, to cover the full cost of a green economic recovery.

Foster laid out three policy goals for Congress and the president for the remainder of 2009: an energy bill that makes additional investments in renewable technology, a transportation bill that continues to build the nation’s public transit infrastructure and a climate change bill that reduces incentives for fossil fuel usage, “putting us on the long-term path for a clean-energy economy.”

Work remains for the labor movement as well. Unions, Foster said, bear the burden of ensuring a green economic recovery benefits the middle class, and that means pushing local officials to enforce prevailing wage standards, resisting privatization and, of course, organizing.

“There are definitely business interests now who understand the profitability and future of a green economy, and they have no more direct interest in letting this be a union economy than business interests have in parts of the old economy,” Foster said. “Those folks are still lying in the weeds, and the labor movement needs to be vigilant.”

The stimulus package’s $500 million provision for green job training is an indication that, already, unions have begun making the case that successfully combating climate change will require a well-trained workforce.

“If we do that,” Foster said, “then we end up with a green economy that’s a lot more organized and a lot more worker friendly than we might otherwise get.”

Michael Moore edits The St. Paul Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation.