Building the just transition

Tensions between building trades unions and environmental groups have existed for so long that they seem inescapable. But recent agreements between unions and renewable companies are a reminder that the labor and environmental movements ultimately share the same objective – a livable future for people and the planet – and should spur socialists to fold trade unions into ecosocialist goals.

On May 5, 2022, as a glossy video was unfurled across social mediaand journalists and politicians convened at the AFL-CIO, Ørsted — a Danish multinational power company that — and North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) proclaimed, “North America’s Building Trades Unions and Ørsted Agree to Build an American Offshore Wind Energy Industry with American Labor.”

That afternoon, representatives from Ørsted and NABTU — a federation of labor unions that includes the Teamsters, Steelworkers and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) — jointly announced “a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) to construct the company’s U.S. offshore wind farms with an American union workforce.” They billed the agreement as a “first-of-its-kind” deal in the U.S. and promised it would add hundreds of millions of dollars in wages, increase opportunity and equity, and combat environmental injustice.

Just one month earlier, the American Petroleum Institute (API), the national trade association for the oil and natural gas industry, sponsored NABTU’s annual legislative conference. And yet, here is an unprecedented labor agreement that turns away from unions’ murky past with the API and towards a clean future: a landmark PLA that circumvents a common if overstated criticism that the building trades will take any work offered, no matter the environmental impact, and coupled the goals of the environmental and labor movements. AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler called the agreement “a model for the entire renewable industry, for solar and other emerging technologies to follow — one where labor standards and environmental performance go hand in hand, where we make the goal of green jobs being union jobs real , and where we build a future that’s better to live and work in.”

Such excitement is merited, and as socialists we certainly shouldn’t chide it. But we are already extremely behind where we need to be both in our shift to green energy and in efforts to organize the green energy industry — two movements that must walk hand-in-hand as part of the “just transition” if we are to achieve our vision of the future. To spur the just transition, socialists must leap into the fight, and not just from a policy perspective. Collaborating with building trades unions on new organizing efforts and bringing trades workers into DSA (and vice versa) must become a central tenet of our strategy to unite workers and the world.

Labor and the Green Left: A disjointed past

Right-wing and capitalist forces have historically instigated and rhetorically exaggerated conflict between the environmental movement and organized labor; if anyone stands to benefit from disarray between union workers and the fight against extractive business, it’s capital. Nonetheless, there has long been friction between the establishment environmental movement (NGOs like the Sierra Club) and mainstream organized labor (NABTU unions).

Environmental and labor forces were broadly aligned at the inception of the former movement. Jean-Baptiste Velut reports: “Under the leadership of Walther Reuther, the UAW sponsored the historic Earth Day in 1970—a nation-wide demonstration designed to raise environmental awareness.” Labor would go on to support several federal environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Clean Air Act of 1970, and the Clean Water Act of 1972. For their part, environmental groups supported the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers’ (OCAW) 1973 strike against Shell Oil. Velut concludes that this “joint mobilization of blue and green organizations certainly broadened the appeal of these reforms for decision-makers.”

Not long after, however, the first high-profile “jobs versus environment” quarrels, which continue to disrupt conversations around the alliance of environmental and labor movements, began to surface. During the fiscal crises of the 1970s, Velut writes, mainstream environmental and labor organizations continued in increasingly disparate directions, aided and abetted by the oil industry and conservative allies. Labor took positions that guaranteed their members’ jobs while environmental NGOs politicked for more stringent laws and regulations that would transition America off fossil fuels and even opposed certain union-endorsed construction projects. Crucially and tragically, these campaigns rarely included the input of union workers themselves or plans to ensure their livelihoods moving forward. From Velut’s research:

…the debates on the Clean Air Act of 1990 further compromised their chances of building a solid alliance–this time at the national level. In this case, the United Mineworkers opposed the sulfur restrictions championed by environmentalists. Here again, employers exploited workers’ anxieties about job insecurity to mobilize union members against the environmental bill. The industry’s anti-ecological campaign, however, was not simply a case of “environmental blackmail.” Following the passage of the Clean Air Act, coal miners, especially in the East, lost thousands of jobs as electric companies switched to low-sulfur western coal to meet tougher air pollution standards (Obach).

And so the touchy blue-green relationship has ebbed and flowed throughout the past fifty years. Some building trades unions have historically supported green jobs programs, and UAW Region 9A recently endorsed the New York Build Public Renewables Act. On the other hand, NABTU fiercely condemned President Biden’s closure of the Keystone XL Pipeline in 2021 and in 2016, Laborers’ International (LIUNA) President Terry O’Sullivan said of opposition to Keystone: "We're repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women.”

This disjointment leads to our current plight. Not only are we years behind where we need to be in our move away from fossil fuels, but the clean energy sector is also extraordinarily unorganized. Vox reports that “about 4 percent of solar industry workers and 6 percent of wind workers are unionized, according to the 2020 US Energy and Employment Report,” whereas “the percentage of unionized workers in natural gas, nuclear, and coal power plants is about double that, around 10 to 12 percent unionized (although still not a huge amount). In transportation, distribution, and storage jobs — which exist largely in the fossil fuel sector — about 17 percent of the jobs are unionized.”

The cycle continues. We make slow, faltering progress towards a union-built green energy system, hindered by the (understandable) hesitancy of unionized workers in extractive industries and their leaders’ doubt regarding the likelihood of a just transition that doesn’t abandon union labor. And as we all know, slow, faltering progress isn’t enough.

Myriad factors contribute to the constant postponement of a just transition. What matters now, though, are our next steps. The relatively high unionization rates of the oil, construction, transit, coal and other industries didn’t happen by accident. Those unions were fought for, their contracts written in blood. We need to aggressively organize the entire green energy sector — and fast.

The Socialist Gameplan

In mid-January, the New York Times reported that workers in Ohio voted “to create the first formal union at a major US electric car, truck or battery cell manufacturing plant not owned entirely by one of the Big Three automakers.”

This type of brave and vital worker victory can and should be a foundation from which socialists work to support tradespeople and help build a heavily unionized green energy sector (it’s worth noting here that socialists are already raising valid concerns about lithium extraction used for electric vehicles). But this is where things get thorny. How do we play a role in organizing wind, solar and other alternatives? How do we build relationships with local building trades unions? How do we strategically embark on a campaign to recruit building trades union members into DSA, and/or how do we strategically encourage interested DSA members to enter the trades and join or organize with building trades unions? For which chapters and branches would such efforts make sense, and could a local, regional or national funding infrastructure be set up to facilitate a broad salting operation in clean energy? Which trade, sector or union makes the most sense to focus on?

All these questions need to be addressed systematically and strategically. Whether they are taken up by labor working groups, chapter campaigns, subcommittees or other national or local bodies (depending on the chapter), the trades must make up a concrete, targeted component of DSA’s planning. Obviously, the rest of DSA’s labor work can’t fall by the wayside. The trades shouldn’t suddenly take priority over solidarity campaigns to support Starbucks workers, for example, or efforts to pressure local lawmakers into adopting domestic workers’ bills of rights. But if we are to bring trades workers into our fight for a green future, and if we are going to help organize the clean energy sector, one simple goal needs to be accomplished: Bring more rank-and-file tradespeople into DSA, and more DSA members to the trades.

This is likely a more difficult task than it would be in other industries for quite a few reasons. From a recruitment perspective, though the right inflates this phenomenon, building trades workers do tend to be more conservative than other union members. From a salting perspective, many trades jobs may not be as accessible to all DSA members in terms of time commitment, needed qualifications and technical experience as other industries are.

Still, pathways exist. Various DSA chapters, including Metro DC, have successfully fostered relationships with local unions. By committing to doing so with area building trades locals – e.g., reaching out during job actions and strikes, supporting letter writing or phone banking campaigns for trade-related ordinances, door-knocking or showing up to city halls to support municipal project labor agreements, we take the first step.

From there, it’s about extending those relationships to the rank-and-file. At the picket line, on the doors, during a rally, every DSA member has a role to play, and it’s a fun one: building a relationship with your tradesperson neighbor. These workers know better than most that camaraderie and solidarity can mean the difference between life and death, particularly on the jobsite. So let’s have their backs.

Salting the clean energy industry will require more experimentation. A clear first step is to gauge the interest of any trades workers who are already members of local DSA chapters. Another is to proactively seek out any local DSA members interested in working in the trades, approximating the number of potential tradespeople and even providing them with information on how to apply to union apprenticeship programs. Local chapters with the necessary resources and existing YDSA infrastructure can look into expanding the YDSA model and exploring ways to organize in trade and technical schools. And, of course, chapters and/or socialist legislators need to coordinate with building trades unions around legislation, ordinances and campaigns. We can’t expect building trades unions and their members to support green energy measures if those measures aren’t formulated in a collaborative way that puts the just transition into practice.

The scale and scope of DSA’s involvement in organizing the green energy sector will likely vary by chapter size, location and membership. The methodology will run the gamut in terms of uniqueness and ingenuity — it will have to, if we are to win the world we envision. The only certainty is that we need to commit to this fight. As long as we are willing to develop calluses on our palms, I have faith in the green, union-built world of tomorrow.

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