Greening Buildings

Why Green Jobs Should Be Union Jobs, By Joe Uehlein

The union movement has worked hand in hand with allies in the environmental and social justice movements and others to push for “green jobs” that help reduce the carbon emissions that threaten our planet. Now we need to explain to them why those green jobs should provide the freedom to form a union, why our alliance should encourage workers in green jobs to form unions and why it should help us make employers recognize and bargain with them. Here are some of the reasons we can use to appeal to allies and the public, based on our report, "Why Green Jobs Should Be Union Jobs."

Empowering environmental guardians on the job. Workers have a strong stake in making their workplaces safe from environmental hazards and in protecting their communities and the wider world from workplace-originated pollution. But in workplaces without union rights and representation, workers are often intimidated from raising such concerns—the rule is likely to be “shut up or get fired.” Workers with union protections have often served as the eyes, ears and voice of the community in the workplace.

Countering unilateral corporate power. Protecting the public interest is hard work primarily because of the enormous power exercised by corporate private interests.Unions are perhaps the single most powerful countervailing force, helping redress the imbalance between corporations and the public in the political arena.

Rebuilding strong communities and the middle class. The expansion of green jobs is likely to be at the center of any effort to counter the erosion of good jobs and job standards that has decimated the American middle class. With help and inspiration from labor-backed groups like Green for All, union training and recruitment programs are already creating pathways out of poverty for people in America’s most deprived urban and rural areas.

Training the green workforce. Even though millions of workers are unemployed and looking for work, the emerging green industries are full of bottlenecks because of the shortage of workers with the right training. Unions are already playing a significant role in recruiting, training and placing workers in those jobs. In existing jobs, properly trained workers are crucial to avoiding poor practices that harm the environment; unions are a key source of pressure to ensure adequate training in environmentally sound practices.

Greening the labor movement. Organized labor has become an enthusiastic advocate for green jobs. But expanding green jobs depends on strong environmental policies that require companies and governments to make the shift to a low-carbon future. Creating a broad swath of union membership that depends on green jobs will provide a strong voice for pro-environment policies in the labor movement.

Strengthening the labor-environmental coalition. Nothing could do more to strengthen labor’s commitment to its alliance with the environmental movement than concrete evidence that greening grows labor’s ranks. When organized labor sees the value of that alliance, it can deliver real results. The joint union-community campaign to clean up the Los Angeles ports has led to a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by one of California’s leading polluters; labor’s commitment was greatly strengthened by a joint community-labor strategy that would make it possible for port drivers to join a union.

Corporate accountability and transparency. Unions control large pension funds and they have increasingly been using their investments to demand socially responsible policies. Increasing union membership will increase labor’s ability to help demand corporate social responsibility and transparency.

Building a more democratic society. The effort to build a sustainable world is only likely to succeed if it is part of a broad, multifaceted movement that addresses a wide range of the issues that touch people’s lives. Whether it is universal health care, protecting the environment or ensuring justice on the job, people need a broad alliance that can move society in a more progressive direction. The rapidly expanding green sector is a crucial place to start.

Ensuring green jobs are good jobs. What are touted as green jobs can all too easily instead be minimum wage jobs with poor working conditions without job security or benefits. The surest way to see that green jobs are good jobs is for workers to organize in unions that can bargain with their employers to ensure appropriate standards on the job.

A union brings collective bargaining, democracy on the job, protections for whistle-blowers, rising standards of living, a stronger tax base for the community and much more. Overall, the standards unions negotiate help build communities up. The economic impact for the family and the community are clear.

If labor’s allies want the benefits of green jobs to be sustained, they should help make sure that green jobs are union jobs.