Getting more out of green

By Michelle Chen Feb 17, 2009

Environmentalists are excited about the stimulus package, which includes fresh funding for green infrastructure and green jobs. Now the task before community advocates, organized labor, and the environmental movement is peering through the political hype to turn the concept of the green economy into a sustainable, and equitable, reality. At today’s "Race and Jobs" phone conference, Julian Mocine-McQueen of Green for All acknowledged that historically, even solid job training programs have not always been able to route people into quality jobs. But he also pointed to various projects, such as the Los Angeles Apollo Alliance, that focus on making the green economy a unique pathway for workers who have faced barriers to opportunity in the mainstream economy. Fred Redman, vice president of United Steelworkers of America International, said unions will play a central role in executing the green initiatives coming down from Congress–and working-class people of color have a special stake in this effort. On the federal dollars allotted for green job training programs, he said that labor-community coalitions will work to “see to it that these training dollars reach our communities.” He noted longstanding tensions about racial diversity in the building trades, and the need to build alliances to promote government-supported green job training for communities of color. The AFL-CIO, which has lately stressed addressing racial discrimination as a keystone of its organizing agenda, has just rolled out a platform for seeding union-standard green jobs in established and emerging industries. Meanwhile, the national advocacy network Apollo Alliance recently published "High Road or Low Road?," a report detailing possible pitfalls that a rush toward green jobs might bring–namely, employers failing to make jobs as decent for workers as they are beneficial for the environment. In an article put out by the Alliance, Philip Mattera of Good Jobs First, the report’s principal author, warned:

“public discussion of green jobs has focused almost entirely on the number or type of employment opportunities that could be created by a clean energy revolution. The question of whether these new jobs will offer wages, benefits, and working conditions needed to sustain families and communities has received much less attention.” “Just because a company purports to be green doesn’t mean that it isn’t engaging in questionable practices as far as labor is concerned… Green companies are not necessarily enlightened when it comes to labor practices.”

The current fiscal climate could further impede progressive green-job initiatives. Despite the momentum in Congress, one conservation job program for disadvantaged youth in California may soon face severe cutbacks— a result of the “hard choices” the state must make in negotiating its budget deficit. At the conference, Redman said activists should remain “vigilant” about protecting labor standards, as there are “no guarantees” that the green items in the stimulus package, such as funds for energy-efficiency and public transit projects, will translate into lots more union jobs. “This could be the future of manufacturing as we know it in the United States,” he said, "and we need to make sure that these jobs are sustainable.” If we don’t, what has been sold as a boost to the environment may amount to a net loss for our human habitat—the communities struggling for traction on the green economy’s landscape. Image: Apollo Alliance