This month, the U.S. House passed the most comprehensive pro-labor legislation since the 1930s. The PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act would significantly punish employers who violate workers’ rights. It has fines for managers who retaliate against workers who organize and requirements for employers to bargain their workers’ first union contracts in good faith.
Interestingly, many climate activists were lobbying for the bill. This is consistent with the Green New Deal (GND) proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts). The non-binding resolution supported union jobs that pay prevailing wages and committed to “wage and benefit parity for workers” affected by the energy transition. The GND also called for “strengthening and protecting” the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain, and for “enacting and enforcing trade rules, procurement standards, and border adjustments” with strong labor protections.
The fight for the GND will be tough because it challenges the status quo. We need a climate-labor coalition to win. Many labor unions are supportive and a 2019 Data for Progress poll shows that the GND has overwhelming support from rank and file union members.
A recent study by University of Massachusetts economist Robert Pollin concludes that if the U.S. decided to reduce carbon pollution 90% by 2050, it could create 5 million jobs in the first year and increase to 7.5 million in later years.
Nevertheless, there are powerful forces in the labor movement that are skeptical or even opposed to the GND. Joe Uehlein, founding president of the Labor Network for Sustainability (an alliance of labor environmental activists) and former secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department, has expressed concern. He says:
“The Green New Deal movement needs broader support from the labor movement to be successful.
As long as labor isn’t a central player in this movement, they have the power to block pretty much anything on Capitol Hill. They contribute in electoral campaigns. They’re a very powerful force.”
There are understandable reasons for union skepticism about a clean energy transition. There’s the constant anti-big government messaging in our politics and the ridiculous scare stories about the GND in the right-wing media. Some climate activists talk about the need for sacrifice in an excessively affluent society to people suffering from deteriorating living standards.
But there’s something more concrete. Green jobs are mostly non-union, pay less and have fewer benefits than fossil fuel industry jobs. According to the 2020 U.S. Energy and Employment Report from the National Association of State Energy Officials and the Energy Futures Initiative, solar and wind jobs in the energy generation sector are only 4% -6% union. By contrast, coal and natural gas jobs are twice that (10% and 11%).
If you work at a polluting plant, refinery or mine that is the biggest employer in an area, you have a dilemma if the place is closed down. You lose your job, which might be the best paying job in the area. In a state like Wyoming or Texas, dirty energy provides tax revenue for schools and local government. So a shuttered plant affects everybody. That’s why the GND and the PRO Act are needed.
Federal funds for green infrastructure would help big companies like Tesla and Uber, which are intensely anti-union and lobby to avoid labor laws, which would improve conditions for gig workers.
Elon Musk, who runs Tesla, is particularly notorious. African American employees reported racist threats, humiliation and barriers to promotion at the Tesla plant in Fremont, California. In 2019, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the company violated the law by threatening employees who tried to organize a union. Tesla was forced to rehire a worker with back pay who was fired for organizing. The back pay was deductible on the company’s taxes as a legitimate cost of doing business. There was no monetary penalty for the company.
If the PRO Act became law, the company and managers would be forced to pay for their anti-union behavior.
Last spring there was a COVID-19 outbreak in California and Musk reopened his Fremont factory despite a stay-at-home order by county public health authorities. He claimed the order was “fascist,” that Tesla was more capable of protecting its workers than local officials and that state and local governments should “FREE AMERICA NOW.”
However, he told his employees that they had to come to work or they might lose their unemployment benefits, according to emails seen by the Guardian.
Four hundred and forty Tesla workers tested positive for the coronavirus between May and December of last year, according to public health data released this month by PlainSite, a transparency website.
What is freedom? A “libertarian” tycoon like Musk doing whatever he wants? Or do we want a freedom for the rest of us coming from the redistributive reforms in the GND and the PRO Act?
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.