The myth that climate action kills jobs is dying. Study after study shows that serious environmental policy spurs job creation. Most recently, a July report found that meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals could create 8 million positions globally by 2050.
Organized labor still opposes some environmental policies, though, particularly building trade unions looking to protect their members’ jobs in the fossil fuel industry. The sector isn’t a great employer, with oil and gas companies slashing thousands of non-unionized workers in recent years. But by and large, jobs in coal, oil, and gas pay more than those in clean power and are more frequently unionized.
But labor and climate organizers are aiming to ease fossil fuel workers’ concerns, with an increasing push to make sure the climate jobs of the future are unionized and pay as well as their fossil fuel counterparts. They’re also putting the need to protect workers at the forefront rather than treating labor as an afterthought. The growing climate-labor movement could be the key to making sure decarbonization actually happens in a speedy and fair manner, and it’s making inroads in some surprising places.
At the Texas AFL-CIO’s annual convention last month, 121 unions—including those representing fossil fuel workers—voted in favor of a resolution for a green jobs plan. The resolution didn’t just pass, it did so with overwhelming support. The proposal was written by the Texas Climate Jobs Project, a project of the state labor federation and Cornell University’s Worker Institute in consultation with 27 unions statewide. It would create more than 1.1 million jobs to decarbonize Texas over the next 25 years if implemented.
“It really gives a clear guideline of how we create just jobs, and we do it in a way that saves our planet,” Jeremy Hendricks, assistant business manager of the Southwest Laborers District Council, a part of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said.
Texas is the biggest energy-producing state in the nation. Currently, the majority of that energy comes in the form of planet-warming fossil fuels. Under the new plan, the state would change that distribution by tripling wind capacity and increasing solar capacity by sixfold. Using federal data, the authors estimated this could create 790,400 new jobs alone. For context, Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows 450,000 people worked in the state’s fossil fuel industry in 2019, and that number has almost certainly fallen due to the pandemic. Under the plan, these positions would all be represented by unions within the Texas AFL-CIO.
“A lot of folks that are currently working in the oil and gas sector, if they went straight from their current job to a job in the renewable sector right now would take up to a third pay cut and lose benefits, so it’s just not reasonable to expect folks to do that,” said Hendricks. “But there’s no reason that has to be the case. Those can be good jobs, too.”
These positions, the report makes clear, should be available to not only young, new workers, but also those who have built a career in fossil fuels. It calls to support them with “wage and benefits support, opportunities to retrain, and whatever other supports are needed to thrive” in the new green economy.
“Often, the jobs, the skills actually translate and can transfer over. For instance a building trades that you know construct pipelines could build wind farms,” Mijin Cha, a co-author of the Texas Climate Jobs Project Report and a professor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College, said. “So it’s not as if we have to rethink everything. It’s more we just need to give ... unions the opportunity to transition their work into a low carbon future. It’s not a ton of new, unheard-of jobs with new skills. It’s new work for their workers.”
Ryan Pollock, the lead organizer at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 520 in Austin, has been working to bring unions to the climate policy table since 2019. He first got involved in early 2019 when the national AFL-CIO’s energy committee criticized Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s House resolution for a Green New Deal as “not achievable or realistic.” At the time, he was working as an electrician.
“The letter was signed by the international president of my own union who was chair of the energy committee, and it was condemning the resolution and saying that labor wasn’t involved in the conversation,” he said. “I was like, that’s weird, because the Green New Deal clearly could be beneficial to us. It calls for union jobs.”
Unwilling to accept that union members wouldn’t support climate-friendly employment opportunities, Pollock began doing some research and eventually ended up writing a resolution in support of federal environmental policy that protected workers which the Texas AFL-CIO passed unanimously in 2019. The following year, the state AFL-CIO developed a climate task force that led to the new report.
Pollock believes these efforts have been able to win support from his union and the broader AFL-CIO because they build the race to decarbonize around workers. They’re also specific and speak the language of workers. Rather than vaguely suggesting those laid off from the fossil fuel industry learn to code, as President Joe Biden once suggested, the workers are crafting actual plans to ensure they’re protected.
“We’re trying to tell environmentalists that if they want to be successful, they can’t just look at shutting down a fossil fuel plant and count that as a win,” Pollock said. “We should be finding ways to work together, but it’s really hard for us to then go to our members and say, ‘no, we need to be doing this’ when the reality for them is that they don’t have a job. If the reason we need to be shutting down these plants is so that everyone has a brighter future, is it really a brighter future for these people if they lose a good job and now they’re working at the Dollar General or something?”
“You can’t ask people who are in good family-sustaining jobs to leave their jobs voluntarily for an unknown future and expect that plan will get them on board,” she said.
Renewable energy is only one piece of the climate puzzle. That’s particularly true when it comes to envisioning climate policy that includes strong labor protections. Over the next 25 years, the AFL-CIO’s plan also includes electrifying Texas’ school bus and public vehicle fleets, expanding high-speed rail, retrofitting homes to be more energy-efficient, installing solar panels with storage on every school in the state, and expanding broadband internet access. All those activities will create tens of thousands more jobs that aren’t necessarily energy jobs, but are just as crucial to cleaning up carbon pollution.
The 55-page report also lays out how labor leaders can fight to ensure those jobs are unionized and well-compensated. It suggests, for example, that unions should develop a certification program for electric vehicle charging station installation and maintenance to ensure that unionized workers end up in these jobs—and that companies can’t exploit those workers.
“We know that [a union] is the surest way to ensure that someone has a voice in their workplace that has a decent wage and has benefits like health care and retirement,” Bo Delp, executive director of the Texas Climate Jobs Project, said.
Other policies are cropping up that have similar goals of marrying reducing carbon emissions and creating jobs that pay well. In March, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other lawmakers introduced a federal proposal to spend $500 billion over 10 years to jumpstart the transition to 100% electric public vehicles and rail, creating 1 million new jobs. In April, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders reintroduced the Green New Deal for Housing, which would create a quarter-million jobs. And last month, Rep. Jamaal Bowman introduced the Green New Deal for Public Schools, a bill aiming to invest $1.43 trillion over 10 years in public schools and create 1.3 million jobs, including more than 100,000 on-site construction and maintenance jobs per year, in the process. In other words, these job gains are built to last.
Bowman’s plan won endorsement from the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, a confederation of 15 unions. Like the Texas AFL-CIO’s plan, Bowman’s legislation doesn’t put job creation and union involvement as secondary to reducing carbon emissions.
“The Green New Deal framework is not just about addressing the climate crisis. It’s about building an economy and a society which work for all of us,” Bowman said in an email. “The labor movement is absolutely integral to that.”
These positions could go to people already in the building trades and bring new young workers into them. Michael Neill, the apprenticeship director of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, supports the bill and said his apprentices find the prospect of more work in schools to be “exciting.”
“It’s not just that it’s good environmentally, it also creates good opportunities,” he said.
The IBEW’s two-year apprenticeship program allows participants to earn money while they are training for positions. Students work full-time and take classes one day a week. Unlike a trade school education, those classes are not just free; students are paid a stipend to attend them. Neill said most graduates of his program end up making $100,000 a year when they graduate with healthcare and pensions to boot. By specifically ensuring that positions created by the Green New Deal for Schools are unionized, he said the policy could help more people have access to that kind of work that allows people to have good livelihoods.
“The apprenticeship is by far the best model to train young workers,” he said. “If we have more opportunities in the school district to put people into, that can be career-changing for people.”
Creating opportunities for workers to pay their rent and feed their families while receiving health care and labor protections is, of course, important for moral reasons. But Cha, the Occidental College professor, said it’s also the only way for the climate movement to win.
“It’s the only way to really address the climate crisis,” she said. “If we think about it from like a political organizing aspect, you really want as broad-based a movement as possible to create as much power as possible and put the pressure on.”
Of course, building out new, clean sectors of the economy is just one part of climate policy. It must be paired with plans to wind planet-warming industries down, which none of these proposals include.
But ensuring that those in the building trades have access to stable, high-paying, unionized work in these new sectors could help bring people board with that part of the transition, too, ensuring that the new economy is better for workers than the fossil-based one ever was.
“Most of our members ... support a healthier and safer planet. What they’re scared to death of is losing the good jobs in the energy sector,” Hendricks said. “If these jobs are good, there will be support for them. Everyone wants a good job.”