On Tuesday night, the U.S. House passed an essential piece of climate policy. But the legislation makes no mention of greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, or extreme weather. Instead, it’s all about labor protections.
The Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2021, known as the PRO Act, is the most comprehensive piece of labor legislation the U.S. has seen in decades. It would make it easier for workers to organize and could move us a step closer to ensure the future clean energy economy is one that works for everyone.
“When we push for a Green New Deal, we’re pushing for a reimagining and a redesign of the economy overall with a focus on care jobs which do not contribute to our carbon footprint and jobs that are not a part of the fossil fuel industry,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman said just hours after delivering an impassioned speech in support of the bill on the House floor. “We’re talking about millions of union jobs where workers are earning a family-sustaining wage and they have a right to organize and unionize without being threatened or bullied or intimidated by employers…so this is a huge step.”
Among the PRO Act’s provisions are fines for managers who retaliate against workers who organize and requirements for employers to bargain their workers’ first union contracts in good faith. It would also effectively end so-called right-to-work laws in the nearly 30 states that have passed them and stop employers from permanently replacing workers who go on strike.
All told, the bill would make it much easier for American workers to unionize and bargain for protections. A more organized workforce means workers will have better benefits on the job and more protection when they leave a position. That would be great news for the fight for a livable planet, because it would secure crucial rights for those leaving jobs in the waning fossil fuel industry and for those in the new clean economy, too. Boosting union density could bring many new people into the fold to push for that just transition. Joining unions could also help workers in job training programs or green industries to advocate for themselves.
“As part of a Green New Deal, we’re talking about a just transition, the opportunity for those [workers] to disconnect from the fossil fuel industry, receive the training that they need for a new green economy, and get paid while they’re going through that training,” Bowman said. “This is why it’s important in labor to be involved in Green New Deal conversations. The PRO Act aligns with the Green New Deal, which aligns with a just transition for labor.”
For decades, the climate movement has been plagued by tireless assertions that environmental regulations come at the expense of jobs. It’s true that environmentalists haven’t always done the best job at looking out for the rights of workers in the transition away from polluting industry, but the claims are still baseless. A 2019 report found that if the U.S. set a target of reducing carbon pollution 90% by 2050, it could create 5 million jobs in the first year the plan was implemented alone. The climate plan President Joe Biden put forward during his run for the White House could create even more; his campaign estimated it could result in 10 million new jobs if fully implemented. If billionaires set the terms of the clean energy transition, though, those jobs are unlikely to be well-paying ones.
“Over the past several decades, what we’ve seen is real wages have been stagnant while the cost of living and existing have gone up and we’ve seen concentration of wealth and power to the top 1% and top one tenth of 1%,” Bowman said.
One particularly illustrative example is Tesla, the worldwide leader in electric vehicle sales run by one of the richest people in the world. The company also relies on notoriously exploitative labor practices. Last year, it’s Fremont, California production plantsaw a covid-19 outbreak after CEO Elon Musk refused to comply with lockdown restrictions and threatened to fire those who refused to come into work. Workers have also accused Musk of numerous instances of cruel workplace harassment.
To attempt to protect themselves, Tesla workers have long been organizing to form a union, but in response, management launched an anti-union campaign. In 2019, National Labor Relations Board ruled that Tesla’s anti-union activities were in violation of national labor laws and called on the firm to rehire an employee who’d been fired for organizing with backpay. But this ruling took years, and that was with the attention of the national press. It also came with no monetary penalty for Tesla managers because our current labor laws do not include such provisions.
“There are no teeth in our labor laws,” said Joe Uehlein, founding president of the Labor Network for Sustainability who also spent years working at the AFL-CIO. “If a charge is filed with the NLRB, it can take years to adjudicate, and even when the union wins backpay, that’s deductible on the company’s taxes as a legitimate cost of doing business. So, all of us who pay taxes are actually subsidizing that company’s anti-union activity.”
Under the PRO Act, though, bosses would be forced to pay for their anti-union actions. Companies who commit violations under the NLRA would face civil penalties, and corporate managers could even be held personally liable for union-busting. This would do wonders to deter company retaliation against organizing workers at Tesla and other clean energy firms, making it easier for them to unionize.
“The point of the PRO Act is that if workers choose to form a union, they have the right to without penalty. And that’s across the board,” Bowman said.
Ryan Kekeris, who works with the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and is also organizing in support of the PRO Act with the Democratic Socialists of America’s Ecosocialist Working Group, said the protections would also be helpful for those who find work constructing the new energy and water infrastructure the Green New Deal will demand. “Construction work is dangerous, and the best way to ensure that the massive amount of construction that something like the Green New Deal would require is safe and effective is by making sure that workers are organized and collectively bargaining,” he wrote in an email.
That, in turn, would make these new jobs far more appealing for those looking for work with solid pay and protections. That includes the many workers who have been laid off by the fossil fuel industry and are looking for new positions. In 2020 alone, oil and gas companies laid off more than 100,000 workers as the covid-19 pandemic sent fuel demand into a downward spiral. Even those companies themselves are beginning to admit that their business models will never recover, and have committed to further downsizing as they try to chart a new course (or shrink into obscurity).
Currently, the vast majority of fossil fuel workers are not represented by unions. But under the PRO Act, it would be much easier for them to organize, and if they do so, they’ll be much more empowered to win protections like continued health care or severance. They’ll also have an easier time finding another good job outside the industry thanks to new labor protections across the board.
The climate crisis itself threatens to bring labor losses to many sectors, too. A recent study in Environmental Research Letters suggests that globally, agriculture will see workforce reductions in future years due to crop failure as temperatures increase. This sector employs many undocumented workers, and importantly, the PRO Act would correct an unjust 2002 Supreme Court ruling that bars undocumented workers collecting backpay and other damages owed under federal labor law.
Even when the climate crisis doesn’t directly affect workplace conditions, it is sure to affect the lives of working people across the country. As the crisis exacerbates risk of illnesses like heat stroke and heart attack and also increases the risk of fires, storms, and other disasters, it will be all the more important for workers to ensure they have access to good healthcare, fair pay, and the ability to take days off to deal with medical issues and other emergencies.
“Our members work in various trades that touch on just about every industry. Working people will feel the brunt of climate change, not the wealthy,” Kekeris said. “The stronger the working class is the more able they are to fight in their own interests, and I think the PRO Act would go a long way towards strengthening the working class and all labor unions. The best line of defense for workers is a union.”
The ability to organize could be particularly important for working class communities of color—the same communities who have disproportionately been impacted by extractive industry’s toxic pollution—to fight exploitation and discrimination in the workplace. Studies show that unionization can lead to positive shifts in white workers’ attitudes about race and help close the racial wealth gap.
President Joe Biden has said he supports the PRO Act, but it faces an uphill battle in the Senate where not a single Republican senator has come out to endorse it (five House Republicans vote for it) and could be filibustered. Even getting it to the Senate floor for a vote will require massive pressure. Dozens of climate organizations, including the Sunrise Movement and Friends of the Earth are joining in the campaign. But Bowman noted even if the PRO Act passes, the fight for a just, green economy isn’t anywhere near over.
“We can’t just pass the bill and just leave it there,” he said.
Winning a Green New Deal to fend off climate catastrophe will require continuous pressure from people across the U.S. That won’t be easy, but it will be far more possible to wield that pressure if unions once again become a bigger part of the fabric of American life and advocate for themselves and the health of the planet. As we learned from the New Deal of the 1930s, organized labor has an essential role to play in demanding people are taken care of in times of crisis. And if ever there was a time of crisis, it’s now.