The Revolution Will Be Weatherized

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I came away from last week’s Good Jobs/Green Jobs conference in Pittsburgh with mixed emotions. In some respects, it was an inspirational landmark event. The Blue Green Alliance, a strategic partnership of the United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club, brought together about 800 people from the labor and environmental movements to discuss strategies for dealing with global warming that also create good manufacturing and construction jobs. Gone was the notion that “jobs” and “environment” had to be separated by the word “versus.”

In its place was a vision in which large numbers of USW members are called back to work to produce steel for the wind turbine towers that are already becoming a more common sight around the country (including a few we saw along the Pennsylvania Turnpike on our drive from DC). It is also a vision, articulated most impressively at the conference by Van Jones of Green for All, in which young people from low-income urban communities are trained to install solar panels and retrofit homes and commercial buildings for energy efficiency. Some of the speakers got so carried as to depict these job-creation ideas as a “Green New Deal.”

But I didn’t hear enough discussion of how we get from here to there. The conference organizers implied that the road to green-job nirvana could be achieved through pragmatic cooperation between unions and forward-thinking companies. Hence the handful of large corporations (Alcoa, BP and steel giant Arcelor Mittal) that were among the sponsors of the conference and the various corporate figures who spoke. The presence of a plenary speaker from the alternative energy division of BP—a company with an abysmal track record on refinery safety, among other things—was particularly unsettling. Remarks by conference organizer Dave Foster and others that we should be willing to “go outside our comfort zones” did not satisfy my concern, at least, that BP was using the event for greenwash.

Not all the business speakers elicited an allergic reaction. Michael Peck of the Spanish wind energy company Gamesa—which has focused its U.S. operations in Pennsylvania and granted its workers neutrality to choose the USW—was forthright in arguing the advantages of labor-management cooperation and even took a pot shot at competitor Vestas for being unorganized.

However, another corporate speaker, Joy Clarke-Holmes of Johnson Controls, unwittingly deflated some of the high-minded rhetoric of the conference. Speaking after a presentation by Dr. Joel Rogers on a Milwaukee weatherization-finance scheme, Clarke-Holmes noted she had been employed by Johnson Controls for 25 years to sell energy-saving services and said “it’s amazing to hear this now being promoted by professors.”

To be sure, the green jobs movement is more than a new market opportunity for energy service companies, but it may not be quite the panacea that some conference speakers proclaimed. It would serve us all to adopt a more level-headed approach to the issue. Let’s not forget that union-friendly companies such as Gamesa are the exception rather than the rule.

And, from the perspective of Good Jobs First, there was a bit too much eagerness among some conference presenters to embrace the idea that tax breaks should be showered on companies that promise to create green jobs. We’ll have more to say on that issue soon.

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