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Jobs in solar and energy efficiency have grown faster than average in Pennsylvania in recent years, according to the state’s clean energy jobs report.  Meanwhile, more traditional energy sectors like coal, natural gas and nuclear, saw job losses. The BlueGreen Alliance wants more workers to see the connection between the environment and how the energy industry is shifting.  

“We, labor unions and environmental organizations, agree a heck of a lot more than we disagree,” said Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations. “And we agree on the most important things.”

One of those most important things, says Walsh, is the Presidential election.

“We have never in the history of our organization, at this point 14 years, endorsed a candidate for any public office,” said Walsh. “But our labor and environmental groups are united around an endorsement of Joe Biden for president. So that’s a pretty important thing that we all agree on.”

Walsh spoke with The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant about this decision, and how future of the labor and environmental movements is tied together.

LISTEN to their conversation

Endorsing Joe Biden

Julie Grant: Why at this time did you feel like it was important to step out and make an endorsement when the BlueGreen Alliance hadn’t done that before?

Walsh: Let’s start with Donald Trump, who is the most anti-worker, anti-environment president in our lifetime. We view his potential reelection as really an existential threat to the mission of the BlueGreen Alliance and everything that we fight for.

We reject the notion that Americans have to choose between good jobs and a clean environment. That lie is something that President Trump peddles over and over again. We also have in Joe Biden, someone who has, for the entirety of his career, been a friend and an ally of the labor movement and the environmental movement.

“We reject the notion that Americans have to choose between good jobs and a clean environment.”

We are facing a climate crisis in this country, but we are also facing a crisis of economic and racial inequality. The solutions to both crises are linked. [Biden] has put forward a set of proposals that first start with a recognition that good paying jobs for the broadest range of Americans should be at the center of our climate solutions, and those are jobs in American manufacturing, in rebuilding our infrastructure, in building out a new clean energy system. These are the things that he is committed to do. We are confident that he will fight for them. 

Grant: At the leadership [level of your unions], you’re endorsing Joe Biden, but the membership of a lot unions seem to support President Trump’s reelection. Why are we seeing this sort of disconnect? 

Walsh: I think it’s a fair question. First, let’s just acknowledge that the labor unions in particular that have endorsed Biden for president, which at this point is all of our labor partners independently endorsing him, are democratic institutions that have elected officers that are accountable and answerable to their rank and file members. It is true that many union members will vote most likely for Donald Trump. Union households like the rest of America are pretty split.

“It is true that many union members will vote most likely for Donald Trump. Union households like the rest of America are pretty split.”

Your question, though, raises a whole set of issues around education and where voters get their information about Trump’s true track record. That record, frankly, is not known very well. Trump has regularly gutted health and safety laws protecting workers on the job, not to mention making the air and water dirtier, which is a concern for households across the ideological spectrum.

We need to do a better job of getting the word out about what Trump stands for and how that is contrary very much to his record. So let’s take coal miners as an example. This is a guy who surrounded himself with coal miners as political props when he was running for president in 2016. During his presidency, he promised to bring back the coal industry.  At the start of his presidency, there were about 55,000 coal miners in this country still working. In the first half of 2020, there were 45,000 coal miners still working. So he has failed on that promise.

At the same time, he has not done some of the basic things that are necessary to protect coal miners on the job. First and foremost, dealing with the fact that we have a resurgence of black lung disease in the coal mines. That is not getting any better. That requires a strong role by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Under this administration, they’ve done nothing.

Green New Deal

Grant: Last year saw some of the leading Democrats in Washington propose the Green New Deal, addressing climate change and also seemingly taking workers rights very seriously, calling for workforce training, collective bargaining, increasing those rights, retirement security, universal health care. But some of the unions, including the AFL-CIO, said they didn’t like it. 

Jason Walsh: Well, let’s be clear, the AFL-CIO did not come out against the Green New Deal. The energy committee of the AFL released a letter that took issue with a number of the provisions within the Green New Deal. 

The best way I can answer that question is by talking about a process the BlueGreen Alliance went through as a coalition which produced an agenda for climate action that we call “solidarity for climate action.” This is an agenda that every one of our seven labor partners and six environmental partners signed on to. It simultaneously calls for net zero carbon emissions by 2050 across the economy.

It also calls for dealing with the crisis of income inequality in this country, as a step toward addressing that, making damn sure that we do a better job of unionizing some of the new jobs that are emerging in renewable energy sectors. To deal with the problem, you first have to acknowledge there is a problem. And we have a problem with the fact that very few of these new jobs in the clean economy are union. That, frankly, is one of the factors that influence the reaction of some of the energy unions.

“They’ve got rents to pay, mortgages to pay, kids to send to school. In order to get their full-throated support of a clean energy economy, we’ve got to make those jobs…family sustaining career jobs.”

In response to the Green New Deal, if we’re going to address concerns of labor unions, we’ve got to do that in a real way. A lot of their members are employed in the existing energy economy. This is a bread and butter issue for their members. They’ve got rents to pay, mortgages to pay, kids to send to school. In order to get their full-throated support of a clean energy economy, we’ve got to make those jobs better jobs and family sustaining career jobs. 

The point I’m making about our solidarity platform, that has a lot of similarities with a Green New Deal, is that a lot of this is just based on time and relationships and trust. Our partners have been together, and they’ve been through a lot together, over a bunch of years. We went through a process of developing our solidarity platform that took nine months, 21 drafts, a little agonizing. These are the joys of coalition work. Yet, that’s important. That’s how you get ownership. That’s how you build trust.

I think the Green New Deal moved very fast, maybe a little too fast. But the point I’m making is that there are a set of unifying policies here that both meet our climate crisis and our crisis of economic inequality in this country. That’s the sweet spot. That’s where you’re going to get unity between labor unions and environmental organizations. 

Jason Walsh is the executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations.