Over the past year, the enormous challenge posed by climate change has been catapulted into the limelight. Prominent leaders in all sectors are now calling for serious and immediate efforts to fight global warming. As mainstream interest in the "green economy" explodes, so too has the concept of green jobs: the alluring idea that efforts to defend the environment can also create new job opportunities that will enable millions of people to climb out of poverty and restore the middle class.
Green jobs present an enormous opportunity. But we also see a growing threat: as investment capital pours into the field, the concerns of marginalized communities and even the underlying climate threat may be overridden by business concerns.
Job quality is key. Will green jobs be good jobs, accessible to all our communities? Or will the green economy be an hourglass economy, with a handful of people making huge profits at the top, propped up by a huge force of low-wage, disposable workers?
Unless we organize and advocate for high-quality jobs in our communities, we won't get them. We will just get more of the same – poverty-level jobs and zero respect for workers – while businesses brag about their freshly washed green credentials.
These aren't easy problems to solve, but communities and unions around the nation (and the world) have jumped into the fray. Many of these grassroots groups gathered at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference in March; more will come together at the Dream Reborn conference in April; all are organizing and strategizing around how to bring green jobs to their communities.
WPUSA's vision for a green economy is one in which union-community coalitions don’t just fight for a piece of the green pie, but take the lead in creating new green jobs. Starting from our base of knowledge and experience with our grassroots base's needs and their potential, our organizations should be designing green policies and bringing in capital to make them work. If we design the programs ourselves, we can insure that they emphasize environmental justice for all neighborhoods, high standards for jobs, and integrated training and career ladder programs to fill those jobs with a local, highly qualified and motivated workforce.
What kinds of local green jobs can we create? In our own region of Silicon Valley, WPUSA is looking for opportunities in several sectors, including:
- Energy efficiency building retrofits. Updating buildings with insulation, efficient lighting, and improved heating and cooling systems can save as much as 50-60% on energy costs. This is a golden opportunity to create new jobs for the construction trades and help families save money on their gas and electric bills.
- Green building maintenance. As companies create green buildings and green processes, they need janitors, groundskeepers and other maintenance workers who have the training and resources to make the new processes work. But too often, these needs are ignored, and building services workers are expected to do twice as much work in the same amount of time with little to no training. There is an urgent need to turn this dynamic on its head by making green-focused building owners and managers aware of the key role building services workers will have in achieving their environmental goals, and convincing them of the value-added they gain by investing in responsible building services contractors and trained workers.
- Waste management and reduction. Sanitation workers, environmental advocates, and communities impacted by landfills or waste disposal all have a common stake in reducing waste, increasing recycling or reuse, and finding safer ways to dispose of what waste remains.
- Public transit. Inadequate or unaffordable public transit hits low-income communities the hardest; at the same time, lack of good public transit drives people into their cars, spewing out ever more CO2 into the atmosphere. Building effective transit systems and transit-oriented development would create jobs in construction and operations, help meet the needs of low-income families, and contribute enormously to the fight against global warming.
To pursue these possibilities, WPUSA has entered into a collaboration with the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a San Jose-based environmental justice group. At the same time we are engaging with our region's Building Trades Council and with local service sector and public sector unions, while reaching out to community- and faith-based organizations, environmentalists, and local business associations.
Collaborating in regional, state, national and international partnerships will be critical to succeeding at this ground-breaking effort in which communities across the country are now engaged: to make green jobs good jobs.