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A Green New Deal Can Win, Even Among Building Trades Unions

In order for the Green New Deal to move forward, organized labor must take it up as a demand. Building trades unions have been written off as hopelessly reactionary on fighting climate change — but they shouldn't be, as one union electrician explains.

Construction workers are seen as they work with steel rebar during the construction of a building on May 17, 2019 in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle / Getty

The building trades have often been one of the more reactionary elements of organized labor in the United States. Even as a tradesman myself — an inside wireman with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) — I had my own doubts about how much support for the Green New Deal (GND) could be garnered from the building trades.

My recent experience at the 60th Annual Texas AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention shattered that understanding. Not only were many of my fellow trades siblings — plenty of whom work in the fossil fuel industry or represent fossil fuel workers `— strongly in favor of the GND at the start of the convention, but the political struggle to get most everyone else on board required minimal effort. In the end, our state AFL-CIO passed a GND-style resolution. This victory is a powerful model for conventions across the country; it shows how resolutions like this one can become a standard labor demand.

In March of this year, shortly after the release of the GND resolution in Congress, the AFL-CIO Energy Committee released a memo harshly criticizing the resolution. Surprised by the response of an organization that I felt the resolution intended to strengthen, I set out to identify their reasons for opposition. In the process, I discovered a pro-GND resolution passed by the Alameda, California Central Labor Council (CLC), a confederation of union delegates that make recommendations on local and statewide labor and political issues.

After reading the Alameda resolution, I wondered if I could pass something similar in my own CLC (Austin, TX), to which I’m a delegate. After tweaking the language of the Alameda resolution to make its references to the crisis in California more relevant to Texans, I submitted the resolution at the July meeting of the Austin CLC. After some explanation and discussion, the resolution passed unanimously.

The next step was the state level — a week after the Austin CLC meeting, the 60th Annual Texas AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention took place, and I was appointed by my union local to attend.

Soon after the meeting agenda went public, I received a call from my friend Jeff Rotkoff, the campaign director for Texas AFL-CIO, letting me know that leadership at Texas AFL-CIO loved my resolution, but that it was also already causing a stir. While they applauded my efforts, they didn’t expect it to get very far. I didn’t blame them at all for their pessimism. I didn’t expect much progress myself. Over the next few days, entire districts of building trades threatened to walk out of the convention if my resolution even made it to the floor. I came ready to fall flat on my face.

When I arrived at the stakeholder meeting that had been set up to discuss my resolution, however, my expectations quickly brightened. I was immediately introduced to Lee Medley, president of a Gulf Coast United Steelworkers (USW) local, who, instead of writing me off as I had expected, showed both good faith and a genuine interest. He asked me if I was familiar with the concept of just transition. As I informed him that the trades defining our own terms for a just transition was exactly what I was trying to accomplish with this resolution, I understood that we were going to be making some serious progress that weekend.

Folks in the stakeholder meeting gave some constructive criticisms of the resolution. Reference to the desires of “young climate activists” and “Congress” were removed, as rank-and-file tradespeople generally couldn’t care less about what activists or Congress think. It was also pointed out that “the Green New Deal” would trigger members already inoculated by media, so we replaced GND with “Federal Environmental Policy,” to placate those members and allow for the resolution to apply to policy other than the GND itself. These changes proved to be critical in getting this resolution through the next round of meetings — the union caucuses.

I made my way from the stakeholder meeting to the IBEW caucus, made up of about sixty IBEW workers from across Texas. Many of them work in oil refineries and coal-fired power plants and came prepared for intense discussion. Once again, I was surprised to find the majority of the membership was already on board. Even the skeptical minority eventually came around, as they couldn’t deny what they are personally experiencing. Our homes, jobs, conditions, and overall quality of life are being threatened, more and more with each passing day, by both climate change and the contradictions of capitalism (although most of my brothers and sisters present at that meeting would deny the latter as a culprit for their increasing precarity). As even fewer and fewer of those who identify with the political right in the United States are able to deny the causes of climate change, these workers are already reckoning with the fact that the jobs they rely on today will ruin them tomorrow.

Of course, not everyone felt this way. A few objections were made, mostly in bad faith. One member thought they could score points by getting me to say that a GND-style policy would increase the deficit (fortunately, others and I shot this point down). Interestingly, the most ardent opposition came from a representative for the international level of the IBEW. When he saw that his arguments weren’t winning him any favor, he disappeared into the hall and then reappeared, claiming to have called his bosses. He explained they told him that they were currently negotiating the GND, and to not let us pass any resolution on it as it had the potential to contradict their negotiations. I smiled and informed him that this was great news, as my resolution made no reference to the GND.

With that, we felt we had reached consensus and took a vote. Out of the sixty or so delegates in the room, all but a few voted to support the resolution. The next morning the resolution went to the AFL-CIO floor and passed unanimously, no discussion required.

Let that sink in for a minute: building trades workers unanimously supported a GND-style resolution in the state of Texas.

Of course, the fact that I wasn’t able to get the resolution through with clear language linking it to the GND shows that the gap between climate leftists and labor still hasn’t been completely closed. Many workers have been inoculated against the messaging of Sunrise and others by right-wing media. When they hear “Green New Deal,” they make jokes about farting cows and banning air travel. As I saw throughout this process, however, this inoculation is very superficial: it doesn’t go much deeper than recognizing the name, an aversion Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, and a couple of easily debunked talking points. Much like the campaign for Medicare For All, my experience tells me that a coordinated educational campaign would likely move the GND into the mainstream of labor demands.

Bringing resolutions to various labor bodies and committees is a large part of such an educational campaign, as it stimulates debate which cuts against right-wing propaganda. Resolutions like this are also tools that labor uses to communicate, both internally and externally, where we stand. Our internal committees look to them to inform our endorsement processes, and elected officials look to them if they’re seeking our support or trying to avoid our ire. They also inform the greater climate movement of whether or not momentum for the GND amongst organized labor is building, where it’s building or stalling, where/when it’s wise to engage, etc.

What does the labor-focused segment of the climate justice movement need to do next? First, we must repeatedly engage labor, from the local level on up to the national/international level, in as many places as we can — both through defined democratic processes like the one I experienced, as well in the rank-and-file space of our locals. The goal is not to simply push resolutions through, but to educate and build a base of support in the process.

In order to do this, we need to understand both what’s failed in the past and what’s different this time.

In the past, environmental activists typically targeted the industry in a way that didn’t account for the material interests of workers. They worked to shut down coal-fired plants and pipelines without any labor protections, leaving workers unemployed and understandably upset. If a proper class analysis is applied, we can understand that workers’ most immediate needs — the ability to provide a decent life for themselves and their loved ones — must be addressed before they can concern themselves with averting climate disaster.

We don’t need to explain to workers on the Gulf Coast why we need to decarbonize. We don’t need to convince them that the climate crisis is real when they’re still recovering from Hurricane Harvey and they’ve experienced their fifth “500-year flood” in five years. We don’t need to explain to them that the fossil fuel industry is on its way out when they’re experiencing the job loss firsthand. We don’t need to tell them that we’re losing green tech manufacturing jobs to even more exploited labor overseas. US labor is well-acquainted with how we’ve failed to react to rapid economic change, and we won’t stand by again if and when leadership rolls over and capitulates to capital. When workers understand that the GND won’t take away their livelihood, but instead secure an even better one, they support it.

The importance of this message coming from a trusted source from within exemplifies the critical role of the rank-and-file strategy in our eco-socialist project. By entering jobs in the unionized building trades, we can help direct worker struggles away from the bosses’ dead-end carbon protectionism towards inclusive climate action and a just transition. A crucial part of this effort in Texas was that the effort wasn’t being led by some Sierra Club staffer: it was coming from a fellow worker of the organized building trades who will also be dislocated by a Green New Deal. There was no question that our interests were one and the same. I support the GND not only because I know that we need to decarbonize, but because I want what’s best for the global working class, the building trades, and the IBEW. As an eco-socialist and a member of the building trades for six years, I can’t stress enough how impactful it is for us to be in these spaces, as well as rewarding.

In order for the Green New Deal to move forward, it must become a standard demand from organized labor. The task for us now is to replicate this kind of effort at each and every one of our locals (I suggest taking a look at Calling All Union Members by Johnathan Guy for a more detailed idea of how to apply this locally), CLCs, and conventions. Understand your local conditions while keeping in mind the conditions of your greater region, and apply them to any resolution when necessary. Power map your leaders (officers, staff, and organic leaders of the rank and file); organize them to educate the membership, build support, and whip votes. When you feel like you have sufficient support, bring a motion to the floor.

Building consensus here is just as important as a passing vote in our locals, as we’re going to need to approach this with as much strength and solidarity as we can muster.