Earlier this year, the youth-led Sunrise Movement launched the Good Jobs for All Campaign, which calls for the federal climate response to include a jobs guarantee. It’s a message the Biden administration seems to take seriously — the president’s infrastructure plan dedicates millions of dollars to train workers in fields like clean energy, mass transit, and building electrification.
Transitioning away from fossil fuels requires a massive workforce and consideration of those whose jobs will be lost to that change. But to build a more just world, climate activists say it’s crucial to ensure those workers have decent pay and benefits — and people from frontline communities, including those now working in the oil and gas industry, should be the first in the hiring line. Those demands are key components of the Green New Deal, a federal policy agenda introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey in 2019. But the legislation remains politically divisive and needs broad support — particularly from the workers it aims to uplift.
Ryan Pollock and Payton Wilkins believe the time is ripe for green groups and blue-collar workers to join forces. Pollock is an electrician in Austin, Texas, and a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Wilkins, who was honored on the 2018 Grist 50 list, is the executive director of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists Education Center. Both have experience bringing union might to the climate fight: In 2017, Wilkins organized a “Save the EPA” rally, attended largely by labor advocates, to protest the Trump administration’s attacks on the agency. And in 2019, Pollock helped pass a resolution supporting the Green New Deal at a state union federation convention. (He’s also the narrator of this congressional campaign ad produced by Sunrise Movement.)
Pollock and Wilkins say environmentalists have some work to do when it comes to engaging labor unions, but it’s an effort worth making. The economy relies on workers, and if those workers organize and speak with a unified voice, they could influence climate and economic policy at the state and federal levels. If the climate movement wants to tap that power, Pollock and Wilkins say, it must convince workers that an agenda like the Green New Deal is in their best interest and protect their right to organize.
Fix brought the pair together over Zoom to chat about how the labor and climate movements can benefit one another and why a pro-labor bill working its way through the U.S. Senate is climate policy in disguise. Their comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. How could a Green New Deal benefit trade workers?
Pollock: The Green New Deal is, to me, a jobs program. It includes a federal jobs guarantee and Civilian Conservation Corps, and centers organized labor. Texas is leading the country in wind generation, and we have a lot of space for solar farms. If we can pass a Green New Deal, that would give unions a lot of power to organize workers in those sectors and expand our numbers, especially as we’re losing members in the fossil fuel sector. But we need to pass it in conjunction with the PRO Act, which would make it easier for workers around the country to organize.
Wilkins: The transition to clean energy is something intrinsic to workers’ futures. When we discuss new economies and what they look like, we have to make sure that unions are included in those conversations. Otherwise, we’re at risk of creating so-called “utopian” societies created without, say, ensuring coal miners get new jobs.
Q. What reactions do you get from folks in the labor space?
Wilkins: It’s a full spectrum. Some folks are really gung-ho about working in sectors that could make their communities healthier and safer. But the Green New Deal largely isn’t accepted by labor yet. Folks are understandably resistant to the idea of having to retrain and identify a new means of income when they’re generations into working in extractive economies. And of course, people automatically think it’s socialism. Red-scare propaganda is so ingrained in our culture.
But after I engage those people in conversation and incorporate environmental justice into the conversation, it opens the door for greater opportunities. Oftentimes what we see is, after we’ve had intentional conversations, workers are like, “Wow, this is not something that’s designed to attack me or my livelihood, but actually it’s something to create a better future for my family and me.” Who doesn’t want clean air, clean water, and good-paying jobs?
Pollock: I’ve had much the same experience. When I brought the pro–Green New Deal resolution to the Texas AFL-CLIO convention, leadership called me up to say, “Hey, this is great. But good luck, buddy. We don’t expect much to come of it.” At first I did run into issues, especially with brothers down on the Gulf Coast who are working in fossil fuels and have been inoculated against the Green New Deal by Fox News. But when you break it down piece by piece and talk about individual components of those policies, people are generally for it. Most labor leaders within Texas hadn’t confronted the dire reality of climate change, so once we gave them the data and painted a picture of how good it could be if we worked toward a just transition, I found a lot more enthusiasm than I expected.
Q. What are workers excited about, once you break down the individual components?
Pollock: Better transportation and parks, having more job options than the garbage that’s available to us as we enter the workforce. They’re also excited about making sure we’re taken care of as we exit the workforce. There’s a lot of talk about, “What do we do with coal miners who are over 55? Ask them to learn a whole new field?” Ideally, federal climate policy can offer those workers an early retirement — and not just some pittance, but a good retirement so that people can live good lives. We want to make sure that we’re investing in people instead of this neoliberal hell that we live in.
Q. What can the climate movement learn about working with and mobilizing trade unionists?
Wilkins: Bill Lucy, the founder of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, once said, “It’s better to be effective than it is to be right.” If that means we need to tweak our marketing so that it’s palatable for workers to avoid “Green New Deal” branding, so be it. Let’s think about why the labor movement was created in the first place: to hold people in power accountable. Many people don’t identify with that movement anymore, but it fundamentally changed our generation. We need to keep supporting workers and their right to organize, with legislation like the PRO Act. Once we do that, the potential to influence policy and ideas is immeasurable.
Pollock: The Green New Deal doesn’t have to be a federal policy. You can start pushing for things like transit improvements and building efficiency on the local level, show people that these things work, build that power, and move out. There’s a lot of power in labor that’s not being utilized. If we get a majority of workers on our side, that’s when we start making real moves. But to do that, we need to ensure that we can organize in the first place.