Organized labor and environmentalists are widely viewed as being at odds with each other. The Dakota Access Pipeline is a good example of their recent conflict, where two major unions endorsed the pipeline while environmentalists and Indigenous people universally opposed it. However, labor unions and environmental activists have great potential to further their goals by working in solidarity. Together they can divest from fossil fuels, build green energy and create well-paying union jobs.
In recent years, the fossil fuel industry has become a bad investment, with green energy rapidly growing. Institutions like universities and the United States as a whole need to divest from fossil fuels both financially and infrastructurally. As of 2019, 1.7 million people work in fossil fuel jobs — but many of these jobs have negative effects on laborers’ health and communities. The organized labor movement would make much faster progress and contribute to a green future if unions would divest from fossil fuels. In fact, the legislative goals of the Green New Deal require labor. The sweeping climate-driven proposal includes passing bills like the PRO Act, which would strengthen workers’ rights in the United States. This act’s passage into law is also the labor movement’s current goal. Rep. Jamaal Bowman touts the PRO Act as a way for workers to leave jobs in the fossil fuel industry and in turn move into renewable energies without suffering a loss of income.
Bowman is pushing the bill as a part of building the kind of sustainable economy that the Green New Deal hopes to achieve. Leading proponents of the Green New Deal, Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Andy Levin, have introduced the BUILD GREEN Infrastructure and Jobs Act, which is a perfect example of a strong environmental policy that also helps strengthen labor unions and protect workers. The bill would move public transit systems and the infrastructure associated with public transit to renewable power sources. The bill contains provisions for labor that would ensure fair pay and time off and incentivize companies to hire local labor.
Roughly 10-12% of workers in the fossil fuel and nuclear energy industries are unionized — double the percentage of workers in other green energy realms, with the solar industry sitting at 4% and wind at 6% unionization. The salaries of workers in these fields also differ greatly. Fossil fuel companies pay workers anywhere between $70,310 and $81,460, while solar and wind workers earn a median pay of $44,890 and $52,910 respectively. Most unions are wary of the transition to fossil fuels because compensation and protections for workers in green energy are not on par with those in fossil fuels.
That means to divest from fossil fuels in the nation’s infrastructure, there needs to be a just transition to green labor. Passing the PRO Act, which is backed by environmental organizations like the Sunrise Movement, will be key to making that transition happen. So will building policies like the BUILD GREEN Act that include labor in their vision of the green future the US could have.
It’s worth noting, too that since 2012, some 43,400 US coal mining jobs have been lost — and those jobs are not coming back. The Climate Jobs National Resource Center claims that on average, investments in green energy sources create two times as many jobs as investing in fossil fuels would.
Divesting from fossil fuels in our infrastructure, if done correctly, can create more jobs for workers and help combat climate change. This transition needs to happen quickly — but for it to be done right, unions must be involved to help advocate for living wages, protection and fair employment. While it seems like there’s a wedge between labor and environmental activists and lobbyists, their agendas are more intertwined than they are at odds. In fact, they are interdependent.