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From Ambition to Action: Labour, Equity, and Climate Justice

From Ambition to Action: Labour, Equity, and Climate Justice

Written by Nathi Zamisa, MA student in Social and Political Thought

For the last decade, the Executive Director of the Cornell Industrial and Labour Relations School’s Climate Jobs Institute, Dr. Lara Skinner, has been working to launch union-led climate jobs coalitions. Together with labour unions, elected leaders, environmental groups, and industry experts, she has worked in states like Texas, Illinois, New York, and Rhode Island to transform the way labour engages with equity and climate justice.

Her presentation at the Global Labour Research Centre’s 2023 John Eleen Annual Lecture in Global Labour, “Labour and the Climate Crisis: Developing a Worker- and Equity-Centred Clean Energy Economy,” taught us how union-led coalitions contribute to climate justice.

The United States’ (U.S.) Inflation Reduction Act, 2022 calls for an injection of $370 billion to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls this the “most significant climate legislation in U.S. history.” This is an opportunity to create scalable projects that create well-paying and unionized climate jobs,  for racialized and frontline communities impacted by climate change and historical inequities. But the move from policy to practice, or in Dr. Skinner's words, the move “from ambition to action,” requires a massive update of American infrastructure and of the US economy.

“Let’s talk about why this is a challenge,” proposes Dr. Skinner. First, unionization rates in fossil fuels industries are twice as high as those in renewables energies. Second, green energy jobs are not paying well when compared to similar jobs in fossil fuels industries. Third, frontline communities hit hard by climate change and historically marginalized communities face significant barriers to accessing clean energy jobs.

In meeting the challenge, Dr. Skinner’s New York Climate Jobs Program developed climate, energy, and labour market analyses for cities and states. The aim was to identify challenges and opportunities for a green energy jobs transition. Quickly, the Program moved from research to policy advocacy and to training, and education on how to maximize emissions reductions and create new union jobs. The program’s ‘labour-only’ grounded approach relied on “building trades and energy unions working in these coalitions.” This is because, Dr. Skinner explains, “unions already have tremendous experience and expertise in making this transition”.

The result? Think equity-based, well-paying green jobs led by unions, Dr. Skinner suggests, working to develop science-based solutions to climate change and designed to help labour and climate movements navigate the transition to a clean energy economy.

The Program’s success laid a foundation for the Climate Jobs National Research Centre. The Centre focusses on forward-looking proposals to identify what needs to be built to realize a green energy transition, all while working to ensure the active participation of unions, equity-deserving groups, and frontline community members in developing a plan. From there, Dr. Skinner says that “unions formed their own coalition, Climate Jobs New York, and they ran a campaign promoting offshore wind” using the Climate Jobs Institute’s proposal. In response, New York committed to securing 50% of its power from offshore wind, and to setting wage requirements for wind and solar projects above one megawatt.

Today, the lessons learned in New York have spread to eight other U.S. states that are now homes of union-led climate jobs coalitions. Dr. Skinner plans to “expand the initial solar study to an annual study of the U.S. clean energy workforce, looking at all parts of the clean energy economy, and then conducting similar studies in other states and at the national level.”

For those of us in Canada, the question remains: why don’t we see this move “from ambition to action” in our country?

According to feminist economist Dr. Marjorie Griffin Cohen, the respondent for the event, it is a matter of economic priorities and political perspective. Despite the push amongst trade unions for clean energy jobs and a ‘just transition’ through groups like Blue-Green Canada, Canada’s transition “is not happening that way: we’re increasing our oil exports, and we’re increasing our oil production.” While unions and workers advocate to change our understanding of the economy, growth, and productivity, governments are stuck greening a small proportion of jobs to make them “compatible with Canada’s path to net zero emissions”, while increasing fossil fuels production.

Like Dr. Cohen, we are left to ask “How can we expand the areas of the economy that are already relatively low contributors to climate change problems, but also shift the focus to meet people’s real care needs?”  The answer is to shift employment away from carbon-intensive jobs to employment in care-giving, Dr. Cohen suggests, contributing to the economy, improving human well-being and protecting nature.

From an organizing perspective, Dr. Skinner had her own answers.

For Skinner, greening the economy in a labour friendly, equitable way starts with expanding union-based training infrastructure and establishing mandated targets for diversifying employment cohorts. And by connecting labour to clean energy by way of project labour agreements, Climate Jobs Coalitions can set up direct-entry, pre-apprenticeship programs. These can help to redirect money from low-quality piecework projects to high quality and high impact union-led clean energy projects.

But this kind of work needs a clear definition of the value and importance of union climate jobs, and these projects need to help frontline and historically marginalized communities achieve a higher quality of life to maximize their impact.

Dr. Skinner’s climate jobs coalition success story is compelling.

Start with unions. Learn from workers.  Help them to propose, organize, and develop clean energy projects in cities and regions to create high quality, unionized jobs for those most in need. That is how how we collectively move “from ambition to action.”

To learn more on union-led climate jobs coalitions, watch the John Eleen Annual Lecture recording.

Nathi Zamisa is completing an M.A. in Black Studies: Theories of Race and Racism in the Department of Social and Political Thought at York University. Nathi is currently the President of the York University Graduate Students Association, the Chair of the York Community Housing Association, a Board Member of the Global Labour Research Centre, and a Member of the York Senate's Academic Planning, Policy, and Research Committee.