A Green New Deal-Who Is Going to Build It?

In the weeks and months following the 2018 election, key organizations in the climate movement, spurred on in large part by energetic work of the Sunrise Movement, have pushed forward a bold call for a Green New Deal. Envisioning a program at the scope and scale of Roosevelt’s post-depression era New Deal, the Green New Deal calls for a transition to 100% renewable energy, guaranteed employment in the clean energy sector and massive investment in transportation and energy infrastructure.

The urgent proposal immediately gained significant traction. A week after the election, newly elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined a sit-in at the office of incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi demanding the creation of a Select Committee to draft the Green New Deal legislation. By the end of December at least 45 members of Congress came out in favor of the legislation and over 140 progressive organizations signed onto the campaign.

While it is widely acknowledged that there is absolutely no chance of passing Green New Deal legislation during the Trump administration, drafting legislation can crystalize the proposal and create a benchmark for candidates seeking support from the climate movement in the 2020 election cycle with the hopes of moving it forward in the next Congress. By crafting this strategic, multi-year plan the Sunrise Movement has offered the mainstream climate movement something that it hasn’t had in a long time: a bold, long-term plan that actually has the potential to meaningfully confront the climate crisis.

While is unclear what Green New Deal legislation would actually include, any program involving massive government spending to build green infrastructure is going to create jobs for millions of workers. With all of that there is still the big question of — who is actually going to build all of this green infrastructure?

Male Stale and Pale

Building major infrastructure requires highly trained workers with experience in specialized trades. In many ways, “skilled trades” workers (carpenters, electrical workers, plumbers and pipefitters, operating engineers, etc.) are the aristocracy of the working class. They have skills that allow them to easily move from job to job, they enjoy some of the highest levels of unionization in the private sector, and the median income for union members in this sector is almost $60,000. They are also disproportionately white and male — 80% of workers in the construction industry are white are 89% of workers in the construction industry are male.

Unless the skilled trade workforce undergoes a dramatic demographic change, recruiting, training and hiring women and people of color in unprecedented numbers, a Green New Deal is going to mean creating jobs for millions of white men while leaving everyone else on the sidelines.

Over the past century, the recruitment practices of building trades unions have played a significant role in perpetuating the dominance of white men in the construction industry. While industrial and service unions represent all workers in a particular workplace (like the CWA, SEIU, UNITE-HERE and the Steelworkers), building trades unions select and train their own members through apprenticeship programs.

While women and people of color are no longer explicitly excluded from any of these apprenticeship programs, recruitment for these programs occurs in large part through informal family and social networks. Because participation in a union apprenticeship program is a coveted ticket to the labor aristocracy, leaders in the building trades have historically not been particularly motivated to reach out to new groups of workers if that means tougher competition for the relatives and friends of current members.

While the son of a pipefitter might hear about the entrance exam for the pipefitters apprenticeship program from his father or a cousin, a young woman of color from across town is likely to have no way of knowing that the opportunity is even available. And even where building trades unions have expressed a tacit commitment to offering opportunities for women and people of color, very few have invested the time and resources that would be required to meaningfully recruit new groups of workers.

These building trades unions have also been no friend to the climate movement and it is unlikely that they would have much interest in joining the fight for a Green New Deal. In 2015 when the Standing Rock Sioux and thousands of other water protectors were waging a bold fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline large swaths of the labor movement including the American Postal Workers Union, the Communications Workers of America, the Amalgamated Transit Union, National Nurses United, and the SEIU all went on the record speaking out against the pipeline. Meanwhile the building trades placed themselves on the wrong side of history, aggressively lobbying for the pipeline. Notably, Terry O’Sullivan from the Laborers Union published an open letter referring to water protectors as “THUGS” (capitals his) and “bottom-feeding organizations that are once again trying to destroy our members’ jobs.”

The Green New Deal Creating Opportunities for All

Although the current landscape within the building trades union sector is troubling, there is change on the horizon. After two generations of misguided education policy encouraging young people to eschew trades programs in favor of racking up thousands in student debt in college, baby boomers in the skilled trades are nearing retirement and the building and construction industry is facing huge labor shortages. The average age of workers in the construction industry has climbed from 39 in 2000 to 42 in 2015 and the Association of General Contractors reports that 70% of contractors are having a hard time recruiting workers in the skilled trades. Even without a Green New Deal, we are likely to experience a dramatic shortage of skilled trades workers in the very near future.

One key plank of a Green New Deal, then, must be funding training opportunities for young people — particularly young women and workers of color — entering the skilled trades. This will require real investment in outreach and recruitment, career counseling, apprenticeship readiness trainings and high school vocational trainings.

There are already some promising programs on the horizon. Around the country, community organizations are partnering with forward thinking building trades unions to organize pre-apprenticeship programs to expose young people to career opportunities in the building trades and teach them the skills they need to thrive in their trades. Caucuses of women and people of color working in the skilled trades are coming together to support each other in breaking into a predominantly white, male workplaces. And some forward-thinking building trades unions, notably the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) are making serious investments in recruiting women and people of color in their trades.

Lockboxes to Hard Hats

Transforming the culture of the building trades sector will take more than funding pre-apprenticeship programs and challenging the building trades unions from the outside. If building billions of dollars’ worth of green infrastructure is really a key part of the plan to confront the climate crisis, many people in the climate movement are going to need to trade lockboxes for hard hats and steel-toed boots and join apprenticeship programs ourselves. Intersectional climate activists who take the step to go to work in the building trades will find themselves in a unique position to transform the culture of the sector and organize for investment in green infrastructure.

The work of building green infrastructure is vitally important to the movement for climate justice and we should start seeing doing the work of pouring the concrete, tying the rebar, and running the wiring as just as important as writing press releases or locking down to construction equipment. More importantly, we need to start breaking down the class and status barriers between the people who demand that things be built (or that things not be built!) and the people who are doing the actual building.

Proposals for a Green New Deal offer a bold and exciting frame for confronting the climate crisis. By making serious investments in green infrastructure and clean energy we can create millions of jobs while breaking our collective dependency on fossil fuels. Figuring out how we are going to recruit and train the people who are actually going to do this work is an important piece of the puzzle and it should certainly be part of the conversation about the vision for a Green New Deal.