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If the Green New Deal Happens, Who Will Build It?

The construction industry is poised to boom — but it won’t survive without much-needed diversity

Patrick Young
Jan 10, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

In the weeks and months following the 2018 election, key organizations in the climate movement — spurred on in large part by the 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 Franklin Roosevelt’s post-Depression-era New Deal, the Green New Deal calls for a transition to 100 percent 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 Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) joined a sit-in at the office of incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) to demand the creation of a select committee to draft the Green New Deal legislation. By the end of December, at least 45 members of Congress had come out in favor of the legislation, and over 140 progressive organizations had signed onto the campaign.

It is widely acknowledged that there is absolutely no chance of passing Green New Deal legislation during the Trump administration. Not only did Donald Trump call the recent proposal of it “a high school term paper that got a low mark” but Democrats don’t yet seem unified.

The Sunrise Movement has offered the mainstream climate movement something that it hasn’t had in a long time: a bold, long-term proposal that actually has the potential to meaningfully confront the climate crisis.

Still, 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. In crafting this strategic, multi-year plan, the Sunrise Movement has offered the mainstream climate movement something it hasn’t had in a long time: a bold proposal that actually has the potential to meaningfully confront the climate crisis.

While it’s unclear what future 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.

But a big question remains: Who is actually going to build all of this green infrastructure?

Building major infrastructure requires highly trained workers with experience in specialized trades. In many ways, skilled trades workers — carpenters, electrical workers, plumbers, and pipe fitters, operating engineers, etc. — are the aristocracy of the working class. Their skills allow them to move from job to job. The construction industry, which broadly encompasses many of those trades, has some of the highest levels of unionization in the private sector. The median income for union-represented construction industry workers is almost $60,000.

These workers are also disproportionately white and male. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, about 10 to 20 percent of the people working in construction and manufacturing jobs identify as nonwhite. Only 10 to 30 percent identify as female. Unless the skilled trade workforce undergoes a dramatic demographic change by recruiting, training, and hiring women and people of color in unprecedented numbers, a Green New Deal will 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, building trades unions select and train their own members through apprenticeship programs. No one is explicitly excluded from any of these apprenticeship programs, but recruitment for these programs happens primarily through informal family and social networks. The son of a pipe fitter might hear about the entrance exam for the apprenticeship program from his father or a cousin, but an unrelated young woman elsewhere in town, particularly if she is nonwhite, is likely to have no way of knowing the opportunity is even available.

Because participation in a union apprenticeship program is a coveted ticket to the labor aristocracy, leaders in the building trades historically have not been particularly motivated to reach out to new groups of workers — especially if that means tougher competition for their relatives and friends. Even where unions have expressed a tacit commitment to offering opportunities for women and people of color, very few have invested the time and resources required to do so meaningfully.

These building trades unions have also been no friend to the climate movement, and it’s unlikely 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 — 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’ International Union of North America published an open letter referring to water protectors as “thugs” and “bottom-feeding organizations that are once again trying to destroy our members’ jobs.”

The current state of the building trades union sector is troubling, but change is on the horizon. After two generations of misguided education policy encouraging young people to eschew trade programs in favor of racking up thousands in college loans, baby boomers in the skilled trades are nearing retirement. The construction industry is facing huge labor shortages.

The average age of construction workers in 2000 was 39; in 2015, it was 42. The Association of General Contractors reports that 70 percent of contractors are having a hard time recruiting workers into skilled trades. Even without a Green New Deal, we will likely 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 entering building and construction — particularly workers of a variety of genders and races. This will require real investment in outreach and recruitment, career counseling, apprenticeship readiness, and high school vocational training.

We need to start breaking down the class and status barriers between the people who demand that things be built (or not built) and the people doing the actual building.

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. These programs will expose young people to career opportunities 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 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 diverse recruiting.

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 will need to join apprenticeship programs themselves. Intersectional climate activists who take initiative and join the building trades will find themselves in a unique position to transform the culture of the sector and organize future investments in green infrastructure.

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

Proposals for a Green New Deal offer a bold and exciting framework for confronting the climate crisis. If we make 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 will recruit and train the people who are actually going to do this work is an important piece of the puzzle — and one we must consider as part of the conversation about the vision for a Green New Deal.

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