US: Who Gets the Green Jobs, and Are They Any Good?

Green Jobs Not Jails

Just because a job’s green doesn’t mean it’s good. With everything going green—if it really is—what does that mean for our workplaces? A union-backed report by Good Jobs First cautioned that job creation in the new “green economy” often means more low-wage, low-benefit work with companies hostile to unions.

The warning could apply to thousands of new jobs that will be created with $5 billion of February’s $787 billion stimulus package tagged for home-weatherizing programs to help low- and moderate-income families save energy—and money. While some funds already existed for these programs, the Department of Energy said states could receive up to 30 times more money for home retrofitting.


The coffers are suddenly flush, but how the work will be done is up in the air. Coalitions across the U.S. have been racing to develop programs to divvy up the work, with building trade unions at the forefront.

Who gets the jobs—building trades unionists, less employed than ever during the recession’s construction slowdown, or underemployed workers who have long faced barriers to unionized trades work? And how can we make sure green jobs become union jobs?

Community-labor partnerships in Newark, Los Angeles, and Seattle are answering these questions. They’re creating a blueprint to help building trades unions dig into the green economy, while bringing new workers, many of them women and people of color, into the unions.

Building trades unions have done weatherization work in the Puget Sound for years, but a new program allows them to gain jobsites and claim ground against non-union companies.

Building trades unions, faith allies, and community organizers with the Sound Alliance in Washington state recently won a bill in Olympia adding prevailing wage criteria to $15 million in stimulus cash marked for retrofitting. Pilot programs will retrofit 7,500 buildings in the state.

Alliance organizer Joe Chrastil said union contractors have a definite advantage, because it’s hard for non-union contractors to meet prevailing wage and training requirements.

The unions will also gain ground in newer areas like residential retrofitting, where homeowners previously didn’t have a way to pay a living wage for union workers, said Soph Davenport, a sheetmetal worker in Local 66.

The IBEW, Sheetmetal, and Pipe Trades unions, among others, are now training more of their members to run energy audits and install energy-efficient heat and water systems. However, they won’t be the only ones.

The coalition is using the glut of work to open up the trades to a new workforce, composed of women and people of color who’ve taken entry-level classes in construction or pre-apprentice programs, and who’ve struggled to get into the unions in the past.

For Sean Bagsby, the alternative energy director for IBEW Local 46, the program is helping to “infuse life back into the infrastructure” of the trades, whose declining and aging ranks are being bolstered by underrepresented workers and younger workers.

Both Bagsby and Bill Hayden, a rank and filer and e-board member of Local 46, criticized training models used for some federally subsidized weatherization projects in low-income communities. Entry-level candidates take dumbed-down classes on specific tasks, and, as Hayden puts it, “when that work is done, there’s no other work for them.”

While many receive training, they don’t make good wages, and only a few make it into the union.

“We don’t want to see more green sweatshops,” Hayden said.

Instead, recruits to the pilot program are entering apprenticeships to become full journeymen. The unions adjusted some of their qualifications, like weighing initiative against test scores, said Hayden.

How are members in the trades, at times insular—and historically exclusionary—institutions, handling the flood of changes?

“I haven’t heard any negative comments,” Hayden said. “I’m not saying there won’t be some, or that some people won’t feel disenfranchised, but so would the people who normally aren’t included.”


Laborers Local 55 is one of several partners involved in developing a pilot program in Newark, New Jersey, that will train 300 residents in green retrofit work by the fall.

“We knew a lot of stimulus money was going in urban areas, but no one was making sure workers in urban areas were getting the work and that it was good work,” said Rob Lewandowski, a spokesman for the local.

The union developed, and funded, a six-week training program for underemployed or unemployed residents in the city, allying with community group Garden State Alliance for a New Economy to do the legwork of finding trainees.

Rather than little training, wages of $8 to $10 an hour, and no path to future work, the newly hired retrofitters will be paid between $17 to $22 an hour, with $5 an hour in benefits. While the wages are less than some tradespeople earn, the training is an instant path to union membership and a step toward higher pay and more permanent work with the union.

“We want to build people’s skills in full residential construction so when that market comes back, the same contractor doing weatherization is likely doing residential,” Lewandowski said.

The Laborers’ New Jersey program hasn’t met resistance from other trades. Much of their work may focus on basic weatherization, rather than heat and water system installation. But with many building trades unions clamoring for work, similar programs in other cities could spell more job competition.


Years before stimulus money became an option, labor, community, and environmental activists in the Los Angeles Apollo Alliance began organizing to create new jobs. A big-tent coalition pushed a city ordinance to retrofit more than 1,100 buildings. It was convened by SCOPE, a nonprofit that helps low-income and people of color communities gain access to jobs in growing sectors.

Joanna Lee, a SCOPE staffer, said organizers wanted an ordinance that not only created demand for good, green jobs, but also ensured that local residents could access the jobs—and that quality training programs connected them.

“Community folks can enter some of these jobs at entry level and gain work experience, and then be funneled into the building trades or continue on in the public sector,” she said.

In April 2008, the city passed the ordinance, with provisions that guaranteed good pay, work for underemployed local residents, and set-asides that ensured half of buildings targeted for retrofits come from these same communities.

As in Washington and Newark, the LA trades administer much of the retrofit training.

But with members of building trades unions struggling to get work as the construction industry craters, Lee said the size of the project means that entry-level workers won’t replace current building trades union members once the work starts later this summer. The building trades will pick up some contracts, along with much of the skilled work. Local residents, once trained, will start on less-skilled parts of the work. If all goes according to plan, they’ll end up in a better situation.

“It’s essential to get them into the unionized pipeline—we see that as a strategy to get folks out of poverty,” Lee said.

Tiffany Ten Eyck wrote this for Labor Notes.

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