Green Justice Coalition Supports Labor and the Environment
by Amy Dean
According to Republican governors in places such as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana, our states are in crisis and the only solution is to squeeze middle-class employees. Unions, in their view, are part of the problem. And if you point out that their attempts to seize power in the name of balancing budgets do little, if anything, to solve the real economic problems we face, they will insist that there is no alternative.
They are dead wrong. There is a better answer.
These governors could travel to Boston and the North Shore in Massachusetts to talk to Ana Perdomo about how we can create jobs, raise working standards and increase services for hard-hit communities – all while reinvesting public dollars in local taxpayers’ communities. The politicians might even learn a thing or two about protecting the environment.
A remarkable process has taken place around green jobs in the Boston area. It did not come easy, but rather took hard work and cooperation from local labor unions and community organizations. These are the groups that Perdomo encountered when she first became active in green justice organizing. Having been involved with a community organization known as Neighbor to Neighbor, Ana learned about training that was providing information about home weatherization. She was interested because she knew first-hand the financial hardship that inadequate insulation and drafty windows could cause in low-income communities. “My bills were so high that I often felt I would pay so much on my heating that it was almost like paying a second rent,” she explains.
Impressed by the workshop, Perdomo committed to help educate others. Together with another neighbor, she formed the Lynn Green Justice Committee. For the past two years, she has led community outreach efforts and joined in the actions of a broader network known as the Green Justice Coalition.
Founded in 2009, the Green Justice Coalition brought together labor activists, environmentalists and community groups to make sure the concerns of each of these constituencies would be heard. While Perdomo focused on making sure that green energy drives reached into low-income communities that often did not benefit from weatherization programs, other members of the region-wide coalition worked to make sure that public money used to support these programs resulted in the creation of decent jobs – and that these jobs would go to members of local communities. The result, Perdomo believes, is “a new way for us to push forward our economy, our communities and our country.”
A Model for Green Jobs
When the Green Justice Coalition started organizing, it identified some disturbing realities. While green jobs were being held up as vital to our nation’s economic recovery, jobs in the weatherization industry typically paid poorly, were often taken by day laborers and offered no path for workers to qualify for union apprenticeship programs. The push was for weatherization to be undertaken in the least costly manner possible, but too often the indirect costs born by communities of using low-road contractors, who did not create living wage jobs or contribute to the public tax base, were overlooked. Old approaches were putting labor and the environment at odds.
Community groups were also alienated. While everyone in the state who paid electricity bills was paying into a fund to subsidize homeowner efforts to increase energy efficiency, only affluent communities were benefiting. Because you needed to spend thousands of dollars up front on weatherizing your home before you could qualify for the subsidies, only the wealthy could afford to participate.
Overcoming the divide-and-conquer mentality of those who would pit labor, environmental and community groups against one another, the Green Justice Coalition instead vowed to address the concerns of each constituency together. As campaign organizer Jeremy Shenk describes the coalition approach, it involves linking public funds for green development with labor and community goals. “Look, it’s our money,” he states. “We want this money to be spent here in working class neighborhoods, not just wealthy suburbs. We want our rate-payer dollars to be paid to create jobs in our communities.”
The coalition’s decision to invest time in bringing diverse groups into a deep coalition produced results. In two years, the campaign has been able to amass a series of remarkable accomplishments. In this period, according to an internal evaluation written by Community Labor United, a leading coalition member, the Green Justice Coalition has:
Shaped a $1.4 billion statewide energy efficiency plan that should reach 140,000 households over three years.
Initiated four pilot programs to show that our ‘community mobilization’ outreach model can increase home weatherization work in low-income communities and communities of color. The pilots pay higher wages, employ union-trained weatherization apprentices, use union contractors and hire community organizations to do the outreach.
Won a Community Workforce Agreement that commits the state’s leading energy efficiency vendor to responsible contracting practices like health and safety training, livable wages and benefits.
Demanding Community Benefits
In their most recent drive, the Green Justice Coalition used a classic carrot-and-stick strategy to compel utility companies to make changes necessary to further environmental and economic justice goals. When NASA Solar Electric Propulsion Technology Application Readiness (NSTAR) and Northeast Utilities sought public approval to undergo a merger, campaigners saw it as a promising opportunity to push for greater community benefits.
Previously, the utility corporations were resistant to community demands and activists had few tools for making them budge. Shenk describes the lack of leverage that coalition members had previously experienced: “The companies controlled the energy efficiency programs and would listen to input from the community but were reluctant to adopt changes.”
The merger process changed the dynamics of the situation. After working to educate their members about public approval requirements, the coalition jumped into action. “We brought a bunch of people to a Department of Public Utilities (DPU) public hearing,” Shenk says. “We went directly to NSTAR and basically said, ‘We want to talk to you about our concerns around this merger and how you need to respond to our previous concerns – or we’re going to be a problem in this merger.'”
The Green Justice Coalition along with other environmental and citizens groups argued that, if the utility companies were going to be allowed to merge and operate as monopolies, they would have to do more than prove that the merger was not doing active harm to ratepayers. They would have to show that public support would translate into measurable public benefits – in terms of jobs created, consumer choice, renewable energy commitments and greenhouse gas reductions in keeping with Massachusetts’ ambitious requirements.
Sensing that these arguments were gaining sway with the DPU, the utilities became eager to sit at the table with community partners to address the potential impacts of the proposed merger. The process was also helped by deeper relationships and trust that NSTAR had developed with the coalition partners through their campaign work over the past two years.
Ultimately, public pressure transformed NSTAR from an opponent into a partner in the innovative community-based weatherization drive. As of March 2011, the Green Justice Coalition, which had been planning a protest of hundreds to publicize ratepayers’ concerns, was so pleased with the rapid progress that had been made that it called off its demonstration. As the coalition explains, it is now in productive talks over demands for:
Equitable access to home weatherization for all ratepayers. Traditional outreach and marketing methods do not effectively reach low-income communities and people of color.
Fair financing that will allow low- to moderate-income families to pay for the upfront costs needed to access the utilities’ rebates in order to weatherize their homes.
Access to weatherization program data so the programs can be evaluated independently.
Good weatherization jobs that hire local residents, pay living wages with benefits, [and] provide safe workplaces and career ladders.
A Model With National Significance
Increasingly, the Green Justice Coalition in Massachusetts is being recognized as a model for how, in difficult economic times, states and municipalities throughout the country should be directing public policy to serve a triple bottom line: creation of quality jobs, protection of the environment and progress in ensuring racial and economy equality. Based on their previous success in the realm of weatherization, coalition members are now looking to expand their campaigning into areas such as transportation and recycling, making sure that the full promise of green jobs will be realized.
Across the country, conservatives are pushing to privatize public services and give tax breaks to corporations – all in the name of increasing competitiveness and bringing standards of business accountability into government. But too often this is a charade. What business leader would give away key assets without a guarantee of getting anything in return? While conservative governors are providing handouts for the corporate donors that have backed them, groups like the Green Justice Coalition are the ones demanding true accountability, insisting that taxpayers’ money be wisely spent and that public investment bring concrete public benefits.
Instead of scapegoating public employees and forcing middle-class families to bear the brunt of tough economic times, these groups are suggesting an alternative: reinvesting taxpayer dollars into communities in a way that creates jobs with decent wages and benefits; safeguarding our communities for generations to come by protecting the environment; and making sure that all families, not only the most affluent, are able to save money through energy efficiency. To many people, such a proposal might sound like a pipe dream. To Ana Perdomo it is very much a reality.
Amy Dean is co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.” She worked for nearly two decades in the labor movement and now works to develop new and innovative organizing strategies for social change organizations in progressive, labor and faith communities. She can be reached via her web site, www.amybdean.com. This article originally appeared on Truthout, and is reprinted here by permission.