Minn. labor unions divided over Green New Deal

Source: By Walker Orenstein, MinnPost/Associated Press • Posted: Monday, September 16, 2019

Earlier this summer, the SEIU executive board passed a resolution endorsing the sweeping measure proposed by Democrats in Congress, and the union has since worked to educate its 2 million members about the effort to slow global warming.

The endorsement is notable. Despite the Green New Deal’s popularity with progressive leaders and several Democratic presidential candidates, the SEIU is by far the largest union to support the proposal, which includes a broad set of climate, energy and economic promises. Many unions — especially those representing workers in construction, manufacturing and trades — have been hesitant to back such a massive change to the nation’s energy grid and economy, worrying it’s a political impossibility or that it will lead to unnecessary job losses in industries that employ a lot of union workers.

That split extends to several aspects of climate policy, including a schism that is playing out in Minnesota over whether to build Enbridge Inc.’s Line 3 project. Most unions have sided with Republicans and a contingent of centrist Democratic-Farmer-Laborers who support the oil pipeline over environmental advocates and progressive Democrats who oppose it.

Luisa Blue, an executive vice president for SEIU, and Jon Barton, a climate program leader at the union, told MinnPost the union’s support for the Green New Deal is based on pragmatic concerns as much as politics: Members face the adverse effects of climate change every day, and endorsing its goals is a way to help labor groups shape the transition away from fossil fuels and shield low-income workers from the pollution and natural disasters fueled by a warming planet.

“It’s an economy-changing initiative that leads with climate, racial and economic justice,” Barton said. “Within that, we see a big piece of our role is to ensure there is a voice for working people and a voice for labor.”

SEIU is not typically in the middle of political fights over energy policy. The union represents service workers, such as hospital and nursing home employees, janitors and school food staff. Its largest branch in Minnesota is made up of health care workers.

Scientists say natural disasters are becoming stronger and more common as the planet warms, and Blue and Barton said their members are often on the front lines; they’ve had workers whose homes are burned down by California wildfires and flooded by hurricanes in the South. Other problems, such as asthma caused by industrial facilities, also affect their members, the SEIU leaders said, while health care and service workers are often called upon to help those affected by disasters.

“Science is on our side,” Blue said. She noted the union was particularly inspired by the youth-led anti-climate change Sunrise Movement to make climate change and the Green New Deal a bigger part of its advocacy push. During Barton and Blue’s visit to St. Paul on Thursday, SEIU Healthcare hosted a group of teenagers who were planning a local school walkout to call for government action to address climate change.

For now, the Green New Deal is only a nonbinding resolution in Congress. But it calls for a “10-year mobilization” to lower carbon emissions in the country to zero through spending on the country’s energy grid, transportation sector, infrastructure and housing upgrades. The deal says it will create millions of “good, high-wage jobs” and also calls for universal health care and housing.

Many Republicans and some Democrats have been skeptical of the feasibility and cost of such an undertaking, however. Opponents of the Green New Deal often cite a study by a conservative think tank that said it would cost between $51 trillion and $93 trillion by 2090.

But the study’s author has said he could not accurately guess the price tag since the Green New Deal contains broad policy goals, rather than concrete proposals. An energy research company, however, has estimated it would take $4.5 trillion to decarbonize the country’s power grid.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) recently released his own $16.3 trillion version of the Green New Deal that would convert the country’s energy and transportation sectors to run on renewable energy by 2030.

Before Sanders’ proposal, SEIU passed a resolution saying the Green New Deal concept “aligns with our values and presents an unprecedented opportunity to unite the fights for environmental, racial and economic justice and make inclusive prosperity and economic security available to all of us by calling for a fundamental reshaping of our economy.”

To push the Green New Deal, Blue said, SEIU will participate in climate town halls around the country. Barton noted the union has let House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) know “the labor movement is not monolithic right now on this issue.” They’ve also talked to some presidential candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Barton said.

In some ways, there is broad agreement among unions in Minnesota on climate change policy, particularly about the need to invest in green technology and the jobs that come with it.

Emil Ramirez, director of the United Steelworkers District 11 based in Minnesota, said climate change “requires bold and immediate action” that “will ultimately result in a net gain of jobs and have an overall positive impact on our economy.”