Last month, when the AFL-CIO Energy Committee (a committee made up mostly of representatives from the historically reactionary building trades), released a statement opposing the Green New Deal (GND), I immediately reacted with extreme frustration. I, like so many others, was frustrated with the detached careerists in the International Offices (IO) of the building trade unions, and even more resentful toward the IO of my own union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). I weighed the reactionary senses of many of my rank and file siblings and grew anxious with the amount of work that I knew had to be done in an extremely short amount of time.
I started asking questions. I wanted to know why this committee had acted preemptively in the face of a non-binding resolution (released with the intention of starting a conversation), especially when this resolution could potentially lead to the most impactful piece of labor legislation a century. I wanted to identify what the gap between the GND and labor is and what socialist trade unionists could do to bridge that gap. So I reached out to comrades in the trades in the U.S. and Canada. I talked to brothers and sisters of the IBEW and the greater labor movement across Texas. And I did some internal reflection to try to understand the possible perspectives of the members of this committee.
It wasn’t long into my own reflection that I thought about Beaumont, Texas and IBEW Local 479. Most people don’t think of Texas as a top tier state as far as union strength goes, so it may surprise many of you to hear that the strongest union city in Texas is this small coastal city in the deep south, and not one of the blue bastions like Austin or Houston. While my IBEW local, Local 520 of Austin, has a market share of a mere 16 percent%, Local 479 boasts an impressive 50-percent-plus market share, with the vast majority of those jobs in oil refineries. Tied to those oil refineries are also the many union jobs in the ports of Beaumont and Port Arthur, which include United Steelworkers, Teamsters, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Seafarers International Union, and more. Ending production in these refineries not only threatens the jobs of those workers directly employed in that industry, but also the livelihoods of the residents of the region who depend on the business of those workers, and all the other communities of Texas’ Gulf Coast.
After considering the situation in Beaumont, it appears that a campaign to gain the support of the building trades is going to require both a bottom-up and a top-down approach.
For the bottom-up, we need to convince workers that there is, in fact, a dire problem, and then convince them that we have a plan to minimize it and improve their quality of life at the same time through a massive government program. Consider then how tactfully this will need to be done when, for the most part, the only time these workers have seen the government promise to fix a problem with a massive program, the result was a neoliberal hellspawn: the Affordable Care Act.
I learned from an IBEW sister and DSA member in Minneapolis that wireman electrician jobs in the green sector, at least in her experience, don’t quite stack up to the wireman jobs in other sectors like commercial or industrial work. While many proponents of the GND are aware that the resolution centers “high quality union jobs”, the term “high quality” is relative and not all union jobs are created the same. Here in central Texas, green energy production isn’t really a player in employment for union wiremen, so I wasn’t familiar with the subpar conditions that she described to me. In our industry, it’s commonly known that there is a hierarchy of working conditions and compensation. The highest quality of these conditions are typically enjoyed by workers in the industrial sector. The commercial sector, the one I work in, typically has the next best conditions, and residential work historically has conditions so bad that my local doesn’t really participate in it. Most union electricians refuse to put up with being treated and compensated so poorly. Apparently, as experienced by the sister in Minneapolis, the conditions in green energy production are even worse than the conditions of residential work. Her experience came as a surprise to me, but she posited a compelling theory: The conditions of the various sectors were set at different periods of union strength with those of the industrial sector being set at the height of our strength and those of the green sector were set while we were much weaker.
With this in mind, consider again the electricians in Beaumont whose jobs are primarily in the industrial sector. Despite noticeably high rates of cancer, these workers are much happier and better compensated compared to the IBEW sister in Minneapolis. Much like coal country in Appalachia, these communities aren't wealthy, the standard of living isn't very high, and economic mobility is very low. The building trades, especially union building trades, offer one of the only realistic avenues to a stable standard of living. Now the workers of Beaumont are being told that we need to end production of the single largest employer in the region, let alone one of the most economically significant industries in the entire world, with nothing more than an extremely vague proposal and the promise that the United States federal government will take good care of them. Environmental policies like the GND are easy to frame as an attack on that standard of living and on entire communities. The socialist left and the labor movement both need to do better than vague gestures to "good union jobs" if they want to convince those communities that the GND is going to help them rather than harm them.
As IBEW sister Megan Kinch of Toronto put it, “A lot of the issue is that progressives/ environmentalists see things as a matter of educating backwards workers, where a lot of what needs to be done is to prevent these environmentalist policies from destroying lives and communities through ignorance or simply not caring enough.”
Our task as socialists and trade unionists, as I see it, is to earn the trust of the rank and file through leadership and participation in the building trades; to build a detailed plan of exactly how we propose to take care of these workers and their communities; and to see to it that every part of that plan is implemented justly, equitably, and regeneratively. We need to be in our union committees proposing resolutions, we need to be bringing those resolutions to the general bodies where we need to be holding office, and we need to be in our Central Labor Councils bringing forth those resolutions and then building coalitions, educating, and strong arming.
On the top down-approach, we need to convince the state, regional, and international offices that not only will they not be losing the power of strongholds like Beaumont, but that if we play our cards right, this bill could culminate in power previously unimagined for organized labor.
Again, this won’t be an easy task and it’ll require a tangible plan of execution.
While this may seem daunting, I find hope. Through several discussions with other interested parties, it seems as though during the process of constructing the GND resolution, that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s and Sen. Merkley’s offices failed to adequately involve the building trades in the process which resulted in building trade leadership’s deep concerns.
Understanding this, and taking into consideration the actual statement of the AFL-CIO Energy Committee, the state of this struggle as presented by the inflammatory headlines covering the Energy Committee statement turns from absolutely dismal to much more hopeful. When I read the statement, I’m seeing valid concerns from leaders who feel that they have not been heard. While, at first, I thought their tactic to be heard was outrageous, I now see it as incredibly effective. It sure as hell worked on me.
I was fortunate enough this past week to know a brother who had a meeting with the IBEW International officers. I asked the brother to question them on what exactly the concerns were that prompted them to support the Energy Committee statement. He reported that they listed “plant shutdowns, jobs, rejection of carbon capture technology, rejection of nuclear, and no solid plan for what to do about jobs.” Hearing this confirmed that the dialogue between our International Office and those behind the GND resolution is severely lacking.
We need to work to bring all interested parties together. If we want to ensure real, just, and lasting material change in our world, we need to make sure that the communities that will be most affected by these changes are leading that movement, and the building trades are only one of those many communities. As we move forward in promoting and shaping the Green New Deal, we need to call in the left when they march on ahead of the rest of the working class. We remind the left to take a step back and walk alongside the working class.
Like the southern U.S., the building trades may have the reputation of reactionary attitudes and values, but we’re not a monolith. Those of us who aren’t of the left may have the edge right now, but I believe that edge isn’t nearly as strong as people tend to think it is. Leaders who have lived in deep south, working class cities like Beaumont their whole lives speak of how the workers take notice of the increased rates of cancer, the polluted gulf where this enormous source of food and income is increasingly threatened by the fossil fuel industry, the intensifying storms, and the encroaching shoreline. I hear people who know they’re under threat and believe we can do better. We all need to identify exactly what better is and devise a plan to get there that centers the working class and ensures their buy in.
The Texas AFL-CIO Constitutional Convention is taking place at the end of July and I expect it to be much more eventful than it’s been in possibly decades. From there, I believe we’ll get better answers to all of our questions and concerns when it comes to the future of labor, and a better understanding of how the battle for the Green New Deal will be fought.