After years of delay and denial from the highest levels of government, the Biden administration has promised to confront the existential threat of the climate crisis with trillions of dollars in “green” investment. Such a massive infusion of spending on energy, transit, housing, and more would reshape the entire physical landscape of the country.
But will it live up to the expectations of the climate movement that helped elect Biden? The Green New Deal is a vision of a ten-year mobilization and just transition to achieve a zero-emissions economy with millions of new high-paying, union jobs. Biden won election on the promise of being both the greenest president in history and the most pro-union. However, many of the major companies likely to benefit from federal funding for green infrastructure, like Tesla and Uber, are also busting unions and lobbying heavily to avoid labor laws to improve conditions for gig workers. That’s a far cry from the shared prosperity proposed in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal resolution, and an enormous challenge to getting a critical mass of American workers to actively support the policies necessary to survive the climate crisis. Without political intervention, a green transition could further immiserate workers, making masses of people even more precarious while billionaire wealth surges.
One way to help ensure that the working class benefits from the shift to clean energy is to expand workers’ ability to organize unions by passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act. The bill would streamline the process to establish a first union contract, ban the practice of replacing striking workers, prevent the misclassification of workers as independent contractors, allow secondary boycotts, and ban disastrous and racist “right-to-work” laws that are currently in place in twenty-seven states. In other words, it would undo decades of anti-union legislation that concentrated power in the hands of corporations and give workers a fighting chance. Tuesday, the PRO Act passed the House of Representatives, but it faces universal Republican opposition in the Senate.
Social policies implemented in response to mass mobilizations benefit the constituencies that organized to win them. When workers mobilize, the working class at-large are often the victors. That’s recognizable from the historic role that unions played in winning the eight-hour workday, maternity leave, child labor laws, civil rights, and federal legislation to protect workers’ health and environmental safety. However, after a multi-decade business onslaught against the labor movement, working people face severe structural and legal obstacles to playing a similar role in the social transformation needed to respond to the climate emergency. Those who would benefit most from climate interventions lack the power to counter the climate-wrecking institutions that harness their labor.
The PRO Act would establish a baseline for ensuring that working people can fight for and win transformative climate policies that benefit everyone—a necessity if we want to fulfill the Green New Deal’s promise of a just transition for workers. They cannot expect the corporations driving down wages and driving forward planetary collapse, or a government that has failed for decades to intervene on its behalf, to secure justice for them. By protecting the rights of workers to organize, streamlining the union recognition process, and preventing misclassification, the PRO Act would enable energy workers, farmers, care workers, truck drivers, doctors, cooks, and cleaners to determine how their workplaces fit into a zero-emissions future. The PRO Act is a baseline for a more democratic transition—and therefore one that is truly just.
Environmentally friendly jobs are not necessarily worker-friendly jobs. A prime example comes from the U.S. electric power generation sector, which includes the construction of wind turbines and other clean energy–generating technologies that will be needed for the rapid buildout of a zero-emissions economy. According to the 2020 U.S. Energy and Employment Report from the National Association of State Energy Officials and the Energy Futures Initiative, solar and wind jobs in the energy generation sector are only 4 to 6 percent union, which is slightly below the national average for private-sector workers and a grim contrast with Biden’s promise of building a clean energy future with millions of “good-paying union jobs.” Coal and natural gas jobs in the same sector have nearly double that unionization rate (10 and 11 percent)—which is still abysmally low compared to historic unionization rates.
The disparity in union jobs across energy sectors is exacerbated by by misclassification of employees and independent contractors and other anti-union tactics. Misclassification is particularly rampant in construction, which makes up the largest segment of jobs by industry in the U.S. electric power generation sector—and solar and wind account for the largest portions of jobs by energy type in this sector. The practice robs workers of the ability to form unions and receive benefits and fair wages and can also undermine environmental protections. Passing the PRO Act would make it harder to misclassify clean energy construction workers and make it easier for them to form unions and therefore bargain for better wages and benefits.
In order for climate activists to build a mass movement to win a Green New Deal, making the link between high-paying, union jobs and climate policy is crucial. Whenever a solar company or Elon Musk busts a unionization effort, they undermine the ability of workers to benefit from climate initiatives—which subsequently undermines working-class support for environmental policies and fuels the right-wing media’s attempts to conflate “saving the planet” with the destruction of family-sustaining jobs. Cementing climate as a wedge issue to further divide the working class during a period of increasing political volatility is a recipe for planetary doom. Green capitalists can’t save us. But, with help from the PRO Act, workers could save the planet.
To the extent the movement to win a Green New Deal or any climate policy is informed by the New Deal, that means remembering how it was won. The New Deal was built on workers—union, non-union, and unemployed—rising up against the conditions imposed by their bosses and political leaders during a period of economic strife. Rank-and-file workers, often led by communists and socialists, began organizing the unorganized industrial and so-called unskilled sectors en masse, greatly expanding the unionized workforce in the United States while simultaneously expanding class-conscious leadership in unions. This shift toward militant class struggle elicited new elected leadership, policies, and governance in response. As strikes and worker organizing faded during the Second World War, power shifted back to the corporate class.
Winning a Green New Deal will require an empowered working class capable of breaking the corporate stranglehold on our political system. The PRO Act won’t magically produce the militant labor movement that’s necessary to achieve it. But the PRO Act does create the preconditions for massively expanding unionization and provides protections to strikers. And by repealing the ban on solidarity strikes, it creates the potential for climate strikes to become mass labor strikes. The PRO Act could lay the groundwork for the 65 percent of young people who support unions and the 62 percent of young people who support climate activists to organize their workplaces so that they can bargain—not beg—for a better future.
After sweeping through the House this week, the PRO Act faces a steep fight in a Senate split 50–50—which means Democrats must confront waffling senators in their own party and destroy the filibuster if they’re serious about fulfilling commitments to this urgent labor priority. This is a crucial opportunity for organized movements to forge greater solidarity with the unions leading this fight. There are huge openings to change the political and physical terrain of American society this decade, but we won’t do it without a much stronger labor movement. The PRO Act’s potency lies in its capacity to massively expand the terrain of struggle so that millions of workers can confidently and collectively leverage their power to shape our shared future. We can put power back in the hands of the working-class majority so that the people building the green new world are also the ones determining its shape. It’s time for the interests of working people and our planet to come together.
Sydney Ghazarian is a national climate organizer, founder of Democratic Socialists of America’s Ecosocialist Working Group, and coordinator for DSA’s Green New Deal and PRO Act Campaigns.
Ashik Siddique is a research analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies, coordinator for DSA’s Green New Deal and PRO Act campaigns, and serves on the DSA Ecosocialist Working Group Steering Committee.