Green stimulus, worker health and safety ignored as U.S. authorizes $2 Trillion in Coronavirus crisis

On March 27, the U.S. Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) – at $2 trillion, the largest stimulus in U.S. history.  For individual taxpayers, it offers a one-time  $1,200 payment, plus $500 more for each child under age 17; it also  expands unemployment insurance amounts and duration. Details of the provisions are summarized in FAQ’s from the New York Times  , and in Forbes . General reaction to what is clearly a compromise Bill appears in “ ‘Far More to Do,’ Say Progressives After House Approves and Trump Signs Corporate-Friendly Coronavirus Relief Act “(Mar. 28).  Pramila Jayapal , Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC),  issued a press release which states that Democrats are already formulating policies for the next legislative package, and gives a point-form summary of the CARES Act, describing  provisions related to  Worker-Centered Industry Assistance, the airline industry,  and transit industry:

“The bill requires businesses receiving federal assistance to maintain existing employment levels to the extent possible and prohibits stock buybacks or dividends for the length of any loan provided by the federal government plus one year and restricts any increases to executive compensation for two years. The bill also provides direct payroll payments to keep millions of airline workers on the job and receiving paychecks, while also prohibiting airline companies from stock buybacks and dividends for the entire life of a federal grant, plus one year.” Regarding Transit Agencies: “The bill provides $25 billion to transit agencies, which have all seen a drastic drop in revenues as social distancing has been implemented.  This funding is to be used to protect the jobs of the employees of the transit agencies, funding their paychecks during this public health emergency.”

 

Worker Health and Safety in the CARES Act

The  article in Common Dreams  quotes the president of the Economic Policy Institute, who states that the CARES Act “also egregiously fails to include explicit protections for worker safety during this epidemic in industries seeking federal relief.”  On this issue,  Labor Notes published a compilation of worker actions over health and safety concerns in “Walkouts Spread as Workers Seek Coronavirus Protections”(Mar. 26). Anxious and sick workers at food delivery service Instacart and at Amazon announced their plans to  strike over health and safety on March 30, as described in “Amazon and Instacart Workers Are Striking for COVID-19 Protections” in Slate, and also in ‘The Strike Wave Is in Full Swing’: Amazon, Whole Foods Workers Walk Off Job to Protest Unjust and Unsafe Labor Practices (Mar. 30).

Other workers are also walking out on March 30, as described in Vice : “General Electric Workers Launch Protest, Demand to Make Ventilators” , demanding that their idle plants be converted to the socially-useful work of making ventilators.

A selection of  notable readings about Covid-19, workers, and the climate crisis in the U.S.:

Jeremy Brecher, Research Director of Labor Network for Sustainability has written three articles so far in his new column, Strike.  Brecher offer his own views and commentary, but also links to important reports and statements from unions, advocacy groups, and such U.S.  press outlets as Vox, Grist, Politico, and the Washington Post, among others.  The first Commentary,  “In Coronavirus Fight, Workers Are Forging an Emergency Green New Deal” (Mar. 16) describes the impact and challenges of Covid 19 in workplaces, and the initiatives taken by many U.S. unions.  Article #2, “An Emergency Jobs Program for an Emergency Green New Deal” ( March 24) proposes what he calls  a “Green Work Program” (GWP) for the U.S. , based on the principles of a jobs guarantee: “A GWP will provide jobs for all who want them in their own communities performing socially useful work. It will be established by federal legislation, funded by the federal government, and run under the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor or another federal agency. It will be primarily administered by local and municipal governments, nonprofits, social enterprises, and cooperatives. In contrast to the WPA, it is a permanent program, though its size can be expected to vary depending on economic conditions and social needs.”  Brecher’s #3 commentary is “Momentum Builds for Green New Deal Jobs”, which  appeared on March 30, summarizing major policy proposals for a Just Recovery.

Naomi Klein updates her thoughts about disaster capitalism in a new video  at The Intercept, explaining how  governments, especially the Trump administration in the U.S.,  are exploiting the the coronavirus outbreak “to push for no-strings-attached corporate bailouts and regulatory rollbacks.” The most egregious example of this regulatory rollback came on March 26 in an EPA press release “EPA Announces Enforcement Discretion Policy for COVID-19 Pandemic “,  critiqued by Inside Climate News in “Trump’s Move to Suspend Enforcement of Environmental Laws is a Lifeline to the Oil Industry” (Mar. 27) .  The Intercept‘s Coronavirus coverage emphasizes this aspect of the crisis.

David Roberts, “A just and sustainable economic response to coronavirus, explained” appeared in Vox (Mar. 25) .

Meehan Crist in “What the Coronavirus means for climate change” an Opinion piece in the New York Times  on March 27.

Bill McKibben now writes an Opinion series for the New Yorker magazine, emphasizing climate change connections.  Recent articles include: “If We’re Bailing out Corporations, they should bail out the planet” (Mar. 20), and “The Coronavirus and the Climate Movement  (Mar. 18) .

Progressives and climate activists: An Open Letter to Congress for a Green Stimulus Plan  appeared in Medium on Mar. 22 (with approximately 1200 signatures by Mar. 24).  Amongst the signatories are  high-profile activists such as 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben; former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy;  Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis, co-founders of The Leap, as well as prominent academics.  It is aligned with the 5 Principles for Just COVID-19 Relief and Stimulus  proposed by environmental, labour, and other progressive groups, including the Climate Justice Alliance(CJA).    In a March 24 press release, “Seven Congressional Leaders Join 500+ Progressive Organizations To Demand People’s Bailout In Response To Coronavirus Crisis”, CJA announces that  Senators Ed Markey and Tammy Duckworth, and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mark Pocan, Debbie Dingell, Pramila Jayapal, and Barbara Lee endorse joined their People’s Bailout campaign, based on the 5 Principles.

Thomas Hanna and Carlos Sandos Skandier :  “We can’t let this economic crisis go to waste” an Opinion Piece in Open Democracy (March 16), which argues ..”During this, or any future, economic crisis, public support and funding to stricken industries must be conditioned on public ownership and control within the overall perspective of a Green New Deal and a just transition for workers and communities affected by the required shifts to renewable energy and less carbon intensive modes of transportation and production. This means not simply injecting public money into banks, oil and gas companies, and airlines in order to stabilize and resurrect their existing business so they can continue financing, extracting, and burning fossil fuels at a pace that will blow our chances of keeping temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius by 2036.” ….

 “How to Make the Airline Bailout Work for Workers, Not Just CEOs” from Inequality.org (March 17) endorses the proposals from Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA , including direct payroll subsidies for airline workers.   The article in Inequality includes a table which shows how much the five biggest U.S. carriers spent on stock buybacks between 2010 and 2019 – including American Airlines, which spent $12.5 billion on buybacks, to increase the value of executive stock-based pay. Sara Nelson makes her case in an interview in In These Times (Mar.19) :  “Our Airline Relief Bill Is a Template for Rescuing Workers Instead of Bailing Out Execs” .  She concludes:

“This virus is a very clear metaphor for what we always say in the labor movement, which is “An injury to one is an injury to all.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, or where you come from. If a virus exists and we don’t do something about it, then we’re all at risk. “

U.S. Solar industry rebounds to almost 250,000 workers in 2019

solar jobsThe 10th annual National Solar Jobs Census for the United States was released by the non-profit Solar Foundation in mid-February. It reports  a resurgence in solar industry employment in 2019, following two years of job losses in 2017 and 2018.  The report states that 249,983 U.S. workers  spent the majority of their time in solar-related activities in 2019, and an additional 94,549 workers spent some portion of their time on solar-related work, for a total of 344,532 workers. The full Report is downloadable (with free registration) from this link ,  with a summary here.  It provides state-by-state statistics re job totals and sectors within the solar industry, and profiles the solar industry in California (where the Title 24 mandate went into effect in 2019, requiring all new residential homes to be built with solar PV), and the South-east U.S. The report also forecasts future trends, and  provides discussions of demographics and workforce development, reporting that a majority of employers have difficulty recruiting and hiring. (Through its Solar Training Network, the Solar Foundation published Strategies for Solar Workforce Development: A Toolkit for the Solar Industry  in 2018).

Some highlights from the 2019 National Solar Census:

  • About the industry: Approximately 93%  of U.S. solar establishments work in solar PV electricity generation. 16% of firms work on solar heating and cooling, (e.g. solar water heaters); 7% work on projects related to concentrating solar power (CSP).
  • About the demographics: Diversity remains almost the same as in 2018: women represented 26% of the solar workforce, Latino or Hispanic workers represented 17%, Asian workers comprised 9%, and black or African American workers comprised 8%.
  • About wages: for entry-level unlicensed (non-electrician) solar installers the median wage was $16.00 (the U.S. national median wage for all occupations is $18.58). The median wage for entry-level licensed (electrician) installers was $20.00.
  • Wages for production workers start at $15.00 for entry-level employees, ( national median wage for production workers is $16.85). Wages reached $36.50 for senior-level production employees.

Positive examples of climate action needed to bring unionists into the climate fight, says veteran activist

“The Climate Movement Doesn’t Know How to Talk with Union Members About Green Jobs” appeared in The Intercept on March 9, transcribing an interview with Jane McAlevey,  a veteran labour activist in the U.S. and now a senior policy fellow at the University of California Berkeley’s Labor Center.  One interview  question: “What do you think organizers should be doing right now to make sure a climate-friendly platform can win in a presidential race where Trump will argue that ending fossil fuel investment means lost jobs?” In response, McAlevey urges activists to allay workers’ fears about the future with examples of positive changes – citing as one of the best examples  the “New York wind deal”  when,  “unions won a far-reaching climate agreement to shift half of New York State ’s total energy needs to wind power by 2035. They did it by moving billions of subsidies away from fossil fuels and into a union jobs guarantee known as a project labor agreement.”   (A previous WCR post  summarizes the campaign which culminated in the New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act in the summer of 2019).  Ultimately, McAlevey calls for “spade work” which educates workers about the climate crisis and reassures them by providing positive solutions. Citing the deeply integrated nature of the climate and economic crises, she concludes: “We have to build a movement that has enough power to win on any one of these issues that matter to us….. We’re relying on the people that already agree with us and trying to get them out in the streets. We can’t get there with these numbers.”

McAveley CollectiveBargain-book-cover-329x500The Intercept interview is one of many since Jane McAlevey’s published her third book  in January 2020.   A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy  discusses the climate crisis, but is a much broader call to arms for  the U.S. labour movement.  A very informative review of the book by Sam Gindin appears in The Jacobin, here .

SEIU cleaners stage the first union-authorized climate strike in the U.S.

Strike logo yellowTo launch his new column,  Strike: Jeremy Brecher’s Corner at the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) website, Jeremy Brecher  began with the theme “The Future of Climate Strikes”.  On February 29 , he posted “First U.S. Union-Authorized Climate Strike?” (re-published in Common Dreams as  “Did we just witness the first union-authorized climate strike in the United States?”). The article describes a one day strike on February 27 by members of Service Employees International Union Local 26 , employed by over a dozen different subcontractors to clean corporate buildings in Minneapolis.  He states that it is, “as far as I have been able to discover, the very first—union sanctioned strike in the U.S. for climate protection demands. ”

Brecher gives voice to many of the low-wage and immigrant workers who are the backbone of the strike, and traces their climate activism back to 2009, when Local 26 won contract language:  to establish an Ad Hoc Committee of union and company representatives at each company, to “review the use of green chemicals”, to provide training to employees on the “use, mixing and storage” of cleaning chemicals, and that “The employer “shall make every effort to use only green, sustainable cleaning products where possible.”  The SEIU Local 26 collective agreement for 2016-2019 is here , with climate-related clause 18.13 on pages 39-40.  Other examples of clauses related to toxic chemicals in Canadian collective agreements are available from the ACW Green Agreements database here ; clauses regarding green procurement are here , and the full searchable database of 240 clauses  is here .

seiu strikeAlthough the main focus of  First U.S. Union-Authorized Climate Strike?  is on the climate-related demands, the strike is also important for its success in coalition-building and community support. Brecher characterizes it as exemplary of the growing trend toward “Bargaining for the Common Good, ” as outlined in a September 2019 article in The American Prospect , “How Workers Can Demand Climate Justice”  .  An article by Steve Payne reported on the broader community justice issues in the strike in “Twin Cities Janitors and Guards Feature Climate and Housing in Their Strike Demands” in Labor Notes (Feb. 20) .

UPDATE: 

Since Brecher’s article, the union has released a press release on March 14,  announcing agreement with most employers and members’ approval of  a contract which includes funding towards a Labor-Management Cooperation Fund for green education and training.  Notably, given that these are the workers keeping airports and commercial buildings clean in the Covid-19 crisis, the agreement also provides for an increase for all full-time workers to six paid sick days by the second year of the contract.

Harvard scholars propose labour law reforms including the right to bargain over our shared environment

clean slate coverClean Slate for Worker Power: Building a Just Economy and Democracy  is a far-reaching analysis and set of recommendations for labour law reform, released in January 2020 by the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program.  Its purpose is to offer “an intervention that promises to help stop the vicious, self-reinforcing cycle of economic and political inequality. By proposing a fundamental redesign of labor law, we aspire to enable working people to create the collective economic and political power necessary to build an equitable economy and politics.” The report – the result of discussions with 70  academics, union leaders, workers, activists and others over a period of two years – offers detailed and specific recommendations for changes to labour laws in the U.S., starting with the fundamental premise that “Labor law reform must start with inclusion to ensure that all workers can build power and to address systemic racial and gender oppression.” In its long list of recommendations comes basic freedoms such as the right to organize and protection from strikebreaking, as well as more innovative proposals for sectoral bargaining, worker representation on company boards, support for digital organizing and cyber-picketing – and of most interest to those working for environmental  progress –  this recommendation:

“Workers deserve a voice in the issues that are important to them and their communities….To ensure that workers can bargain over the corporate decisions that impact their lives, Clean Slate recommends that the new labor law: • Expand the range of collective bargaining subjects to include any subjects that are important to workers and over which employers have control, including decisions about the basic direction of the firm and employers’ impact on communities and our shared environment.” 

More detail comes on page 69, where the report states:

“Accordingly, and taking inspiration from the Bargaining for the Common Good movement, Clean Slate recommends that when an employer has influence beyond the workplace over subject matters that have major impacts on workers’ communities, such as pollution and housing, the bargaining obligation ought to extend beyond the terms and conditions of employment and encompass these “community impact” subjects. Moreover, when bargaining over community impact subjects, the workers’ organization involved in collective bargaining should have the right to bring community organizations—those with members and expertise in the relevant area—to the bargaining table. … for example, the worker organization would be entitled to bring community environmental justice groups to bargain over pollution controls and abatement and to bring housing groups and tenants unions to bargain over affordable housing development.”

Clean Slate for Worker Power is a project of Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, led by Professor Benjamin Sachs and  Sharon Block, Executive Director, Labor and Worklife Program.  The 15-page Executive Summary is here ; the 132-page full report is here  .  The report is summarized by noted labour journalist and author Steven Greenhouse in  “Overhaul US labor laws to boost workers’ power, new report urges”  in The Guardian (Jan. 23), and also in “‘Clean slate for worker power’ promotes a fair and inclusive U.S. economy” from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth  (Jan. 29), which includes links to a range of academic articles related to the Clean Slate proposals. The authors are interviewed about the Clean Slate framework in a Harvard press release here.