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Good Clean Jobs

The Root

America no longer has to choose between creating well-paying jobs and protecting the environment.

The hopeful conveners of the “Good Jobs, Green Jobs” conference held in Washington this week are convinced that they have a solution to the twin problems of a shrinking U.S. job market and the existential threat of climate change. Their answer? Green-collar employment for millions of Americans.

We’ve heard of white- and blue-collar work—but green jobs?

After a week of political dog-fighting over an economic stimulus package ended with news that the U.S. economy shed almost 600,000 jobs in January, President Obama called the news “devastating.” And recently, his Energy Secretary Steven Chu warned, ominously, that without swift action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Americans might see their way of life grind to a halt. “I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going,” Chu told the Los Angeles Times.

Enter green jobs. The Apollo Alliance, one of the organizers of the conference and among the earliest advocates of an earth-friendly economy, defines them as “family sustaining” employment that protects or cleans the environment, slows climate change, and, in many cases, is resistant to outsourcing. These jobs involve everything from the obviously green—clean water projects and brown fields cleanup; to the high-tech—solar panel installation, ethanol or biodiesel production; to the sensible—flood control work, or weatherizing homes and businesses to reduce heating and cooling costs. Times are tough, but plenty of green jobs already exist. And some existing work may find more ecological applications: Workers at a manufacturing plant may stay on an existing assembly line, but instead of cranking out gas-guzzling SUVs, they may be making parts for hybrid cars and high-performance electric batteries, or steel turbines for wind power.

Lisa Jackson, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, addressed the three-day conference on Friday, touting the White House’s plan for green stimulus. She insisted that the nation no longer had to choose between creating well-paying jobs and protecting the environment. “Not long ago you had to choose—you could have one green or the other green,” she said. Initiatives that provide good union wages and help the planet—say, electrical engineers helping to install light rail lines to the suburbs—she added, are “a very tangible demonstration … that you can have both the clean job and money in your pocket to feed your family.”

It is a timely debate; job losses continue to mount in the construction and manufacturing sectors, where the potential for green job creation is great. More than 320,000 jobs were lost in manufacturing and construction in the last month.

The White House was also showcasing it green-jobs commitment this week, when Melody Barnes, the president's domestic policy adviser, talked about “energy investments as a primary form [of economic stimulus].” She highlighted the administration's attempts to put green-job training funds in the proposed legislation. The president's proposal also included funding for making government buildings more energy efficient, but those provisions seemed not to have survived a late-night compromise reached Friday. 

More than 2,500 people showed up for the second annual “Good Jobs, Green Jobs” conference, compared with about 700 who went to Pittsburgh last year. A considerably more diverse crowd attended the event, sponsored by the Blue Green Alliance—formed in 2005 and made up initially of the Sierra Club and the United Steel Workers. Among the unions represented this week were the Teamsters, SEIU, IBEW, and United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, in addition to entrepreneurs and traditional conservationists of all stripes.

It was the host city, the District of Columbia, however, that led the charge, sponsoring 20 booths at a Green Jobs Expo. While the federal government is changing its tone—“We’ve never really worked the job angle before,” said one Energy Department employee—the community response to the outreach in a predominantly black city was another sign of changing times. More than 100 young people from the Young America Works Public Charter School in Northeast Washington attended the Expo. Danny Lienau, a social studies teacher at YAW, a vocational school that focuses on construction engineering and design, said his students are “very interested in the future potential of green jobs expanding the market.” Nyasha Klusmann, 16, is a convert. “All my science projects have to do with global warming,” she said. “It’s cool that they have jobs based around an issue.”

The prospect of an economic revival based on green jobs is especially important to communities of color, since the bleak labor market is taking a harsh toll on black and other minority workers.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, called the January numbers “about as bad as imaginable,” and noted that blacks and Hispanics have been hit hardest by the downturn, with black male unemployment up almost 6 percentage points to 14.1 percent since 2008.

Though the green movement historically has been predominantly white, environmental crises increasingly threaten communities of color, in the form of pollution, poor nutrition, and punishing energy costs. After addressing the packed hall, Jackson—the first African-American EPA head—outlined plans to combine the efforts of the Departments of Labor, Commerce, Energy, along with the newly created Office of Urban Policy to bridge the cultural and economic divide that has stifled green activism in minority communities: “We have plans in a broader sense to make sure that communities of color and the environmental justice community feel part of the environmental protection movement,” she told The Root, “and understand the connection not only for their health but for the economy.” 

Van Jones, president of Green For All, an environmental justice coalition, urged the mixed-race audience toward a new activism—“not in the thin political arena, but in the thick guts of the economy.” The green jobs movement, he said, can build “a green economy that Dr. King would be proud of.”

Kari Fulton, an organizer with Campus Climate Challenge who works with students of color, concurred: “There are groups looking at it from a sustainable business perspective … not just working for the man, but being the man,” she said.

Dayo Olopade is a Washington reporter for The Root.

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