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A Labor Leader for Good Jobs and a Clean Environment

By Ngoc Nguyen
New America Media

An interview with new Green For All CEO Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins

Editor’s Note: Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, a rising star in the labor movement, is stepping in to head Green For All. As executive officer of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, Ellis- Lamkins expanded health care access in San Jose and worked to raise the minimum wage for low-income families. She spoke with NAM editor Ngoc Nguyen about what’s needed to bridge the sometimes wide gap between the labor and environmental movements.

How does it feel to be stepping into your new role as the head of Green for All?

I’m very excited. A little overwhelmed today. I’m still at the South Bay Labor Council, so it’s exciting and sad.

How did your new appointment come about?

I spent three months working in Washington, D.C., figuring out how to create opportunities for working people and people of color. This is a unique moment. There’s a huge federal investment. We can turn that investment into quality jobs for people who need them the most. Van decided to go to D.C. He said to me, ‘Why don’t you come to Green For All.’

The labor and environmental movements have often been pitted against each other. It’s either jobs or the environment, but not both.

Do you think that opposition is breaking down?

There’s a new generation of movement leaders who can see that there shouldn’t be a rift between the environment and labor movements. No one knows this like a coal miner how destructive the industry is. No one wants their child to do that work, but [the miners] do it because they want their family to thrive. They don’t want the place where they live to go through a destructive process and watch their own body be harmed. The whole family has to make hard choices. It’s the same for the workers in Silicon Valley where people are using chemicals to clean chips, not the kind of choices people should have to make to support their family.

The communities suffering the most from toxic pollution are the same ones that don’t have grocery stores and don’t have quality jobs. I grew up near a Shell refinery and I had asthma. I remember my doctor telling my mom, ‘You have to move to Arizona because the air quality is better.’ Families have to make those tough choices.

How would you define a green job?

These are new jobs created as a result of changes in the economy. It can be around construction, such as weatherization or jobs installing solar panels. There are opportunities for green jobs even in the way industry does things, for instance, going paperless, like in the medical industry. In all of these different sectors, there will be new net jobs being created.

Green jobs have a minimal impact on the environment, and are done better than the traditional way.

Will Silicon Valley play a role in providing green jobs, perhaps in the clean tech sector?

Silicon Valley will be at the forefront of the economy, as a center of innovation, diversity and inspiration. Silicon Valley creates a space to be entrepreneurial. In my 13 years there, I was amazed by the work that gets done. People come here to make their families’ lives better.

What is next for your new organization, Green for All?

For Green for All to play a role in national policy. The Green Jobs Act of 2007 provides $500 million. We need to make sure that in the budget process, there’s investment in low-income communities and opportunities for new jobs. We need to do research and show that the policies work at the local and state level.

Green For All needs to map out the landscape of new jobs. There’s an opportunity for green jobs in infrastructure and construction. There’s 30 percent unemployment rate in construction, we’re talking about putting people back to work where the new jobs are.

What is the current state of the labor movement nationally?

The labor movement is positioned to do well, nationally. The emergence of the Employee Free Choice Act, allowing workers to more easily organize into union is good. But will the labor movement be able to make the most of this opportunity? The greatest challenge is not fighting one another in the midst of opportunity when the labor movement has had to be defensive for the last eight years. It’s important for us to not fight over small things, but focus on big change on behalf of members.

What is the biggest change your members what to see?

Stability in the economy. People measure the success of unions by how their families live. People want their homes to not get foreclosed on, for their kids to get an education, and for their community to be safe and healthy.

We as a country need to be clear in our priorities. I think we are on the right track, the worst part about this moment is that there’s no quick answer. I wish I could say the answer is simply green tech. We’re in a real tough spot, and when people are in crisis, can we think longer term and smarter?

What’s needed most to pull the country out of this recession?

The most important investment is the one that gets people back to work in a way that makes our community sustainable. We want to be able to build transportation that lets people get to jobs and grocery stores. Did we do projects that make sense? For example, weatherization. The place people spend the most money on utilities is in hot places for cooling their homes. There are seniors out there who suffer because they can’t afford to pay utilities. That can’t be the country we are.

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