OP-ED: Spurred by unions, states make strides on climate action

Vincent Alvarez, President of the New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO and Pat Devaney, Secretary-Treasurer of the Illinois AFL-CIO

With Washington still negotiating critical climate provisions in the reconciliation bill, you’d be forgiven for feeling impatient. The dual crises of climate change and extreme inequality are a threat to our society, and every one of us has a stake in pushing our elected leaders to build a climate-safe and equitable future.

Fortunately, workers and their unions are making tremendous progress in advancing bold legislation at the state level to address these two existential crises. Just last week, labor unions united under the Climate Jobs Illinois coalition scored a massive victory for workers and the planet when Illinois enacted a landmark climate bill that sets the state on a path to a carbon-free power sector by 2045 with the strongest-in-the-nation labor and equity standards.

Thanks to the labor movement’s leadership on climate change, the Illinois bill will slash emissions, create thousands of new clean energy union jobs, expand union apprenticeships for Black and Latinx communities, increase energy efficiency for public schools, and safeguard thousands of union workers at the state’s nuclear plants that currently generate the bulk of Illinois’ zero-emissions energy. It also contains a transition program for families and communities currently reliant on jobs in the fossil fuel industry. This win shows what’s possible when workers and their unions lead on pursuing bold climate action at the scale that science demands.

Illinois isn’t alone. This summer, unions and environmental groups in Connecticut organized to pass strong labor and equity standards for renewable energy projects through the state legislature. The legislation they won includes prevailing wage and project labor agreement provisions and requires energy developers to partner with in-state apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs, which will expand access to good union jobs, specifically in communities of color that have seen generations of underinvestment and underemployment.

Earlier this year, unions in New York built on the historic climate bill passed in 2018, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, by winning labor standards that will ensure the state’s investments in renewable energy yield good jobs through strong worker protections and prevailing wage requirements, as well as post-construction labor standards and supply chain incentives.

And in Maine, unions pushed lawmakers to require a project labor agreement on the state’s first offshore wind project, which means that the Mainers constructing massive turbines to supply clean energy throughout the state will be paid family-sustaining wages with strong labor protections.

As longtime labor leaders, we know there’s a narrative out there that says we have to choose between creating good jobs and tackling the climate crisis. Our recent victory in Illinois proves just how false that logic is. If we act now, we can slash emissions, create millions of good union jobs in the clean energy economy, and address economic inequality. It’s a winning formula and unions across the country are leading the way.

In our union-led coalitions—Climate Jobs New York and Climate Jobs Illinois—we’re working to fuel and harness this momentum. And across the country, new states are following suit. From Rhode Island to Texas, unions are coming together in coalition to advocate for green, renewable energy jobs with strong labor standards, convinced that we can and must combat climate change while reversing rampant income inequality.

We’ve found broad agreement that our nation is at an inflection point when it comes to our climate and our economy. Working people understand the urgency of the climate crisis; they see that hurricanes are growing in intensity in the South and the East and that wildfires are exploding in the West—and that all too often, lower-income communities are hit first and worst.

At the same time, many of the jobs already created in the renewable industry are minimum or low-wage ones—not family-sustaining, union careers. We will only succeed in addressing climate change and building an equitable clean energy economy with good jobs at its core if unions lead in the fight for climate action.

This year alone, unions in four states have already demonstrated the power of a worker-led transition to a renewable energy future. We’re hopeful that more states—and Congress—will follow suit. Our future depends on it.

Vincent Alvarez is President of the New York City Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, a Principal Officer of Climate Jobs NY, and a Board Member of the Climate Jobs National Resource Center.

Pat Devaney is Secretary Treasurer of the Illinois AFL-CIO, which is a leading member of Climate Jobs Illinois, a coalition of labor unions advancing a pro-worker, pro-climate agenda in Illinois.