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Selling the Green New Deal to Texas Unions

The AFL-CIO's endorsement of Mike Siegel suggests a new way forward for environmentalists and labor.

Mike Siegel (Rick Kern/Getty Images)

Texas’s 10th Congressional District stretches, improbably, from the outer fringes of the Houston metro area to suburbs west of Austin. After sending Democrats to Congress for over 100 years, it has voted for Republican Representative Michael McCaul in every election since its 2005 redistricting. Two years ago, Mike Siegel—a civil rights lawyer and labor activist running on an ambitious progressive platform—came within five points of flipping the district back to blue. This year, campaigning as a Green New Deal supporter, he’s hoping to finish the job. Influential Democratic Party groups like Emily’s List have lined up behind his primary opponent, corporate lawyer Shannon Hutcheson, who fits a more typical profile of Democrats running for red seats. Having been dual-endorsed by the Houston-based Texas Gulf Coast Labor Federation, Siegel and Hutcheson battled it out for the Texas AFL-CIO endorsement, which Siegel had won in 2018. The endorsement was announced at the regional federation’s Committee on Political Education, or COPE, Convention in Austin this past weekend, and while Siegel won it again, his harder-fought victory this cycle offers a preview of what it will take to win labor’s support for a new generation of climate policies.

Siegel and his supporters spent last weekend in nearly round-the-clock meetings with unions, some of whose international leaderships have previously spoken against the Green New Deal. “Everybody throws in something about a just transition when they talk about taking on climate change,” Rick Levy, president of the Texas AFL-CIO, told me. “But I think there’s concern about how central workers’ issues are going to be to that process.… It’s just really hard when you’re in that industry, particularly in a place like Texas,” Levy said of unionized fossil fuel workers in the Right to Work state. “You see all these slings and arrows headed your way to your livelihood, climate change being one of them.” The Green New Deal, he told me, “is either the panacea or the devil, depending on where you’re coming from.”

“It’s going to take a lot of real work for people advocating for this type of legislation to prove that the cost of transition is not going to be in working-class communities,” Levy added. “The way power is distributed, it’s a hard sell to say that that’s not going to be the case.”

Siegel was aware of the resistance to this core element of his platforms and worked hard to make sure it wouldn’t cost him with members. “Spent 3 days caucusing.… Only opposition was Green New Deal,” he told me in a text message after Sunday’s floor vote on the CD 10 race. “My job was to build trust and let folks know we won’t move forward until labor is on board.” It seems to have worked. What ended up winning Siegel the endorsement, Levy said, was his time spent “addressing working people’s issues, and giving them a sense that he cared about those concerns and would actively work to incorporate them.”

It was a good weekend for Green New Deal–backing candidates overall. The Texas AFL-CIO also endorsed the Green New Deal supporter, and Justice Democrats endorsed candidate Jessica Cisneros against Representative Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat representing Texas’s 28th Congressional District who has accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of donations from fossil fuel interests. In the 25th Congressional District, the Texas AFL-CIO issued a dual endorsement for Julie Oliver and Green New Deal supporter Heidi Sloan.

Like most Green New Deal advocates, Siegel believes decarbonization will be a process of designing a suite of policies, not one hulking bill. To make that work politically, he says, labor will have to be “in the driver’s seat.”

“We’re not gonna snap our fingers and implement a national Green New Deal policy,” he told me. “It’s going to be iterative, a series of pieces of legislation over time.” Before the convention, he had already signed onto a pledge from unions committing to hire a labor representative to work on any such measures. “We can put labor guarantees into this legislation that reinforce the right to collectively organize and even demand sectoral bargaining,” he said.

Labor is often, mistakenly, treated as a unified bloc when it comes to climate issues, with press and policymakers assuming that the outspoken international leadership of building trades unions (generally skeptical of decarbonization plans due to job displacement fears) speaks for the AFL-CIO’s 12.5 million members and large non-AFL-CIO unions like the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters. It’s true that the trades, clustered in the AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee, can hold outsize sway. Echoing a letter from that committee saying that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey’s Green New Deal “makes promises that are not achievable or realistic,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke out briefly against it in April 2019. But the statements were also less aggressive than right-wingers attempting to gin up labor-environmentalist conflict made them out to be. Furthermore, several union internationals and locals, including SEIU, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA and the New York State Nurses Association, have endorsed the Green New Deal, which boasts hearty support among rank-and-file union members. Ocasio-Cortez sat down to talk about the Green New Deal last week with members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, or LIUNA, whose locals eagerly supported water protectors at Standing Rock in stark contrast to union leadership. Building on the work of people like Tony Mazzocchi, groups such as Trade Unions for Energy Democracy have been rallying labor around climate action around the world, for years. This weekend’s convention in Texas further highlighted a labor movement that’s anything but monolithic, both between and among unions.

Ryan Pollock is a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 520 in Austin, as well as the city’s Central Labor Council, which recommended that the Texas AFL-CIO endorse Siegel. The national IBEW and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1624 have also backed Siegel. At the Texas AFL-CIO’s Constitutional Convention last summer, he worked with members of other unions to get a resolution supporting federal climate policy passed unanimously through the state AFL-CIO, in a process that mirrored the kind of negotiations that happened at the COPE convention.

It wasn’t easy. Oil runs deep in Texas. The Permian Basin in the west has given rise to one of the biggest oil booms in history. The jobs bound up in the fossil fuel economy aren’t just limited to miners and drillers and refinery workers. They include utility and railroad workers and even—in some sense—public employees, whose salaries in many places are contingent on the tax revenue extractive industries furnish to states and cities. In West Texas boomtowns, few if any sectors are untouched by the oil and gas business and its volatility.

Much of the tension over jobs and environment comes down to the type of work union members are doing. Pollock is an indoor electrician wiring commercial buildings. Energy experts note that an energy transition will require effectively tripling the amount of activity that takes place on the grid, electrifying everything while converting combustion-based activities—from transit to home heating—to run on electricity. Electricians like Pollock will likely see work proliferate during that transition: IBEW workers around the country have been enthusiastic about solar power—Local 11 in Los Angeles, for example, has seen a windfall in work thanks to the state’s pro-renewables legislation. But United Association plumbers and pipe fitters have been less open to Green New Deal proposals, since “electrifying everything” would also mean replacing much of their work running gas lines. And IBEW members also include workers at the coal-fired Fayette Power Plant, east of Austin, in CD 10, which Siegel has urged shutting down over rampant pollution concerns: One of Siegel’s 2020 ads highlights a third-generation pecan farmer whose family business has been destroyed by pollution from the plant, which also left him with a massive brain tumor.

“There’s no easy answer to these folks other than we have to take care of you,” Siegel said of the Fayette plant workers. “We have to make our demands to take care of you as specific as our demands to unwind fossil fuel energy production. The only other choice is environmental destruction and calamity.”

Pollock spent no shortage of time convincing members of the plant’s IBEW Local 66 to support Siegel and the climate resolution at last summer’s Texas AFL-CIO constitutional convention. “I laid out that we’re both IBEW,” Pollock said. “I’m doing this to make sure that we are taken care of, that you are taken care of. This stuff isn’t going away. The ever-increasing cost of fossil fuels means your plant’s in danger no matter what we do. We can do this now, or we can do it later, or we can kick this can down the road,” he says of mapping out what a just transition might look like. “This is about labor getting ahead of the ball for once in the last century or so, and it’s about us calling the shots and not letting someone else call them for us.” Siegel supports providing five years of the same salary for any workers whose jobs are eliminated by a Green New Deal, with an option for workers over 55 to retire with full pension and benefits.

Pollock and Siegel’s other labor backers managed to get Local 66’s agreement on the climate resolution, which passed unanimously. But they weren’t persuaded to endorse Siegel. Local 66 and UA made up the small minority that backed Hutcheson through the nominating process this past weekend.

Though she boasts of working-class roots, Hutcheson would normally be an odd fit to win a labor endorsement over a guy with a string of union supporters, a background in labor activism, and what Data for Progress has deemed the third most ambitious labor platform in the country. She runs a boutique, women-owned corporate law firm called Hutcheson Bowers, which, as the Texas Observer reported, has represented a for-profit prison company that runs ICE detention centers. Hutcheson also penned a handbook for employers called “Agencies Run Amuck,” full of tips for how companies can defend themselves against the tyranny of federal labor law.

Still, many workers see any talk of decarbonization as an existential threat greater than any management-side Democrat. From the decline of the auto sector to the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs under Nafta, there’s never been what workers in the United States would consider a “just transition.” Many are understandably weary of empty promises. Historically, environmentalists have made vague promises of jobs in the future, while opposing existing infrastructure projects like oil pipelines, which provide union members with lucrative work. After decades of attacks on organized labor and a dearth of infrastructure investment, the Green New Deal’s employment promises can still ring hollow.

Joe Uehlein, founding president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, is the former secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department, having entered the labor movement in the 1970s as a United Steelworkers member at an aluminum plant, and then as a LIUNA member working on heavy construction projects. He’s worked for decades now at the intersection of labor and climate. Uehlein emphasized the sheer number of jobs union members have to gain from a Green New Deal, from a transportation overhaul to energy efficiency upgrades to infrastructure investment to agriculture. These policies, he believes, have the potential to expand the labor movement by bringing more people into the work of decarbonization. “The fact that [a just transition] has never happened is the biggest stumbling block,” he told me. “But at the same time, our history is replete with things that never happened that people imagined and fought for and won.”