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This Is What the Beginning of a Climate-Labor Alliance Looks Like

The PRO Act is emerging as the left’s answer to a classic political tension.

Representative Jamaal Bowman gestures while speaking.
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
Representative Jamaal Bowman, a vocal supporter of the PRO Act

Tuesday night, the Protecting the Right to Organize Act passed the House by 225–205 votes. If it passes the Senate and becomes law, it will peel back over half a century of anti-union policies, including core provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. It would override state-level right-to-work protections—the darlings of the Koch brothers machine—and create harsher penalties for employers who interfere with employees’ organizing efforts. But in myriad ways, the act might also do something unexpected: set the stage for sweeping climate policy.  

A coalition led by the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, or IUPAT, and the Communication Workers of America is mobilizing to push the PRO Act over the finish line in the Senate. The youth climate group Sunrise Movement was an early recruit, and the Democratic Socialists of America—including its ecosocialist working group, which is also pushing for a Green New Deal—will be deploying its members in key districts around the country to ensure it’s passed. After a kick-off call over the weekend featuring Congressman Jamaal Bowman, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA head Sara Nelson, and Naomi Klein, DSA is holding trainings for its members throughout March as well as events around the country pushing key senators to back the bill in the lead-up to May Day. Sunrise last week launched a Good Jobs for All campaign, which is urging on a federal job guarantee introduced recently by Representative Ayanna Pressley. Over the next several weeks, Sunrise hubs will be working alongside progressive legislators and holding in-district protests to advance five priorities for upcoming infrastructure legislation, including the PRO Act. After its passage through the House last night, a press release from the groups praised the measure as a “core pillar of the Green New Deal.”

The alliances forming around the PRO Act buck long-held wisdom in Washington about what it would take to get labor unions and environmentalists to work together. James Williams Jr., IUPAT’s vice president at large, has been frustrated by years of seeing the two talk past one another. Construction unions, in particular, have come to loggerheads with climate hawks over infrastructure projects like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. “I would blame labor a lot of the time for this,” he says, “but there have to be deeper conversations about the fact that labor is going to lose jobs that have been really good jobs for a really long time.” 

IUPAT is affiliated with both the AFL-CIO and the North American Building Trades Unions, or NABTU, with members doing everything from industrial paintwork to commercial glass installation to flooring. Tens of thousands of IUPAT members in traditional energy sectors, Williams said, stand to lose work. Those members now “make a really good living—all the same things that the Green New Deal wants to create. The PRO Act is a perfect bridge to that. In order to lift wages in new forms of employment, workers have to have the right to organize.” 

Though environmentalists have generally been Democrats in the United States, many haven’t seen themselves as part of a tradition that includes organizing labor, with roots instead in conservation and legal fights to protect tracts of wilderness. One popular approach to navigating labor-climate tensions has been to try inoculating climate legislation against unions’ de facto veto power among Democratic politicians, as accusations of so-called job-killing environmentalism are still catnip for reporters and the right. Often that means brokering agreements among union and green group leadership to focus on the more positive, less controversial aspects of green investments while avoiding touchier subjects like fossil fuel phaseouts. The downside of that is obvious: The U.S. desperately needs those fossil fuel phaseouts to meet climate targets. And avoiding tough conversations won’t make actually existing energy transitions any easier, much less build shared trust.

The left, including many young climate organizers pushing for a Green New Deal, has a different theory of change and approach to coalition-building. A new generation of climate organizers see workers as a critical piece of the mobilization needed to pass any sweeping climate legislation and create a more sustainable world. Labor reforms like the PRO Act, they reason, are necessary for making both possible. Climate organizers are also all too conscious of the high-level negotiations among Beltway insiders that have failed in the past. The Wagner Act of 1935 offers some prior proof of concept, having helped build the coalition that pushed the New Deal to go further and faster, following strikes in the 1930s. Working with labor in that sense is less a matter of risk management than of working toward shared interests.

Sydney Ghazarian coordinates DSA’s Green New Deal campaign. “The only way that a Green New Deal can live up to the promise of creating millions of union jobs is if workers can collectively organize for their needs,” she tells me. “The PRO Act won’t magically make a mass workers’ movement happen, but it does eliminate some of the structural barriers that are preventing that from happening.… People are happy to point to the fact that the clean energy economy is one of the fastest-growing sectors, but what’s left out of the equation is whether these are good jobs. By passing the PRO Act, we can provide proof of concept: We can make these jobs good jobs.”

Daniel Dominguez, whose day job is with the National Union of Healthcare Workers, has been helping lead DSA’s work on the PRO Act as a member of the Los Angeles chapter and part of its Democratic Socialist Labor Commission, a national body. “There’s a pretty broad recognition from our membership that a lot of our key demands are going to need a strong labor movement. The PRO Act on its own is not the transformational change we’re looking for but is a prerequisite for things like a Green New Deal and a federal job guarantee.”

As a labor organizer, Dominguez told me, “we get a ton of inquiries from people who want to organize and want a union. They’re ready, but run into the limitation that people are scared for their jobs.… They know the reality that people have gotten fired for organizing,” he says. “This would remove some of those structural obstacles. If there are real penalties in place for employers who violate the law, that gives employees the confidence they need to continue with their organizing efforts.”

There’s also the chance that either the PRO Act or voting rights reform could trigger a fight over the filibuster that could yield dividends for climate policy down the line, opening up paths for climate policy beyond reconciliation or as line items in broader packages. With the filibuster in place and a 50–50 Senate, sweeping, stand-alone climate legislation will be extraordinarily difficult to come by.

A stronger labor movement, PRO Act advocates argue, is also key for ensuring a transition off fossil fuels doesn’t throw workers in those sectors under the bus. A forthcoming report from the Labor Network for Sustainability pulls together interviews with union and nonunion workers across industries that have experienced transitions, from steel and textile mills to auto plants and coal mining to grocery stores, where self-checkout machines have ushered in major job losses. Its upshot isn’t a happy one: “The history of economic transitions in America is a history of injustice and failure.” Many who lost jobs as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the report’s authors note, were harshly critical of the assistance provided by the Trade Adjustment Act, saying it was difficult to access and prepared them for jobs that didn’t exist nearby.

For years, promises of an energy transition boiled down to teaching coal miners to code. In attempting to sell climate policy as job creation, the Biden administration has emphasized the potential to create potentially millions of jobs in solar and wind and electric vehicle manufacturing. Often, though, those jobs—if they do happen to be unionized—exist states away from work that’s closing down, with relatively few upsides for communities facing a massive hit to their tax base and small businesses. “A lot of folks don’t move, because they have ties to the community that go beyond employment. And they spiral into despair. There’s this talking point that people move to opportunity, and it’s just not true,” says Mijin Cha, an assistant professor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College and a lead author on the report.

In industries already facing job losses, as in coal mining and power plants, worker organizing has fought to ensure mine operators don’t simply abandon employees when companies go belly up. Blackjewel miners blockaded train tracks ferrying coal to get back pay they were owed after the company collapsed. The United Mineworkers of America has in recent years fought to secure federal protections for its pensions, after coal bosses shirked employee and environmental obligations through bankruptcy courts. “The union can’t necessarily stop the plant from shutting down, but it can get you access to a much better package than if you don’t have a union,” Cha told me. 

“Our members are scared,” Williams relayed. “If they’re working in a power plant, or if they’re working in the fossil fuel industry or even nuclear, they’re scared when they hear things like, ‘We want to shut down fracking.’ Our members’ natural reaction is to push back. I think we as labor leaders have to do a better job of listening, and so do activists in the environmental justice side of things.” He sees climate and labor as “natural allies when it comes to social justice,” and the PRO Act as “a great place to not just hear each other but act together,” both to navigate transitions that don’t screw workers over and to set standards for a greener economy.

Williams noted the massive amount of work that green investment would create for IUPAT and other trades. He pointed, in particular, to a deal struck between the Danish wind developer Ørsted and NABTU, which will bring hundreds of unionized jobs to offshore wind projects over the coming years. Such agreements, IUPAT organizer and DSA member Ryan Kekeris tells me, could create a “generation of construction workers whose only work experience is building green energy. To me, that feels like the model and what we’d like to see out of something like a Green New Deal.” The PRO Act would level the playing field for such things to happen around the country, helping snuff out anti-labor practices in right-to-work states that lead to rampant misclassification and low wages—including in today’s extractive industries. 

A recent study by the Political Economy Research Institute and the Sierra Club, which has backed the PRO Act, finds that absent high-road jobs standards, many of the jobs that could be created by stimulus funds will be predominately low-wage and held mostly by white men. Ensuring prevailing wage standards, project labor agreements and other labor protections can make federal dollars more widely felt, along with—the report’s authors suggest—making sure at least 50 percent of investments specifically benefit communities of color and those who stand to be worst hit by climate change and energy transitions.

At the heart of climate-friendly PRO Act campaigning is a simple insight: Fast-growing wind and solar industries won’t treat workers better or recognize unions out of the goodness of their hearts. If those green jobs become union strongholds, it will be for the same reasons that many pipeline and refinery jobs today pay so well: Workers fought for them. 

The next steps for the PRO Act are far from certain. It faces a steep battle in the Senate, where there’s little Republican support and considerable Democratic skittishness. The White House supports the legislation, and Joe Biden urged Congress to put it on his desk. “Nearly 60 million Americans would join a union if they get a chance,” Biden wrote in a statement released Tuesday, “but too many employers and states prevent them from doing so through anti-union attacks. They know that without unions, they can run the table on workers—union and non-union alike.” It may yet be possible to pass some of the act’s key points through reconciliation. In any case, climate and labor organizers now working together to pass it are eager to see that alliance continue.

“If this is effective, and we’re able to win something like labor law reform,” Kekeris said, “why wouldn’t we transition into new organizing projects, and into directly fighting for the Green New Deal? We are fighting not only for workers’ rights but for the planet itself.”