Photo: Blue-Green Alliance
A Deeper Look
At Green Jobs,
By Bernard Marszalek
June 26, 2008, San Francisco - 'Green Collar Jobs' have gone mainstream. Obama endorses it. And a plank in the Democratic Party Platform calling for green collar jobs would solidify it as Democratic Party policy. Even if that expectation is premature, the popular reception of this program is a remarkable achievement for what began only a few years ago as an under-reported campaign uniting a few progressive labor leaders and some politically astute environmentalists.*
Despite its popular appeal, or maybe due to it, 'Green Collar Jobs' lacks clear definition. The term arose from the groundbreaking, alliance between labor and environmentalists to create a massive national effort to 'jump-start' an alternative energy program. They modeled it after John Kennedy's well-funded Apollo Project to get an American on the moon, fast.
The Apollo Alliance, as the labor/environmentalist collaboration came to be called, works 'to catalyze a clean energy revolution' with the intent 'to reduce our nation's dependence on foreign oil, cut the carbon emissions that are destabilizing our climate, and expand opportunities for American businesses and workers.' **
The labor unions affiliated with the Alliance support it as a way to rally political backing for a program that would replace lost manufacturing jobs with new, good paying jobs in clean technologies. These new, skilled jobs include erecting wind turbines, installing solar panels, retrofitting old buildings with new 'green' technology, and similar pro-environment tasks. Social justice advocates recognized, with the call to create new jobs, an opportunity to establish a national program to train those who have been excluded from economic opportunities in general and disadvantaged youth in particular. Good paying jobs in these new green sectors, like the old blue collar industrial ones that led to a middle class life-style, got branded as 'Green Collar Jobs.'
With all three movements, labor, environment, and social justice, united behind the program of 'green collar jobs for all,' and with Democrats in an election year eager to adopt innovative policies, a political synergy developed. The call for green collar jobs gained legitimacy and media currency.
The push to promote this program without generating factionalism amongst the ranks meant that no precision was sought in defining which jobs fit the Green Collar designation. The point of this program was to get popular acceptance and not create divisive tensions. And success on that level must be acknowledged. The problem, though, is that without a clear definition opportunistic corporations will undoubtedly promote their version of 'green jobs' in 'clean' coal, nuclear energy, and other dubious areas.
Besides the issue of definition, there are other concerns related to seeing green jobs as the prime catalyst to stimulate employment.
Every community seeks development, especially the clean, high tech sort. In the 90's, for instance, cities and regions across the country sought to create their local version of Silicon Valley. More recently, in farsighted communities, alternative energy production emerged, in anticipation of the demise of cheap oil, as the new economic development panacea. A few localities already have secured contracts largely with European manufacturers of turbines, or electric cars, or solar collectors. As significant as this is, it seems unreasonable that each city or region, not to mention each state, can be a center for a green technology.
There are some sectors of the economy, of course, that everyone recognizes as specifically local job generators, like retrofitting older buildings and recycling/reuse, and they can provide major employment opportunities for maybe a decade before they peak and then decline. After older structures are fitted with solar collectors and insulated, what will generate new jobs? And as more products are engineered to be reused, as they are in Europe, even this sector could shrink.
Further, green collar advocates do not resist the centralization of green technologies. Giant energy firms plan huge, multi-megawatt solar collectors for deserts as more efficient than decentralized schemes, because in part they employ a smaller workforce.
These basic economic realities should temper the spectacular optimism that assumes millions of green collar jobs wait in the wings to make their appearance.
Zooming out to take a wider perspective, the demand for green collar jobs however may be a useful way to leverage a long overdue discussion of national industrial policy.
Industrial policy requires definition. We can say that whenever a government adopts policy that supports some economic activities over others it is conducting industrial policy. Most obviously subsidies to agribusiness and oil corporations are foundational elements of the current industrial policy. But even a national health insurance plan that supports premiums to private insurance firms is industrial policy.
The last time this country had a popular and beneficial industrial policy was in the 30's. The Roosevelt administration, pressured by the mass unrest of unemployed workers, stumbled into cobbling together programs to mollify the discontent. Nevertheless, looking back we see its texture: for the first time the federal government transferred funds to directly aid ordinary people.
The New Deal programs were cut short with the massive mobilization to prepare for the Second World War. Before the end of the war, a more conscious industrial policy (consisting of full employment, mainly for white male Americans, and bountiful profits for the armaments and nuclear industries) took the form of a permanent war economy and the construction of the Garrison State.
The development of the Cold War - we could say that that was the brand name of the post-war industrial policy - served the plutocracy well for at least a generation. The post-war generation, as a consequence, achieved middle-class status and passed on those benefits to their children. This prosperity of the 50's and 60's was fueled by the creation of an enormous 'military-industrial and legislative' complex Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about days before John Kennedy assumed the Presidency. Kennedy, ignoring Eisenhower (and in doing so, justified Ike's fears), escalated the war in Vietnam further enriching the military manufacturing sector.
By the mid-70's, as the economy nosedived, the ruling class feared that the edifice of industrial policy, always hidden from public view, would become visible despite the carefully maintained appearances of wellbeing. The day was saved, just like in the movies, with the appearance of Ronald Reagan. With his 'charm' and well-orchestrated diversionary programs, Reagan swiftly followed his entrance to the White House with anti-union and rabidly pro-business policies that accelerated the first wave of de-industrialization of the Midwest's basic industries.
With little substantive change, this post-war industrial policy, has been inherited more as an albatross than a legacy. Today we find ourselves on the precipice of an economic and environmental catastrophe the litany of which is know by heart - Peak Oil, Climate Change, and environmental devastation due to increased pollution. And the secondary effects: world resource wars, mass migrations, and pandemics. As a future unfolds far worse than the horrors of depression of the 30's, it's time for a thorough and popular discussion of an industrial policy that goes far beyond the confines of Roosevelt's .
By focusing on a vulnerable area of capitalism - jobs - a critical public discussion on a new industrial policy, one that is equitable, may be initiated. The catalyst to energize this discussion, the demand for green jobs, needs definition. Without it we are reduced to the perennial call for full employment and the usual inconsequential political effect. A definition serves as a guideline to create standards of corporate performance. Truly sustainable criteria may prevent corporations adopting Human Resource Department greenwashing that will define as green jobs those that support the current industrial policy.
Corporate heads will resist any attempt at accountability, but two decades of fighting bad corporate behavior has conditioned the public to be receptive to popular pressure to coerce good conduct. It should not be assumed that the corporations could amass an effective opposition.
The last thing to do, even with good standards, is to debate the specifics of green collar jobs - that would lead to a useless fight on the terrain of the corporations. Much better to out-flank the corporations with a more popular and far-reaching demand. Using the criteria introduced by green jobs -- good paying and socially useful - why not create a demand for free skills training, not only for new green collar jobs, but also for the industrial jobs vacated as the current generation of skilled workers retires?
Across the country, manufacturers have voiced alarm that there is no labor pool of young trained workers. From the late 70's and through to the early 90's trade school classes were scuttled from high school and community college curriculums in the false view that all new jobs would be high-tech ones: blue work shirts replaced by white lab coats.
Revenue-starved education budgets forced this false choice in training, in the same way as off-shoring manufacturing caused many unions to downsize their apprenticeship programs, if not eliminate them entirely. A bleak future for labor equipped with mechanical skills seemed inevitable.
The need for skilled workers to replace the retirees has mobilized, in some communities, a response by unions, junior colleges and local governments to establish pioneering educational ventures using limited local resources. Significantly, many manufacturers recognize the value of skills training and it may be possible to find support from some sections of the business community over this issue.
It can't be stressed enough that unless the country educates a new generation of skilled workers, much of the infrastructural work, like re-building failing bridges, replacing weak levees, laying high speed rails and much more, will be impossible to accomplish.
If there is a national commitment, which means massive federal funds, to initiate these essential construction projects it will recall Roosevelt's political script - to provide good jobs for the unemployed - but updated by the push to create green collar jobs. For example, instead of simply rebuilding the old bridges, why not design them with fewer auto lanes and expanded public transit lanes to allow for light rail and bikes? And new levees? Build them higher for safety of course, but also smarter to allow water flows to fill low-lying areas. And why not restrict new construction to fit a sustainable land-use perspective that incorporates economic justice? The point is to move the public discussion, by the concern for good green jobs, towards an examination of social-serving employment.
Another reason to develop technical skills, from the factory floor to the universities, is to begin the re- industrialization of America, not in imitation of the old mega-factories like Ford's River Rouge plant in Detroit, but smarter, decentralized models. A new engineering technology that responds to the needs of local production must be encouraged to develop. Reusing material gleaned locally, a metal fabricator, for instance, could produce with the aid of computerized resources a variety of parts for a range of uses. A model for this sort of local re-use are the small rubber fabricators erected near refuse dumps in the developing world. Clean, small pulping mills, like those being developed in Europe, could likewise remake paper products. The possibilities of re- industrialization are endless if the goal is to achieve a truly sustainable material environment and engineering technique is freed from the constrictions of the profit motive.
The implications of an industrial policy that consciously creates useful jobs, not the demeaning jobs now offered to the desperate, won't be lost on many. In the process of doing good work, socially recognized as such, a change of attitude regarding work could arise - one that places high value on the work itself. The displaced rewards we now associate with bearing up under grueling, mind/spirit destroying labor could be history.
Imagine. What if the weekend, instead of a frantic escape into consumerism, actually became an occasion to visit the good work done by others? As farfetched as this may sound, something like it happened in the 30's when people, using public transportation, visited national parks made serviceable by the formerly unemployed. Or attended public fairs and theater productions to see performances with actors paid by government checks.
There are major implications of a new industrial policy, that go to the very core of the economic system we currently endure - the military-industrial enterprises. This sector of our economy may not provide qualitatively less socially useful work than the advertising and public relations sectors, but it certainly wastes more resources. This is obvious to all. The seemingly bottomless budgets and the economic penetration of the military-industrial complex in all communities, therefore requires a solid alternative proposal. Rebuilding the failing infrastructure, re- tooling for local manufacture and developing an alternative energy economy, all financed by diverting wasteful military expenditures, outlines a program that the peace movement could support. And allied with unions, environmentalists and economic justice groups they could combine as one to further it.
As radical as this proposal may sound to this point, it needs greater depth. There remains a large area of the economy absent from consideration - the service sector. And what about the non-profits, a subset of the service sector, that the business section of newspapers deposit, by their neglect, outside the economic universe? It would be foolhardy to ignore these workers jobs formulating a new industrial policy. They are significant economic factors in local economies and often the most exploited. Precarious employment rules here like in no other sector.
It should come as no surprise that service sector jobs are unionizing faster than any other employment area. An exemplary level of dignity has been achieved by unionization for people in these jobs, but, as sound remedy, it fails within the context of a new industrial policy. There are jobs in the service sector, including the non-profits, that could be eliminated, plain and simple. These sectors have grown to huge proportions due to a large, poor and desperate population eager for income. Without these recruits, who would do these jobs? Would they disappear as unnecessary, or be automated out of existence? Would office staff clean their own space?
As for those tasks that are socially necessary, and poorly funded by public revenues and private foundations, a new approach must be sought to protect and even expand them. And not on the backs of recent college graduates in need of beginning a resume. One sound approach is to expand the guaranteed minimum income program. If this program were fully funded to cover the basics of shelter and food and a modest stipend for social needs, to afford a dignified existence, it would form the basis for equitable employment. That is if no penalty was introduced to prevent an income earned beyond the minimum. Conceivably then those who choose to increase their basic incomes could do those jobs that are socially useful but pay little.
These tasks might be part-time jobs, and maybe two or more could be taken on to add variety to one's life. If the intention to reduce drudge-work were realized then options become available for people who wouldn't think of helping in a school, or assisting the disabled, because of the poor pay and long hours.
A national income subsidy, sounds utopian, and while there is nothing wrong with that, the proposal for a basic, guaranteed income is currently discussed worldwide as an alternative to the multitude of social welfare programs countries more enlightened than ours provide their populations. Among others, the Irish and the South African parliaments are discussing it. The Brazilians have already implemented it on a small scale by providing funds to families to compensate them for the loss of income when they send their children to school. It has been widely recognized as the most successful program Lula introduced.***
Assuring a basic income severs the oppressive link between jobs and income. And the broken link releases time to either work for income or not. The decision to work one job or another as a consequence of market forces, contradicts the principles of a democratic society besides devaluing socially necessary employment. With time available, a path towards a sustainable society opens up - there's time to actually create a democratic society, which means to develop personal resources to act communally.
In order to avoid the impending catastrophe brought to our doorstep by the unbridled growth of global capitalism, there is no alternative but to embrace a perspective that reverses the pursuit of profit over people. The control of the economy by the rich and powerful presumes self-destructive behavior by obedience to authority and out of fear of generalized scarcity. On a personal level, abandoning the desire to develop our capacities is what the pursuit of profit is all about. To reverse that perspective requires critical thinking on several levels. The current dire world situation functions as a test of our ability to overcome our social conditioning.
First on the agenda - a vision of a cooperative way to live together, as a work in progress. All visions needs to be malleable. Next, an attainable goal to strive for, and finally, the steps to take to get there. The vision of an eco-economy society, a society that serves to sustain humanity within nature, cannot be chiseled in stone and neither can the goals be unmovable, but that doesn't mean the walk can't begin. What it does mean is that popular participation, to be legitimate, requires constant feedback. The vision, the goals and the steps develop as a process of constant refinement to strengthen and deepen their impact.
If the common vision is of a society that meets human needs, and the goals are collaborative projects to create community, then the steps are expanding the possibilities of useful work, by choice. Defining what that work entails begins this process. Focusing on the details of useful employment cannot proceed without constant reference to the goals and the vision.
* Those who grow increasingly pessimistic with the daily revelations of ever more apocalyptic consequences of global warming might ponder this phenomenon: what was nowhere on the political radar two years ago currently assumes the status of a 'no-brainer.'
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Marszalek is employed in an Alameda County (CA) Certified Green business with a trade union contract.)
Monday, June 30, 2008
Posted by Carl Davidson at 6:36 AM