Labor and Environment Unite to Build Green Economy

Date: February 1, 2021
Author: Frank Carini

The conversations, and there were many, began the day after the Nov. 3 election. It then took three months for an array of Rhode Island groups, representing organized labor, environmental organizations, and the social-justice movement, to unveil a collaboration its members hope propels the state to a just transition to a green economy.

Climate Jobs Rhode Island, by consolidating the power of these movements into a unified force, has the potential to steer the state’s response to the climate crisis and inequality in a way that doesn’t leave future generations in the lurch.

“We can’t wait any longer to take bold action,” said Patrick Crowley, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO. He noted that there will be disagreements, but the various groups are building a relationship that will enable it to find common ground.

The Nature Conservancy’s Sheila Dormody, who played a key role in creating the coalition, said it’s time to start building a future the next generation deserves.

The Rhode Island AFL-CIO, along with allies in the labor and environmental movements and with support from some elected officials, launched the campaign Jan. 29 during an online meeting. The initiative is committed to creating a low-carbon Rhode Island economy by 2050. It’s also dedicated to making sure this new economy is fair and just.

Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture, pointed out the importance of this coalition. “Bringing together organized labor and the environmental community is a really big deal,” she said.

This newly forged relationship is what makes this initiative, co-chaired by Crowley and Priscilla De La Cruz, Rhode Island director of Green Energy Consumers Alliance, a possible game changer.

The coalition is committed to working together to make Rhode Island a national leader in the development of a 21st-century economy grounded in the principles of economic, environmental, racial, and social justice.

De La Cruz noted that the issues facing Rhode Island present “big challenges that need a bold response.”

“We know how to do this without leaving anyone behind,” she said. “Shared efforts toward a just, clean energy transition and a socially and racially equitable Rhode Island will create opportunities in frontline communities, address the climate crisis, and economic recovery from the pandemic.”

George Nee, president of the 80,000-member Rhode Island AFL-CIO, said the air and water society shares isn’t the same, noting that disadvantaged and marginalized communities have to unfairly deal with polluted resources.

“The labor movement believes working people don’t just need a seat at the table, but many seats, speaking for all of those fighting for a more just Rhode Island,” he said. “The fight against exploitation, injustice, and racism can only be won when workers have more power.”

Climate Jobs Rhode Island embraces four principles and outlines 10 goals. The principles:

Establish science-based mandatory and enforceable emissions limits leading to economy-wide 100 percent net-zero emissions by 2050.

Establish statewide, cost-effective investment in community resiliency to protect against the impacts of climate change and equitably share costs, benefits, and risks.

Maximize family-sustaining job growth through the creation and maintenance of good, well-paying union jobs and apprenticeship programs, and create defined career pathways for current workers in the fossil-fuel industry.

Prioritize solutions developed by underserved communities overburdened by pollution and follow the lead of frontline communities disproportionately impacted by environmental injustice in the transition to a green economy.

The goals:

Institutionalize the concept of a just transition within all Rhode Island governmental agencies, with a legislative mandate requiring the inclusion of stakeholders in the labor movement, the environmental movement, the racial-justice movement, and private industry.

Identify and remove any unnecessary and counterproductive administrative and/or legislative barriers prohibiting or restricting the smooth flow of public financing available for infrastructure projects that will create resilient communities.

Retrofit all Rhode Island public schools to reach 100 percent net-zero emissions by 2050.

Retrofit all public buildings and buildings supported with public spending with renewable-energy systems by 2050. The health-care sector, such as group homes, nursing homes, and nonprofit hospitals, should be required to immediately begin reducing fossil-fuel use and transition to renewable energy.

Install solar-energy systems on every appropriate publicly owned building, including municipal and K-12 school buildings and public higher education buildings, by 2050.

Expand the services of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, eliminate all customer fares, and establish a comprehensive transportation and mobility network. Also, transition RIPTA’s fleet to a zero-net emission system and expand electric-vehicle charging infrastructure.

Support the expansion of offshore wind and solar energy, with plan to make Rhode Island the nation’s hub for renewable-energy development.

Incorporate renewable-energy and environmental-awareness education programs in every Rhode Island public school, to, among other things, develop a pipeline of green economy employees.

Increase support for registered apprenticeship training that creates family-sustaining career opportunities for low-income community members and people of color in existing and green economy industries.

The preparation of a report detailing the project costs for transitioning Rhode Island to a green economy, including the cost of inaction.

General Treasurer Seth Magaziner noted that Rhode Island can create thousands of good-paying jobs “by transitioning to a green and resilient economy.”

Sen. Meghan Kallman, D-Pawtucket, a member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture, noted that this new coalition provides a starting point to tackle some serious problems.

“Climate change is among the greatest threats that we face as a community, both in Rhode Island and nationally,” she said. “We urgently need an ambitious plan to tackle it—a plan that is built on economic and environmental justice.”

Coalition members include: the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, the Rhode Island Building & Construction Trades Council, The Nature Conservancy, Green Energy Consumers Alliance, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, SEIU District 1199NE, the Acadia Center, Clean Water Action, the National Education Association Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Environmental Education Association, the Rhode Island Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, and IBEW Local Union 99.