Most progressives and many Americans agree that we must move toward a more sustainable society. Where does labor fit in that picture? (More)

Exiting the Crisis, Part III – Sustainable Jobs (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature has extended Labor Day into Labor Week with a review of Exiting the Crisis, edited by David Coats and published by the European Trade Union Institute. Thursday we considered the lessons of the 2008 crisis and the Great Recession, as learned (or not) by economists and policy makers. Yesterday we looked at the development model emerging in Latin America, and proposals for more labor-centered policies. Today we conclude with a labor model for a sustainable 21st Century economy.

What is “sustainability?”

Progressive discussions of sustainability often focus on environmental issues, and those are important. But the authors of Exiting the Crisis broaden that concept in important ways. In the chapter’s opening essay, German economist Sigurt Vitols discusses concept of a “sustainable company,” with a focus on corporate governance and escaping the short-term, finance-driven thinking that often ignores the experiences and needs of workers. British Trades Union Congress senior policy advisor Tim Page writes about sustainability through the lens of national industrial policy, and how to avoid a “race to the bottom.” French economist Sébastien Dupuch addresses the importance of public services in achieving fair and sustainable growth. Only after that all groundwork is laid do Anabella Rosemberg and Lora Verheecke of the International Trade Union Confederation and finally Hungarian economist Béla Galgóczi of the European Trade Union Institute move specifically to environmental and “green jobs” issues.

While it frustrated me on first reading, I think the wandering path of that chapter is important if we are to understand and bridge the gap between organized labor and the environmental movement. It’s easy to say “We need to go green,” and it’s true that both the U.S. and other economies must develop a new worldview that recognizes climate change, pollution, and other environmental imperatives.

But consider that a 2008 report by the U.S. Census Bureau (Excel spreadsheet) showed 107,000 Americans working in oil and gas extraction, 205,000 miners (including 82,000 in coal mines), 316,500 working in support activities for those industries, 73,000 in fossil fuel electrical power generation, 85,000 in natural gas distribution, 157,000 in oil and gas pipeline and related construction, and 104,000 in petroleum and coal products manufacturing. That’s already over 1 million “non-green” jobs in the U.S., and I didn’t get to people who build automobiles, trucks, and other fossil fuel-powered vehicles. Galgóczi notes that over 2.5 million Europeans work in automobile manufacturing, and only about 10% of those jobs are arguably “green,” i.e.: manufacturing of fuel-efficient, low-pollution, low-emission vehicles. I also didn’t factor in retail and service businesses who rely on those “non-green” workers.

What are “sustainable jobs?”

Now consider when and where organized labor emerged in the U.S. and, equally important, when organized labor stopped growing. Labor’s growth corresponds with the expansion of “non-green” industries, and labor unions began to shrink just as we began the shift toward an information society. Thus, an American union worker is far more likely to have a “non-green” than a “green” job.

The shift toward an information society also coincided with the rise of precarious work: temporary, part-time, and/or contracted, with little or no job security and often low wages. This trend was worldwide, and has hit women especially hard. Many precarious workers are not hired by their ultimate employers, but instead work for or through contract agencies. In many countries, including the U.S., such employees must negotiate with the contract agency, the ultimate employer, and any existing union at the ultimate employer in order to form or join a union. In practical terms, that makes it all but impossible for precarious workers to organize.

That is the broader context within which organized labor groups consider “sustainability.” That begins at the individual employer-employee level: how sustainable is that job with that company, and Sigurt Vitols argues the key issue there is a transition from the traditional shareholder model of corporate governance. The International Chamber of Commerce offers an excellent nutshell comparison of shareholder and stakeholder models. The key, from a labor perspective, is recognizing that the worker who went to school or apprenticed for a job and has spent several years working with a company may have a greater stakeholder interest in that company than an investor who bought a few hundred shares based on a stock tip. But only the investor gets a vote in corporate governance under the shareholder model.

But over the short term, the different interests and goals of stakeholder-governed firms make it hard to compete with shareholder-governance. Thus Tim Page writes on the need for national policies to encourage more “patient” capital investment. Other authors advocated a financial transactions tax, both to regulate financial markets by discouraging fast-paced speculation and to curb the financial sector’s growing share of the overall economy. That and other policies would make stakeholder-governed firms more competitive and sustainable.

Sébastien Dupuch emphasizes a need for public services. This includes building and maintaining ‘hard’ infrastructure, as well as ‘soft’ infrastructure such as education, health care, and scientific research. These often require economies of scale to be affordable, and Dupuch argues that these should only be privatized when “there is clear evidence that competition would be both genuine and beneficial.”

A new paradigm

Anabella Rosemberg and Lora Verheecke then discuss the new economic paradigm that will be needed to address issues like climate change. They review the arguments in favor of “green growth” – a growth-based economy focused on environmental issues – and note several significant problems in that approach. Price incentives do not always push investors and consumers toward earth-friendly businesses, such shifts are largely limited to developed countries. In the developing world, urgent needs for basic goods and services at the lowest possible prices often trump environmental concerns. Rosemberg and Verheecke also discuss alternatives such as prosperity without growth and greenhouse development rights, which seek to ensure developing economies are not sentenced to perpetual poverty as we address climate change.

We must weigh all of these concerns, Béla Galgóczi concludes, when we talk about a “green transition.” While that transition will create “green jobs,” it will also destroy many “non-green” jobs. As progressives, we must ensure the burden of that transition is not borne entirely by the (often union) workers in those “non-green” jobs. And we must ensure that unions can organize in those “green jobs,” to ensure those become sustainable and not precarious labor.

Environmental progressives who ignore these issues risk alienating labor progressives, and vice versa. To build a more effective progressive coalition – in the U.S. and worldwide – we must avoid wishful thinking and work through the difficult challenges to sustain both workers and the environment. People matter more than profits, and each person matters equally. The earth is our home, not our trash can. And we will need good government to make those happen.

To get that, we’ll need solidarity.

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Happy Saturday!