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Labor Leading on Climate: Creating Good Jobs While Combating Climate Change

Imagine solar panels on every public school building across New York state, with schools retrofitted to reach 100 percent energy efficiency by 2025. Visualize every public building becoming energy efficient and using clean energy such as solar and wind.

Envision a high-speed passenger rail system connecting New York City to Montreal, Canada, and linking Albany to Buffalo, greatly reducing carbon emissions while creating 336,000 construction jobs and 13,530 permanent jobs. Or, think about bus rapid transit, also known as “surface subway,” linking Upstate New York communities affordably and with quality service.

And, make those jobs high-road jobs that can help confront climate change while contributing to a reversal of growing inequality in the Empire State. That is the vision of Lara Skinner and her colleagues at The Worker Institute at Cornell.

Skinner chairs the Labor Leading on Climate Initiative while serving as associate director of The Worker Institute. She co-authored the preliminary recommendations for an upcoming report, “Reversing Inequality, Combatting Climate Change: A Climate Jobs Program for New York State.” 

“Our infrastructure is really aging on a lot of fronts,” she said. “We know we need to build an energy economy that’s based on renewables.”

Since 80 percent of the state’s population lives in the Hudson River corridor, a project such as high-speed rail, which would take about 10 years to build, could have a major positive impact on the environment and on employment, she said.

“It’s one Governor Cuomo has expressed interest in that would be a win for communities, the environment and economic development in the state.”

Skinner, who grew up in an economically depressed region of the western Catskills, said economic challenges can push people to think they have to make a choice between good jobs or a healthy environment.

But, that isn't true, she said. When Skinner studied for her doctorate at the University of Oregon, she learned about the health problems faced by farmworkers exposed to pesticides. “This can’t be the way it has to be -- jobs or the environment,” she decided.

Today, she works with union leaders such as Christopher Erikson, business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 in New York City. Part of his work is focused on making sure jobs created in the clean energy sector are quality jobs.

Erikson, grandson of legendary labor leader Harry Van Arsdale Jr. and father of Thomas Erikson ’14, a law student at Hofstra University, said the union is committed to training workers in green skills and to making a just transition to good jobs in clean energy.

“It would be sad if that industry embraces a low-wage, no benefit solar installer mentality,” he said.

Erikson would like to see New York City use its purchasing power to buy solar panels for all city buildings and to encourage solar panel manufacturing in economically challenged areas such as the South Bronx.

He’s proud of a Staten Island public school built in 2015 with an entirely union workforce. The Kathleen Grimm School for Leadership and Sustainability at Sandy Ground, also known as P.S. 62, is the first net-zero energy school in New York City and among the first worldwide. It uses solar energy and a geo-thermal system, among other features, to supply all its energy.

Right now, the tension between jobs and climate protection is evident in public debates such as the expected closing of the Indian Point nuclear plant on the Hudson River, the shift from coal and the construction of new oil pipelines.

Skinner asks, “The question is, how do we use the transition to clean energy as an opportunity to create good jobs and reverse inequality?”

Skinner has been convening unions in New York state’s building, energy and transport sector for the past two years to develop the climate jobs program. She advocates establishing a “just transition task force” that could bring stakeholders like labor, industry and government to the table to protect and support workers and communities in the transition to a low-carbon economy. 

“A Climate Jobs Program that simultaneously addresses the crises of climate change and inequality by drastically reducing emissions, creating good jobs and building resilient communities repositions labor as a vehicle to address climate change,” Skinner said. “How can we, as New York state, be on the forefront of these efforts/this vision?"