Detroit and Labor's Green Jobs Future

“We’re living somebody else’s vision for our city.” Donele Wilkins, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice

Detroit has a 22% unemployment rate. It is the poorest major city in the country and has the highest rate of segration out of every other city in the nation. The city counted over 45000 ecologically contaminated sites before they just simply stopped counting. The mayor, Dennis Archer, in the early 90s tried declaring the entire city a brownfield site. Detroit needs a green jobs future that will clean up Detroit’s environment and bring jobs back to the city that can lift poor residents out of poverty.

I was inspired today at a forum on bringing green jobs to Detroit at the IBEW Local 58. The event was held by the Sierra Club, AFL-CIO and Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, but there were tons of different groups and organizations represented there from the labor, environmental and social justice movements. The three speakers covered the issues that link the environmental and labor movements together and how we can work to build a stronger “blue-green alliance.”

IBEW workers installing solar panels.

One of the first things I noticed when taking my seat in the union hall was the banner for the electrical workers union hanging on the wall (I didn’t have my camera, sorry there aren’t pictures from the event). The banner looked different than the other, older banners. This banner had a more modern look to it, with solar panels on one side, and turbines on the other, with a green outline of Michigan in the center.

The first speaker was Jesús León Santos of CEDICAM (the Centro de Desarollo Integral Campesino de la Mixteca) from Oaxaca, Mexico and has been at the frontlines in battling against NAFTA policies killing indiginous rights and the climate. After Jesús the President of the Michigan AFL-CIO brought together how people working for climate protection and green jobs in the US can work with labor in battling against free-trade policies that take away peoples jobs as well as give corporations the freedom to circumvent climate protection laws by moving dirty operations from vulnerable communities in the States, to other vulnerable countries overseas. She reminded us that we shouldn’t let the message of green jobs from it’s original meaning. Green jobs aren’t just any job that somebody gets manufacturing wind turbines, but they’re good, secure jobs too. They’re jobs people can earn a good living on. In a green job, people won’t worry about how they’ll take care of their family, or if they’ll have a job next month. In a green job, people won’t have to worry about getting fired if they decide they want protection with a union.

Green, union jobs, now!

Next a representative from Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice spoke about the work being done to train Detroit residents in  the growing green energy sector through community run training programs. She talked about how the desperate situation in Detroit leads many people to take jobs in dirty industry even though they’re aware of the destruction those industries cause (often because they live in the midst of it). She quoted one worker saying, “If we were commissioned to construct our own gallows we would.” We need to start building a vision of environmental justice for our city, that will clean up the brownfields across the city–legacies of the industry that was the mainstay of Old Motown–and bring jobs and financial security to people of the city in jobs that can protect the environment.

I took the podium when it was time for questions. I wanted to know more about areas that greens and labor can work specifically on to strengthen our alliance and also ensure that the green jobs of the future will be good jobs that ensure a good livelihood for the people that work in them. A speaker for the Sierra Club responded by talking about the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), an act that restores workers rights to safely organize unions in their workplace without fear being fired or punished by their bosses. Unionized workers will have better, more secure livelihoods and are at the frontlines against dangerous pollution, since they work with it everyday and will have the power to force their or workplace to reform production. You can go here to sign an online petition for the EFCA.

I was so inspired by the conversations that took place at tonight’s event. I hope that this is a conversation that happens more frequently both in Detroit and across our entire movement. I think that it’s not enough to just talk about green jobs, and that we need to start talking about what those jobs look like. As the auto industry continues it’s downward spiral Detroit’s fate becomes more uncertain. During his campaign President Obama promised to get 1,000,000 plug-in hybrids on the streets by 2015. But autoworkers were also just dealt a blow as ex-President Bush, as a last stand against organized labor on his way out, forced workers to take serious concessions in wages, benefits and job security (as a condition of the bailout package). So will the green cars Obama is promising us be made by workers with poor wages and security, or will they be made by workers who have everything they need and deserve?

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4 Responses to Detroit and Labor's Green Jobs Future

  1. Erik says:

    I’m glad you are blogging more often. Good stuff.

  2. tiffanyten says:

    Thanks for this, Aaron. I was sitting right behind you, but feel like I have a better sense of what happened and why I should care from this post. Maybe because I was on my phone the whole time? Great reporting.

  3. adam says:

    a recent article in Labor Notes takes this argument further by arguing that the government should demand restructuring of the Big 3 along the lines of green manufacturing instead of forcing them into bankruptcy where they would have to shut down more plants and be able to break their union contracts

  4. Scott says:

    Thanks Aaron. I work with the movie industry incentivized in MI , and have seen the out sourcing of employment going to Texas, North Carolina and other state residents who came to MI just to earn movie money during this current incentive program so i’m with you there. With Imports showing more potential I can see the original funds for the change over flying to overseas manufacturing. My question might be since we are seeing a common thread to current affair that is that they are mostly eco-oriented, when will there be a growth in Environmental Education for the public sector. Good to see IBEW local 58 grabbing the bull by the nose. Not only do American Auto Industry components effect Americans , but overseas operations have been growth opportunities for the $ of expansionism. If only Ford would bring home the diesels sold and Made abroad by Ford. The empowerment of the public sector threatens to consume capitalistic systems that are way out of balance with the populace. As we do the education component can temper the transition to a more solid foundation of practice by the multitudes not the elite few.
    With the Land trust sales in the state going on the block I’ve heard there are thousands of properties (forclosed on ones) that are going up for sale across the country and in particular in MI where brownfield sites, and Toxic asset sites (Forclosed houses etc) can currently be purchased for prices from 50-150$ if there is land reclamation, like gardening and soil remediation etc going on. As land stewards conducting this activity on a site for a year can make the transfer of ownership to you possible (cheap) and can be purchased currently. Thousands of sites thrown on the market Last Week in MI as a result of the Bailout money allowing Banks to liquidate these toxic assets. Buy, Buy, Buy. Its a great opportunity to invest in. Now is the opportune moment for invest on this scale, F$unding this opportunity is our tax money from the past, merged with our wallets. – 38k

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