A strong work-centered climate agenda must be central to addressing the next recession

The world’s climate is changing at an alarming rate, and at the same time, investments to address the problem are some of the most promising opportunities to boost the economy—both immediately and in the face of any future recession.

However, if today’s investments fail to address climate change or align with the clean technologies of the future, we cannot build a competitive, prosperous, or fair economy for the long term. And it is equally true that if our climate solutions ignore working people and only reinforce today’s inequality, they will neither be lastingly effective, nor will we have any chance of building the support and momentum we need to see them become reality.

By contrast, acting on climate in ways that are focused on the needs, concerns and aspirations of working people and communities can bridge division, galvanize action, and drive sustained climate and economic progress.

This starts at all levels—local, state and national—with having working people, including labor, community, environmental, equity, and justice advocates, at the table. It requires a bold, inclusive worker-centered agenda that not only addresses our climate and environmental crises at the scale that science and equity demand but also addresses the underlying issues that leave so many Americans struggling paycheck to paycheck, and bearing the disproportionate costs of economic disruption and technological change.

We need to act now, and we also have powerful opportunities to respond to recession and economic distress.

We have the need and opportunity to act at scale. The urgency and breadth of the climate challenge has the potential to mobilize trillions in public and private investment across multiple sectors of the economy: energy, transportation, infrastructure, technology, and community resilience—just to name a few. Any one of these has the potential to be economically transformative, and could provide a major—or targeted—stimulus to the economy.

For over a decade the BlueGreen Alliance has worked to bring labor and environmental organizations together to promote solutions to pressing environmental challenges that also build good jobs and grow prosperity. What we’ve seen is not only is it possible to jointly address climate change and the economic challenges facing working people today, but they can and must be addressed together for either to be successful.

Unfortunately, recent history of transformation has gone hand in hand with exploitative business models; deregulation that pushes health, safety, security and other costs onto workers, consumers and communities; and attacks on workers’ rights and the social safety net. All of this leaves workers and communities bearing the costs of a profoundly wasteful kind of “disruption,” while others see the bulk of benefits.

This means we need a climate agenda that is not just focused on jobs, but on what it takes to retain and create millions of good-paying jobs; that transforms existing industries at the same time as we build new ones, and holds both today’s jobs and tomorrow’s to higher standards; where we deliberately enhance—rather than siphon off— the benefits of our public investments; and where we insist on equity, build resilience and drive public and corporate reinvestment in the American economy, working people, and communities.

The following are major areas of focus for a worker-centered climate agenda, and promising near term opportunities to jumpstart a clean and fair economic recovery.

  1. Repair America’s infrastructure

After decades of systematic disinvestment in America’s public assets, we have a backlog of trillions in investment needed in America’s infrastructure.i In addition, we have not just underinvested, but have increasingly relied on funding mechanisms that may reduce government spending but have left the public footing a higher bill overall.

We need an ambitious plan that prioritizes forward-looking investments that strengthen communities, enhance access to opportunity and economic development, rebuild today’s critical industries to lead tomorrow, and reclaim our natural infrastructure. We need to take deliberate action to ensure we see the full benefit from our public dollars—by ensuring strong labor standards, community benefit, domestic content and manufacturing requirements, and spending that takes place under public interest procurement rules.

What’s more, these investments can provide a major new pipelines of job opportunities, and a means to make targeted investments in hard-hit communities across the country.

Some proven “shovel-ready” examples include:

  • Thousands of America’s schools are decades old and need significant repairii. A major investment in modernization—to upgrade technology, eliminate toxics, utilize domestically produced clean and safe materials, and modernize and improve energy systems and efficiency—have been shown to pay dividends in student achievement, protect the health and safety of students and teachers, get more funding into classrooms, build a neighborhood asset, and save taxpayers’ money.
  • Similarly, repairing aging water and gas systems—including replacing lead service lines, and leaking gas distribution lines— would provide immediate health and safety benefits (as well as energy, cost and emissions savings) to communities nationwide.
  • Transit and transit manufacturing projects underway today show that we can not only cut pollution, but also boost good jobs in construction and manufacturing when we invest in clean transportation under conditions that build on long standing “Buy America” and Davis-Bacon measures and include enhanced labor standards and workers rights. This includes workforce and community benefit agreements, local and targeted hiring, and effective and supported pathways into pre-apprenticeships, apprenticeships, and lasting careers—particularly for low-income communities, communities of color, and women.
  1. Rebuild manufacturing and a new generation of family-supporting jobs

We can’t rebuild broadly shared prosperity if we’ve fallen behind the rest of the world in building the technologies of the future, and if working people and communities don’t see the gains from innovation and a cleaner economy.

We need a serious industrial policy that is competitive with the actions being taken worldwide and that will revitalize American manufacturing and incentivize investment in American manufacturing and workers for the long term.

This means major new investments to spur domestic manufacturing and supply chains, with a focus on attracting and building U,S. leadership in essential, rapidly-growing clean technologies. It means investing to transform existing industries—particularly critical energy-intensive ones to make them more efficient and competitive globally—and enhancing labor, environmental and safety standards across the supply chain.

And it underscores the need for corporate tax and trade policies that stem offshoring, outsourcing, and exploitative labor practices while driving a new generation of investment in domestic innovation, production, workers and training.

Implementing a serious clean technology industrial strategy helps us make the U.S. economy more resilient in the face of global economic shifts and gives us important tools to boost jobs in critical sectors today or in a recession. Notably:

  • We need a far more robust program to spur investment not just in innovation, but in domestic advanced clean technology manufacturing and supply chains. Tools such as revolving loan funds or an industrial bank—or even the loan, grant, and tax programs we have today to help companies build, retool, or convert manufacturing plants in America—can be used more aggressively to attract long-term manufacturing investment in more risky or strategic advanced technology, and to enable industries and communities to get out ahead of technological shifts—rather than be run over by them. And should we face a downturn, these tools can be critical to enable companies to sustain domestic manufacturing capacity and investment over the long term.
  • We also need to jumpstart clean, fair, domestic production of critical materials essential for clean vehicles and clean energy. For example, proactive investment to establish responsible domestic mining, production, reclamation, and recycling of lithium, rare earths and other strategic minerals and to implement cutting edge emissions reduction technology and highly efficient processes in energy intensive manufacturing of steel, aluminum, cement, and chemicals would give us the opportunity to cut pollution locally and globally. It would also enhance economic security and competitiveness, while sustaining and creating good-paying jobs.
  • Increasing public procurement of advanced infrastructure and technology—such as technology for a secure and resilient electric grid, and electrified vehicle fleets and infrastructure coupled with strong domestic content and labor standards—can also boost domestic capacity to manufacture key technologies.
  • Forward-looking, trusted, policy and regulatory frameworks are critical aids to economic and manufacturing growth, and safeguards across the business cycle. This includes:
    • Strong, long-term energy, climate, efficiency, and technology standards to signal that the U.S. will be a long term-market for advanced technology and to attract sustained investment.
    • Strong health and safety standards to help ensure our products are trusted and demanded worldwide, and that industrial growth, public safety and local quality of life rise together at home.
    • High labor standards not only to ensure good-paying jobs in America but to enable and sustain the high-skill work we need to compete globally.

These strategies are not just theoretically possible, but were demonstrated in the auto industry in the Great Recession. Strong clean vehicle standards—coupled with deliberate manufacturing policy, auto recovery loans for companies facing bankruptcy, and domestic retooling loans for others helped avoid the worst disruption in the industry—sped up recovery and rebuilt jobs in auto industry, while building much cleaner, more competitive vehicles that save consumers and businesses money. Global and domestic automakers and suppliers invested billions in innovative plants and technology in the U.S.,iii and today hundreds of thousands of workers build these technologies in America.iv

But this example also shows the importance of sustaining these policies in good times and bad. Recent administration moves to rollback these long-term standards—and counter-productive corporate tax incentives that further discourage investment in domestic manufacturing and workers—are threatening these gains. They are putting today’s and tomorrow’s jobs at risk, driving future manufacturing investment overseas, and setting us back in an urgent race to attract the next generation of advanced and electric vehicle technology in the U.S.

As a result, high-wage, high-skill workers building advanced vehicle technology are facing layoffs today, and their manufacturing communities need “countercyclical” investment and a return to better industrial policy right now.v

  1. Reinvest in workers and communities

Finally, it is critical to drive a major reinvestment in workers across their careers and ensure fairness for workers and communities as the economy, industry and technology continuously change. These technology changes are inevitable, but their impacts on working people are not. Instead, the all too familiar negative impacts—that new technology means worse jobs—are the direct result of bad policy choices made for far too long.

To win the global race for a prosperous 21st century economy, America must uphold modern labor and environmental standards; require a serious and shared investment in education and training; establish a globally competitive social safety net; and reinvest in communities across the country undermined by historic inequity, disinvestment and deindustrialization.

Right now—and certainly in the face of a recession—we can start down that path, with some key initiatives.

  • Hand-in-hand with investments that build jobs, we need to drive a major public and private sector investment in work-based training—pre-apprenticeship, apprenticeship, training on the job and other measure—that provide real access into jobs and ongoing progress in family-supporting careers. This would require, reward, and incentivize greater ongoing private sector investment in training and retraining workers, hand in hand with existing education, labor, and community stakeholders.
  • We urgently need proactive and comprehensive approaches for affected areas that support workers and communities and ensure they are not left bearing the costs of all types of economic disruption. We should:
    • Enact strong proactive measures to prevent and limit unnecessary job loss in changing industries, such as much stronger layoff aversion measures, corporate incentives for investment in worker retraining and factory retooling, and stronger disincentives for disinvestment and offshoring.
    • Ensure mechanisms to guarantee pensions and healthcare, enhance unemployment insurance or other wage support, and sustain local public services and jobs where the local tax base is impacted.
    • Fund and implement proactive efforts that engage and invest in communities—including through efforts like large scale reclamation of abandoned industrial sites—to spur lasting economic development.
  • Finally, when it comes to the future of jobs, robots are not the problem—implementing innovative technology without a strong framework of public interest and worker protections is. Public interest rules help ensure the public sees the benefits of technological change—and it shapes innovation itself—helping ensure we do not lock in innovative technology with exploitative business models. This is a particular risk during a recession when a soft labor market can encourage these types of shifts.

Conclusion

One could argue that working people have been in a recession for decades—and far too many communities have been in a depression.

Today, some of our key economic and political challenges include reorienting the American economy around the essential and growing clean and resilient technologies of tomorrow, while finding a real and convincing way to address the slow motion recession working people are currently facing. Acting now—and when we face a recession—on an aggressive, worker-centered agenda to meet the climate crisis is amongst the most compelling opportunities we have to meet these central economic and political challenges head on.

i. American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Failure To Act: Closing The Infrastructure Investment Gap For America’s Economic Future, May 2016.

ii. ASCE, 2017 Infrastructure Report Card.

iii. BlueGreen Alliance, Driving Investment: How Fuel Efficiency Is Rebuilding American Manufacturing, January 25, 2018.

iv. BlueGreen Alliance and Natural Resources Defense Council, Supplying Ingenuity II: U.S. Suppliers Of Key Clean, Fuel-Efficient Vehicle Technologies, May 23, 2017.

v. Cleveland Plain Dealer, Closure of General Motors’ Lordstown plant was not inevitable. It resulted from GM’s own mismanagement and flawed public policies: Susan Helper (Opinion).