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Why Green Jobs Must Be Unionized

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New York City construction unions have participated in the creation of more LEED-quality green buildings than any other contracting group.

By Lisa Wright

Flooding. Extreme weather. Poor air quality. Climate change has arrived in New York. Dealing with climate consequences in an urban setting is serious work and New York is investing big in the green economy. In fact, the City of New York released a report in February 2024 estimating that the number of green jobs will more than double by 2040.

Meanwhile, unions have been proactively ensuring green collar workers are protected. Why is that important? Because green economy growth has the power to affect more than just jobs. Let’s look at the surprising ways that green union labor can improve our communities, quality of life, and more.

Training a Nation of Green Collar Workers

Compared to old, fossil fuel infrastructure, green technology is relatively new and working with it requires specialized training. For years, unions have been funding apprenticeship and continuing education programs to help new and existing employees become experts in this field. That means workers can start a prosperous new career without years of college debt.

A union-backed workforce supports safety, too. Thanks to union protections, employees are empowered to blow the whistle on unsafe working conditions.

All of this amounts to more competent employees, safer job sites, and better-quality work overall—which is what you want when you’re spending millions on new infrastructure.

Meanwhile, most non-union workers shouldn’t expect any job training, and won’t experience the same safety protections as union workers do.

Advocating for Environmental Legislation

Unions are helping to shape clean energy laws.

Climate Jobs New York, a coalition of 12 New York state unions, successfully inserted the Renewable Energy Jobs Standard provision in the 2022 New York State budget. This standard requires prevailing wages and project labor agreements for construction on renewable-energy projects of 5 megawatts or more. It also requires certain projects to use American steel and iron, and incentivizes the use of New York State-produced renewable energy equipment and supplies.

Unions also partner with environmental advocacy groups to speak up in support of pro-climate laws.

Think a non-union group would do any of that?

There’s no point in investing in large-scale sustainable projects if they’re not going to be done right. Unions are installing the latest technologies by workers who understand them.

Leading the Technological Revolution

There’s no point in investing in large-scale sustainable projects if they’re not going to be done right. Unions are installing the latest technologies by workers who understand them. And again, when it comes to materials, unions support each other by pushing for the use of high-quality, American-made parts.

These smart infrastructure investments will help New York decrease its carbon footprint and keep us on the cutting edge of leading tech.

Non-union companies may or may not opt for top tech or American materials, but they definitely don’t have the power to advocate for it on a large scale like unions do. Nor are most of their employees trained in the latest green practices and materials, as union members are.

More Reasons Why We Want Unions Building a Greener City

Rebalancing Disparities
Unions actively hire women and people of color, and offer a lot to help close equity gaps, too. Higher salaries, good health insurance, paid leave and retirement plans can help these workers enhance their quality of life and support the creation of generational wealth.

Plus, unions actively represent minority-owned businesses. In 2024, Empire Wind and the Building & Construction Trades Council of Greater New York and Vicinity signed an agreement on the state’s first offshore wind hub. This project will create over 1,000 union jobs, promote engagement with Minority- and Women-Owned Businesses and Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Businesses, and prioritize the hiring of veterans and Section 3 residents.

When was the last time you saw an agreement like that without union backing?

Supporting Communities
Higher union salaries mean more cash spent at local businesses like shops and restaurants. The more money that comes in, the more local communities will flourish.

Plus, unions fight for green infrastructure upgrades, like retrofitting schools with green technology, improving recycling programs, and upgrading transportation to greener options.

On the flip side, non-union employers are focused on their bottom line and not our communities.

Counterbalancing Corporate Power
Corporate greed is by far one of the largest drivers of climate change, and unions have a fundamental stance against it. While corporations value profits over the planet, unions side with health, safety, and sustainability. The stronger our unions become, the stronger we can fight back against greed-induced climate change.

As we drive towards a cleaner, more sustainable New York, let’s let unions take the wheel.

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Lisa Wright is a journalist and the author of several books.

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