Opinion: Department of Green Labor

Hilda Solis and Barack ObamaIn announcing that he intends Hilda Solis to be his Secretary of Labor, President-elect Barack Obama made good on his campaign pledge of change: Not only will this choice likely bring relief from the anti-union and anti-worker policies of his predecessor, but it will also reinforce that environmental issues will be key to ensuring good employment.

Congresswoman Solis, representing California's 32nd District since 2000, has distinguished herself by her support for labor rights and environmental justice causes. Specifically, she has been a strong advocate for the Employee Free Choice Act and for green collar jobs - jobs that protect the environment and offer decent pay and working conditions.

Introducing her in Chicago on December 19, Obama said, "For the past eight years, the Department of Labor has not lived up to its role either as an advocate for hardworking families or as an arbiter of fairness in relations between labor and management. That will change when Hilda Solis is Secretary of Labor. Under her leadership, I am confident that the Department of Labor will once again stand up for working families."

New directions are desperately needed. November 2008 saw the steepest job loss in the United States in 34 years. Since the start of the current recession in December 2007, 2.7 million people have lost their jobs, raising the total number of unemployed to 10.3 million and the unemployment rate to 6.7 percent. But adding those involuntarily working part-time or otherwise just marginally part of the workforce, as many as 17.2 million people were "underemployed" as of September.

With the exception of the late 1990s, real wages for low and middle-income earners have been largely stagnant since the early 1970s. Productivity gains far outpaced median hourly compensation. And now the economic crisis threatens the livelihoods of millions more people.

An ambitious economic stimulus clearly is needed to banish the ghosts of a new Depression. A conventional approach of priming the pump, however, would only sharpen the problems on another front - more production and consumption imply a growing draw on resources, more pollution, and rising carbon emissions at a time when drastic reductions are called for.

Fortunately, the notion of building a green economy is attracting growing numbers of proponents. Obama has promised to create five million new jobs by investing $150 billion over ten years in clean energy. A variety of recent studies (most recently by the Political Economy Research Institute in Amherst, Massachusetts, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors) support the conclusion that a greener economy will be good for employment.

The next Labor Secretary will play a critical role in this transformation. In addition to scaling up R&D and investments in green manufacturing, building construction and energy, a green workforce is critical. Appropriate training and skills programs are needed, and employees and unions need to be seen as valued partners in greening the workplace instead of as enemies.

Green employment has to hold promise not just for high-skilled individuals like engineers and technicians, but also for the broad mass of blue collar trades like sheet metal workers, plumbers, carpenters, and others. And, as groups like Green for All argue, there is a need to fashion green jobs development into a ladder out of destitution for those who have been sidelined by the global economy.

Obama's transition Web site indicates that the incoming administration is planning to increase funding for federal workforce training programs, and directing them toward green technologies in manufacturing industries and in building weatherization.

Hilda Solis appears to be the right person to lead such efforts. She was the author of the Green Jobs Act of 2007 (H.R. 2847), legislation intended to provide up to $125 million to establish national and state green job training programs, including a provision for "Pathways Out of Poverty" - job training in disadvantaged communities. H.R. 2847 became part of the "Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007," signed into law in December 2007.

How to rescue the economy from the Scylla and Charybdis of economic and environmental crisis will likely be a battleground for the new administration. Solis' solid support for labor and environmental causes may well clash with positions taken by others holding fast to more traditional, free-trade and pro-business views.

Obama may often find himself in a position of needing to reconcile diverging perspectives among his team. But the incoming President understands that rebuilding the economy in the face of climate calamity requires an approach that works not just for business but also for labor. When asked about the worker occupation of Chicago's Republic Windows and Doors factory that brought into sharp relief the gap between Wall Street bailouts and Main Street suffering, he commented that "the workers who are asking for their benefits and payments that they have earned - I think they are absolutely right. What's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy."  The occupation ended days later after Republic's creditors restored financing to the company.

Michael Renner is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental research organization. He is a co-author of the recent Worldwatch report Green Jobs: Working for People and the Environment.