Unless the transition to a clean energy economy is based on unifying politics, this next iteration will also prove another adventure in pyrrhic rhetoric.–David Foster[i]

The California Democrat Party held its state convention ten days ago. In addition to organizational business, the 5,000 delegates and guests heard from 14 of the contenders for the right to take on Trump in 2020.

The California convention was described by the Los Angeles Times as a festival of dissent aimed at driving President Trump from office amidst chanting, clapping and occasionally squabbling. Today’s commentary is about the squabbling within the ranks of California’s Democratic Party. It is a squabble playing itself out nationally between union labor and progressive climate activists, and it portends problems for Democrats in the 2020 elections.

As defending against climate change is a priority of the Democratic Party and mostly pandered by the Republican, a Democratic loss in 2020 is a loss for the environment. Four more years of Trump and the entire framework of national environmental protection laws will likely be in total tatters.

Amid the chanting, clapping and soaring oratory in San Francisco was the election of Rusty Hicks as chair of the California Democratic Party. The 39-year old Hicks is a product of organ-ized labor with solid Democratic credentials.

Hicks served in the California Assembly before becoming the political director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO (LA Fed) in 2006 and its president in 2015. Hicks also served as the California Political Director for the 2008 Obama for America campaign. His election is considered a win for the establishment, and his victory owed much to union support.

The LA Fed is the chartered Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO in Los Angeles County. Representing over 300 unions and more than 800,000 workers, the Los Angeles Council is the second largest in the nation.

Following Hicks’ election, RL Miller, chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus and founder of the progressive Climate Hawks Vote, expressed concern. I am deeplyafraid that Rusty will shiv us in the back on climate.”  The comment seems out of place amongst all the festive chanting, clapping and flowery oratory.

The friction between Miller and Hicks reflects the acrimonious debate going on nationally between many organized labor groups and progressive activists. The Green New Deal (GND) resolution(s) introduced by Senator Markey (D-MA) and Representative Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is one of the primary catalysts of the conflict. Appearances can be deceiving. I think it fair to say the GND is just a convenient surrogate for the larger problem the Democrats are having with their long-standing relationship with organized labor.

Negotiating between the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party requires deftness—a  skill that may no longer be valued in today’s politics at the extremes. The current impeachment battles within the ranks of the Democratic caucus in the US House of Representatives are but a preview of things to come.

The connection between organized labor and the Democratic Party dates to 1935 and FDR’s New Deal; the national program that Ocasio-Cortez and groups like the Sunrise Movement have chosen to recall with their Green New Deal. Both the number of union households (Figure 1) and the connection between the Democratic Party and organized labor have declined since 1952.


The percentage of workers who were members of unions reached its peak in the 1940s through the mid-1950s. In 1955 union members comprised a third of the total US workforce. By 1960 the percentage fell to 31.4 percent and has continued to decline to the 10.5 percent it is today, which also happens to be the average percent of union members in each state today.

Notwithstanding the diminishing union numbers, the states in which organized labor makes up between 15 to 20 percent or more of the workforce are states it is imperative for the Democrats to win in 2020, e.g., Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Nevada. (see Figure 2) As shown in both the 2016 presidential elections and the 2018 midterms, politics has become a game of inches. A few thousand votes out of millions can be the difference between victory and defeat.

In actual numbers, there were 16.4 million wage and salary workers represented by a union in 2018. This group includes both union members (14.7 million) and workers who report no union affiliation but whose jobs are covered by a union contract (1.6 million).

Organized labor failed to turn out for Hillary Clinton despite a massive voter mobilization effort according to Politico.  The low turnout was a significant departure from the historic norm. Also, according to Politico:

Clinton’s poor performance among union households appeared to especially damage her in crucial Midwestern states. Obama won Ohio in 2012, besting Romney in those households by 23 percentage points. Clinton actually lost Ohio’s union households to Trump by 9 points, according to exit polls. The state went to Trump.

Union support for Clinton included 4,000 canvassers knocking on 9.5 million doors and tens of millions of dollars in campaign and super PAC contributions. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) alone had a Clinton war chest of $70 million. A good chunk of it went to voter outreach.


SEIU just passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal’s aspirational goals as outlined in the US House and Senate Green New Deal (GND) resolutions introduced by Senator Markey (D-MA) and Representative Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). SEIU represents two million workers in the healthcare, public service, and property service industries. It is one of only two national unions to have endorsed the plan. The other is the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), which is part of the Communications Workers of America union (CWA). AFA represents 50,000 flight attendants. Both the CWA and AFA are AFL-CIO affiliates.

In terms of sheer numbers, unions opposing the GND—either formally or in the statements of its leaders—outweigh those supporting the initiative. Robbie Hunter, president of the California 400,000-member Building and Construction Trades Council, indicated before the California Democratic convention that dozens of his members were planning a major “Blue Collar Revolution” demonstration. It was intended as a warning to the state and national parties that they’re in danger of eroding a critical base should they continue to back the concept of the Green New Deal implied in the Ocasio-Cortez/Markey resolutions.

The motivation for the message, Hunter argues, is the possibility of the GND’s endangering thousands of [existing] jobs in the Southern California oil industry alone. Hunter’s message is the message of the AFL-CIO and many of its more than sixty union affiliates, representing 12.5 million members. Although the AFL-CIO has no formal position on the GND, its president, Richard Trumka, has made his position on the GND known:

We weren’t part of the process [in drafting the proposal], so workers’ interests weren’t completely figured into it. (The Washington Examiner, April 23, 2019)

Simply demanding that plants, industries, and projects be stopped or shut down, with no plan for the people who are put out of work, no call for shared sacrifice, and no dialogue or solidarity with those whose lives and communities are dependent on carbon-based fuels, that poisons the well politically. (September 2018 address at the Global Climate Action Summit)

Members of the AFL-CIO Energy Committee sent a letter to Senator Markey and Representative Ocasio-Cortez in which they stated what they viewed as the GND’s failings:

We welcome the call for labor rights and dialogue with labor, but the Green New Deal resolution is far too short on specific solutions that speak to the jobs our members and the critical sectors of the economy…We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families. We will not stand by and allow threats to our members’ jobs and their families’ standard of living go unanswered.

The letter was signed by Cecil Roberts, President of the United Mineworkers of America (UMW), and Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

Sean McGarvey, president of the powerful North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU), made his position clear in a keynote address at the union’s annual legislative conference this past April:

This year they [Congress] got distracted by a shiny new object, the Green New Deal. What we need is a real deal that strengthens our economy, preferably by investing at least $1 trillion in infrastructure. …If we invested in energy efficiency alone – just retrofitting public schools and industrial buildings – it would create millions of jobs and would prioritize communities and promote the middle class. (emphasis added)

Speaker Pelosi also addressed the gathering stressing compromise and encouraging labor and environmentalists to work together in achieving their goals. She suggested what was needed was a Green Ideal, acknowledging that the point of any such legislation should be jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs.(emphasis added)

There is vehemence[i] in the words of union leaders opposed to the GND—a vehemence that should not be dismissed. I question whether the passion is being adequately accounted for in the minds of progressive climate defenders and even some union officials.

In a February Intercept article written by Rachel Cohen on the skepticism of unions of the GND, she references Evan Weber. Weber, the political director at Sunrise Movement, indicated that his group is not too worried about labor’s early response:

Since the resolution launched, a few [unions] have put out negative and less-than-enthusiastic statements about the Green New Deal,” he said, “but most are remaining silent and choosing to view this as a potential opportunity.

A recent survey of union members’ views on the GND conducted by Data for Progress suggests rank and file union members don’t take the same dim view as some of the outspoken labor critics. The survey was taken between March 30 and April 7, 2019.

Figure 3 shows 52 percent of current union members backing the GND, compared to 22 percent opposed, with 21 percent not knowing and five percent who were neutral.

Support dropped off in households with retired members or no union workers at all. Among retired union workers, opponents of the GND edged out supporters, 38 percent to 35 percent, with 15 percent unsure and 12 percent neutral.

For those living with a retired union member, opposition surged to 43 percent, with 27 percent in favor, 25 percent not knowing, and five percent having no opinion at all. Thirty-three percent of respondents without any ties to a union opposed the GND, while 25 percent supported it, 29 percent were unsure, and 13 percent stayed neutral. (Huffington Post)

Alexander Kaufman of the Huffington Post attributes the drop-off in support of a right-wing campaign that has for months smeared the GND by claiming it would ban hamburgers, and eliminate private car ownership. Both Kaufman and Weber are underestimating the influence of union leaders on their members and the political leanings of the members themselves. In 2016, 37 percent of union members voted for Trump despite the efforts of unions to get Clinton elected as previously mentioned.

At the same time, Kaufman and Weber appear to be over-estimating the power of polls showing growing voter concern over the climate crisis in general and the GND in particular. When all is said and done, a major reason why unions have failed to flock to the GND and other progressive climate plans, e.g., Governor Inslee’s Evergreen Economy, is a very human one of trust.

In whom would you trust?

Union opposition to the GND is part of a larger problem. The relationship between union labor and Democrats is complicated. Jessica Levinson, a member of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and a professor who teaches politics and ethics at Loyola Law School, suggests the Green New Deal…divides the Democrats on a fault line, which is more of the elites against the working class Democrats who are concerned about losing their jobs.

The labeling of Democrats—particularly progressive Democrats—as elites suggests a possible reason why 37 percent of union workers voted for Trump in 2016. Clearly, there is an historic shift going on in party affiliations and within the parties themselves given the growing difficulty of finding anything approximating a middle between two extremes.

I readily admit I don’t understand how Trump, a professed billionaire renowned for stiffing construction contractors of their just compensation, is now seen as the hope of the common man/woman. A USA TODAY NETWORK analysis found Trump to have been involved in more than 3,500 lawsuits over the past three decades—a large number of those involved ordinary hard-working Americans, i.e., cabinetmakers, landscapers, plumbers, electricians, et al., who say Trump or his companies have refused to pay them.

For unions opposed to the GND, there is a problem of belief. Although the words a just transition for workers in the current fossil-fueled economy are included in the GND and other Democratic candidate proposals, affected workers have trouble believing it. Phil Smith, director of communications for the UMW, bluntly states–

The whole notion of a ‘just transition’ for workers simply does not exist. There has never been an example of a just transition in this country. 

Smith readily admits that his members are split on the issue and that plenty of miners voted for Trump and tend to agree with his perspective on climate change.

It’s hard to blame anyone with a good paying job for thinking that a transition of this magnitude—largely dependent upon the federal government—isn’t just a crap shoot likely to come up snake eyes. The hyperpartisan gridlock that has plagued Washington for nearly a quarter century hardly instills confidence.

UMW miners earn an average of $30-an-hour, along with health, retirement, and other benefits. Again, what Smith has to say is important and a lesson for all climate defenders wanting labor’s support:

I think, frankly, if you’re able to say to these folks, here’s a $30-an-hour job with all the rest of the stuff you’re used to, and you’ll pretty much work the same hours, you’ll have folks say, ‘OK, I’ll consider this,’ But that’s not what anyone is saying. And it seems to us there’s a very naive view about what this is going to cost and where the money is going to come from.

That the coal industry is dying and each year there are fewer and fewer jobs, and companies have stopped paying into retirement accounts is not a satisfactory answer from a miner’s perspective. Part of the reason is that Trump keeps promising he’ll bring the coal industry back from the dead. Another part of the answer is that labor wants to see substantial government investment in technologies that would maintain the use of coal like carbon capture, utilization, and sequestration. The position of progressives on CCUS, as well as on nuclear, has yet to be made clear. Clarity is absolutely a requirement in these discussions.

Winning over unions is possible. As Umar Irfa has reportedMaine managed to bring labor on board with its version of the Green New Deal. The Maine Green New Deal Act mandates 80 percent of electricity from renewables by 2040. The Act is the first to be backed by organized labor. Getting labor on board was done the old-fashioned by bringing in the Maine AFL-CIO early in the process and writing into the plan something important to the 40,000 union members.

In Maine’s case, the sweetener was a registered apprentice program. The union’s executive director, Matt Schlobohm, points to an apprenticeship program as one of the best tools out there to build a trained workforce and try to ensure that workers, as they gain more skills, get better pay and benefits. For the AFL-CIO, NABTU, and other unions and their affiliates infrastructure is likely to be the lure.

Organized labor’s drift away from the Democratic core is recognized by Trump and Republicans like Representative Peter T. King (R-NY). King understands that the GND risks alienating labor groups, giving Republicans an opportunity with voters who side with conservatives on issues such as gun control and abortion. Whether or not Republicans will follow King’s advice of playing it smart and stop antagonizing labor time will tell.

The question for the Democrats—progressives in particular—is whether they will play it smart. Part of playing it smart is not to apply purity tests, e.g., no campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry or signing an oath of allegiance to the GND, to one’s potential collaborators.
The danger for the Democrats is not just union members voting against them in 2020. The real risk is that 63 percent of the union voters who voted Democratic will stay home in November 2020. The margins by which elections are razor thin.  As the nation learned in 2016 a few thousand votes in the right states tips the balance between winners and losers.

The lesson here is straightforward. Building coalitions outside more narrow identity groups is essential to winning elections and later in the halls of legislatures and the offices of chief executives to enacting legislation.  As Matt Schlobohm was quoted as saying it’s not rocket science. It requires a willingness to incorporate the ideas and needs of others and a degree of flexibility.

Lead image: William Gropper’s “Construction of a Dam (1939) photo USDOI

[i] Foster is the former executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a partnership of 14 unions and environmental organizations — including the Sierra Club and United Steelworkers.
[ii] Perhaps the harshest criticisms of the GND were uttered by Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA). Upon the introduction of the Markey/Ocasio-Cortez resolutions he said in a LIUNA press release the GND is filled with lessons. It is exactly how not to successfully enact desperately needed infrastructure investment. It is exactly how not to enact a progressive agenda to address our nation’s dangerous income inequality. And it is exactly how not to win support for critical measures to curb climate change.