Anchoring the green economy in equity for workers and communities: A conversation with practitioner in residence Sam Appel

Coral del Mar Murphy-Marcos

Climate change is closing in on a tipping point. As temperatures reach record-breaking levels, fueling more frequent and intense heat waves, wildfires, floods and sea level rise, communities and workers are scrambling to adjust. Labor Center 2023 Practitioner in Residence Sam Appel is urgently looking at how the transition to a sustainable and green economy can be anchored in equity for workers and communities in California.

From 2018 until joining the Labor Center, Appel led the BlueGreen Alliance‘s work in California. There he oversaw the development and implementation of statewide and regional policy campaigns across transportation, manufacturing, building decarbonization, industrial transformation, and other sectors, working to incorporate the twin goals of creating good jobs and protecting the environment. He also worked for the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, and the UCLA Downtown Labor Center.

The Labor Center sat down with Appel to ask more about what he’s been working on during his year-long residence, what California can do to transition to a green economy, and what’s next for him.

Labor Center: How are you applying the knowledge you gained at BlueGreen Alliance into your work at the Labor Center?

Sam Appel: While I was at Bluegreen Alliance, I helped to build a number of coalitions between labor, environmental, and environmental justice stakeholders in California in a number of different transitioning industries. Bluegreen Alliance had multiple strategies for building and transitioning different industries towards zero emission, low pollution, and high quality union jobs. At the Labor Center, I am building on those strategies and campaigns by developing new approaches that could be deployed in California as “explicit industrial policies.”  I’m looking at what the state can do to proactively grow new segments of the economy where we see strategic value in transitioning (to clean energy) with the values of equity, decarbonization, and unionization. It’s all building on the relationships and the experience and the knowledge that I’ve developed at the Alliance over the last five years.

Labor Center: Tell me about the dichotomy that some people might perceive between building a green economy and protecting labor rights and good jobs. How can we bring these two sectors together?

Sam Appel:  It’s very important that when we’re going through this massive shift, that we take care of people and communities and not just sort of assume that companies are going to do the right thing by workers or the people who live near production facilities.

It’s important in this clean energy transition that we have worker protections and community protections embedded in the policies that are going to transition those sectors or else we could see a decreasing job quality, decreasing local sourcing of jobs and materials, and potentially higher rates of pollution in certain parts of California.

Labor Center: What are some of the hurdles workers might face during this transition to a green economy?

Sam Appel: One major issue is that workers in many incumbent industries, like construction, manufacturing operations, maintenance of facilities, and vehicles, among others, have a lot of recognized skills. And for many of those areas of work, there are  apprenticeship programs, training, and certifications. As we move into new forms of technology, different new and growing industries, like battery manufacturing or a solar plant construction or drilling boreholes for geothermal wells, workers’ skills are not being recognized by these new industries. Companies are trying to find different workarounds to find cheap labor and not use skilled workers who have developed skills in the fossil fuel economy. There isn’t a clear way of codifying the skills that they have and making them transferable and legible to firms in the growing clean economy.

Labor Center:  What can the state do to plan for a transition to a green economy?

Sam Appel:  The state  sets the tone and sets the bar for how we change our economic future. The policies that I’m looking at are about how to examine an industry as a whole–the inputs and all of the ways the state exerts influence over an industry. That means: how do we take all the money that the state is going to spend on this industry, all of the standards and controls that the state is going to enforce, all of the research that’s going to inform this industry, and bring together all the stakeholders who are going to shape this industry? How does the state put together a comprehensive package of policies that can drive these important industries to grow in the way we want them to? Which is towards high-quality jobs for communities of color and other folks who need quality, career-track jobs. How do we reduce contamination from highly polluting sectors? And how do we deliver benefits to different communities around the state that don’t have economic investment?

Labor Center: Do you have any plans after the residence?

Sam: I’m planning to keep working in this area. I haven’t figured out yet what my next move is, but I plan to keep working with labor unions and research institutions and environmental justice stakeholders in California on industrial policies.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Read Sam’s recent report, co-written with Jessie Hammerling, California’s Climate Investments and High Road Workforce Standards: Gaps and Opportunities for Advancing Workforce Equity