Progress on the Path Towards High-Road Jobs and Climate Action

Carol Zabin
Three converted Prius Plug-In Hybrids charging at San Francisco City Hall

Jobs v. environment is a false choice – a choice that, as Director of the Green Economy Program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center, I’ve spent my career arguing we don’t need to make. And with the pandemic-induced economic downturn and the fires hurting Californians around the state, it’s clearer than ever that we must make meaningful progress on both fronts simultaneously, crafting an economic recovery that advances equity, climate resilience, and job quality.

The good news is, we have lots of examples of how this can be done – and new legislation signed by Governor Newsom this fall will enable us to make progress faster.

The Healthy Schools, Healthy Air, Healthy Recovery Bill (AB 841) is a stellar example of environmental, public health, education, and labor organizations working together to accelerate carbon reductions. It focuses on replacing critical ventilation and clean water infrastructure in the schools that are most in need, and on expanding electric vehicle charging stations around the state. Under this bill, we will be able to better protect children, teachers, and parents from the spread of COVID-19 and to put people back to work in family-supporting jobs making energy-saving school improvements and building electric vehicle infrastructure.

As the BlueGreen Alliance explains, “with most California school buildings closed for the foreseeable future, we can use this time to upgrade HVAC systems to reduce disease transmission and exposure to wildfire smoke when our kids finally go back to the classroom. Importantly, these HVAC improvements will also improve poor indoor air-quality in working class communities that are disproportionately impacted by air pollution.”

Plus, as a labor economist, what really excites me about this bill is how it incorporates a deep understanding of the key role of skills standards, the importance of the state’s registered apprenticeship system, and the path towards family-supporting jobs. The school repair part of the bill will generate demand for thousands of high-road construction careers. And the EV charging portion of the bill? By ramping up the installation of EV charging infrastructure, but requiring that installation is done by workers with a nationally recognized skill standard (the Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Training Program), the bill will support good jobs, workforce training through the state’s registered apprenticeship system, and provide new opportunities for workers of color – while also making it far easier for consumers to switch to clean cars.

AB 841 is the first instance of legislation that adopts specific recommendations from our new report, Putting California on the High Road: A Jobs and Climate Action Plan for 2030.  The report, which was submitted to the California Workforce Development Board as part of a legislative mandate, offers a roadmap to ensure that major climate change policies and programs do not reproduce existing economic inequities, and instead lead to family-supporting jobs, career pathways for disadvantaged Californians, and comprehensive redevelopment for workers and communities dependent on fossil fuel industries.

Examining labor conditions in the industries affected by existing state climate policies, the report highlights the prevalence of blue-collar jobs in the key sectors that must reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as energy, transportation, and manufacturing. It shows that in some instances, climate policies have led to improved conditions for workers. For example, the construction of grid-scale renewable energy generation and the manufacture of zero-emission transit buses have both broadened access to good union jobs for low-income workers of color. However, the report shows that low-wage jobs have persisted in other climate-critical industries including trucking, waste, residential energy efficiency and rooftop solar, and fire prevention.

The report then lays out ways these sectors can be improved through state and local action, showing that by harnessing the power of public investment, public agencies can incorporate labor standards in their climate programs to ensure that they support good-paying jobs.

AB 841 is a great example of this type of integration of high-road economic and workforce development strategies with climate policies. And, its passage shows how community/labor/environmental alliances will help us emerge from these state crises more resilient and inclusive than before. I write this two weeks before the election, when so much is uncertain. What I can say, however, is that whether California serves as a model for federal action next year, or as a beacon of hope, we are on the right path towards creating a future that marries good jobs, equity, and environmental sustainability.

Carol Zabin is director of the UC Berkeley Labor Center’s Green Economy Program. Appointed by Governor Brown, Dr. Zabin sits on the executive council of the California Workforce Development Board.

Image: Felix Kramer (CalCars). Image retouched with Photoshop and uploaded by User:Mariordo, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons