By Racquel Palmese
The health needs of workers in gritty steel factories led David Foster to become one of the labor movement’s leading environmental advocates. Now, as executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, an organization comprised of 14 of the largest unions and environmental organizations with more than 15 million supporters and members, he is advocating for a transition to a new, highly trained and motivated workforce, where every job is a “green job.” A firm believer in the common goals of job creation and a green economy, Foster lays out a plan to achieve both in a Green Technology interview.
What led you to take the leap from steelworker to union leader to the BlueGreen Alliance?
I was a longtime activist in the labor movement, a member of the [United] Steelworkers Union for 31 years. During the last 16 of those years I was the regional director of the union’s northwest quadrant, overseeing 13 states.
The Steelworkers Union is a diverse manufacturing and mining union and is the largest manufacturing union in North America. It represents people in virtually all sectors of manufacturing other than automotive assembly and aerospace, and we’re the largest union in all other segments of manufacturing from aluminum to steel production to tires to diversified manufacturing. We’re also the union that represented non-coal mining industries, like copper, soda ash and silver.
So I had a diverse experience in a lot of industries, and many were hot, dusty, dangerous places to work. Consequently, my introduction to the environment was very much around the workplace, believing that workers were the first people who were exposed to some of the toxics that industry creates. Thus, we as a union, have a very keen interest and a key role to play in trying to make sure that not only were workplaces cleaned up, but the surrounding communities as well.
Did you see a conflict between regulating workplace exposures and creating jobs?
I never saw the conflict, because cleaning up the environment almost always meant improving the environment inside the workplace as well, and that meant a safer, cleaner job for our members. During the period of time when I was on the executive board of the Steelworkers Union, I became more and more convinced that we, as unions, needed to pay a lot of attention to job creation and job creation strategies. Particularly during the intense period of the growth of the global economy, we had to start looking at future job creation coming from different directions than we had in the past.
There were downsizings and reorganizations in manufacturing that convinced me we needed to find the commonality between our environmental principals and our economic development goals. As I watched the global economy developing, I became convinced that those two strains of the global economy were completely intertwined around each other and that you couldn’t have responsible environmental practices that were divorced from job and economic development strategies.
I came to understand that in the 21st century, job creation opportunities were going to come from taking on our big environmental challenges. We ignore those environmental challenges at our risk, so that if we don’t take on the problem of global warming front and center, we are really setting ourselves up for an economic calamity. If we take on that challenge, we really are creating the markets and the demand for products of 21st century technologies.
It was in that vein that I took on the job of chairing the Steelworks Environmental Policy Committee. We wrote their environmental policy statement, and we as a union came up with a strategy of trying to change the relationship between the labor movement and the environmental movement in America to reflect the general view that by adopting sound environmental policies that take on these big environmental challenges were we going to recast the American economy in the way that was going to create large numbers of jobs and keep people employed in the country.
Is this what led to the formation of the BlueGreen Alliance?
Yes. That’s the path we started down in 2006, when we deliberately set out to try and build a big labor-environmental coalition. Today that organization is made up of 10 of the country’s major labor unions, 4 of its principal environmental organizations, and collectively we have about 15 million members who have come around to embracing this idea that our environmental and economic futures are inextricably connected. We focus very much on trying to advocate for public policies that reflect the need for us to create jobs by taking on these big environmental problems. If these problems are left unaddressed, they are going to have terrible economic consequences for us.
I assume many of the 15 million members belong to labor unions. Even with all the political blowback about global warming and other environmental issues, do you see agreement growing among those folks about the importance of transitioning to a green economy?
I do. That doesn’t mean it’s not a complex issue, and it doesn’t mean there can’t be disagreements over strategy. Particularly in a time of high unemployment, I think recognition of that is important. But there are very few people in America’s labor movement today who would say they don’t want a good job and a clean job.
There are complexities sometimes, and this might be especially true in both construction and manufacturing – how do we manage the transition from the jobs of the past to the jobs of the future? That’s a process that we’ve always been ill-equipped in this country to deal with, because we’ve never had much of a safety net for people in the big transitions we’ve had as an economy. But certainly if we get the economy back in a real growth trajectory again, and that growth trajectory is concentrated in the clean technologies of the future, this will be a much, much easier job to manage.
Do you have an example?
The auto industry today provides a good template, in the transition away from an auto industry that manufactures Hummers and other gas-guzzling vehicles. Once the crisis happened in the auto industry, and it was retooled around fuel efficient, hybrid and electric vehicles, the awareness that the workers in the industry had about the benefits of working for a clean industry skyrocketed. At the same time, that industry has created 220,000 new jobs in the last two years. All of a sudden it’s a very popular place to be.
It’s been a tremendous success story, and as a result of that, both members and leaders in the UAW tell me how proud they feel today to be making cars that not only that the public wants, but that they know our future demands.
If you could magically orchestrate the ushering in of this transition from old jobs to new ones, how would you do it?
I think fundamentally what the country needs right now is a big, bold jobs plan that’s based on a set of smart regulations and a targeted set of government investments, tax credits and other market supporting initiatives. It would be very similar to the green initiatives that were part of the overall Recovery Act [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009], but which simply weren’t done on a sustained, long-term basis.
If we did those things, the American economy would take off again, but it wouldn’t take off to go to where we were in 2007. It would take off in a direction of energy efficiency, in the production of clean energy, the creation of highly efficient infrastructure that is appropriate for the 21st century, and we’d see employment go way up. We’d also see energy usage go down, and we’d see, in a sense, disposable income that’s currently being sucked off into oil exports recirculating in the American economy. We’d see a virtual circle that would push us back to full employment again.
If we did those things, I think the sort of down effect of the economic transition away from some industries, particularly some of the fossil fuel industries, would be much easier to manage. With millions of jobs being created, the fact that we would be consuming less fossil fuel, and we’d be transitioning to making electricity with cleaner fuel sources, all of those things would result in far less conflict. The loss of one job wouldn’t be a permanent feature of any person’s life. He’d be able to get re-employed.
What aspects of the Recovery Act should be brought forward?
One in manufacturing – there was a program known as 48C that was part of the Recovery Act. It focused on advanced energy manufacturing. It was a tax credit program, so it wasn’t an out-and-out grant program. For a manufacturer to qualify for those tax credits, they had to invest money themselves at about a three-to-one ratio. It was about a $5 billion program, and it leveraged some $20 billion back into the economy in the form of private sector investments and created 17,000 jobs in manufacturing.
The program was oversubscribed by three-fold, with three times as many applications that met the criteria for acceptance than they had money for. It performed a very important function of getting all this private capital off the sidelines. Countless people have remarked that one of the biggest problems with unemployment in America today is that private companies have something like $2 trillion worth of capital sitting on their balance sheets, but they’re not investing it. The reason they’re not investing it is because they’ve got plenty of capacity to meet the needs of their marketplace right now.
What 48C said was, we’re going to make products for the clean economy, whether it’s in advanced battery technology to make these highly fuel efficient cars, or if it’s converting a factory that made gearboxes for Hummers into making gearboxes for wind turbines – it took all that private capital and gave it a reason to get off the sidelines and get into manufacturing these new products. It was one little project that didn’t even meet the demand that was out there for it.
How could we leverage that success today?
We need a 15-year version of 48C, and we need to do it within the context of a set of broad market regulations, like a national renewable electricity standard. This could create a national standard for school performance, for instance, that would drive the improvement of every existing school to meet certain energy efficiency lighting and heating and air conditioning standards. If you did those kinds of regulations, and then provided the tax incentives for the private sector to start investing in those programs, it would literally create millions of jobs.
None of these ideas are particularly arcane. In pilot form virtually every one of them has been tested and were shown under the Recovery Act to have created just a few thousand jobs short of a million. Our problem is that we just don’t seem to have the political will to do these over the duration of time, and at the level that they ought to be done, to be successful.
This is a rhetorical question, and it may be impossible to answer, but what do you think it’s going to take to get that political will?
Actually, I discuss this question with my staff and the BlueGreen Alliance partners every single day, because to me it’s sort of unconscionable that we have 20 million people in American who are either unemployed or underemployed. Then, on the other side of the equation, there’s all this work that the country needs done. There’s $100 million worth of infrastructure that got washed out of Duluth, Minnesota, a couple of weeks ago as a result of a climate change-induced, once in a thousand year, rainstorm. What better time than in an era of low interest rates is there to be out borrowing money and to be replacing all the infrastructure that we need?
The answer to your question is partly overcoming the cynicism that Americans have towards the responsibility of government to do something about job creation, and the other part of it is this uneasy sense that Americans are now getting that climate change really is a big problem and it does need to get dealt with. I think if we put those two things together, we’d find out that tackling climate change would be the greatest job creator this country has ever seen. I think it’s a combination of overcoming cynicism and awakening people to the very real opportunities.
How do you define "green" jobs?
It’s been a personal and organizational mission of the BlueGreen Alliance to really redefine what people think of or mean by the term green jobs. I like to say that our mission is to turn every job in America into a green job. I always use the example of the steel industry. To most people steel mills evoke an image of molten metal, carbon smoke, dirt and danger. Yet, steel is an absolutely integral material to any economy, including a green economy. But like any factory process, you can do it in a way that uses water in closed loop systems so that there’s no further pollution of water systems or waste. The actual energy consumed in steel mills can go from being primarily fossil fuels to being rarely, if at all, fossil fuels.
Eventually there will be forms of carbonizing steel that result in minimal greenhouse gas production. There are huge energy efficiency measures that can be implemented, and literally you can have a green steel industry.
I think that’s really the way in which we should think about both green jobs and the green economy. We have certain building blocks, certain kinds of work, certain products that are essential to advanced industrial society, and we know how to do those things in a way that’s completely sustainable and completely consistent with doing no harm to the environment. That’s what we should strive for.
It has been said that California is a main hub for the green jobs future because there is so much going on here in the clean tech industry, that a lot of models can get started here because the state is so focused on it. Do you have any thoughts about what’s happening in California’s green economy?
Yes. I think the landmark role that California has played in passing high environmental standards provides the necessary framework for the creation of these green economies. Far from regulations being a detriment to the economy, I see them as very fundamental foundations for making it work. It doesn’t come without some conscious effort as well, but strong regulatory frameworks are the precondition, and then that growth depends on having a well-integrated economic development strategy that touches on everything from the school system to entrepreneurial hubs, to a methodical strategy on how you grow green technology in manufacturing.
Have you seen this process take place?
I’ve seen other states that have done very well in terms of passing strong environmental legislation, but they haven’t connected it to the kinds of programs that then consciously try to capture the economic value chains that flow from those regulations. To give you an example, my state of Minnesota had, for a short period of time until California upped the ante, the nation’s leading renewable electricity standard. But because our governor and legislature did nothing to try to capture the economic activity that stemmed from that, we had a lot of wind farms going up in Western Minnesota, but all the wind turbines were being manufactured in Iowa.
The reason was that the governor of Iowa, for a decade, had a very conscious economic development strategy. He saw that there’s a big wind resource in the Midwest, and he decided to recruit European wind turbine manufacturers to come to Iowa. So they built, I think,8 – 10 significant factories in Iowa, and they got really significant rebirth to their manufacturing infrastructure as a result of that. Minnesota just sat on the sidelines. We created the rules, but we didn’t play the game.
How does that relate to California? What kind of job do you think we’re doing connecting those dots?
My assessment is that it’s sort of mixed, that California could have done a much better job in terms of looking at the manufacturing benefits, for instance, of the clean car rules and renewable energy standards. In manufacturing there could have been a lot more captured.
The fact that California has led the way in clean cars but has virtually no major car manufacturing going on I think is unfortunate because it’s a benefit California could have gotten.
How can educators and others involved in education contribute to green job growth?
It’s fundamentally important that young people in school today learn to respect and honor science. More than any other thing that’s important for students to take out of school, it’s respect for data and process, scientific inquiry. If we get back to the country we truly are in terms of our respect for an embrace of science that goes back to the so-called founding fathers of this country, I think we’d be a long way towards making rational decisions today.
I hope I can look back in another decade or so and say that this era of doubt in the validity of scientific inquiry has come to an end, and people understand that we can look at the problems around us, whether it’s unemployment or climate change, and we can come up with well reasoned, non-partisan solutions that the overwhelming majority of people can buy into.
I think educators can do a huge amount in terms of instilling those values in people. The sense that opinions are worth as much as scientific inquiry is really damaging to the country.