Capitol One

Michael Theriault headshot

In a recent New York Times editorial, Naomi Klein criticized leaders of our national organization, North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU), for their 23 January meeting with President Donald Trump and their satisfaction in his support for the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines.

She wrote, “...responding to the urgency of the climate crisis has the potential to be the most powerful job creation machine since World War II. ...Energy-efficient retrofits in United States buildings alone could create ‘more than 3.3 million cumulative job years of employment.’”

What worker representatives could decline to meet with an individual – no matter their opinions of him – who controls much of their work? I know from prior discussions with the NABTU that an ugly but genuine logic underlay the agreement to meet Trump. We might question the tone some leaders sounded during and after that meeting – it would not have been mine – but should note they have long dealt with Trump in his construction, and some among them must have experience of what works in those dealings.

As to energy efficiency retrofits, well, some work can be had from them, but not so much, or at least not yet and not soon.

The Trades have sought that work. In 2010 the NABTU joined academics from the University of Wisconsin and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and business leaders to form the Emerald Cities Collaborative. The Collaborative’s mission was to create “high road” jobs, well-paying and with benefits, and access to them for residents of underprivileged urban communities through energy efficiency building retrofits.

The NABTU asked Building Trades Councils in ten cities to participate. San Francisco was one. In this column I touted Emerald Cities and our hopes for it.

I immediately stressed to national Emerald Cities leadership that the key to success was to develop quickly actual projects with actual high road jobs.

For various reasons, some internal to the organization, most not, very few such jobs resulted.

Without a regulatory push, economics were challenging. High energy costs could more readily help energy efficiency retrofits pay off, but cheap natural gas from fracking restrained costs.

Developing mechanisms to fund retrofits was also challenging. Investors had to devise ways of securing investments not against property values but against returns on energy savings. On-bill repayment to utilities for energy efficiency retrofits, which we advocated, remains a work in progress still.

The Obama administration, despite predicting a new energy economy, assigned only junior staffers to meet Emerald Cities, and federal regulatory agencies gave little help in developing funding mechanisms.

Meanwhile Congress did not produce climate legislation to favor energy retrofits. When Congress flipped Republican in the 2010 midterms, this became impossible.

And the Democratic Party paid state elections insufficient heed, so that Republican control of legislatures through many states precluded climate- friendly legislation.

Even in California, with Democrats controlling both legislative houses, a 2011 University of California-Berkeley Labor Center study calculated that only “2.7 percent of mechanical and electrical trades workers and 1.5 percent of building performance workers are funded by energy efficiency.” While these percentages might grow and the work is certainly not something to ignore, neither will it be a major source of our employment. The San Francisco Building Trades remain engaged in Emerald Cities and hopeful of good if limited outcomes, but among Councils we are an exception.

Other climate-friendly work Ms. Klein cited – renewable energy, public transit – produces more of our jobs. We might add to her list a class of work she may or may not intentionally have omitted, infill residential development, which has sup- porters among environmentalists but also detractors, especially at local levels.

Alas, and contrary to my own ethic, even these jobs do not diminish the importance to the NABTU of petrochemical work. This importance extends well beyond the two pipelines – the ill effect of which on the climate is debatable, given alternative means of oil transportation – and even beyond the question of jobs.

A decade ago Chevron brought non-union contractors from Texas and Georgia to excavate to a twenty-foot depth two full blocks where the Warriors Arena will soon rise. Pickets, an inflatable rat, leafleting of gas stations, demonstrations by a community ally, appeals to City officials and to Chevron itself won us only minor subcontracts to union-signatory employers and a few non-union local hires.

More recently, a YouTube video showed pickup truck after pickup truck entering the gate of an East Bay refinery retrofit. Their plates read Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Arkansas....

For some unions, the South is just a place where they have few members.

For ours, the South sends raiders into our jurisdictions and work.

The NABTU has edged lately into a more collaborative relationship with the petrochemical industry. The pipe- lines are part of this. The industry’s non-union workforce in the South is aging out. Our unions’ apprentice- ship programs can replace it, if work is performed under union agreements. If the resultant journey level workers ever come our way, they will be not raiders, but our members.

Theoretical bread feeds nobody. We need real jobs and protection against real threats. Before attacking the actions of NABTU leaders, Ms. Klein and others should understand and work to change the conditions that compel them.

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