April 25, 2012
President Obama’s affection for (and debt to) Big Labor is no secret. Seventeen days after his swearing in, he signed an executive order “encouraging” contractors to use only union workers on federal contracts, the first of many pro-labor moves. Despite the full faith and support of the White House, however, unions are under fire across the country and their all-important membership rolls continue to sink. What to do?
President Obama has undertaken the obvious, advocating higher public spending for union-heavy schools, infrastructure and healthcare, for instance. However, tight budgets and public skepticism have crimped his agenda, requiring a more subtle plan: push “green” investment, and make sure that union employees win the resulting jobs. How? By requiring a “green” certificate for workers in government-funded construction, renewable power and energy efficient transportation industries and for manufacturers of sustainable products. And where will those certificates come from? Why, from the AFL-CIO’s Center for Green Jobs, for example.
The New York Times recently lambasted Republicans in an editorial for seeking cuts to job training, citing the high number of unemployed trying to crowd into such programs. The president, campaigning in Ohio recently, touted his commitment to job training, accusing Republicans of trying to gut efforts to raise the skill levels of U.S. workers. Pushing back, the GOP cites a 2011 GAO report that detailed substantial waste in the government’s 47 overlapping efforts, and little scrutiny of such programs’ effectiveness.
Though the president has also proposed some streamlining of existing programs, he wants to expand the job training budget by $2.8 billion. While upgrading our workforce could make sense, the administration may have a secondary purpose – payback for Labor’s $400 million support of his 2008 campaign, and its expected boost to his reelection effort.
Here’s how: the government funds job training programs administered by organized labor. Through such efforts, unions can expand their outreach to the unemployed and disaffected. In the process, they sign up new workers. Meanwhile, Big Labor is offering workers “green” certification through these programs. At the same time, the White House wants to funnel money into “green” industries. It is only a matter of time before such works demand “green” certification, guaranteeing union workers preferred status.
Sound farfetched? Perhaps, but I’m not alone in making the connection. Consider a study undertaken last year by the University of California at Berkeley’s Center on Employment in the Green Economy. It assesses the labor needs of the state’s mammoth sustainability drive. The authors encourage “high road economic development” – code for union labor – and embrace the dual strategies of “high-road agreements and certification strategies.”
Organized labor and environmentalists are joining in this effort. The Blue Green Alliance, a “strategic partnership” founded in 2006 between the Steelworkers and the Sierra Club, claims it has grown into a massive collaboration among our nation’s largest unions and green groups, uniting “more than eight and a half million people in pursuit of good jobs, a clean environment and a green economy.” They combine forces to push environmental spending and workers’ rights.
They are also pushing green certification programs, now offered by the AFL-CIO National Labor College, the Finishing Trades Institute (which calls its “nationally recognized” certificate “Green Advantage”), the UA (Union of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders & HVAC Technicians) and many other unions. The certifications are the product of training programs often financed by the Department of Labor, aka taxpayers.
For example, the DOL awarded a $1.2 million grant in 2010 to an SEIU (Service Employees International Union) affiliate in Los Angeles, the Worker Education & Resource Center, part of which went to “train environmental service workers in green technologies.” Awards to 6 organizations totaling $38 million were given to the Green Jobs Innovation Fund, which included the Laborers International Union of North America Training & Education Fund, and the Finishing Trades Institute of the Mid-Atlantic Region.
The Finishing Trades grant was supposed to train 1,900 individuals, “out-of-school youth, unemployed/dislocated workers” and others “interested in learning more about the trades.” Among the tasks was to “support transition into building trades apprenticeships” or, in other words, get them to join the union.
Introducing the AFL-CIO’s Center for Green Jobs in 2009, the late Mark Ayers, head of the union’s Building & Construction Trades Department, described the Center as helping ensure “that the labor movement plays a leading role in the creation and development of the “green” workforce…a workforce that will be created through major public investments in our nation’s clean energy future.” Soon thereafter, the Labor Department began doling out hundreds of millions of dollars to organizations supporting training of workers entering “green” industries. The AFL-CIO jumped on the opportunity, advising affiliates via their website that labor was a “mandated partner” on several of the grants.
The numbers are significant. In the 2012 fiscal budget, the DOL cites the Workforce Investment Act, the government’s umbrella organization, as authorizing nearly $10 billion for job training programs. Not all of this money is funneled to labor-related outfits, to be sure, but there’s plenty to go around.
For taxpayers who fund projects that so far have had mixed reviews (think Solyndra, the Chevy Volt et al), combining the environmental movement and Big Labor threatens to raise the government spending by driving up wages and reducing competition, especially on necessary infrastructure building.
For President Obama, the collaboration – strengthening the political clout of both parties -- is a marriage made in heaven.