Last week more than 1,300 business, labor, environmental, and civic leaders -- including some 100 Sierra Club staff, volunteers, speakers, and community partners -- took part in the seventh annual Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference in Washington, D.C.
The conference, whose motto is, "Where Jobs and the Environment Meet," focused on repairing the infrastructure Americans rely on every day -- our water systems, electrical grid, transit, road, pipelines, and schools -- with an eye toward environmental sustainability and family-sustaining jobs that cannot be outsourced.
The Sierra Club is one of the primary sponsors of the conference, along with the BlueGreen Alliance, the United Steelworkers (USW), and Alcoa.
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune (right) was among the keynote speakers on the conference's opening day. "We need to recreate our economy with clean energy that takes the place of fossil fuels," Brune said. "Everybody here knows it’s going to be a challenge to do that. But we must. The ultimate rewards for all of humanity when we achieve that goal will be greater than we can imagine. The Sierra Club is 100 percent committed to creating an economy that is 100 percent powered with clean energy."
BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director David Foster, who emceed the conference, said that "to some of our critics, 'good jobs, green jobs' is a quaint notion; that you can have both good jobs and a clean environment. But you can't solve a 21st-century problem like climate change with the 19th-century infrastructure that caused it. The theme of this year's conference -- Protect, Produce, Prosper -- sums it all up: We can create all the jobs we need and fix our environmental problems by repairing America."
A secondary theme that ran through the conference was the growing income disparity between the very wealthy and all other Americans, and how the middle class will benefit from the creation of good, green jobs. "One thing 20th-century America taught the world is that a lot of wealth in a few hands is never going to be as productive as a lot of wealth in a lot of hands," Foster said.
Also speaking at the opening plenary session were USW President Leo Gerard (at left), AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.
Gerard recalled that when the USW and the Sierra Club joined forces to create the BlueGreen Alliance seven years ago, their shared concerns were carbon emissions, chemical safety, and trade. "Then you come back seven years later and you see what we've done," he said. "The membership of the affiliate organizations in the BlueGreen Alliance represents 14 million Americans. Imagine what we could do to advance our agenda if we mobilized that membership."
Trumka followed, saying that the biggest challenges facing our society are climate change and restoring economic prosperity. "I'm here on behalf of the labor movement to tell you we remain committed to stopping runaway climate change," he said. "There is no other path for our children and grandchildren. We must keep up the fight for generations to come. The people who want to solve climate change must engage with the people whose jobs are at stake. The challenge of climate change can only be solved when we find a formula of clean energy that meets every day people's needs."
The conference officially kicked off the evening before with a panel discussion featuring Brune, Gerard, Jim Harrison of the Utility Workers Union of America, Rick Terven of the United Association, and Marc Norberg of the Sheet Metal Workers Union of America.
"Addressing climate disruption is an opportunity, not just an obligation," Brune asserted. "We have to be big and bold in our ambition to build a clean-energy economy that works for everybody."
Gerard emphasized how a concerted effort to upgrade America's infrastructure fits into the equation, citing the most recent Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers that gave America's infrastructure a grade of D+. The report card was mentioned frequently throughout the conference.
All the panelists were united in their belief that creating good jobs and a clean environment are not in conflict. "We don't have to decide between protecting the environment and good jobs," Harrison said.
The next two days featured three plenary sessions and more than 50 workshops organized around nine basic themes: Climate Resiliency and Adaptation; Creating Good, Green Jobs; Energy; Health and Safety; Manufacturing; Repairing our Democracy; Schools; Transportation; and Water Systems & Pipes.
Brune, Gerard, and Foster penned a welcome letter to conference attendees, entitled Uniting to Repair America. "Climate change will not solve itself," it read in part. "Good jobs will not miraculously appear to resolve our country's unemployment and inequality crisis. Good Jobs, Green Jobs is an opportunity to talk with old friends and make new connections, listen and learn about how others are finding ways to Repair America, and share your own efforts to address climate change and create good jobs in your home state."
Joining Brune in giving a keynote speech on Day One of the conference were EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, United Autoworkers President Bob King, and U.S. Congresswoman Donna Edwards of Maryland. Keynotes on Day Two were given by U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison of Missesota, U.S. Senator Jeff Merkeley of Oregon, and National Wildlife Federation President Larry Schweiger.
Ilana Solomon, director of the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade Program, participated in a moderated panel discussion at the Day Two plenary session about how trade agreements like the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership can undermine our communities and our environment and should not be fast-tracked to approval.
Sierra Club staffers and volunteers who sat on workshop panels included Solomon, Labor Program Director Dean Hubbard, New Orleans organizer Darryl Malek-Wiley, My Generation campaign organizer Allen Hernandez, Beyond Coal director Mary Anne Hitt, federal campaigns representative Liz Perera, Our Wild America campaign representative Jackie Ostfeld, and clean-energy activist Al Weinrub.
On the eve of the conference, the Sierra Club released a new report, "Workers, Communities, and the Clean Energy Economy," laying out a vision for workers in the transition to a clean-energy economy. Brune, Foster, and Gerard were joined by United Auto Workers President Bob King, Utility Workers of America President Mike Langford, and Communications Workers of America Senior Director George Kohl in a press conference announcing the report. The leaders stressed that now is the time for working families and environmentalists to come together around a strategy that can end the economic and environmental abuse of our planet and its people.