For a Living Wage and a Habitable Planet, We Need Climate Jobs Programs

Climate and labor activists are coming together to hammer out ambitious but realistic plans for massively expanding the clean-energy sector in a way that also creates good union jobs. For both paychecks and the planet, it’s the only path forward.

Men work on a construction project in Central Falls, Rhode Island, a state whose infrastructure condition ranks among the worst in the country. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

The stalling of President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda raises serious concerns for those looking to the federal government for strong action on climate change. Much of the more ambitious climate-related aspects of the legislation have already been gutted — and the fact that it still can’t pass a Congress with a Democratic majority is a worrying sign for the future.

But despite the dysfunction at the federal level, there are encouraging developments occurring at the state level. Increasingly, climate and labor activists are coming together to hammer out ambitious but realistic plans for massively expanding the clean-energy sector in a way that creates family-sustaining union jobs.

These state-based efforts are often facilitated by the Climate Jobs National Resource Center. States like New York, Connecticut and Maine have managed to get real buy-in from the building trades on a vision that defies the false jobs versus environment dichotomy. Recently, the Illinois legislature passed landmark climate legislation that puts the state on a path to reaching 100 percent clean energy by 2050, all with the full support of the Illinois AFL-CIO.

Rhode Island has now joined the party. Earlier this year Climate Jobs Rhode Island, a broad labor-environmental coalition, released a report titled “Building a Just Transition for a Resilient Future: A Climate Jobs Program for Rhode Island.” The report, compiled in partnership with the Worker Institute at Cornell, takes a comprehensive approach to limiting carbon emissions — containing recommendations on retrofits, public transportation, renewable energy, and climate resilience.

The Rhode Island initiative is a good model for activists in other states to consider. In addition to meaningfully addressing climate change, there’s no doubt that this program would result in the creation of tens of thousands union jobs. It points the way forward for both the climate and labor movements, which must join together in order for the working class to have any hope of a sustainable future.


Rhode Island is a state of vehicle drivers, with only 3 percent of residents using public transportation for commutes. To address this problem, which has clear implications for the environment, the report includes measures to make public transit a more efficient and attractive option.

The report calls for upgrading and electrifying the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority’s Providence Line, and constructing a new station at T. F. Green International Airport. It also calls on the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority to electrify its 224 buses and build electric-vehicle charging stations at bus depots.

More ambitiously, the report outlines a plan to build a high-speed rail line from Virginia to Maine, with several stops in Rhode Island. This proposed high-speed rail corridor would create 352,000 jobs over a period of thirteen years. In general, high-speed rail is among the most efficient and low-carbon modes of transportation that can serve as an alternative to short haul flights.

Buildings and Housing

Buildings are responsible for 27 percent of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and that number rises significantly in urban areas. Since they’re large, publicly owned and managed, and ubiquitous, public-school buildings are a great place to start addressing this problem.

A 2017 study of Rhode Island’s public-school buildings found that the average age of a school building is fifty-six years old. Many are in desperate need of retrofitting. Why not green them at the same time? The report estimates that moving all of the state’s K–12 school buildings to net-zero emissions would create 11,209 jobs over an eight year period. These jobs would cover a wide variety of trades, including laborers, electricians, painters, welders, and more. Overall, retrofitting these buildings would decrease emissions by 105,913 metric tons of CO2e by 2030.

Similarly, the state’s need for affordable housing can be paired with a climate jobs program. The group HousingWorks RI estimates that, by 2025, the state will need up to forty thousand additional housing units to meet increased demand. Climate Jobs Rhode Island proposes to build thirty-five thousand net-zero affordable housing units by 2035, with a project labor agreement that would create 65,691 jobs over thirteen years.

The report also calls for deep energy retrofits on existing housing units, utilizing prevailing wage and local hiring requirements. This work is estimated to create 24,515 jobs over eight years.

If we think creatively, a climate jobs program can be a creative solution for many social problems at once: stopping climate change, lowering unemployment and raising wages, creating safe public schools for children, easing the rent burden for tenants, and more.

A Commitment to Good Jobs

The common thread running through all these plans is a concrete, unwavering commitment to family-sustaining union jobs. This emphasis is absolutely essential if climate activists want to have productive relationships with the labor movement.

Project labor agreements (collective bargaining agreements between building trades unions and contractors) and prevailing wage requirements are a core component of every single plan to reduce carbon emissions in the Rhode Island report. This dual approach ensures that workers don’t have to choose between living standards and a livable environment.

The Rhode Island report also calls for a state-level Office of Just Transition that requires robust representation from labor. This office would study the economic impacts of past plant closures to better understand how workers can be supported in a transition.

This rhetoric on jobs has not just been left to languish in a report. The coalition is making real progress in the political realm. Earlier this week, the Rhode Island State Senate passed SB 2740, which requires that renewable energy projects include labor peace Agreements and prevailing wage requirements.

But perhaps the most inspiring part of the campaign in Rhode Island is the coalition that’s been built around it. The list of organizations that endorsed the report includes the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, Childhood Lead Action Project, National Education Association, and many more. The workers who will be most directly impacted by and involved in an energy transition need to be in the driver’s seat of climate policy, and the Rhode Island initiative demonstrates how that’s done.

States are key battlegrounds for the Left, and will continue to be important arenas for advancing pro-worker climate legislation. Rhode Island has joined a number of other states in collectively leading the way. It’s up to the rest of us to follow them.