The Greening of America Revisited: Can the U.S. Create High-Skill Green Jobs?

There have been very few silver linings to the Great Recession, but one of them has been the prospect of launching a new industrial revolution powered by renewable energy. In the absence of any other candidates, green industrial policies have been prioritized as a recipe for economic recovery and the key to job creation, whether for building and operating the new energy infrastructure, or weatherizing the existing built environment. The urgency of the climate crisis raised the stakes much higher. Shunning the call for sustainability would not simply be a missed economic opportunity. It would be tantamount to a death sentence for large portions of the world’s population. The desperation of the jobless may have been the proving ground for green planning, but a humanitarian calamity of epochal proportions would be its final verdict if the transition from dirty to clean did not turn out right.

All previous attempts to jumpstart a green economy in the U.S. were effectively shut down by the decisive lobbying of the oil, gas, and coal giants. These efforts included the solar boomlet which prospered amid rising oil prices all through the 1970s, and the so-called “peace dividend” after the ending of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Both were nipped in the bud by policies long committed to regarding the safe passage of oil through the Straits of Hormuz as a matter of national security. In countries with their own fossil fuel supplies, it is often argued that the “resource curse” takes a heavy toll on democracy and environmental well-being. Though the phrase is usually applied to authoritarian nations like the Gulf States or Nigeria, the U.S. has its own version of the affliction, with a sizable number of state legislatures and congressional representatives in the pockets of the large energy combines. Labor, of course, has not escaped the curse. Over the years, unions in the energy and utility sector have dragged their feet, or actively opposed, any significant effort to tilt in a renewable direction.

When the Obama administration came into office, all the ingredients for a fresh start were in place. The pressing threat of global warming had taken up residence in the public mind. The bailout of the financial industry established an appetite for government Keynesianism that included warm federal support for sunrise industries producing clean electrons. Swayed by evidence of the long-term profitability of green capitalism, corporate and political elites looked to assuage the national shame at being left behind in the global competition for clean energy. Last but not least, green jobs were held up as the solution to rebuilding a national workforce hollowed out by offshore outsourcing, destabilized by the rise of temping, and knocked to the ground by the recession.

Green industrial policies have been prioritized as a recipe for economic recovery and the key to job creation.

By the spring of 2008, there was talk of a new speculative bubble in clean energy—some were even calling it the Good Bubble.1 Hot money, alienated from the collapsed real estate markets, poured into venture funds for backing alternative technology startups. In a highly-touted move, Al Gore (the original Atari Democrat) joined Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Silicon Valley’s premier venture-capital firm, to oversee its “climate change solutions group.” It was even reported that Heidi Fleiss (the erstwhile Hollywood madam) had dropped her plans to open a bordello for female clients in Nevada because she had decided to invest instead in renewable energy. When asked why, she echoed the famous words of bank robber Willie Sutton. “Because that’s where the money is.”

Obama had already made campaign promises about “clean coal”—a euphemism cooked up by industry lobbyists to re-brand the fossil fuel as environmentally friendly. No less circumspect were the signals he sent, through appointing Steven Chu as Energy Secretary, about restarting the nation’s nuclear energy program. But he campaigned most solemnly on the promise to create five million green jobs, and the renewable energy agenda was pushed at every opportunity in the first eighteen months of his administration. Beginning with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus package in the spring of 2009, which allocated $80 billion in clean energy funding, he rolled out a series of federal subsidies and incentives to support a broad range of initiatives for the manufacturing of renewable technologies. With federal funding came the requirement that the green jobs would have to be well paid. Wherever this was observed, it was a welcome upgrade from wage scales in the existing solar and wind sectors, which lagged far behind the average paycheck in the mature energy industries.3

Naturally, most of the labor movement swung into line behind what looked like a savvy industrial policy, and commentators were not slow to conclude that the long-hoped-for alliance between labor and greens had finally seen the light of day. Even so, the new groups and initiatives like the Blue-Green Alliance, the Apollo Alliance, and Emerald Cities were hardly starting from scratch. The points of division between the two movements had always been magnified out of all proportion by jobs blackmail on the part of employers and, besides, there was a busy history of earnest efforts to unite on a range of issues and campaigns. Notable among the early initiatives were Environmentalists for Full Employment (formed in 1975), the Labor Committee for Safe Energy and Full Employment (in 1980), and the OSHA/ Environmental Network (in 1981). Among the more concrete union proposals to address job loss was the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) president Tony Mazzocchi’s idea, in the early 1990s, of a “Superfund for Workers,” which would provide four years of retraining at full wages and benefits to workers displaced by environmentally-driven shifts in production—the costs to be borne by employers in the extractive or fossil fuel industries.4

Division between the [labor and green] movements had always been magnified out of all proportion by employers’ jobs blackmail. 

Nor did the high-profile activities of the new alliances signal a complete makeover for labor. The AFL-CIO (which had stood apart from the international trade union movement in its vigorous opposition to the Kyoto treaty) threw its support behind Copenhagen and climate change legislation, but it still advocated for the most minimal levels of carbon reduction. Many forward-looking unions initiated their own green policies, while others fought hard to retain high-carbon jobs in industries that are plainly destructive to land and public health. As Sean Sweeney reported in the Fall 2009 issue of this journal, the mineworkers’ union played its part in weakening the American Clean Energy and Security Act, passed by the House in June 2009, even though its influence was dwarfed by the large corporate members (GE, Shell, ConocoPhillips, Dow, Rio Tinto) of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, who framed the final version of the legislation.5 The fierce lobbying which produced huge concessions to fossil fuel industries in the House bill escalated as the Senate took up climate change legislation after the passage of health care reform.6

But the labor-green bandwagon was not the only one in town. By September 2009, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a significant player in the Tea Party movement, won the ouster of Van Jones, just nine months after he took office as Obama’s official green jobs consultant. The mainstream media consensus concluded that Jones was Glenn Beck’s first scalp, and an African-American one at that. But it soon became clear that AFP had masterminded the campaign. Primarily funded by the Koch family, mega-investors in oil and gas (Koch Industries is ranked #10 on the Political Economy Research Institute’s “Top 100 Toxic Polluters” list), AFP adopted as its top goal the defeat of climate change legislation. Jones may have been red-baited by Beck for his past associations with radical organizations, but that was not the reason why he was deposed. In recent years, he had become a highly effective public advocate of the benefits to rich and poor alike of the clean energy economy. Pushing green jobs as a solution to the plight of low-income communities, poisoned by pollution in their backyards, he brilliantly argued the need for environmental, labor, and social justice groups to find common cause in overturning the destructive order of fossil fuels. The coalition of forces imagined under Jones’s banner, Green For All, was a clear threat to business as usual for the fossil fuel lobby.

With or without Jones, green jobs were on the increase at a time when almost all other employment sectors had troughed. But the appearance of some of the new jobs in the renewable energy sector brought an interesting turn of events. In November 2009, Suntech, China’s largest solar panel manufacturer, announced plans to build a facility in the metro Phoenix area. It was the first such plant to be built in the U.S. by a major Chinese clean energy company. Business media commentators made comparisons with the first Japanese auto factories in the 1980s, touching off all the usual alarms about the loss of U.S. competitiveness. With formidable state backing and central industrial planning, and with cheap labor to draw on, China’s clean-tech firms had indeed sprinted ahead in recent years, establishing an unassailable lead in solar panel and wind turbine manufacturing. But the historical comparison with Toyota and Honda was flawed for many reasons. For one thing, the main losers to China were Germany and Spain—the U.S. lost its lead in renewables many years earlier. In addition, there was an appreciable downgrading in the kind of jobs expected of this new wave of Chinese investment. Manufacturing (and design) of Suntech’s solar cells would continue to be done in Wuxi, China, where wages are ten times lower. The jobs that were coming to Arizona were for assembling panels that would be sold regionally and that were not cost effective to ship from Asia. The panels would be stamped “Made in the U.S.A.,” but only the least-skilled portion of the manufacturing process would occur on American soil.

A week before the Suntech announcement, Senator Chuck Schumer opened a new front in the protectionist wars by assailing the use of ARRA stimulus funds to generate “Chinese jobs” for a 646-megawatt wind farm in West Texas. Notoriously, in an era of free trade, China had built up its clean-tech industries by insisting on the use of domestic materials and labor. Politicians, like Schumer, who cut a prominent profile for deploring the outsourcing of American manufacturing to China several years before, repackaged their appeals to economic nationalism by calling out the administration for not backing American-built products. In March 2010, he and three other Democratic senators introduced legislation that would apply a “buy American” standard to all renewable energy projects seeking stimulus funds, requiring them to rely on parts manufactured in the United States.

For the best part of two decades, U.S. corporations had treated China as a cheap assembly platform for export goods. Now, it seemed, the favor was being returned. Anyone who has followed the career of Sino-American trade relations, or business trends in clean-tech, for that matter, would have expected this outcome. But the rapidity with which the tables had been turned came as a surprise, and offered evidence— for those looking for the signs—of a decisive shift to the East in the economic balance of power.

Greater Phoenix Economic Council president Barry Broome, who had helped woo Suntech, was not at all concerned about the jobs imbalance, nor had he much patience for nationalist grandstanding. A Cleveland native, he didn’t want to see Arizona “make the mistake that Ohio made with the Japanese and Koreans.” “As an American,” he felt “competitive toward China,” but did not want “these patriotic instincts to interfere with the right economic decisions.” I asked him if Arizona was about to become an offshore assembly base for Chinese companies. “If we’re lucky,” he replied. “That’s how tough things are right now.” While the Phoenix business community had dreams of reviving the glory days of its attenuated high-tech sector, Broome was focused, more pragmatically, on the mass of livelihoods in a region where poverty levels had skyrocketed, and joblessness was chronic. “In Arizona, we have to put a million working-class Hispanics to work,” he observed. “Fifty percent of these children speak English as a second language and it is unrealistic to think that they are all going to be at Google. Our preference has been to think of manufacturing in aerospace and semiconductor [industries],” he added, “but a big part of it is going to be in simple operations like solar panel assembly.”

Broome’s matter-of-fact acceptance of China’s commanding lead in the new industries was at odds with the breast-beating of those lamenting how far behind the U.S. was in the race to dominate the clean-tech sector. Prominent among them was the erstwhile champion of corporate globalization, Thomas Friedman, who had become a zealous advocate for U.S. industry to rise up and challenge the Chinese lead. On more or less the same page were the Apollo Alliance, and the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank, both of whom issued reports (“Winning the Race: How America Can Lead the Global Clean Energy Economy” and “Out of the Running? How Germany, Spain, and China Are Seizing the Energy Opportunity and Why the United States Risks Getting Left Behind”) that sounded the same note of urgency about losing the race for global supremacy.

Fear of being dominated by China [in the cleantech industry] has fed into a new version of recessionary Sinophobia. 

Behind all the nationalist bluster were real concerns about missing out on a new generation of manufacturing jobs. In the early 2000s, the storm over job loss from offshore outsourcing had been laced with anti-Chinese sentiment (“they are taking our jobs”). Never mind that it was U.S. corporations ordering the job transfers and reaping the profits. It was safer to blame the Chinese—one of the most reliable ethnic instincts of white America. Now, the fear of being dominated by the Asian behemoth was feeding into a new, and arguably more ominous, version of recessionary Sinophobia. Yet even if U.S. firms were somehow to become leading players in the renewable energy field, what would guarantee their provision of American jobs? And what would ensure they were quality-pay jobs? It seemed that only a raft of sizable, long-term subsidies could persuade corporate America to reinvest in the domestic workforce.

Tempe-based First Solar was a case in point. A pioneer of thin-film modules, and one of the world’s leading photovoltaic (PV) producers, the firm was headquartered in Arizona but produced elsewhere, mostly in Malaysia, but also in Germany, where a friendly government climate existed, with a feed-in tariff that obliges utilities to buy renewable power from eligible producers. Only with the recent dangling of federal and state incentives did the company look stateside. In the fall of 2009, it inked a deal with California’s PG&E Corporation for a large 550-megawatt solar farm, in a state that was the first to institute a feed-in tariff; and, in January 2010, the firm snagged $5 million in Advanced Energy Manufacturing tax credits to expand its token U.S. manufacturing plant, in Toledo. But it was by no means clear that these manufacturing jobs would be kept in the U.S. With the price of PV panels falling so rapidly, U.S. firms who entered the field with government help were already transitioning to Asia. Evergreen, a Massachusetts-based solar startup, which opened its doors with $58 million of state backing in the fall of 2008, began to transfer operations to China only a year later.7

Shiny new technologies tend to command the lion’s share of media attention. But green jobs are much more likely to open up in existing industries. 

As long as the government stuck to subsidizing green initiatives, employees and host communities could reasonably expect some degree of employer accountability when it came to the provision of decent pay and benefits. But the job quality standards attached to the subsidies varied widely—by state, city, and county—and in right-to-work states like Arizona, those guarantees were especially precarious. Rebekah Friend, the AFL-CIO regional president, was happy to report that, at the very least, legislators were now obliged to set a place at the table for labor. “Before this administration came in, we were not even acknowledged. Now the state has to sit down with us, whether they want to or not. They need our signature on their federal grant proposals.” But she did not expect the welcome carpet to lie around for too long after the grants and tax incentives were secured.

The typical suburban American home is an energy pig. 

Friend envisaged that substandard jobs in the new clean energy sector would edge out well-paying union jobs at the utilities’ power plants. “My concern is that international solar companies will come in with a completely different set of work ethics, and that they will go non-union and also way below scale. Like other industries,” she added, “such as the call centers, they might be coming here because we are a right-to-work state.” Hers was a longstanding concern and, in the past, it had often put energy sector unions on the wrong side of the green aisle. For sure, the replacement of dirty with clean energy should not be pursued on the backs of working people or at the expense of labor power. On the other side were studies dating from the 1970s to the present day which have shown that investment in decentralized and labor-intensive green enterprises would create many more jobs than in the highly automated, capital-intensive and geographically centralized facilities of the old energy sector. These estimates punctured the employers’ myth, re-circulated by some unions, that green industrial policy would only result in job losses.

Investors and national managers are fixated on shiny new technologies, and so gee-whiz developments in clean energy tend to command the lion’s share of media attention. But green jobs are much more likely to open up in existing occupations or industries—HVAC (Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning) contracting and home insulating, organic and local agriculture, salvage, waste management, mass transit, and infill construction. Sizable energy efficiencies can be gotten very quickly from weatherizing the homes thrown up to profit from the housing bubble. Such energy retrofits are a clear alternative to the practice of renovating homes to boost resale value—a popular custom that generated mountains of waste material during the real estate boom. In the post-war era, merchant builders adopted nationwide construction templates with little regard for regional climate variation, and so profitable models of mass production preempted the appropriate siting of houses to conserve energy. As a result, the typical suburban American home is an energy pig. Plugging

Labor advocates have hardly been in a position to question a consumer system that engages so many workers in the manufacture of so many unnecessary items. 

leaks, realigning ducts, repairing roofs, sealing gaps, and insulating furnaces can slice in half most utility bills. As Van Jones put it, “the main piece of technology in the green economy is the caulking gun.”8

Like many of the stimulus programs, funds for weatherization have been notoriously slow in working their way through states’ bureaucracies. Yet, dollar for dollar, the program still promises to be the most effective way of creating jobs quickly. In addition, it entails employment in local communities through budgets that mostly go to hiring personnel rather than to equipment purchase. In other respects, the change in public consciousness prompted by weatherization promised to be as momentous as the new mentality ushered in by recycling. For those who grew up in the throwaway consumer society, the novel task of separating waste on a daily basis amounted, over time, to a profound alteration of common sense. For many people, recycling was the first step in considering the environmental consequences of their consumption. The crusade—if it turns into one—for homegrown energy efficiencies and carbon reduction is the second phase of this long revolution in consciousness. Arguably, it will be more socially sustaining in the customs and relationships it fosters than the top-down geoengineering schemes and other macro technical fixes currently being proposed to reduce the planet’s carbon stockpile.

No less far-reaching are the consequences for labor. Long shut out of decisions about production, labor advocates have hardly been in a position to question the wasteful premise of a consumer system that engages so many workers in the manufacture of so many unnecessary items. But green employment in the service of repairing, preserving, and extending the life of existing things and natural processes is becoming a growth economy in its own right, and there’s more than enough of it to go around. The labor movement needs to embrace this ethos of restoration as a sharp corrective to the current damage-prone system of growth. Labor’s heroic, masculine birthright was forged in the foundries of high-carbon production. A softer, more life-sustaining profile is in the offing.



1. Eric Janszen, “The Next Bubble: Priming the Markets for Tomorrow’s Big Crash,” Harper’s, February 2008.
2. Henry Brean, “Heidi Fleiss Gives Up on Plan for Brothel for Women,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, February 10, 2009.
3. A report from Good Jobs First—commissioned by Change to Win, the Sierra Club, and the Teamsters and Laborers unions— found jobs in the renewable energy sector paying $11 an hour, almost half the average wage in the durable goods sector (at $19 an hour). High Road or Low Road?: Job Quality in the New Green Economy (February 3, 2009), available at http://www.goodjobsfirst. org/pdf/gjfgreenjobsrpt.pdf.
4. For some of these earlier efforts, see Richard Grossman and Gail Daneker, Energy, Jobs, and the Economy (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1979); and Richard Grossman and Richard Kazis, Fear at Work: Job Blackmail, Labor, and the Environment(New York: Pilgrim Press, 1982).
5. Sean Sweeney, “More Than Green Jobs: Time for a New Climate Policy for Labor,”New Labor Forum 18, no. 3 (Fall 2009): 53-59.
6. “By last year, according to the Center for Public Integrity, the number of lobbyists devoted to climate change had soared by more than fivefold since 2003, to a total of 2,810—or five lobbyists for every lawmaker in Washington . . . Only 138 of the lobbyists were pushing for alternative energy—the rest were heavily weighted toward the old fossil-fuel mafia, most of whom oppose tough carbon caps.” Jeff Goodell, “As the World Burns,” Rolling Stone, January 6, 2010.
7. Erin Ailworth,“Evergreen Solar to Shift Some Operations to China,”Boston Globe, November 4, 2009. An additional $5 million loan was pledged by MassDevelopment, a quasi-public agency, on the basis of Evergreen having exceeded the target number of jobs it had promised to create in Massachusetts. See Todd Wallack, “Struggling Evergreen Rewards CEO,” Boston Globe, March 12, 2010.
8. Van Jones, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems(New York: HarperOne, 2008), 15.

New Labor Forum 19(3): 41-47, Fall 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.193.0000007