The Green New Deal picked up its second major union endorsement this week, highlighting growing support from labor leaders just as a new poll shows a majority of union workers back the movement.
On Thursday, the Service Employees International Union’s executive board voted to approve a resolution backing the GND, declaring itself the first national union to do so. That follows a similar endorsement by the Association of Flight Attendants, which is part of the Communications Workers of America union.
Unions may seem like a shoo-in constituency for a policy that, in its early present form, calls for a job guarantee, promises millions of “high-quality union jobs” and condemns “antilabor policies.” Even so, the endorsements marked significant victories for the Green New Deal movement, which faces fierce opposition from powerful wings of labor.
The influential construction unions, historically opposed to any policies that jeopardize fossil fuel infrastructure, have come out hard against the Green New Deal. The AFL-CIO criticized the plan to zero out emissions by 2030 as “not achievable or realistic.” Unions in California protested the GND at a state Democratic Party convention last week in San Francisco, offering a glimpse at how the proposal could prove electorally divisive even in blue states.
The political splits within labor, however, belie the findings of a new poll that found more than half of union workers in the United States back the movement for a national industrial policy aimed at keeping global warming from reaching catastrophic levels.
New survey data from the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress show 52% of current union members backing the GND, compared to 22% opposed, 21% who didn’t know and 5% who felt neutral. For respondents who live with at least one active union member, an even divide emerged, with 27% in support and 27% in opposition to the GND, another 30% unsure and 17% neutral.
“This is a big shift. We have to have a big conversation here,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, told HuffPost on Friday. “It’s a representation of the momentum that’s growing around the Green New Deal.”
Support dropped off in households with retired members or no union workers at all, according to the national survey, taken online between March 30 and April 7. Among retired union workers, opponents of the Green New Deal edged out supporters 38% to 35%, with 15% unsure and 12% neutral. For those living with a retired union member, opposition surged to 43%, with just 27% in favor, 25% who didn’t know and 5% with no opinion either way. Thirty-three percent of respondents without any ties to a union opposed the GND, while just 25% supported it, 29% said they were not sure and 13% were neutral.
That opposition appears to demonstrate the effects of a right-wing campaign that has for months smeared the GND by claiming it would ban hamburgers, eliminate private car ownership and, perhaps most outlandishly, result in a genocide against white men. In a widely cited poll from December, Yale and George Mason universities pegged support for the GND’s policies at 81% of registered voters, including 64% of Republicans and 57% of self-declared conservative Republicans.
We have to do things like show communities that have been hurt that we actually mean what we say when we say "leave no worker behind." Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants
So where does that leave the Green New Deal?
As it stands, the GND exists only as a nonbinding joint resolution that stakes out the key tenets of what future legislation should cover, including guaranteed union jobs to millions of Americans, an effort to scale back emissions as much as possible by 2030, and a seat at the table for communities most dependent on, or victimized by, the fossil fuel industry. Full-blown legislation isn’t expected until next year.
In the meantime, Democratic presidential candidates are competing over climate plans that approach the economy-wide mobilization for which the Green New Deal calls. The $9 trillion plan released in May by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ― whose entire White House campaign is centered on climate change ― includes a detailed proposal to repeal right-to-work laws and rejuvenate the labor movement. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the face of the GND movement, called Inslee’s plan the “gold standard” for climate policy.
But that uncertainty over policy has done little to win over unions whose workers rely on pipeline building and coal train jobs that, as it stands, pay much higher wages and use significantly more union labor than anything in solar or wind.
In February, Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the construction trade Laborers’ International Union of North America, called the GND “a bad deal” that “threatens to destroy workers’ livelihoods, increase divisions and inequality, and undermine the very goals it seeks to reach.” In an April speech, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka complained that the union wasn’t “part of the process” and said he’d “want a whole bunch of changes made so that workers and our jobs are protected in the process.”
SEIU tends to represent public employees and service and health care workers, many of them people of color. On the whole, this kind of union is more likely to back the GND than, say, a union representing mostly white construction workers. The Data for Progress survey did not break down support by union sector.
But the SEIU endorsement bolsters an argument made by Green New Deal proponents, that the policy’s advocates need to look beyond renewable energy and reframe the concept of low-carbon jobs to include health care, teaching and other service work.
Just six months after the Green New Deal entered the national lexicon, the labor support the movement has cultivated remains devoted. Members of 32BJ, an SEIU shop and the nation’s largest union for property services workers with 163,000 members, serve as regular speakers at Green New Deal rallies. The Maine AFL-CIO became the first statewide federation to endorse the movement, then marshaled its resources to back Green New Deal legislation in the Pine Tree State.
Nelson ― whose efforts to end the longest federal government shutdown in history made her what The New Republic called “the most powerful labor leader in the country ― threw her weight behind the Green New Deal, convincingly arguing that unabated climate change poses a far greater risk to airline industry jobs than regulations to curb emissions.
The next step, Nelson said, is to win support from workers in the fossil fuel industry by fighting to preserve coal miners’ pensions and health care.
“The skepticism really comes from a place of generally being opposed to something that they believe is going to be an attack on their jobs, their livelihoods and their communities,” Nelson said Friday. “We have to do things like show communities that have been hurt that we actually mean what we say when we say ‘leave no worker behind.’”
The narrative that unions don’t like the Green New Deal “gets a lot of attention because it’s sort of a man-bites-dog story,” said Sean McElwee, a co-founder of Data for Progress, which supports the GND and produced an early blueprint for the policy.
“But the reality our polling data shows is union members are overwhelmingly excited about the Green New Deal,” he said. “The movement has work to do, but there’s absolutely no reason we cannot get unions on board.”
Dave Jamieson contributed to this report.