Green jobs must be good jobs. America’s investment in the energy transition should restore the pathway to the middle class

American workers must see the benefit of record investments in green infrastructure.
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The United States is leading a green energy revolution, which could transform our economy, the environment, and the lives of working people across the country. New legislation has directed billions of dollars in federal funding to clean energy and climate projects. These landmark policies will create an estimated 10 million jobs and boost annual investment in the U.S. renewable energy industry by $50 billion.

This massive investment in American manufacturing is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make sustainability an economic imperative. But we must also work to ensure that dignity and opportunity are fixtures of the changing labor landscape. After all, without an equally significant investment in the workers powering the next generation of green technology infrastructure, our environment, our economy, and our workforce will suffer.

Too often, we mistakenly assume that growing industries and high-demand jobs that benefit the planet will automatically benefit workers as well. But nearly half of the fastest-growing jobs across sectors pay less than the median personal income of $37,522 for workers. Worse, many fall well below a living wage of $24 per hour–the very minimum for improving labor standards. Absent job quality and safeguards that guarantee solid wages, robust benefits, and meaningful bargaining power, these jobs will create an unsustainable cycle–attracting new workers but failing to support them for the long term. For workers of color, women, LGBTQ and disabled people, and others who still face discriminatory barriers on the job, additional protections are even more crucial to building an equitable 21st-century workforce.

As it stands, working people are caught between the rapid expansion of green jobs and the halting progress of worker protections in fields from electric vehicle manufacturing to clean energy installation. Recycling workers face some of the highest rates of injury in the U.S., while construction workers lack health insurance at rates three times higher than in other industries. These inequities only increase for immigrant workers, who make up 25% of the construction workforce but earn 26% less than their native-born counterparts.

Meanwhile, employers across industries continue to deny labor a voice at the decision-making table. Historically, industrial jobs were a pathway to the middle class, in large part because they were heavily unionized. This year, however, the percentage of American workers in a union fell to a record low–despite major labor organizing victories. Without collective bargaining rights, workers face even more barriers to mobility.

In the face of these shortcomings, climate stakeholders and industrial employers have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to collaborate with labor leaders, worker centers, and community groups around a new good jobs framework pioneered by the Families and Workers Fund and signed by more than 100 leaders in business, labor, policy, philanthropy, academia, and workforce development. Ensuring green jobs are good jobs will make our economy and our environment sustainable for people and the planet.

To do so we must ensure workers’ full participation in the decisions that shape their workplaces and their lives.

First, leaders in the climate and green energy sectors can bridge the longstanding division between industrial policy and labor rights and embrace cross-sector collaboration. That begins with adopting labor standards created by workers themselves, as the city of Austin did for its $7.2 billion Project Connect transit plan. The Better Builder Program, an initiative of the Ford Foundation-backed Worker Defense Project, partnered with businesses and local government to implement new standards focused on living wages, health, and safety training, workers’ compensation, and on-site monitoring. Now, Austin developers seeking expedited building approvals must be certified to meet their set of job quality criteria–a blueprint other companies and countries should scale.

In addition, we must ensure that new jobs–and the economic mobility they promise—are open to all. Recently, Jobs to Move America, a coalition of community, civil rights, labor, and faith groups that the Ford Foundation supports, successfully brokered a Community Benefit Agreement (CBA) with leading electric bus maker New Flyer. The CBA, a mechanism for communities to negotiate directly with developers, guaranteed that 45% of new hires in an Alabama manufacturing plant would come from historically marginalized groups, including Black and Indigenous workers, women, and veterans. This is a landmark win in the deep South, a region where working people experience some of the lowest wages and unionization rates in the country, particularly for workers of color. This progress is emblematic of the growing appetite for economic mobility in the South, and the power of partnerships and creative solutions.  

We must work together across domains and fields in the public sector, private sector, and civil society to forge alliances in recognition of the shared priorities between clean energy, manufacturing, and workers’ rights. Together, we can invest in emerging sectors and build accountability–to ensure these historic investments turn green jobs into good jobs.

Federal investments are bending the economy to serve the needs and demands of American workers. Employers, organizers, and climate leaders everywhere must do the same–bend the curve toward workers’ rights and a more just, inclusive, and democratic model of capitalism.

Darren Walker is the president of the Ford Foundation and author of From Generosity to Justice: A Gospel of Wealth.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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