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Why the Green New Deal is a touchy subject for Minnesota labor unions

Luisa Blue, executive vice president of the national SEIU and Jon Barton, a deputy director at SEIU
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Luisa Blue, an executive vice president for SEIU, and Jon Barton, a climate program leader at the union, told MinnPost the union’s support for the Green New Deal is based on pragmatic concerns as much as politics.

Two national leaders of the Service Employees International Union came to St. Paul last week to talk about the union’s latest initiative to fight climate change: the Green New Deal.

Earlier this summer, the SEIU executive board passed a resolution endorsing the sweeping measure proposed by Democrats in Congress, and the union has since worked to educate its 2 million members about the effort to slow global warming. 

The endorsement is notable. Despite the Green New Deal’s popularity with progressive leaders and several Democratic presidential candidates, the SEIU is by far the largest union to support the proposal, which includes a broad set of climate, energy and economic promises. Many unions — especially those representing workers in construction, manufacturing and trades — have been hesitant to back such a massive change to the nation’s energy grid and economy, worrying it’s a political impossibility or that it will lead to unnecessary job losses in industries that employ a lot of union workers.

That split extends to several aspects of climate policy, including a schism that is playing out in Minnesota over whether to build Enbridge’s Line 3 project. Most unions have sided with Republicans and a contingent of centrist DFLers who support the oil pipeline over environmental advocates and progressive Democrats who oppose it.

Luisa Blue, an executive vice president for SEIU, and Jon Barton, a climate program leader at the union, told MinnPost the union’s support for the Green New Deal is based on pragmatic concerns as much as politics: members face the adverse effects of climate change every day, and endorsing its goals is a way to help labor groups shape the transition away from fossil fuels and shield low-income workers from the pollution and natural disasters fueled by a warming planet.

“It’s an economy-changing initiative that leads with climate, racial and economic justice,” Barton said. “Within that, we see a big piece of our role is to ensure there is a voice for working people and a voice for labor.”

Why SEIU backs the Green New Deal

SEIU is not typically in the middle of political fights over energy policy. The union represents service workers, such as hospital and nursing home employees, janitors and school food staff. Its largest branch in Minnesota is made up of health care workers.

Scientists say natural disasters are becoming stronger and more common as the planet warms, and Blue and Barton said their members are often on the front lines; they’ve had workers whose homes are burned down by California wildfires and flooded by hurricanes in the South. Other problems, such as asthma caused by industrial facilities, also affect their members, the SEIU leaders said, while health care and service workers are often called upon to help those affected by disasters. 

“Science is on our side,” Blue said. She noted the union was particularly inspired by the youth-led anti-climate change Sunrise Movement to make climate change and the Green New Deal a bigger part of their advocacy push. During Barton and Blue’s visit to St. Paul on Thursday, SEIU Healthcare hosted a group of teenagers who were planning a local school walkout to call for government action to address climate change.

Student organizers plan a youth "climate strike" in Minnesota at SEIU Healthcare headquarters in St. Paul.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Student organizers plan a youth "climate strike" in Minnesota at SEIU Healthcare headquarters in St. Paul.
For now, the Green New Deal is only a non-binding resolution in Congress. But it calls for a “10-year-mobilization” to lower carbon-emissions in the country to zero through spending on the country’s energy grid, transportation sector, infrastructure and housing upgrades. The deal says it will create millions of “good, high-wage jobs” and also calls for universal health care and housing.

Many Republicans and some Democrats have been skeptical of the feasibility and cost of such an undertaking, however. Opponents of the Green New Deal often cite a study by a conservative think tank that said it would cost between $51 trillion and $93 trillion by 2090. 

But the study’s author has said he could not accurately guess the price tag since the Green New Deal contains broad policy goals, rather than concrete proposals. An energy research company, however, has estimated it would take $4.5 trillion to decarbonize the country’s power grid.

Sen. Bernie Sanders recently released his own $16.3 trillion version of the Green New Deal that would convert the country’s energy and transportation sectors to run on renewable energy by 2030.

Before Sanders’ proposal, the SEIU passed a resolution saying the Green New Deal concept “aligns with our values and presents an unprecedented opportunity to unite the fights for environmental, racial and economic justice and make inclusive prosperity and economic security available to all of us by calling for a fundamental reshaping of our economy.”

To push the Green New Deal, Blue said SEIU will participate in climate town halls around the country. Barton noted the union has let House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer know “the labor movement is not monolithic right now on this issue.” They’ve also talked to some presidential candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Barton said.

Shared goals on climate change

In some ways, there is broad agreement among unions in Minnesota on climate change policy, particularly about the need to invest in green technology and the jobs that come with it.

Emil Ramirez, director of the United Steelworkers District 11 based in Minnesota, said climate change “requires bold and immediate action” that “will ultimately result in a net gain of jobs and have an overall positive impact on our economy.” 

The United Steelworkers, which in Minnesota represents thousands of miners and other workers, is a founding member of the BlueGreen Alliance, an organization that brings together unions and environmental advocates such as the Sierra Club. 

The alliance calls for rapid reductions in greenhouse gasses and says America must commit to reducing its emissions to net zero by 2050, meet the country’s pledges in the Paris climate agreement and make “massive” investments in energy efficiency and clean and renewable technology, according to a fact-sheet of its priorities. The organization was on a Q&A panel hosted by Barton and Blue at SEIU in St. Paul on Friday.

The Local 160 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Minnesota and North Dakota chapter of the Laborer’s International Union have intervened at the state Legislature to push for regulations that would make building fossil-fuel projects more difficult, a policy under debate known as “clean energy first,” and most Republicans and Democrats appear to support some form of the measure. 

LIUNA has fought for the bill to include a preference for renewable energy developers to hire local workers and IBEW says it wants the proposal to include nuclear energy as a “clean energy” worth continuing at existing operations in the state. LIUNA has also endorsed Gov. Tim Walz’s plan to make the state’s energy grid carbon-free by 2050.

Jessica Looman, executive director of the Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council, a federation of unions that represent 70,000 workers, including IBEW and LIUNA, said “we absolutely agree that climate change has to be addressed.” 

“The position that we’ve been taking all along is supporting investments in solar, wind, nuclear, hydro, carbon capture, battery storage, transportation transit — all of the spaces that we actually have a direct impact on because our members build that infrastructure,” Looman said.

Not in favor of the Green New Deal

Still, those unions — or their national counterparts — have stopped short of endorsing the Green New Deal and have not always sided with environmental advocates. 

Looman said her council is trying to navigate the tension between “what we aspire to achieve and how we actually continue to operationalize and engage in the day-to-day activities of our economy.”

The Building Trades council represents workers that could build the Line 3 oil pipeline and has supported Line 3 and does not want to undermine workers in the fossil fuel industry while the state is still reliant on them. Looman said Minnesota needs energy that is “reliable, accessible, affordable, safe, stable, efficient” — things that she says renewable energy alone can’t yet accomplish. 

The Green New Deal, she said, could limit the state’s ability to deliver current infrastructure and energy needs for the sake of aspirational goals for the future.

Bree Halverson
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Far right: Bree Halverson, Minnesota Regional Program Manager for the labor-backed BlueGreen Alliance, talks to union members at SEIU Healthcare's St. Paul headquarters.
Looman referenced a March letter to Green New Deal sponsors from the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the U.S. It argues in support of natural gas as a bridge between coal and renewables and says labor leaders want to “engage on climate issues” without impinging on other priorities, namely an infrastructure package. (Many clean-energy advocates argue whether greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas and its methane leaks is an acceptable alternative to coal.)

“We welcome the call for labor rights and dialogue with labor, but the Green New Deal is far too short on specific solutions that speak to the jobs of our members and the critical sectors of our economy,” says the letter, which is signed by IBEW, the Steelworkers, LIUNA North America and a host of other unions.

Kevin Pranis, a spokesman for LIUNA North Dakota and Minnesota, said the debate over a Green New Deal is divisive and could delay quick and practical action to aggressively cut carbon emissions. He said Minnesota’s “clean energy first,” Walz’s carbon-free energy plan, and a slate of infrastructure investments, are achievable and should be the focus in Minnesota.

While construction unions sometimes stand in opposition to climate advocates on the Green New Deal or Line 3, Pranis pushed back on the notion that they’re slowing down action on global warming. 

For example, Pranis said LIUNA and others have accepted job losses in worker-intensive coal plants even though he said wind and solar don’t require as much work to upkeep. LIUNA signed an agreement with environmental organizations that supports a plan for Xcel Energy to retire two coal plants early. The utility plans to end use of coal in the state by 2030 and have carbon-free energy by 2050.

“Nobody has leaned into this harder than we have,” Pranis said.

Perhaps no fight over climate policy in Minnesota has been more contentious than the Line 3 debate — and more frustrating to Pranis and other unions. Enbridge wants to build 337 miles of pipeline in Minnesota for the $2.6 billion project to replace a 1960s-era pipeline that is corroding and operating at half capacity. State regulators on the DFL-controlled Public Utilities Commission have said it should be built to cut the risk of leaks, while environmental groups like the Sierra Club and several tribes argue long-term fossil fuel infrastructure must be stopped.

Pranis said without the pipeline, Enbridge could just move its oil by rail instead. The spike in oil trains during North Dakota’s oil boom is evidence, he said. When environmental groups oppose jobs for something he believes won’t contribute to climate change, and may help prevent spills or oil train explosions, it strains tensions with labor, Pranis said.

“It is a giant waste of people’s time in terms of addressing climate,” he said. “There are so many things we can do that have real impacts on climate that would make sense.”

Barton, the SEIU deputy director, did not take a stance on Line 3 or wade into other local environmental debates. But he said the Green New Deal — which calls for an end greenhouse gas emissions as fast as “technically feasible” — will create millions of new jobs if implemented. That, he said, should spark labor support.

“Some trades and others would say there’s going to be enormous loss,” he said. “They’re making a transition from one type of job to another, but it wouldn’t be a net loss.”

Comments (30)

  1. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 08/30/2019 - 11:41 am.

    Where are new jobs going to come from? Not from the environmentally destructive fossil fuels…but from Green Energy. We could change things drastically in this country by investing in Green Energy and our infrastructure which would provide good middle class jobs.

  2. Submitted by Dan Landherr on 08/30/2019 - 11:49 am.

    $4.5 trillion to decarbonize the grid sounds like a lot until you consider the current subsidies to the fossil fuel industries total $5 trillon annually according to the International Monetary Fund.

    If we reallocate the US $650B in annual fossil fuel subsidies to decarbonizing (and modernizing) the grid we would have it paid for in 8 years.

  3. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 08/30/2019 - 03:26 pm.

    The unions are correct in not supporting the Green New Deal. Where has Green Energy worked? Germany poured billions into it. Their CO2 output remains unchanged while electricity prices have doubled, hurting the poor.

    The US leads the world in renewable R&D spending, which is where the answer lies. For now, Solar and Wind will support fossil fuels, but they are not the answer.

    Then we go back to nuclear. The effects of climate change must not be that bad if we ignore nuclear. Nuclear is not included in the Green New Deal yet unions support it.

  4. Submitted by Andy Briebart on 08/30/2019 - 04:43 pm.

    When did the clock start on the ten years?

    Are we still 9+ years or are we under nine now?

  5. Submitted by Steven Bailey on 08/30/2019 - 04:56 pm.

    It is sadly funny that different groups think their opinion matters at all. Climate Change is real. It is currently worse than most people are aware of. It is going to be incredibly hard on everyone but the super rich 1%. Making any measurable change at this time is now not even a sure thing but the alternative is catastrophe. 50 years ago was when significant change needed to start and we didn’t do it. There will be no easy or pain free choices and the cost of doing nothing is becoming exponentially more expensive by the year.

  6. Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 08/31/2019 - 09:25 am.

    This is an excellent example of why unions are no longer the friend of working people.

    SEIU represents uneducated, low skill workers. The very people that will suffer first and worst if fossil fuels are abandoned for the renewables available now.

    There will come a time when wind, hydro, solar and geothermal energy is a cost efficient alternative to fossil fuels, but that time is many, many years away. To force a change on our economy now would devastate low income people. It would decrease their standard of living dramatically.

    But these left wing union bosses couldn’t care less about that. They’d tell you that you have to crack eggs to make an omlet. The omlet is a world ruled by leftist Party elites; the eggs are the people who are foolish enough to fall for the left’s maskrikova.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/31/2019 - 04:07 pm.

      Actually, you’ve got it completely backwards. Take away the massive subsidies fossil fuels get, and renewables are competitive if not actually cheaper. Its the people who want to stick with obsolete energy sources that are screwing workers.

      • Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 08/31/2019 - 05:49 pm.

        Can you provide us with some verification for what you say? Frankly, I’m skeptical.

        Germany has poured billions into renewable energy. It’s done nothing to lower their carbon output and has sent the cost of electricity through the roof.

        Why will it be different here?

        Personally, I believe that if and when global warming becomes a real problem, we will start building nuclear power plants.

        • Submitted by Joe Musich on 08/31/2019 - 10:23 pm.

          Interesting read suggestion considering what I think your point of view is. Did you this quote in the article ? …..”….Overall, the village generates about seven times as much energy as it consumes, and the surplus is sold to the grid. The income from solar panels on public buildings is fed back into the public purse. It is often doled out to subsidize residents’ shifts to green power, and to reduce fees for the local music club and sports facility…..”

          • Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 09/01/2019 - 01:48 pm.

            Yes sir, I read the whole thing. Those folks are selling energy back to people who have already paid dearly to subsidize it. It’s the kind of deal the mob would love.

            • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/01/2019 - 06:26 pm.

              I pay dearly to subsidize the fossil fuel industry. We’ve spent billions on failed military adventures on the other side of the globe, primarily because God mistakenly put our oil under other countries.

              The combustion of fossil fuels fouls our air, leading to millions of medical expenses. But we allow the fossil fuel industry to externalize these costs to others, another subsidy.

              I just find it so naive when someone looks at green energy and complains “But subsidies!”

              • Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 09/02/2019 - 07:12 am.

                Yes sir. If measured by the convoys of tankers that some folks naively believed were standing by to bring “our oil” back home to us, those military adventures were clearly a failure.

                Luckily, the US is the world’s largest producer of oil, so we’re good for the foreseeable future.

    • Submitted by Barbara Lofquist on 09/03/2019 - 02:26 pm.

      Great post Connor! I’m an active member of the Steelworker’s union. I am confident that most of my co-workers, hourly and salary, voted for Trump and Stauber, and will again. I cannot understand the unholy alliance the Steelworker’s have with the anti- mining Sierra Club. I cannot get a refund of my union dues that are spent on political activities. My union’s policy is: quit the union if you don’t like it! They told me they’d still represent me though. Oh sure they would! I’d have a big red 🎯 on my back. Go and plant trees people! Plant them everywhere. Millions and millions of trees will make more sense than the asinine Green New Deal.

  7. Submitted by Joe Musich on 08/31/2019 - 07:39 pm.

    Here is a source from Forbes last June what two months ago that speaks directly to the point of renewables being the better deal.

    • Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 08/31/2019 - 08:48 pm.

      Thanks for that, but while that piece (written by a renewable energy player) was quite optimistic, it didn’t provide any comparison of the per Kw costs between renewable and fossil fuel energy. It was composed of a lot of hope and little else…I think I know why, and I suspect you do too.

      If any of that was true, the experience of Germany, which pays a very high price for fossil fuel would not have happened, don’t you think?

      • Submitted by Connor OKeefe on 08/31/2019 - 09:21 pm.

        To continue, the link suggests costs for renewables are shrinking; I believe that. But I don’t believe they are anywhere near what they need to be to avert major economic calamity.

        If they were, energy companies would be clamoring to get them implemented.

    • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 08/31/2019 - 09:38 pm.

      Renewables are not the better deal.

      The author of the Forbes article you reference may be a bit biased. Here is his bio from his homepage at Looks like he makes a good deal of money off solar and wind energy.

      James Ellsmoor is an award-winning serial entrepreneur and writer, bringing to life his passion for sustainability and renewable energy. At the age of just 26, he is Co-Founder and Director of Solar Head of State, an international nonprofit working with governments in the Caribbean and Pacific islands to raise awareness of renewable energy through high-profile solar installations on iconic government buildings.

  8. Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/01/2019 - 10:32 pm.

    Google searches are interesting. Renewables have to gain market share of the mind as well as the search market. May I change my original statement from “ better deal” to safer particularly when conservation and better recycling become more throughly involved. It maybe just hope affecting my thinking. But if we do not get a handle on this being right will make no difference. We must try because what has been done is obviously not working. So I will go with this group….

    • Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 09/02/2019 - 08:33 am.

      Here is one of the Union of Concerned Scientists latest twitter posts:

      “Our recent #KillerHeat Report highlights how outdoor workers suffer higher rates of heat-related illness and death during extreme heat events. They are increasingly susceptible to heat-related illness, which can double by 2100. #LaborDay2019 #WorkerJustice.

      The hashtags? Killer heat? Worker Justice? Simply click on either hashtag to see their bias.

      About 10x more people in our world die from cold than hear. Focusing on Killer Heat is a scare tactic.

      Bjorn Lomborg might be a better place to start when researching renewables. He works with top economists from countries around the world as well as Nobel Laureates.

      • Submitted by Joe Musich on 09/02/2019 - 07:47 pm.

        Well dying from heat or cold nevertheless dead ….Bjorn Lomborg ….the guy is a political scientist and has written a book titled “The Skeptical Environmentalst.” He seems no better prepared to speak to climate issues then either you or I might be.

  9. Submitted by joe smith on 09/02/2019 - 07:47 am.

    It is only a touchy subject because it’s terrible policy. As top Democrats (all those not running for President) said,” it’s a nice piece of aspirational legislation “. Translation, pie in the sky legislation.

    • Submitted by John Evans on 09/02/2019 - 12:02 pm.

      No, it’s a direction in which to go; a set of principles on which to build a framework of policy priorities. Plus it’s got a few pretty specific proposals, and some misguided gobbledygook.

      We’re in a period of fairly rapid change in circumstance. Climate change will be very disruptive, and we should try to respond as intelligently as possible.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 09/03/2019 - 08:43 am.

        John, please name one specific proposal that is doable in the Green New Deal.

        • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 09/03/2019 - 04:35 pm.

          It would seem Xcel Energy, thinks moving too 100% green (0 carbon emission) is possible by 2050, this is a ~ $11-12 B a year in sales company with ~ 3.3+ M customers. And they are publicly traded on the market with a market Cap of ~ $28.1B, over 100 years old, ranked @ 159 of Americas largest companies. Would be hard pushed to say they don’t know what they are doing or have a pipe dream plan.

        • Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 09/04/2019 - 08:56 pm.

          If you take an energy company and remove the cost of energy inputs they become more profitable, and if you take away the subsidies, like the one the customers of Minnesota Energy pay to provide below cost electricity to mining companies on the range, you have the seed capital to change the system. Take away oil and coal subsidies and free material removed from public lands, you have more financial capital to make more changes.
          You end up with a truly open market unhindered by subsidies to legacy companies.

  10. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/02/2019 - 09:18 am.

    Labor unions that side with Republicans or centrists aren’t being pragmatic, they’re being obtuse. For instance, the Green New Deal is no threat to infrastructure programs and spending. On the contrary it envisions a $2 trillion dollar investment in an updated transit and energy infrastructure that will not only create construction jobs but also hundreds of thousands of permanent jobs as well.

    Likewise neoliberal “centrist” Democrats have proved to be no more likely to strengthen or support collective bargaining and labor protections, although they’re not as outright hostile as Republicans. Union participation has all but collapsed under the neoliberal regime despite union support for Democrats. This practice of supporting individual projects for a couple hundred temporary jobs at the expense of sustainable livelihoods will be end of organized labor in the US if it’s not abandoned.

    Progressives have always been the strongest and most successful promoters of labor rights and equality, that’s simply a fact. To the extent that labor union turn to anyone else for political support or protection they’re just inflicting wounds upon their membership. Not only does the progressive agenda promote stronger and more equitable labor rights outright, but the economic agenda offers a far more promising and stable future for American workers.

  11. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 09/03/2019 - 12:33 pm.

    You know this looks a lot like the pollution discussion what 50 -60+ years ago. Questions folks don’t want to answer: Are you good passing the pollution problem and/or polluting your kids and your grand kids futures. The idea behind a green deal is that we need to reduce pollution of our environment, or does someone have tickets to an off world where they aren’t destroying their environment and can handle 6-7 B. of off world immigrants? Solar, wind, bicycles, walking, better insulated construction, etc. etc. are all proven to work, ironic how what appear to be the so called conservatives are the least conservative when it comes to protecting the environment from man made destruction. .

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/04/2019 - 08:28 am.

    It’s funny to see people so many people trying to argue about the cost and comparative efficiency of the defunct “fossil” fuel regime. These facile arguments have long since collapsed.

    The “cost” of “fossil” fuels is far far far greater than renewable energy could ever be. Renewable energy couldn’t trigger a climate crises costing trillions and trillions of dollars while driving mass extinctions and inflicting death and suffering upon millions of people. The status quo is certainly profitable for some, but it is no way sustainable or “cheaper” than renewable energy.

    Even if you set aside the “externals” the actual cost of extracting, transporting, and refining oil and gas continue to increase. These costs are driving all the pipeline wars. And we haven’t even discussed the cleanup costs.

    As with any finite supply we can predict that the cost of “fossil” fuels will only increase while the costs of renewable’s will decrease. As drillers push out and into more exotic and difficult locations to extract dwindling supplies the cost of extraction will struggle to compete with alternatives.

    The idea that a conversion to renewable energy will cause some kind of economic crises is simply ridiculous. The construction and reconstruction of energy grids and new technology will be disruptive for oil and gas companies and investors. However the economy at large will see huge benefits from safer and more sustainable energy regimes. And since the conversion would obviously take place over time any disruptions would be minimal.

    Nothing I’m saying here is even the least bit controversial or even in dispute.

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