Posted May 31st 2016 at 9:00 am by
in Equity & Climate Resilience

Four ways labor unions are promoting resilient infrastructure and supporting shared wealth in low-income communities


AFL-CIO Offices. Photo by The Rough Draft Historian on Flickr.

New industries and jobs are emerging around infrastructure systems that contribute to a community’s ability to be climate resilient in the face of extreme weather events. Labor unions can be creative in supporting low-income constituents looking to capitalize on these opportunities and grow wealth for their families and communities. Here are a few innovative ways in which labor unions are leveraging their assets for this purpose:

1. Using pension funds to invest in green infrastructure 

In collaboration with the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the Clinton Global Initiative, AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) established the goal of using union pension funds to invest in energy efficient infrastructure projects. This effort aims to employ Americans in good, clean jobs while improving the built environment and reducing the impact of climate change.

The AFL-CIO and AFT are working with other employee unions to increase the number of involved pension funds. In California, the public pension funds CalPERS (public employees) and CalSTERS (teachers) pledged $1.1 billion for specific green infrastructure investment projects, with CalPERS hoping to expand its $800 million investment in California green infrastructure to a $4 billion nationwide effort. By directing pension funds to invest in assets that respond to the long-term needs of the workforce and the changing global trends, unions can support a brighter future for their low-income constituents. Read more about this effort here.

2. Providing training and apprenticeship opportunities in green infrastructure

Many labor unions are being proactive about training workers in sustainable practices as awareness of, and demand for, these new methods increases. For instance, The Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA), established the “Power4America” Training and Development Trust Fund to support training and apprenticeship in new energy initiatives. The International Brotherhood of Electical Workers (IBEW) Local 456 is similarly providing training in green energy for its workers in New Jersey. Installers learn about energy saving lighting, LEED Certified Installations and Solar and Wind Power Installations, and undergo rigorous upgrade training to stay ahead of the curve.

3. Promoting cutting edge practices in green infrastructure

Local 1 Plumbers Union is leading by example. For its new headquarters, Local 1 transformed a former Queens factory into a model for water conservation. The 52,000 sq ft site features a green roof that harvests rainwater. It also reduces the “heat island” effect, cooling down the temperature in the neighborhood. Three tanks in the building can collect up to 19,000 gallons of stormwater that is filtered for use in the bathrooms and fire hoses, saving around 2,000 gallons a day. Some of the filtered water also feeds a small hydroponic farm on the roof that grows blueberries. This cutting edge building, in addition to being good for the environment, serves as an important educational tool for the union and its workers.

4. Creating favorable ownership structures for workers

Since 2009, the Steelworkers Union (USW) has been supporting the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative (CUCI). This initiative includes three projects: a cooperative for retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, a railway manufacturing co-op, and a hub for locally grown food. The food project will enable large anchor institutions like hospitals and universities to buy food that is grown, harvested, and packaged by worker-owners. Unions like USW are exploring the cooperative model to allow workers greater long-term job security, better wages, and ownership and governance opportunities in their workplaces. Read more about these efforts here.


Post by Insiyah Mohammad Bergeron, a graduate student at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Follow #citychat on Twitter from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. EST on Tuesday May 31st to learn more about how green infrastructure can contribute to community resilience and wealth. Even if you don’t have a Twitter account, you can watch the conversation unfold here.

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