Shades of green

Pub date April 15, 2009
WriterSarah Phelan

When President Barack Obama signed the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act in mid-February, folks across the country were hopeful that the $787 billion stimulus package would help preserve and create decent jobs in their communities.

And in mid-March, when the Obama administration announced that Bay Area social justice activist Van Jones was joining the White House Council on Environmental Quality, advocates for green jobs took it as a sign that Obama shares Jones’ belief that we can fix our nation’s two biggest problems — excessive greenhouse gas production and not enough good jobs for the working class — by creating a green-collar economy.

Jones cofounded Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which opposes police abuse and promotes alternatives to incarceration, and founded Oakland’s Green for All, which aims to create green-collar jobs in low-income communities. He defines a green-collar job as "a family-supporting, career-track job that directly contributes to preserving or enhancing environmental quality."

"Think of them as the 2.0 version of old-fashioned blue-collar jobs, upgraded to respect the Earth and meet the environmental challenges of today," Jones wrote in his New York Times bestseller The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems (HarperOne, 2008).

But is Jones’ definition codified into Obama’s Recovery Act? And in San Francisco, where Mayor Gavin Newsom speaks incessantly about green jobs and regularly praises Jones, will the jobs we create be for the people who need them most? And how will that play out in a city where blacks, Latinos and Asians experience higher unemployment, poverty, and incarceration rates than whites, and building construction has stalled, pitting skilled union workers against training program graduates?

Last month, an alliance of community and worker organizations from San Francisco’s working class neighborhoods sent a letter to Newsom outlining concerns about the Recovery Act’s equity, job quality, and transparency requirements.

Antonio Diaz of PODER (People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights), Alex Tom of the Chinese Progressive Association, Steve Williams of POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), and Terry Valen of the Filipino Community Center asked Newsom to ensure that ARRA funds would be used to create "green jobs and opportunities primarily for low-income people and people of color" and "high quality jobs with family-supporting wages and benefits, safe and healthy working conditions, and career ladders."

"We ask for your commitment to greater transparency and community input in shaping and monitoring the infusion of ARRA funds for San Francisco’s developing green collar economy," they wrote.

Two weeks later Newsom announced the launching of, a Web site that seeks to track stimpack funds coming to San Francisco. Although the Web site shows that $150 million of the first quarter-billion of formula funding is headed toward infrastructure projects, it does not include estimates of the numbers of green jobs created.

Wade Crowfoot of the Mayor’s Office told the Guardian that the city is focused on ensuring that green jobs are created with these funds and that the City Attorney’s Office is figuring out what is "allowable" under Recovery Act’s guidelines.

On April 3, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget issued a 172-page memo outlining the Recovery Act’s policy goals. The goals included ensuring compliance with equal opportunity laws and principles, promoting local hiring, providing maximum practicable opportunities for small business and equal opportunities for disadvantaged business, encouraging sound labor practices, and engaging with community-based organizations.

"But will all cities include achievable, measurable requirements?" Crowfoot said. "I don’t think so, without federal guidelines."

This lack of specifics, Crowfoot says, has the City Attorney figuring out if San Francisco can include "first source" hiring requirements, in which hiring halls agree to interview graduates from local training programs first. If so, Crowfoot says, the city will seek to leverage existing funding for energy efficiency programs and conduct hire-locally campaigns in low-income communities.

But as Crowfoot notes, although we know that $1.5 million in ARRA funding is coming to San Francisco for weatherizing homes — helping to decrease the energy costs of low-income residents, reduce the city’s energy demands, and increase the number of people hired from the local community to do energy audits and retrofits — we still don’t know how many jobs will be created per project, which is the basic goal of economic stimulation.

"If we spend the dollars, say, on boiler replacement, that’s more equipment and less labor," Crowfoot said. "But the more you hire locally, the more those folks get experience, the more they’ll be well positioned to get jobs in the non-subsidized sector once the stimulus funds are gone."

Acknowledging the tension between laid-off union workers and graduates of apprentice training programs, Crowfoot said, "We are trying to figure out a balance, whereby the community is not shut out, but the unions’ needs are addressed. We want to be careful about how many jobs we say are going to be created. We don’t want to build hope in populations who already have a lot of mistrust in the government."

Michael Theriault, secretary and treasurer of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, told us that 25 percent of the region’s 16,000 building trades workers are out of work, compared to nearly full employment last year.

In the past, the Northern California Carpenters Regional Council provided CityBuild with instructors and took the lion’s share of the program graduates, Theriault explains. But under present conditions, the Council isn’t keen on another CityBuild cycle.

"I think they should work to sponsor another cycle, but the ball is also in the city’s court," Theriault said, noting that the ARRA-funded weatherization program could soon be offering prevailing union wages ($20 an hour for roofers, $40 to $50 for plumbers and electricians) that could help ease the tension. And then there’s the inconvenient truth that some union members view non-unionized solar panel installers as "scabs," creating another barrier to using green jobs to lift the underemployed.

Mayor Newsom has until June to secure and implement stimpack funding as part of upcoming local budget proposals, a timetable that has Green for All issuing a call for action to ensure that Recovery Act implementation creates green-collar jobs, ensures transparency and accountability, and supports pathways out of poverty.

"This may be the most important opportunity you’ll ever have to bring green-collar jobs to your community," Green For All wrote in a public statement. "But the planning process will be over in the blink of an eye, and your community could miss out. That’s why we’re calling on you to take action now."

Green for All field organizer Julian Mocine-McQueen is scheduled to sit down with Crowfoot this week in an effort to get Newsom to sign his group’s pledge. He said there’s been an expansion of the city’s lighting and refrigeration cooling retrofitting program, starting with small business owners who speak English as a second language. "It’s good," McQueen said. "But it’s not enough."

He believes green job success will depend, in part, on including hiring parameters. "A job in the city’s southeast sector may not pay $70,000 a year, but it would be a huge step toward creating a family-sustaining job," McQueen said, noting that the Obama administration has "to a certain extent" adopted Jones’ definition of green-collar jobs. "I’m not sure that they have codified it," McQueen said. "They have recommendations."

Asked to define green jobs during a recent media roundtable on projected budget deficits, Newsom talked about weatherization and sustainability and plans to expand the city’s training academies before handing the floor to the Office of Economic and Workforce Development’s Kyri McClellan, whom he described as his "green czarina."

McClellan, who describes herself as "the lead cat-herder" of Recovery Act funds, told reporters that San Francisco is expected to receive a quarter of a billion dollars in formula funds in the coming fiscal year, 95 percent of which have been allocated to "shovel-ready" projects that were already queued up under the city’s 10-year capital plan.

During a subsequent board committee hearing, McClellan shared job estimates — 30 jobs from the $11 million Department of Public Works street paving allocation and 250 jobs from the $18 million Housing Authority retrofitting allocation — that raised eyebrows.

McClellan said that OEWD is "moving as quickly as possible to take the dollars we’ve been allocated, get approval from the Board of Supervisors, and get programs up and running."

Observing that the city also has parallel funding for training programs such as CityBuild and a Green Academy, McClellan added that "no one is working harder than Rhonda Simmons." Reached by phone, OEWD’s Simmons said she has been working with San Francisco State University professor Raquel Pinderhughes to identify five job sectors that have "the capacity to grow the greatest number of green jobs."

These include solar installation, energy efficiency, landscaping/public greening, recycling, and green building. "In an economy like this, you have to be competitive," Simmons said. "And almost all the programs that come out of my shop are geared toward low-income to moderate-income folks."

Observing that OEWD is using a $238,000 federal earmark to seed a Green Academy and that will expand the GoSolarSF workforce incentive, compete for a $500,000 EPA brownfield cleanup training grant, and coordinate with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to develop "workforce incentive language" for biodiesel reuse program and energy efficiency projects, Simmons notes that it was the unions that helped create CityBuild in the first place, and the city is working to ease current concerns.

"It is our intent as OEWD designs the academy that any training programs must demonstrate that they train individuals for occupations with opportunity for upward mobility," Simmons said, after emerging from a meeting cochaired by Crowfoot and Pinderhughes to help community-based organizations understand green jobs and figure out how to link with the Green Jobs Corps that Pinderhughes set up in Oakland.

Eric Smith runs the Bayview-based Green Depot, a nonprofit that promotes biodiesel use in neighborhoods facing environmental justice issues and ran a $9,000-per intern pilot program with Global Exchange. He worries that administrative costs will chew up much of the stimulus money, citing SFPUC figures that the cost ratio for trainers to interns is about 3:1.

"There is a lot of concern in the Bayview that the money will end up going to consultants and administrators when we have people who are hungry and desperate to work," Smith said.

After two green jobs hearings, Sup. Eric Mar says that he and Sups. Sophie Maxwell and David Chiu have concluded "that unless the board takes action and gives clear guidelines and expectations, green collar job creation will be miniscule."
Noting that Oakland’s Green Job Corps and Richmond’s solar program seem years ahead of San Francisco’s efforts, Mar said his next step will be to talk with labor, environmental groups, businesses, and nonprofits to get a sense of an appropriate structure to prioritize the low-income communities as the main beneficiaries of green-collar job creation. "It’s pretty clear that the [Newsom] administration’s commitment to the numbers of jobs created is pretty small," Mar said. "The community is going to have to push for more."