The energy crisis and climate change combine to make the problem of achieving a sustainable way of life more pressing every day. That problem generates volumes of stories in the press. But one story that shows how painful it is to do the work of changing expectations, particularly in a time of high unemployment, is a story that hasn’t yet made headlines.
It’s a part of the story of labor’s role in achieving sustainability—the part of the story that concerns construction unions.
Labor understands that climate change threatens populations and economies, and the unions are promoting green jobs. A report by UMass-Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute, Green Recovery—A Program to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy, is a heartening piece of research on this subject. The report points out that money put into green jobs is a good investment—that it creates about three times as many well-paying jobs as the same amount of money invested, for example, in the oil industry.
The unions have been quick to pick up on this concept, enthusiastic about the idea that the switch to alternative energy sources will be good for labor, and supportive of green building. But as yet it’s not clear that they’re ready to admit that building itself needs to be done on a far smaller scale than our society is accustomed to. With a million acres or more of agricultural land disappearing each year because of development, with aquifers being overdrawn and flooding occurring in some places because paving prevents water from soaking into the ground, our assumptions about building and how much of it we can do need to change. The tradition of using housing starts as a leading economic indicator may need to change as well.
And that’s going to be a tough one. Some people in the building trades would rather work on a new house than on rehabbing an old one; they don’t like being stuck with design problems created by someone else a long time ago, and having to worry about lead and asbestos. New building employs large numbers of workers, the less skilled as well as the more specialized.
“One disappointment we had as the stimulus bill came down was the lack of work for building construction [as opposed to road and bridge repair] because that really puts the biggest number of our workers to work,” Frank Callahan, spokesman for the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, told the Quincy Patriot Ledger. “There’s no money in there for schools or courthouses or police and fire stations.”
But time is running out on the American fantasy of unlimited open land on which we could build the houses of our dreams, and that has economic implications, primary, secondary, tertiary. Even our disputes over what to do with solid waste, across the country and in the Valley, are driven less by piles of corn flakes boxes and battered sneakers from individual households than by mounting streams of construction and demolition debris, streams that cause the biggest single headache for state officials dealing with solid waste disposal.
Can the building trades unions learn not to go to bat for every project, large or small, that involves building? Can the other unions admit that, as the architect Carl Elefante famously said, “The greenest building is the one that’s already built,” and lead the construction unions to a frank discussion of the issue? Or will the unions’ habit of standing together, right or wrong, keep them from helping the construction unions to a sense of the role they can play in a new environmental paradigm? As the population grows and models for housing and transportation are reinvented, their role will always be a vital one.