New York Climate Jobs Initiatives

cropped-green-jobs-marchers.jpgHurricane Sandy and the massive Peoples Climate March last year have inspired unions in New York to organize new climate jobs campaigns at state and city level. J. Mijin Cha and Lara Skinner, The Worker Institute at Cornell University, and Josh Kellermann, Alliance for a Greater New York (ALIGN) explain what is happening.

For reports on climate jobs campaigns in several countries, see global jobs online sept 2015

In 2014-2015, the New York labor movement and its allies in other movements launched two complementary Climate Jobs initiatives for New York City and New York State. The city-level campaign, Climate Works for All, is anchored by ALIGN, the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA) and the NYC Central Labor Council (CLC). Climate Works for All is a broad coalition of over 40 community, labor, environmental justice, faith and other organizations united to ensure that efforts to address climate change also create good, career-track jobs and prioritize low-income, climate-vulnerable communities. The coalition released a 10-point platform in early 2015 that focused on five primary sectors that contribute most to NYC’s climate crisis: Buildings; Energy; Transit; Waste; and Community and Infrastructure Resiliency. The 10-point platform ranges from demanding a mandatory energy efficiency retrofit program for large privately-owned buildings, to solar installations on 100 schools, to flood and stormwater infrastructure improvements, to making NYC’s public hospitals more resilient to climate change impacts.

The New York State initiative, coordinated by The Worker Institute at Cornell, brings together unions in the building, energy and transport sectors to develop a comprehensive climate jobs plan for New York State. A Climate Jobs report for New York State will be released in Fall 2015 along with specific climate jobs policy proposals for the energy, transport and buildings sectors – policies that the labor movement along with its allies will push to implement in the next year. The Worker Institute at Cornell and its union partners have also developed a labor-climate training curriculum for union members and leaders that will be used to build engagement and support for the climate jobs work in NY.

Taking a Sub-National Approach – Why New York?

Most international Climate Jobs campaigns have been proposed at the country or national level. In the U.S., we have taken a different approach for a number of reasons which we’ll discuss below. In addition to the reasons listed below, climate policy is near impossible to move at the Federal level within our current political context. The climate crisis, however, needs immediate and bold attention. With gridlock at the national level, state level action becomes even more urgent and necessary.

The three main factors that opened the political space and pushed labor to drive a Climate Jobs campaign in New York are: the devastating experience of Hurricane Sandy (October 2012); the People’s Climate March (September 2014); and New York Governor Cuomo implementing a ban on fracking (December 2014). A number of other factors, mentioned below, make NY ripe to spearhead a bold and audacious Climate Jobs plan.

Hurricane Sandy slammed New York on October 29, 2012. This storm brought the reality of the climate crisis home to many New Yorkers, making the link between warmer air and sea temperatures and more frequent and intense storms in the North Atlantic very clear. The hurricane did $65 billion in damage to NY’s infrastructure, caused 8 million people to lose power including 80,000 residents in low-income, public housing who lost all essential services, and created 50,000 new homeless people overnight. Thousands of people were displaced from their homes and jobs and many remain displaced today.

The New York labor movement – the strongest in the country with 25% union density – was on the frontlines of responding to and repairing and rebuilding the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Some members (electrical and utility workers, emergency first responders, nurses, transit workers, teachers, city park staff and zoologists, and more) worked nonstop during and after the storm, some were stranded at their jobs, and others couldn’t get to work because transportation systems were damaged and shut down.

For example, members of the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 1-2 worked 24/7 to restore electricity to NY and NJ communities, following a month long lockout by the private utility, Con Ed, and years of staffing and equipment cuts that left the region particularly ill-prepared for Hurricane Sandy. Members of the NYS Nurses Association (NYSNA), Service Employees International Union 1199 (SEIU) and American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees (AFSCME) District Council 37 reported to their flooded hospitals by wading through water in some cases, and carried their patients by hand down stairs to evacuate them to safety. Transport Workers Union Local 100 members were readying the region’s transit infrastructure for Sandy’s storm surge, moving trains and buses to safety, as the public was warned to stay inside because of the dangerous conditions. AFSCME members who work in NY’s public housing, walked door-to-door in buildings without electricity and running water to make sure residents were safe. DC 37 Local 1501 members, representing zookeepers and wildlife specialists, slept at their zoos and aquariums during the storm, to ensure the safety of the animals they care for. Members of the worker organization, Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), lost their jobs or didn’t receive paychecks for months following Sandy because of the damage the storm inflicted on service sector in the region. Many union members also experienced the impact of Sandy in their own communities as their homes were damaged or destroyed; some union members lost their lives trying to protect their homes from flooding and fire.

The experience of Hurricane Sandy and the substantial role that union members played in responding to and repairing the city after the storm made it clear that climate change is not a thing of the future – it’s here now, and everyone will be impacted. Sandy also made it clear that while everyone will be impacted by climate change, the impacts will not be equal. Immigrants, working-class families, women, and people of color have fewer resources to respond to the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events like Sandy. For example, many residents of working-class, communities of color are living in places that were flooded during Sandy, now have serious mold problems, and as a result, are inflicted with serious respiratory health issues. In a number of ways, Hurricane Sandy made it very clear that the climate crisis is a union issue.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, social movement networks were created to fight for an equitable rebuild of the city, namely the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding and the Sandy Regional Assembly. These coalitions created an important organizing network among labor, environmental justice organizations and social justice community groups to launch the planning of the People’s Climate March.

The People’s Climate March (PCM), even though it could have had more significant participation from workers and union members, turned out to be a major catalyst for the NY labor movement to become more involved in and even lead climate work. With environmental justice organizations (rather than big mainstream environmental organizations who do mostly top-down, legislative climate work) leading the planning and organizing of the PCM, a firm link was made early on between social justice and the climate crisis – we can’t have one without the other. Quickly, the PCM was branded as a “climate justice” march, not a climate march. One of the main mottos of the march was: “Two Crises (Jobs and Climate Crises), One Solution.”

In the end, 40,000 members of frontline communities (those most impacted by climate change) and environmental/climate justice organizations marched at the front of the PCM. Only about 10,000 of the 400,000 march participants were union members but because labor played a big role in organizing the march (offering union space, union printers, etc.), served on the national organizing committee, had a labor rally before the march, and had a strong presence at the march (colorful union t-shirts and banners), it was clear that “labor” was a major part of the PCM. In turn, this helped union members see their union as a relevant and significant vehicle for tackling the climate crisis.

The political space to link the jobs/economic crisis and the climate crisis grew even more when the grassroots environmental movement forced NYS Governor Cuomo to ban fracking in 2014. The Governor was reluctant to ban fracking because many communities in upstate NY are economically depressed with high rates of unemployment and poverty, and the gas industry argued fracking would produce thousands of new jobs. Once Governor Cuomo banned fracking, it became more important politically for social movements in NY to present a viable, alternative jobs plan, one based on creating good union jobs, tackling the climate crisis, and strengthening NY communities.

Finally, NY has the 14th largest economy in the world and was responsible for approximately 211.74 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent in 2011.1 NYS’s emissions are comparable to the total emissions of certain countries, like Argentina and Thailand.2 A climate jobs plan to meet or surpass NYS’s climate goal (an 80% reduction below 1990 levels by 2050), would make a major dent in U.S. emissions and more importantly, it would set a precedent for how other states and countries can address the climate and jobs crises simultaneously, create many good union jobs, drastically reduce emissions, and strengthen communities.

New York is the “home” of the New Deal, too. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) first implemented massive public jobs programs to put people back to work and address the Great Depression of 1929 in New York, before he expanded them to the national level. More recently, NY has been at the center of discussions about growing inequality. Following Building on Occupy Wall Street, NY was the first state to pass a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and it’s where strikes of low-wage workers first started in the U.S., among fast food workers and carwasheros (car wash workers). In July 2015, the growing Fight for $15 movement pushed NY Governor Cuomo to pass legislation to pay all fast food workers $15 an hour (a $7 increase for most fast food workers).

All of these factors make NY fertile ground to launch and organize a bold, pro-worker/pro-labor response to the climate crisis. The labor movement is one of the only movements that can link the fight against austerity and neoliberal policies to the climate crisis, which is exactly what is needed. Solutions to the climate crisis need to drastically reduce emissions but they also need to respond to the crisis of inequality, expand public, community and democratic control of key resources and sectors, and build a powerful, dynamic and inclusive movement for climate and economic justice. This is the starting frame for the climate jobs initiatives in New York.

Developing a Climate Jobs Plan

Climate Works for All

NYC’s iconic skyline is made up of over one million buildings. These buildings are responsible for over 70% of our city’s emissions and 94% of our total electricity use. We must reduce energy demand in these buildings, and replace the remaining demand with renewables in order to achieve our city’s 80×50 climate goal. Because of this analysis, the Climate Works for All coalition decided that our primary work in 2015 needed to address NYC’s building stock. In addition to our analysis of where emissions originate, we also identified that much of the building stock is owned by the 1% who should be required to bear the cost of addressing NYC’s climate crisis. Conversely, those that are least responsible but most impacted by climate change – low-income, people of color – should be given priority in jobs created by this work, and the jobs should be career-track with good pay. To this end, we are advocating to expand a targeted local hire program that provides training opportunities and a clear jobs pipeline for disadvantaged workers. We are also building a Climate Workers Brigade to create member-leaders in the climate-jobs fight and to ensure that workers have a voice in decision making in our city.

Mandatory Energy Efficiency Retrofits for Privately-Owned Buildings

We are fighting to pass legislation that would mandate that all privately-owned buildings in NYC undergo energy efficiency retrofits when they engage in substantial renovations or are bought and sold, and that all new buildings are built to Zero-Net-Energy standards by 2030. The private sector would need to invest up to $1 billion each year until 2050 to fully retrofit the existing building stock, creating 16,000 jobs each year and significantly reducing our carbon emissions.

Install Solar on the Rooftops of 100 Schools

NYC’s 1,000 schools spend over $240 million each year on electricity. Meanwhile, asthma rates among children are some of the highest in the country and many schools continue to use oil boilers for heat and hot water. Therefore, we propose that the City significantly expand its solar schools program to 100 schools in climate-vulnerable communities. This program can serve to reduce the electricity bill of schools, channeling those savings back into the school system to deepen energy efficiency programs and student training opportunities in renewable energy. Investing $200 million in this program would create nearly 3,000 jobs, reduce carbon and particulate emissions from schools and lead to better health outcomes for children.

Replace Damaged NYCHA Boilers with Renewable Energy Systems

Sixty boilers that serve 110 NYC Public Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings were damaged by Hurricane Sandy. These boilers need to be replaced and should be done with renewable energy systems, including solar, geothermal, wind and potentially combined heat and power in order to supply cheap and clean energy to these developments. This investment would make NYCHA more resilient in the event of a future storm, and reduce its energy bills, the savings of which can be invested in other needed building upgrades. Investing $150 million in these systems would create over 2,000 jobs and further reduce NYC’s carbon emissions.

NYS Climate Jobs Program

At the state level, the Worker Institute at Cornell and its union allies are currently developing a full climate jobs program for NYS that will result in a 100% reduction in NY emissions by 2050. This report and plan will be released in Fall 2015. At the same time, we’re developing specific climate jobs policy recommendations that we will push to implement in 2016. These recommendations are meant to move the green jobs debate from “rhetoric to reality” by developing very specific policies that we can begin advocating for right away and can be implemented quickly to secure some immediate and tangible “climate job victories.” A few of the specific “climate job” policies we’re developing are highlighted below.


Energy use in buildings is responsible for nearly half of all carbon emissions across the state. Currently, NYS has a target to achieve a 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency in all State Executive government buildings by 2020. Our proposal doubles the existing target, calling for a 40% reduction in energy use by 2020. We recommend this work begin with all public schools in NYS and be performed by New York’s public power authority – New York Power Authority (NYPA). Under this proposal, NYPA will retrofit all public schools across the state to reduce energy consumption by 40% and it will install 3 GW of solar on the rooftops of public schools in the next 10 years (this is 20 times the currently solar generation in NYS).

While most environmental organizations have called for private companies to retrofit buildings and install (and own) solar in NY, NYPA is the ideal entity to pay for and carry out this retrofit and solar installation work. Addressing the climate crisis and reducing emissions and pollution is a common good and necessary for the health and well-being of all New Yorkers. Therefore, this work should be done through the public sector, with citizen oversight and direction, so the assets of energy efficiency and solar generation can be held collectively, not privately. NYPA also has the ability to raise its own funds by issuing low-interest bonds.

The cost for this work would be between $1.1 and $1.5 US billion and it would 12,800-18,400 jobs. Many NY schools were built around the same time so retrofit measures can be bundled, allowing for bulk purchasing. This work would also save NYS millions in what it currently spends on energy bills for schools.


In the energy sector, the New York State’s great capacity for renewable energy generation is largely going untapped. In 2014, NY installed just 147.4 MW annually. In comparison, the state of California installed 4.3 GW in the same year – nearly 30 times more solar than NY installed. If NY produced just 20% of its electricity from solar power, we could save 14 million metric tons of carbon by 2025.

Nearly all the solar installations currently happening in NY are done through the private sector. Our proposal is that in addition to installing 3 GW of solar on public schools, the New York Power Authority will install 1 GW of utility-scale solar energy in the next ten years. Renewable energy generation must be done in a way that ensures the creation of public sector, union jobs and protects renewable energy from being a luxury that only the wealthy can afford. By expanding renewable energy generation through the New York Power Authority, we can ensure that renewable energy is developed in the public sphere and available to all New Yorkers, not just those that can afford it. Energy is a public good and expanding the renewable energy portfolio through NYPA will ensure that solar and wind energy benefits all New Yorkers.

The combination of NYPA installing 3 GW of solar on NY’s public schools and 1 GW of utility-scale solar will total 4 GW, roughly one quarter of all electricity demand in NYS.


Our short-term recommendations for the transportation sector – the only sector that emissions increased from 1990 to 2011 – focus solely on improving and expanding public transit. NY’s transit systems were badly damaged during Hurricane Sandy. This means a lot of work is required to repair the existing transportation infrastructure, restore and improve service, and then further expand the network to areas with the fastest growing populations – mostly the areas immediately outside of NYC where housing is cheaper. Also, the vast majority of workers in NY’s transit system are unionized so any improvements or expansion of the system will grow the number of union jobs in NYS.

In addition to focusing our campaign around greater public funding for NY’s transit system, we’re also exploring how to raise revenue from activities that are currently undermining public transit and union labor. For example, taxis in NYC levy a $0.50 surcharge on every ride and part of this fee is dedicated to funding public transit in NYC. If Uber and other car-sharing services are allowed to operate in NYC, they should be required to levy the same surcharge on each ride as blacks cabs and yellow taxis. Since 2011, Uber alone has provided 30 million rides in NYC, which could have generated $15 million for public transit. Another example is increasing the tax on rental cars, which would mainly affect wealthy families and business travelers.


NY’s climate jobs initiatives are “works-in-progress,” started recently but with strong support and broad engagement from NY labor unions, workers’ organizations and their allies in the environmental and social justice movements. Developing a green economy has been a part of the public discourse in the U.S. for ten years, yet we’ve had meager success in reducing emissions or creating jobs in the new green economy. But our climate jobs initiatives are off to a good start. NY unions recognize the seriousness of the climate crisis and the need for the labor movement to develop its own agenda to tackle the crisis and drastically reduce emissions. With a well-conceived NY climate jobs plan, we feel hopeful that we can succeed in implementing strong “climate jobs” policies in the next couple of years and at the same, build a broad, inclusive and dynamic movement for economic and climate justice that is powerful enough to demand a massive public sector program to tackle the climate crisis, create good union jobs, and reverse growing inequality.

1 The latest data for NY is for 2011 and this doesn’t include the higher levels of methane that may be produced from natural gas extraction:

2 “Total Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the Consumption of Energy in MMT”

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