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COMMENTARY

In R.I., labor and environmental groups working together on dual crises of climate and inequality

Nearly two years ago, we formed a coalition of our respective movements uniting around the idea that the climate crisis and inequality must be solved together, write Climate Jobs R.I. co-chairs Priscilla De La Cruz and Patrick Crowley

Wind turbines near Block Island, R.I. in May 2017.Chang W. Lee/NYT

President Biden may have stopped short of declaring a climate emergency, and a newly announced climate and health care bill has not yet had its day in Congress, but this hasn’t stopped our small state from taking bold action.

Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee recently signed into law a slate of climate jobs priorities, including a commitment to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2033, strong labor standards for renewable energy projects, additional offshore wind development, and free transit on the R-Line, which represents more than half of RIPTA’s annual ridership. These victories put Rhode Island on course to power our communities with 100 percent clean energy sooner than any other state in the country — and we’ll get it done by creating thousands of family-sustaining union jobs in renewables, and by advancing racial equity.

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These groundbreaking commitments to protect working people and our beautiful Ocean State are the result of an exciting movement of unions and climate groups working together to show the world what a real pro-worker climate agenda looks like.

It’s worth reflecting on how we got here. Nearly two years ago, members of Rhode Island’s labor and environmental movements joined together in a series of exchanges to learn from each other and identify areas of common ground.

Working-class Rhode Islanders have experienced the impacts of climate change for years: Construction workers and others who work outside work in increasingly hotter summers; dangerous storms and rising sea levels impact our homes and communities; and we’ve seen that our infrastructure, including public buildings and schools, is not ready to withstand this climate crisis.

Working people, particularly in BIPOC communities (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), also bear the brunt of deepening income inequality. Wages haven’t kept up with skyrocketing costs of living. And the pandemic has taken a serious toll on our communities.

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In the beginning of 2021, we formed a coalition of our respective movements and launched Climate Jobs RI, uniting around the idea that the climate crisis and inequality must be solved together.

Our 2021 centerpiece campaign, the Act on Climate, was celebrated across the country for its commitment to decarbonizing our state’s economy by 2050, but it didn’t outline how we would get there. What new energy infrastructure would we need to build? What jobs would we need to get it done? Which sectors, communities, and issues would we prioritize? These questions gave unions and climate groups in Rhode Island a concrete set of problems to solve, and we knew we’d have to solve them together.

We have a vision of a thriving, worker-centered and equitable society. To get there, we need to build a renewable energy economy at the scale and speed the climate crisis demands, by creating millions of union jobs. The workers who build offshore wind turbines and solar farms, clean up pollution that has long harmed our communities, maintain our power system, and retrofit our buildings should all have union jobs, with the family-sustaining wages and benefits that bring about stability, security, and democracy in the workplace.

Climate Jobs RI believes that we’ll only get it done if frontline workers lead the way. To train an inclusive, equitable climate workforce, we know we need targeted recruitment of communities of color into the trades through pre-apprenticeship programs. These training pathways create opportunities for Black and Brown Rhode Islanders to begin lifelong union careers in the clean energy economy. We also need to create a positive feedback loop of building renewable energy projects right — on time and on budget — and the best way to achieve that is with an inclusive union workforce.

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Our pro-worker approach to climate action has been powerful. We produced a report with Cornell University that outlines a concrete plan for Rhode Island to meet our Act on Climate goal, create good union jobs, advance racial equity, and become the first decarbonized state in the country. We launched our Green and Healthy Schools campaign to demand investments in our public school buildings and communities. We’ve also advised state leaders on how to invest federal infrastructure funding and what the transition to clean energy should look like in our state.

Fast forward to our second year as a coalition and this year’s accomplishments: We’ve made even more progress on climate jobs than we anticipated. Our success illustrates what can be done when we set our sights high and work together. After the Supreme Court’s attack on the EPA raised the stakes for state and local action on climate, our coalition here in Rhode Island wasted no time in leading by example.

We hope our efforts inspire workers across the country to take up the fight against the dual crises of climate breakdown and inequality, and build a society and economy that leaves no one behind and works for all of us.

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Priscilla De La Cruz is the senior director of government affairs for Audubon Society Rhode Island, president of the Environment Council of Rhode Island, and co-chair of Climate Jobs Rhode Island. Patrick Crowley is the secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO and co-chair of Climate Jobs Rhode Island.

This commentary has been updated with news of a possible climate and health care bill in the U.S. Senate.