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July 28, 2009

Labor Unions and the Clean Energy Workforce

This is a guest post by Allison Forbes of the Sierra Club's Labor and Worker Rights Program.

Solar panel installation low Where in the U.S. are workers preparing for the new clean energy industries? I'm talking with our union partners about just that -- and how we build new models for delivering economic and environmental benefits to communities through job creation, training and career pathways.

Last week in Indianapolis, I met individuals from across the country working in weatherization -- or energy efficiency retrofit. I met two young women working as energy auditors for a non-profit agency in Mobile, Alabama, a young man from Yakima, Washington, and other young weatherizers from Chicago and Minneapolis.

Their organizations provide direct support for families in the lowest income bracket -- including weatherization upgrades for low-income homes. They upgrade home heating and cooling systems, appliances, and insulation to improve community health and safety, reduce energy costs, and slash global warming pollution. They shared lessons learned and best practices at a weatherization training conference.

These organizations are funded through Department of Energy's Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) and an extra $5b that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act added to the WAP's annual budget of $250m this year.

Compass VernonVernon Rodriguez is a plumber in Harlem working for Community Environmental Center, a non-profit energy conservation organization.

After working on a house, Rodriguez says: "seeing the smiles on the people's faces is most important. This is the way the U.S. is going to save energy. We have a great team at the Community Environmental Center."

Just a week or two ago, the Community Environmental Center agreed to work with the Laborers International Union of North American (LiUNA!) to provide first rate weatherization training to new members of the workforce. In addition to training for the immediate job, the Laborers union will also provide training for its members' career tracks, helping them reach higher-paying work.

On Tuesday, Van Jones, green jobs czar for the White House Council on Enviromental Quality and founder of Green For All, addressed an audience of weatherization installers. He said, "You are on the ground floor of the President's clean energy agenda. We believe the energy efficiency sector is going to be a multi-billion dollar sector."

In order for the green economy to succeed, we need a robust workforce that can capitalize on new opportunities. Labor unions do this by ensuring workers have access to comprehensive skills training, protections and training to blow the whistle on health and safety risks in the workplace.

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