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Illinois Just Won a Big Green Jobs Victory

In Illinois last week, a coalition of unions and environmentalists scored a major victory with a law providing for a miniature Green New Deal: billions invested in clean energy, a commitment to decarbonizing, solid labor standards, and embrace of nuclear power.

Illinois’s newly passed Climate and Equitable Jobs Act invests in renewable energy and electric transportation while protecting the rights of workers. (Wayne National Forest / Wikimedia Commons)

Billionaire Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, hardly a tribune of the people, signed one of the nation’s most sweeping green energy bills into law on September 15. Called the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, SB 2408 invests in renewable energy and electric transportation, while making enormous advances in workers’ rights and equity in these sectors. There’s a lot of good news for the future of life on earth. It’s also groundbreaking, for climate policy, in protecting the interests of workers.

This bill came about through the lobbying and organizing of Climate Jobs Illinois (CJI), a coalition of significant labor unions. Pat Devaney, secretary treasurer of the Illinois AFL-CIO and a leader in CJI, told Jacobin that the group, formed eighteen months ago, aimed to “address climate change while putting the worker at the forefront.”

There’s a lot for an environmentalist — or anyone suffering from terror of the climate apocalypse — to love about this bill. SB 2408 makes Illinois the first coal-producing state — and the first Midwestern state — to commit to a carbon-free future, putting the state on a path to achieve carbon-free power by 2045 and 100 percent clean energy by 2050. The bill shuts down all the state’s fossil fuel plants by 2045.

Strikingly, proving how crucial it is that labor lead the political response to climate change, this bill also offers significant gains for workers, setting high standards for wages and benefits for any employer receiving renewable energy credits from the state.

SB 2408 is also targeted to benefit working-class and poor communities and neighborhoods, investing $115 million for small business development and $78 million for electric transportation (for charging infrastructure, for example) in poor neighborhoods. It also increases community solar production — shared solar facilities that make this form of energy more affordable — fivefold.

CJI, the labor coalition responsible for the bill, includes building trades unions, such as the Chicago Regional Council of Carpenters and the Laborers’ Union Great Lakes and Midwest Regions, as well as Service Employees International Union (SEIU) State Council, United Auto Workers (UAW) Region 4, and the teachers’ unions. The bill’s content reflects its diverse labor coalition in some creative ways, investing significantly, for instance, in greening and upgrading public school buildings, making them safer for students and teachers — a state-level variation on socialist congressman Jamaal Bowman’s Green New Deal for Public Schools.

Some readers might look askance at SB 2408’s heavy investment in nuclear energy. Though these provisions were initially opposed by Governor Pritzker and the major environmental groups, nuclear energy wasn’t a matter of strong disagreement among the unions, said Devaney, who noted that nuclear now accounts for 90 percent of clean energy in the state, many thousands of jobs, and $149 million in property taxes that fund schools and other vital public goods.

Disasters like Chernobyl, along with the possibility of terrorist attacks on nuclear plants, understandably haunt the public consciousness. These fears are legitimate but should be balanced by consideration of some compelling certainties: Our fossil fuel dependency is already killing us. Given the magnitude of the threat from carbon, the left must be willing to give serious consideration to a role for nuclear power as a way out of the climate apocalypse. Nuclear energy is carbon-neutral, so it doesn’t contribute to climate change. Safety standards in the industry have improved over the years.

There’s also a labor argument for nuclear energy: the jobs in nuclear are mostly better than those in solar and wind. Some nuclear advocates — like Madison Czerwinski of the Campaign for a Green Nuclear Deal — also argue that, as states move away from fossil fuels, nuclear will provide the best way to stabilize the grid (as a backup when renewables aren’t adequate) and keep electricity affordable for working people. Most major environmental groups still oppose nuclear energy, but perhaps the urgency of the climate crisis and the economic justice arguments will prevail.

On the national level, a Green New Deal remains elusive, though clean energy advocates are fighting hard for as much green investment as possible in the bipartisan infrastructure bill (including Bowman’s Green New Deal for Public Schools), as well as in the broader $3.5 trillion package championed by Bernie Sanders. On September 17, congresswomen Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced a Green New Deal for Cities, Counties, States, Tribes, and Territories, proposing to invest $1 trillion in addressing the climate crisis at the state and local level while creating jobs.

Many cities and states are moving more quickly than the federal government. Austin, Los Angeles, New York City, and Boston have all adopted some form of local Green New Deal, and so has the state of New Mexico. California, Hawaii, New York, Virginia, and Washington state have all, like Illinois, passed legislation obligating a zero-carbon future, though all of them still need to do much more and act more quickly to make that future a reality.

All these efforts — local and national — are going to require robust coalitions and dedication from the labor movement. Illinois has just demonstrated that can happen, and that when it does, we can win big.