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New York’s labor unions are taking on a new job: promoting alternative energy. Union representatives in the health care, engineering and electrical fields turned out last week at a meeting of Urban Agenda, a public policy think tank, to swap ideas on how to make the city greener—and how to turn that into green for workers. “Renewable energy is growing more than any other energy source,” said Lee Smith, director of National Photovoltaic Construction Partnership. “The problem is that these segments are non-union and intent on staying that way.” Smith’s organization works with unions to train their membership to construct and install solar panels, in part by initiating pilot solar power projects at various union headquarters. Smith theorizes that if unions become home to the vanguard skilled workforce in the alternative energy field, they will have a better chance of organizing the sector. Friday’s event moved beyond sheer economics, however. The panel also discussed the negative consequences of relying on petroleum-based energy. According to J.J. Johnson, editor of Our Lives Our Times, the magazine of 1199 Service Employees International Union, New York’s giant health care union, 40,000 1199 members and their families suffer from asthma, particularly in areas of the city with a high concentration of smoke stacks, highways and waste incinerators, such as the South Bronx and Harlem. Johnson is working to integrate environmental justice issues into the union’s political platform. “Our goal is to take members beyond the workplace,” he said. Alternative energy “is more than water, wind and land, it’s about our future.” (B. Baumer) [12/19/05]

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