Climate & Social Justice

Climate Coalitions Jockey for Statehouse Influence

The Sunshine Movement is part of the Renew Rhode Island coalition looking to pass the Rescue Rhode Island Act. (ecoRI News)

Environmental groups and labor unions in Rhode Island don’t always get along.

Throughout the past six years, various kinds of proposed fossil-fuel infrastructure have sparked tension between groups such as the Rhode Island Building & Construction Trades Council (RIBCTC) — a group of 16 trade unions — and environmental groups old and new. The trades council vehemently supported a proposed power plant in Burrillville, while most environmental groups came out against it. The same story held for a proposed gas liquefaction facility in Providence.

So when Climate Jobs Rhode Island, a coalition of the biggest labor unions in the state and established environmental groups, popped up in January, it came as a surprise. Even more surprising, the group wasn’t alone in aspiring to bring labor into the environmental fold. Renew Rhode Island, which launched last June, aims to coalesce organized labor with environmental and racial-justice advocates, frontline communities, and youth groups.

The two groups seem to tackle remarkably similar issues. Climate Jobs Rhode Island aims to make progress on environmental, economic, racial, and social justice. Renew Rhode Island addresses mass unemployment, racial injustice, the coronavirus pandemic, and climate change. Members of each group have described their proposals in the vein of a Green New Deal.

So, why are there two separate coalitions? Why not combine forces?

Coalition members on each side pointed to member makeup, strategy, and policy agenda as the biggest differences between the two.

“When you look at the climate coalition we put together, the proper stakeholders were in that coalition to accomplish something,” said Michael Sabitoni, president of the RIBCTC and a member of Climate Jobs Rhode Island. “Other endeavors might have different aggressive schedules, agendas, this and that, but frankly, I don’t think they have much accomplished.”

Members of Renew Rhode Island describe it differently.

“Our theory of change is about building movements and grassroots power,” said Emma Bouton, the coalition’s co-chair. “Based on the groups involved in Climate Jobs Rhode Island … it seems to me to be a slightly different theory of change on working on the inside versus the outside.”

Longtime environmental-justice organizer Monica Huertas, the other Renew Rhode Island co-chair, dismissed Climate Jobs Rhode Island as a toothless attempt to “get moderates on board with environmental stuff — tackling some environmental things, but not the 100 points we came up with.” Those points include closing polluting facilities in South Providence and investing millions of dollars in affordable housing.

In January 2020 — about 11 months before Climate Jobs appeared — grassroots organizations around the region came together to address racial, economic, and environmental-justice issues on a grand scale. From this coalition, known as the Renew New England Alliance, Renew Rhode Island was born. The regional alliance announced its policy framework last June. In summer 2020, Renew began writing its state-specific policy for the 2021 legislative session.

Meanwhile, many Renew coalition members, including Sunrise Providence and the Rhode Island Political Cooperative, spent last summer working to elect legislators who supported a Green New Deal, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and other progressive policies.

Their success was unprecedented: eight progressive legislators won seats, five senators and three representatives.

After the November election, Climate Jobs began to organize, led by the Rhode Island AFL-CIO and joined by other labor, environmental, and political leaders.

“The 2020 election results demonstrated a growing sentiment in Rhode Island for transitioning the state to a green economy,” Rhode Island AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Patrick Crowley said during the group’s public launch in January. Crowley didn’t respond to several requests for comment for this story.

The timing of the new coalition’s creation stood out to some Renew members, including policy director Joshua Kestin, who noted that, “The groups … who are behind Climate Jobs RI have been around for a really long time and have not decided to put something like this together until a few months after we announce a widely applauded initiative to simultaneously address mass unemployment, climate crisis, racial injustice, housing crisis, food crisis, etc.”

Sabitoni said the timing of Climate Jobs was unrelated to Renew’s appearance.

“We’ve been working on it, having conversations about this all along,” he said. “One didn’t have any effect on the other.”

Minimal organizational overlap
What is worth pointing out is the lack of overlap between the two coalitions’ members — despite both seeking policies to transition to a green economy. Only one organization, Groundwork Rhode Island, is listed as a member of both coalitions.

Climate Jobs brought together some of the biggest labor unions in the state — RIBCTC, the R.I. AFL-CIO, SEIU District 1199NE, and the National Education Association Rhode Island — with legislators, the general treasurer, and environmental nonprofits, several of which are local branches of national organizations, or big greens.

“Once I knew that this was initiated by the AFL-CIO to try and bring these groups together, that’s what piqued my interest,” Sabitoni said. “And when I saw the individuals who were coming to the table, I figured that we could actually get something accomplished.”

Sheila Dormody, The Nature Conservancy’s Rhode Island director of programs, said bringing these unions on board is one of the coalition’s distinguishing qualities.

Meanwhile, Renew has brought together groups advocating for frontline communities, such as the People’s Port Authority, the Pawtucket-based George Wiley Center, Sunrise Providence, the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee of Providence, and one smaller labor group.

“We took the most affected, the most marginalized people, and brought them together,” Huertas said.

With so little overlap between the two groups, members of Renew have expressed doubts about Climate Jobs’ ability to center environmental justice and frontline communities — a goal the latter has set for itself.

“We recognize that Rhode Island can be a leader in this transition to a green economy … while centering racial and social justice and the voices of people who are most affected by the climate crisis,” Priscilla De La Cruz, co-chair of Climate Jobs, said at the coalition’s opening launch.

She later added, “we do that by working alongside and in partnership with these communities throughout every single effort.”

But Huertas said neither she nor her organization, the People’s Port Authority, was directly asked to join Climate Jobs. Huertas and the People’s Port Authority have become prominent environmental-justice figures during the past several years, after waging a campaign against more fossil-fuel infrastructure along Providence’s waterfront.

“A couple of days before [Climate Jobs] was presenting and putting this out to the public, they went around and asked, ‘Hey, any environmental groups, any organizers, want to work on this?’” Huertas said. “But no one has ever contacted me directly.”

By then, many major decisions regarding the new coalition and its agenda had been made, she said. For her, that was too late.

“You have to have community buy-in and community support from the beginning,” Huertas said.

De La Cruz and Dormody both said the coalition was in its early stages and is meant to grow and add groups.

“It comes back to doing the work, showing up, building trust,” De La Cruz said. “That is where we’re at now … meeting frontline groups where they’re at … and going about building those relationships.”

Renew has its own organizational blind spot. While it aims to be a force for labor, the biggest unions in the state haven’t signed onto the coalition or endorsed its legislation. Bouton said the group started holding meetings with representatives from RIBCTC, the R.I. AFL-CIO, and the Teamsters last winter, months after Renew’s initial formation throughout the spring and summer.

These unions weren’t involved in Renew’s initial efforts to form a coalition because “we started with the groups that were generally aligned and were deeply impacted by racial, economic, and environmental injustice,” Bouton wrote in response to a follow-up question.

While neither RIBCTC, the R.I. AFL-CIO, nor the Teamsters signed onto Renew’s legislation after their meetings with coalition officials, Bouton said the meetings ensured that Renew included project labor agreements into several of their bills.

Sabitoni said he was unaware of efforts to include RIBCTC in Renew’s policy planning.

“You’ve got to get labor,” he added. “You have to have relevant stakeholders at the table to accomplish anything.”

Patrick Quinn, Rhode Island executive vice president of SEIU 1199E, said the organization joined Climate Jobs after learning that the R.I. AFL-CIO was heading the coalition. He said he was largely unaware of the Renew coalition.

Legislative overlap, right?

Two groups aiming for decreased carbon emissions, more job opportunities, and less pollution might also be expected to have similar legislative agendas. Yet, each has championed different policies so far.

Renew introduced three bills collectively known as the Rescue Rhode Island Act. One promotes affordable and energy-efficient housing construction, another supports sustainable and local agriculture, and one creates green-justice zones, which would shut down polluting fossil-fuel infrastructure in certain zip codes. All three Senate bills were heard in committee in March and held for further study.

Climate Jobs hasn’t submitted any bills of its own yet this legislative session. But, according to its website, the coalition’s first goal includes reaching the carbon emission reduction targets stated in the recently signed into law Act On Climate bill. The law requires the state to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 — though how Rhode Island will do so is yet to be determined — and is enforceable through citizen lawsuits.

Bouton said Renew hasn’t yet decided whether it supports the Act On Climate law. De La Cruz said Climate Jobs was still deciding on its legislative priorities and hadn’t yet taken up the Rescue Rhode Island Act.

Bouton said the Act On Climate bill “only pays lip service” to racial justice and a just transition.

“It’s not enough because it’s just wording,” Huertas said. “This is using the language; this is saying you’re going to do it, but how are you going to do it? If you’ve seen our (bills), it’s pages and pages of how we’re going to do it.”

All of the legislators sponsoring the Rescue Rhode Island Act ultimately voted for the Act On Climate bill.

“It’s really important to have that legislation in place and to have it binding. I’d never be against something like that,” said Sen. Kendra Anderson, D-Warwick, who is sponsoring Renew’s agriculture bill. “It’s just that now, I see systems and structures as being so paramount to getting anywhere ultimately.”

Several lawmakers mentioned that the policy goals each coalition has put forward are synergistic. Sen. Meghan Kallman, D-Pawtucket, listed as a member of Climate Jobs at its launch, is co-sponsoring all three of Renew’s bills. She sees the trio of bills as fitting in well alongside Climate Jobs’ goals of retrofitting public buildings to reach net-zero emissions and eliminating Rhode Island Public Transit Authority fares.

How to make it happen?

As Huertas noted, what coalitions want accomplished is important, but how they go about accomplishing it can be just as impactful. That became clear at a March 15 committee hearing, when more than 100 people testified in favor of Renew’s green-justice zones and affordable housing bills. The hearing lasted five-plus hours, with people sharing personal stories of the impacts of pollution and housing insecurity.

“My dad was homeless during many of my elementary and middle-school years,” said 16-year-old Arianna Cunha, coordinator of the Sunrise Rhode Island Youth Hub. “I am asking that tomorrow morning when you wake up in your warm beds you remember the story of my father, cold and wet in his tent. Do not let your privilege forget our existence.”

This strategy — flooding legislators with testimony — aligns with Renew’s grassroots principles. Bouton said the group often sets goals for a number of testifiers at each legislative hearing. The group’s agriculture bill garnered 78 testifiers at a committee hearing, according to Bouton, though the list of testifiers provided by the Senate communications office shows more than 100.

“Our coalition is playing an outside game,” Bouton said. “We’re playing to make a lot of noise from the outside.”

A Senate committee meeting for the Act On Climate bill garnered 38 testifiers by phone. Unlike the hearings for Renew’s housing and agriculture bills, in which the majority testified as “self,” more than 50 percent spoke as representatives for an organization, seven of whom were members of Climate Jobs.

This fits in with Sabitoni’s emphasis that Climate Jobs is all about the coalition members, and a willingness to build understanding and compromise among them.

“There’s an education process,” Sabitoni said. “We’ve got to understand why [environmental groups] are so passionate, and they’ve got to understand why the building trades are supporters of projects they are right now, because they employ a lot of our people.”

He pointed to the fossil-fuel power plant proposed Burrillville, which was ultimately rejected in 2019, as an example of a project that would have employed his members.

But are two coalitions better than one? It depends on whom you ask.

Almost everyone, from Renew and Climate Jobs organizers to lawmakers, said that having two coalitions, with more group members, would drive forward a message that some degree of climate action needs to happen.

“I don’t think it’s useful to dissect the differences [between the coalitions] because I think that weakens the overall message that so many people, unions, environmental orgs, everyone want to see movement on addressing climate change,” Amelia Rose, executive director of Groundwork Rhode Island, wrote in an email to ecoRI News. Groundwork is listed as a member of both Climate Jobs and Renew.

That’s what Dormody and De La Cruz said, too — maximizing the number of climate-justice advocates, and the strategies they use, could only be a good thing for climate policy.

But there are others, on both sides of the coalition aisle, who see the downside in sharing the political playing field with other groups working toward a green economy.

Sabitoni wouldn’t specifically address sharing the Statehouse with Renew Rhode Island. But he spoke, in general terms, of environmental groups who wish to transition the economy at a rate faster than he’s comfortable with.

“I don’t really have anything in common with those groups at this point,” Sabitoni said. “Because, number one, it’s impractical, and number two, it puts a hell of a lot of people out of work and on the unemployment line immediately. And to me that is an unjust transition.”

A growing amount of research has shown that decreasing society’s dependence on fossil fuels, lowering greenhouse-gas emissions, and addressing the climate crisis can actually create jobs. There’s little research that has found addressing climate change will shrink job opportunities.

Meanwhile, Huertas and Bouton worry that Climate Jobs and the Act On Climate law will slow the political momentum they have built to pass the Rescue Rhode Island Act.

“We see potential for that legislation [Act On Climate] to be used by legislators as an excuse to not do the real work of meeting people’s urgent needs and addressing these crises at the scale that they need to be through the Rescue Rhode Island Act,” Bouton said. “So I think that that would be our concern — largely just in creating the political will to act at the scale that we need to.”

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  1. Many of the member organizations of Climate Jobs have opposed renewable legislation and the work of environmental advocates for years. Now that pro-environment legislation has gained momentum it is no surprise that the unions have switched sides and "teamed up" with the environmental groups to secure the work that the environmentalists fought so hard to get off the ground. Climate Jobs is an organization for the benefit of unions and is closed to small businesses, employee owned business, and any non-union business that has built up our renewable energy infrastructure and political landscape over the past decade.

  2. There is more than enough work to do to give all the groups exploring the economy/ ecology/justice interface plenty to do. There is no one way path to a just climate smart economy, it is going to take many people doing many things, together and separately. The less time spent arguing, the more time groups can work on actual priorities. They will work together where they feel like it, and not work together when that is the more appropriate response.

  3. Tremendous work put into this timely and excellent report by Celia Hack. I hope it gets the widespread readership it deserves.

    I think Greg Gerrit’s view below is right on the money. The environmental crisis is an "interface," as he puts it, an intersection of so many issues that "it is going to take many people doing many things, together and separately. …They will work together where they feel like it, and not work together when that is the more appropriate response." The political friction outlined in this report is as natural a condition of coalition politics as friction is in physics. Keep it lubricated with open, honest and respectful dialog and the machine will keep moving forward.

  4. Fantastic story, it clarified and synthesized a lot for me just as good reporting should. Fully agree with the commenters below that this is natural and healthy and a HUGE improvement on the inaction that came before.

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