Progressive environmental groups are pushing President-elect Joe Biden to pick Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) for Labor Secretary as the incoming administration rounds out its Cabinet.
Uniting the labor movement behind an aggressive push toward clean energy might be one of the more vexing political challenges for achieving Biden’s climate goals. A clutch of environmental groups are arguing that Levin, who wields both organizing and clean-energy experience, is equipped to handle the task.
“He has a long record of fighting for working people, and understands the climate imperative but knows the transition won’t happen without proper buy-in and support,” said Collin Rees, senior campaigner with Oil Change International, who added his organization has recently made its support of Levin known to the Biden team.
The slimming Democratic majority in the House could be working against Levin, as the tight margin played a central role over whether to nominate New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland for Interior secretary. Cabinet diversity is also a factor.
That said, Biden crossed the threshold for nominating the most diverse Cabinet in history when he ultimately tapped Haaland, a Native American, for Interior.
Compared with other candidates for Labor, Levin brings unique clean-energy experience. That’s a priority for Biden, who wrapped his climate platform in blue-collar notes as he announced his environment and energy Cabinet nominees on Saturday.
“When we think about climate change, we think jobs — good-paying, union jobs,” Biden said.
Oil Change International, Friends of the Earth, 350.org and Greenpeace made that connection explicit in a previously unreported Nov. 24 letter to Biden endorsing Levin for Labor, saying the Michigan Democrat is “someone committed to your vision and who is capable of bringing together the labor and environmental movement to implement it.”
Levin’s environmental backing comes amid misgivings about Seth Harris, a former deputy Labor secretary in the Obama administration, who is on the shortlist to become Biden’s Labor secretary and has long been considered a serious contender. The environmental groups have privately raised concerns about Harris’s support for ethanol, the corn-based fuel that many environmentalists oppose over concerns that it drives deforestation.
Some in and close to the labor movement have also questioned Harris’ appeal, noting that he hasn’t gotten the same fanfare of support from unions compared to Levin.
But potentially bolstering his appeal to labor, Harris has been vocally critical of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, frequenting media shows and calling for more economic aid to boost the unemployed. In a podcast in late October, he called Congress’ inaction on another coroanvirus aid package “frankly as stupid an economic approaches you can take in a time when what we really need is public investment in recovery.”
Some unions have backed Biden’s push for clean energy. Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, was a key Biden labor ally who served on the so-called unity task force with supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to develop climate change compromises between the presidential primary rivals.
Still, a climate push faces political headwinds with other unions. While Biden and environmental activists have spoken of a need for a “just transition” in which fossil fuel workers and resource-dependent communities are taken care of with training, better benefits and other assistance, there’s anxiety about entire towns or regions becoming economic losers in any shift.
Organized labor also has strong ties to fossil-fuel industry jobs. Unionization rates in coal-fired generation, natural gas and the transmission, distribution and storage of power hit 10, 11 and 17 percent, respectively, besting the 4 percent in the solar installation sector, according to a report by the Energy Futures Initiative — run by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz — and the National Association of State Energy Officials.
And union workers report better pay, wages and benefits in oil and gas than in renewables, according to a July survey by North America’s Building Trades Unions, which endorsed Biden for president.
Environmental organizations have backed Levin as someone who can bridge those divides. He also has experience guiding workers through rough spots, as he built and ran the “No Worker Left Behind” program initiated by Energy secretary nominee and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm in the wake of the Great Recession.
“Friends of the Earth strongly believes that Rep. Levin brings well-grounded knowledge and an experience set that can bring the environmental and labor community together as we seek climate solutions that are good for people, workers and the planet,” Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica said in a text message.
Given his ambitious pro-worker agenda, Biden is widely expected to select a Labor secretary with well-established ties to organized labor. Levin, a former SEIU organizer who spent more than a decade working for the AFL-CIO, checks that box. At least five AFL-CIO affiliates — the Office and Professional Employees International Union, United Auto Workers, Utility Workers Union of America, National Nurses United and Communications Workers of America — have publicly backed him.
But unions’ support is not unanimous: California Labor Secretary Julie Su, whose name has been rising in profile in past weeks, has been endorsed by the United Farm Workers of America, among others. Asian American Pacific Islanders are pushing heavily for representation via at least one Cabinet secretary, with Su being a viable option.
And the AFL-CIO’s two largest affiliates — the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — have thrown their weight behind Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who also has personal ties to Biden. Walsh appeared to also be the favorite of AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who told POLITICO in November he would be a “great choice” who had “tremendous support.”
Three of the biggest unions in the U.S. — National Education Association, Service Employees International Union and Teamsters — are not part of the AFL-CIO and have not endorsed candidates for the top job.