By Ted Cox

The state’s major labor unions joined this week to form a coalition to connect workers with the burgeoning clean-energy industry called Climate Jobs Illinois.

The coalition formally announced its launch Monday, declaring it intended to “advocate for a pro-worker, pro-climate agenda,” and that it “will push for a thoughtful but ambitious clean-energy transition through practical policies that create union jobs in the clean-energy sector to lower the state’s high unemployment rate, reduce its emissions, and close the growing income inequality gap in disadvantaged communities.”

“Illinois has a proud labor history fighting for fair wages and job security as a pathway to the middle class. It’s time to continue that tradition by creating the next generation of union jobs as we build a cleaner future for our state,” said Nikki Budzinski, executive director of Climate Jobs Illinois. “While a tall order, this crisis presents a transformative opportunity to reimagine our economy and create a cleaner, fairer future for our entire state.”

Gov. Pritzker led a bipartisan array of state politicians immediately backing the movement, issuing a statement saying, “Union jobs have built Illinois for decades and opened the door to the middle class for many families. We will need thousands more to tackle climate change and combat inequality — so I welcome Climate Jobs Illinois to the effort to create a cleaner future for our state.”

“We don’t have to choose between a cleaner future and hundreds of middle-class jobs for families,” said state Sen. Sue Rezin, a Republican from Morris. “In my district, we’ve delivered both for decades at the Dresden nuclear plant. Having Climate Jobs Illinois around will keep middle-class jobs at the center of the debate as our state looks to build a cleaner and better future.

U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia of Chicago praised the coalition’s commitment to equality, saying, “Workers and communities of color must be at the center of Illinois’s strategy to combat climate change. I’m thankful that Climate Jobs Illinois has formed so the state’s efforts result in good-paying union jobs that expand mobility and increase opportunity to the communities I represent.”

The coalition claims to comprise hundreds of thousands of Illinois workers already, and it set its goals in stating: “By advocating for bold clean-energy investments with comprehensive labor standards, including prevailing wage, apprenticeship requirements, labor-peace agreements, project labor agreements, and responsible bidder requirements, Climate Jobs Illinois is working to ensure these jobs create more pathways to the middle class, especially for communities disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.”

The group puts a union focus on the goals established by previous groups like the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, with what should amount to equal support for the Clean Energy Jobs Act pending in the General Assembly.

“A union job is the path to the middle class in Illinois, especially central Illinois,” said state Sen. Dave Koehler, a Peoria Democrat. “We urgently need more of them. I’m grateful that Climate Jobs Illinois will be in the fight so the state uses our strong labor pool and ready-made apprentice programs to get the job done.”

According to the coalition, its Governing Board leadership will include some of the state’s top union heads, such as Illinois AFL-CIO President Tim Drea, Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter, and Chicago & Cook County Building & Construction Trades Council President Ralph Affrunti.

It also touted the backing of those already working in the green economy.

“Every parent’s dream is to provide a better future for their children,” said Bob Howard, a union wind-construction laborer in Normal. “Building wind farms has provided my family a roof over our heads, food on the table and a cleaner tomorrow. With Climate Jobs Illinois leading the charge, our state will create more jobs like mine so everyone’s child can have a better future.”

“The Model T helped create the middle class by providing workers with a pathway to good wages and benefits in a union,” said Bob Thompson, an East Peoria resident who used to be a United Auto Workers member at the Mitsubishi plant in Normal — now in the process of being converted to a factory for Rivian electric-powered cars and trucks. “I look forward to building the next generation of automobiles in the electric-vehicle industry.”

“The demand for solar power has been through the roof in Illinois,” added Christine Blair, a union operating engineer working on solar projects from her home in DeKalb. “But without the state acting, my good-paying job and the progress we’ve made to cut emissions will end as quickly as a flip of a switch. Climate Jobs Illinois is going to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

The coalition claims independence from energy developers and utilities and “will also focus on supporting workers as the state transitions with new clean-energy-sector jobs, while meeting the immediate need to stem record job losses as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.” According to the group, the state lost 600,000 jobs this year in the pandemic and its economic fallout, and almost half of those may never come back.

They’re planning to spur the recovery through the move to clean energy required to replace fossil fuels — an argument made earlier this year by state Rep. Ann Williams of Chicago, lead sponsor of the Clean Energy Jobs Act in the House.