Top Labor Executive Leaves for Green Jobs Initiative

Chris Chafe, the executive director of the Change to Win labor federation, is leaving to his post at the end of the month to launch a new clean economy business and marketing initiative.

The departure of Chafe, a leading light of the labor movement, comes at a time when labor, frustrated by the pace of change in Washington, is looking for non-traditional allies and new opportunities to grow their ranks in the global economy.

Chafe said his enterprise will "try to create a more integrated job-creating climate-capturing return-generating process that brings all of the incumbent assets from labor, business and environmental leaders into a common planning process so we can capture jobs and capture climate goals."

Chafe's tenure at Change to Win, which represents 5.5 million workers across five unions, was marked by political successes. But the transfer into power has been shaky, and labor has yet to accomplish several critical goals: the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, or card check, to speed organizing is delayed indefinitely. Health care reform, a top labor priority, is stalled; key labor-friendly nominees to government jobs have been held up. And unions continue to leak members. Talks between the Change to Win unions and the AFL-CIO umbrella, which is holding its annual meeting in Florida this week, about reintegration have broken down. Within Change to Win, a nasty split within the UniteHere union led to that group's disaffiliation.

"Our affiliates continue to develop greater capacity through our strategic organizing center in the last few years. When you hear about new growth gains, two of our affiliates are increasingly in the story -- UFCW and the Teamsters," he said. He noted that CTW affiliates "working with other labor allies, brought the Obama administration into power and are working very strategically on how to recover from the Bush executive branch's degradation of capacity to rebuilt and restructure and provide vision and focus for the federal government."

He points to the union federation's work to adopt a procurement approach throughout government that benefits labor unions -- 1 in 8 American workers are affected in some form or another by the government's procurement process. The Daily Caller reported recently that the government might adopt a "High Road Contracting Policy" that would give bidding preferences to companies that pay workers a "living wage" -- a way of pushing more federal contracts to labor unions, whose workers generally are paid above that threshold. The idea is to incentivize companies to pay their workers better, although the approach would cost the government more money.  As of 2009, 12.3% of Americans were represented by a labor union, which much higher public sector participation than private, and much higher density in teaching, nursing and security guard occupations. More than 37% of state, local and federal government employees are union members.

Another CTW success: the Teamsters' alliance with environmental groups to reduce pollution at ports, which the New York Times highlighted as a "blue-green" coalition success story last week.

"The new initiative I am launching is an outgrowth of the strong clean economy organizing work that CTW has done in both the Ports campaign and the [Laborers] Home Performance campaign, the latter offering new models for how unions can be an essential part of the solution for workforce development, financing, and policy structures at the local, state, and national level as new industries and jobs are created," Chafe said.

It is not affiliated with any union but will be open to all, he said. He was not able to provide details about who would fund or staff his new group.

To the degree of inertia now slowing the movement itself, Chafe says he is optimistic: "The 2008 cycle provided and the labor movement and our allies with an enormous show of capacity and strength and vitality and while there is no shortage of frustration the degree of achievement we;'d hope to see develop on our core agenda.  We have to take as a lesson we've got to keep campaign."

The transition from campaign to governing "is certainly an ongoing learning experience."

Before joining Change to Win, Chafe was senior labor adviser to the Edwards presidential campaign. He was chief of staff of the UniteHere union, and served as Bruce Raynor's executive assistant and political lead at Unite. He began his career organizing textile unions in the Southwest.

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