Politicians Power Up With 'Green-Collar' Workers

By Sridhar Pappu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 23, 2008

When Hal Jordan, the fictional playboy test pilot, was given a power ring from a dying spaceman, thus making him the Green Lantern of Sector 2814 (Earth), he joined an elite military institution called the Green Lantern Corps -- a group dedicated to preserving order in the universe while sporting distinctive green attire. Now, thanks largely to Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and others, they've been joined by a new emerald power: the "green-collar" worker.

"We need to make sure that we start jump-starting the jobs in this country again," Clinton said during Monday's Democratic presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C. "That's why I want to put money into clean-energy jobs, green-collar jobs."

Later, when speaking of his plans of an economic stimulus during his presidency, Edwards said what he had "proposed for green-collar jobs will create jobs within 30 or so days, so we will have an immediate impact on the economy and stimulate the economy."

This wasn't the first time either Clinton or Edwards has touted such jobs. In various speeches on the campaign trail, Clinton has used green-collar to describe the employment that'll be created in the wake of job losses in manufacturing and other sectors. She can foresee a future where the manual labor of installing solar power panels or maintaining wind turbines becomes a mainstream occupation.

"These are jobs that can't be outsourced by and large," Clinton said last year on the Senate floor.

Not to be outdone, Edwards himself has been trying his best to to make green-collar part of the American labor-force lexicon. Last July, Clinton's fellow Democratic candidate for president announced his own plan to train 150,000 green-collar workers each year.

"We can turn the crisis of climate change into an opportunity for a new energy economy, right here in America -- and Iowa in particular," Edwards said in, you guessed it, Iowa.

But the term isn't limited to people running for high office. Last June, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, during an appearance on "Charlie Rose," spoke about a "green revolution" and "green-collar jobs, green jobs that, again, reverse global warming, reduce energy independence and take us to another place, where everybody participates, not just some." (Sadly, in his recent television ad, which begins with a newspaper editorial quotation from a few years back dubbing him "The Godfather of Green," Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) leaves out any mention of "green-collar" workers. He also leaves out the fact he received a zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters during the 109th Congress.)

Nor has it been limited to political rhetoric. Earlier this month, in a report on c areer change, BusinessWeek.com described "green career changers" as the "growing number of professionals" who are "taking their talents and moving them to jobs that can help improve the environment."

For the record, green-collar has been floating around in linguistic limbo since 1992, according to Tom Pitoniak, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster. For years, he says, it was mainly used by those closely involved with environmental work. However, only recently has it roared into popular use, becoming a buzzword for politicians and increasingly important in the business vernacular.

"Going forward, I can see companies boasting of their green-collar attributes," Pitoniak says. "I think you're going to see a company boasting of the greenness of its own jobs, some being green-collar. Green has an indisputable connotation to it."

The term, of course, is a play off of white-collar and blue-collar. The former was introduced in the early part of the 20th century, while the latter didn't find widespread use until the industrial boom that followed World War II -- a period of labor-market change in many ways similar to the one we're experiencing now.

However, while white-collar and blue-collar bring distinctive images to mind -- the mutual fund manager screaming into his BlackBerry, the coal miner coming home, coughing from a long day -- such iconic imagery is hard to find with the green-collar worker.

"Blue- and white-collar are polarizing terms," says Pitoniak. "This is different. You've sort of got light-green and blue-green-collar jobs. Sure, there's work where physical labor is involved, but a lot of jobs don't involve wielding a shovel. You've also got scientific and scholarly jobs which are typically considered white-collar. I think the term 'green-collar' is very distinct."

Adding his own personal experience to the issue, Pitoniak says, "A couple of weeks back, my wife and I took my son's Cub Scout troop to a recycling factory. It's pretty much a dirty job. I once had a summer job working on a rubbish truck and this place didn't seem too different. It didn't seem like a green-collar job, but it certainly could be considered that."

The elite Green Lanterns of the universe would not be amused.

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