Workers Appraise Their New “Green Jobs”

A new documentary, Greening Southie, examines construction workers' reactions to sustainable building.

At a construction site in South Boston a couple years back, a foreman was explaining some rules for the job to an increasingly flustered tile-worker. They'll have to use some new non-toxic adhesive. All the waste must be recycled. And the real kicker-there's no smoking in the building. "You don't understand," said the foreman, "this is a green building.""That's right," the tile-worker quips. "I don't understand."The encounter, related in the opening scene of the documentary The Greening of Southie, is far from unique. For all the talk of "green jobs" these days, it's relatively common on construction sites (and in manufacturing plants, for that matter) for workers themselves to be the last to know that their collars have changed color from blue to green.

Filmmakers Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis see this as a problem. "The extent to which these guys were left out of the conversation about green building was surprising," Cheney told me. "It seems like a tremendous missed opportunity if we stop at simply calling these ‘green jobs' and don't help the workers understand why this might be a good idea, why it's important."Cheney and Ellis didn't set out to become green-collar educators. They were wrapping up work on another film, King Corn, when the developer of the Macallen Building-which was then nothing more than a blueprint for Boston's first LEED-certified residential building-asked if they could shoot some time-lapse video of its construction. While they were setting up the cameras, they got to talking to some workers who didn't disguise their skepticism about the project's "noble" green goals."What's the point?" was the common sentiment.The film, they now hope, could be a useful tool in showing workers what exactly the point is, but not before laying out the real world, on-the-ground struggles of green building.

Some characters, of course, become converts. Carrie Mowbray "used to think of green as being dorky," but now hauls materials from the site to be recycled. "It never really come across my mind to give the environment a good deep study," the dreadlocked Trinidadian Wayne Phillips said early on, before later bringing his daughter to check out the building-especially its fancy dual-flush toilets. "Double flush?" laughs Tom Torre, the aforementioned tile-worker, when introduced to the concept." I use that system a lot. One never seems to do the job." By film's end Torre is arguing that all buildings should be green.But The Greening of Southie is far from a paean to green building. It's also a bare and unforgiving look at the real challenges of striving for low-impact construction. Untested materials fail (the bamboo floors buckle and need to be torn out, wheat-board cabinets swell, the green roof plants die) and workers' patience is constantly tested. The struggles at the Macallen call to mind another prime example of "green realism," Auden Schendler's great book Getting Green Done, in which the Apsen Sustainability Director makes the case that "going green" is a lot harder than any visionaries, consultants, or executives realize. "The idea that green is fun, it's easy, and it's profitable is dangerous," says Schendler. "This is hard work. It's messy."Ultimately, it's the realistic, warts-and-all approach that helps this film resonate with those who I feel really should be its target audience-other steelworkers, bricklayers, roofers, and plumbers. And the filmmakers are using the no-bullshit story to open up the dialogue beyond the developers, architects, planners, and academics who normally dominate the conversation, to the tradespeople "who are actually building the new green infrastructure we're all hoping for." With some like-minded partners-the Apollo Alliance, Green For All, Green Roundtable, and the International Association of Bridge, Sturctural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Workers (the Ironworkers, for short)-Cheney and Ellis kicked off an "Earth Week in Union Halls" campaign, which set out to "bring America's infrastructure workforce together to learn about green building and celebrate the men and women who are creating the city of tomorrow, today."

So far, about 60 construction-related union halls and trade schools have held free screenings of the film, followed by frank discussions about what these "green job" promises really mean for them, the workers. A couple weeks back, Cheney showed up to introduce the film ("wearing an unfortunately colored pink shirt") to a Steelworkers training center in Queens. "There's some skepticism, some sense that this is an elite cause," he said. But, like the converts in the film, plenty in the audience came around.LEARN MORE For more information about organizing a union hall or trade school event, go to the film's website and click on "Earth Week in Union Halls."
via Gage Skidmore / Flickr and nrkbeta / flickr

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Courtesy of John S. Hutton, MD

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