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Biden Promised “Good-Paying Union Jobs,” But It Will Take Organizing to Get Them

By Leanna First-Arai - Truthout, September 27, 2022

Since the historic and controversial Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was signed into law in August, the economy has begun showing early signs of shifting and recalibrating beneath our feet. Honda Motor Company and LG Energy Solution have announced plans for a lithium ion battery plant, with their sights on Ohio; hiring has ticked up at a small business in Texas that builds wind and solar power plants; and the state of Connecticut is soliciting applications for millions in funding for community-led climate adaptation plans in anticipation of IRA funds to come, plus funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law signed last year. The IRA set aside $369 billion in climate and energy spending, which researchers estimate will translate to 9 million jobs over the next decade.

But as cities, states, nonprofits, industry groups and corporations all scramble to sweep up a slice of that funding, the degree to which these jobs will live up to being the Biden administration’s promise of “good-paying union jobs” remains to be seen. So too does whether and how those positions will be made available to the frontline and fenceline communities of color that have suffered the most from decades of disinvestment, pollution and manipulation at the hands of the fossil fuel industry, as well as to those working in the industry itself.

“Having that stuff in the federal bill is great, but unless we are organizing to bring these things into reality, it’s not going to happen,” said Rick Levy, president of the Texas AFL-CIO at a Climate Jobs Summit earlier this month. Levy warned that Republican-led state officials and contractors could be wary over accepting clean energy grants and tax breaks from the federal government, given the labor protections and training stipulations the money is contingent upon.

Making Green Jobs Good

Opportunities to work in renewables were already growing prior to the passage of the IRA. Wind, hydropower, geothermal and other clean energy industries all added jobs in 2021, while fossil energy jobs declined, or grew more modestly. Solar was the fastest-growing of the energy industries in 2021, with 255,037 workers, up more than 9 percent from the previous year, according to the latest National Solar Jobs Census. Federal funding anticipated to be available as early as 2023 will further expand clean energy employment, with 5 million new jobs to be had in deploying our future energy systems.

But the jobs that bring these carbon-free technologies to life have developed a reputation for accidents, union busting and precarity. As solar panel installer Thomas Shade told Motherboard, he has grown accustomed to jumping from utility-scale solar farm gigs in North Carolina, where he’s from, to others in Texas, Virginia, Nevada, Georgia and elsewhere, earning anywhere from $16 to $25 an hour paid out by a temp agency. “They don’t want to pay you enough for your room and for you to eat for the week,” Shade said of the itinerant nature of the work. “So you got two guys in beds and a guy sleeping on the floor [and] one guy on the couch or a chair.”

Though he now has a decade of experience working in solar and would like a full-time job with benefits, Shade told Motherboard, he hasn’t been able to land one. For solar workers who have been hired full-time, attempts to unionize have previously been met with intimidation. When, after a series of accidents, construction workers at New York City-based Bright Power attempted to unionize with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3 in 2019, the company fired the whole crew, announcing that they would replace those workers with subcontractors.

These stories are concerning for workers most vulnerable to the winding down of fossil fuels, including those who work in oil and gas. Diane Sicotte is a professor of environmental sociology at Drexel University, who co-published a study in June establishing how unionized energy workers tend to be pro-environment and favor clean energy systems, but are wary to switch to jobs like wind and solar due the industry’s notoriety for low wages — a result of how the renewable energy sector has rolled out amid “peak neoliberalism,” Sicotte told Truthout.

Since Bright Power’s union busting in 2019, however, union organizing has picked up pace across industries, as data from the National Labor Relations Board indicates, and public approval of unions is at a 57-year high. Energy workers are no exception. Since July, some of those to vote to form unions include eight energy workers at the North Alabama Electric Cooperative; 33 workers at Covanta Plymouth Renewable Energy in Pennsylvania; 22 workers at a construction supply manufacturer in Illinois and 550 utility construction workers in North Carolina.

An estimated 10 percent of solar workers are now union members or covered by project labor agreements, though membership varies widely by state, and unionization rates appear to correlate with the rigor of state-level legislative wins by and for workers. In Illinois and Rhode Island, the rates of solar workers unionized or covered by a project labor agreement are above average, at 12.9 and 15 percent, respectively. Those two states have passed the most ambitious climate jobs laws on the books.

The latitude of what can be bargained for is also widening. In May 2022, the North America’s Building Trades Unions signed a first-of-a-kind project labor agreement with Danish wind turbine developer Ørsted, which requires all contractors and subcontractors to hire union workers and sets high safety and training standards for those hired to build out 5,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity that will speckle the shores from Maine to Florida. Such rising collective bargaining activity is not only timely, Sicotte said, but holds potential to level the playing field beyond what’s been previously accomplished in the U.S., where the most significant infrastructure overhaul to date eased economic inequality but also entrenched racist federal policy and laid the foundation for the racial wealth gap.

And the act of unionizing alone might itself be good for the climate. Research published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research in March suggests that unionization is linked with lower climate-warming emissions. The study found that for every 1 percent increase in unionization, carbon dioxide emissions fell by 0.25 percent, due perhaps to unions’ ability to reduce inequality (a driver of carbon emissions in the Global North) and enable collective bargaining agreements that lead to “green” policies.

Leveraging the IRA

The rising environmental-labor coalition whose work stands to be bolstered by the IRA has the potential to usher in a paradigm shift that builds more popular support among workers for tackling the climate crisis, Lara Skinner, a researcher at the Cornell Worker Institute and executive director of the Labor Leading on Climate Initiative, said at the Climate Jobs Summit. “People have to see how building a new clean energy economy improves their lives, expands their access to jobs, increases their pay and benefits, protects and supports existing good jobs, lowers energy bills, expands prosperity and makes our communities healthier,” Skinner said.

The IRA offers a 30 percent tax credit for entities developing energy projects one megawatt or greater that satisfy prevailing wage and apprenticeship requirements. Contractors must pay what’s considered a living wage for a given geographic area and ensure that a certain segment of its workforce are qualified apprentices with access to mentors. Unions involved with labor-climate alliances — such as the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers and the Laborers’ International Union of North America — are already training and retraining members, and are well-positioned to expand these programs as more workers join unions, given that union dues, which cover training programs, expand with membership.

But bringing these retraining opportunities to marginalized communities will require building trust and relationships with grassroots groups, as well as intentional outreach, equity experts impress. “We can’t just expect underrepresented workers to materialize,” said Allison Ziogas, journeywoman electrician and labor relations manager for Ørsted.

Still, many environmental and climate justice organizers remain livid that the passage of the most significant climate action to date involved quietly tucking labor and climate provisions into the bill in exchange for continued support for fossil fuel production and market-based “solutions.” José Bravo, executive director of the Just Transition Alliance, calls the exchange “economic blackmail” that’s occurring at the expense of the low-income, Black and Indigenous communities the Biden administration paid lip service to in its first actions. That’s something organizers at large must not lose sight of, he said. Bravo was one of 11 arrested on September 22 for protesting the Big Oil giveaway penned by coal baron Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) that would bring the Mountain Valley Pipeline back to life.

Given the IRA’s shortcomings, activists are poised to leverage and expand the IRA’s provisions, including through campaigns for administrative policy changes that link the distribution of IRA funds to agreements like ensuring workers’ right to organize; and requiring that future grant recipients adhere to federal standards on project labor agreements, even for smaller-scale projects. But as long as taxpayer dollars support what activists call false solutions that extend the life of the fossil fuel industry — such as the build-out of infrastructure supporting biogas and hydrogen fuels — workers in frontline and fenceline communities will continue to suffer from the disproportionate health impacts of pollution, thus impacting their ability to learn and work in the first place, advocates say.

Norman Rogers has worked at a Los Angeles-area oil refinery for over 20 years and is second vice president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 675. He told Truthout that inhibiting the sunset of oil and gas isn’t even good for fossil fuel industry workers such as himself, in part because it could delay the retraining of this workforce.

“To the extent that we hold onto what’s been, we’re not doing folks that are set to lose their jobs any service,” Rogers said. “Let’s make the break. Let’s do it cleanly. Let’s invest what we would put in [to the Mountain Valley Pipeline] into finding jobs and employment for those folks in those areas.”

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