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US Energy Transition Presents Organized Labor With New Opportunities, But Also Some Old Challenges

By Delger Erdenesanaa - Inside Climate News, July 27, 2021

President Biden’s push for “good, union jobs” in clean energy has increased hope that organizing solar and wind workers can close the pay gap between them and fossil fuel workers.

President Biden’s push for “good, union jobs” in clean energy has increased hope that organizing solar and wind workers can close the pay gap between them and fossil fuel workers.

Two years ago, Skip Bailey noticed a lot of trucks from a company called Solar Holler driving around Huntington, West Virginia. A union organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Bailey saw an opportunity.

“We want to get in on the solar business,” he said, predicting the industry will grow in his home region, which includes historic coal communities in West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio.

Bailey talked to Solar Holler about unionizing its employees who install photovoltaic panels on homes. IBEW showed the company its local training facility for electricians, and explained the health insurance and pension plans it offers. 

“It wasn’t a hard sell in either direction,” said the company’s founder and CEO, Dan Conant. He was already interested in securing union protections for his employees when Bailey contacted him, he said. The move fit with Solar Holler’s dedication to West Virginia’s legacy of energy production and strong union membership.

“It was not just good business, but it just really spoke to our history as a state,” he said.

Conant and Bailey’s efforts paid off in March 2020, when IBEW Local 317 and Solar Holler signed a contract. It’s just a start—Solar Holler only has about 20 unionized employees—but the agreement is an early example of the future Joe Biden is promising. The president frequently pledges to create millions of jobs while transitioning the U.S. to clean energy. Every time he does, he’s quick to add that these will be “good, union jobs that expand the middle class.”

“It’s a great talking point,” said Joe Uehlein, president of the Maryland-based Labor Network for Sustainability, an advocacy group pushing to unionize green jobs. But he added that Biden faces a difficult balancing act to achieve his pledge. 

Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KFTC) and the KFTC staff union agree on first union contract

By KFTC Staff - Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, July 19, 2021

After the announcement of the KFTC staff union’s formation in October 2019, and recognition by KFTC’s Steering Committee, we took the bold step of building an initial contract through Interest Based Bargaining (IBB). This process – usually used for contract renewal –involves two sides coming together to find and negotiate around shared interests, instead of the more traditional confrontational method. We felt that this democratic and collaborative model fit best with KFTC’s values.

It also took considerably more time, especially done during the COVID 19 pandemic. After 18 months and over 40 virtual meetings between teams from management and the staff union, as well as federal mediators, we are proud of the contract we created. Not least because our mediators believe that we have the very first initial contract agreed to by IBB!

The contract, approved by the Steering Committee and Staff Union on May 13, is an expression of our shared commitment to the value and rights of KFTC staff, and of all working people. Highlights include:

  • Increasing funding for professional development leave
  • Raising our base hourly rate to $15 (from $14.53) and raising our base salary by $1,000 annually (to $37,030)
  • Doubling our compensation time available for employees to bank when they work overtime, and doubling the amount of comp time available for use per week
  • Adding Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a paid holiday and making Juneteenth a paid holiday, replacing the day after Thanksgiving
  • Expanding the definition of family in several clauses, including for bereavement leave and family leave
  • Tripling our existing parental leave policy to 60 days, while preserving other available family leave
  • Establishing how coaching, progressive discipline, and termination will be handled, as well as a clear process for addressing grievances
  • Establishing a Labor Management Committee to engage workers, management, and member leaders in an ongoing conversation to strengthen our bonds and our work to transform Kentucky
  • Agreeing that if the organization revives the Organizing Apprentice Program in the future, KFTC management will consult with union members about it first through the Labor Management Committee. 
  • Maintaining our fantastic, current health insurance plan through the life of the contract, which runs through November 2022

KFTC and the KFTC Staff Union are committed to the transformative, grassroots mission that is possible through a unique organization like ours. KFTC has been building power as a democratic, member-led body for 40 years, with a staff that has grown along with us. With this contract, we pave the way for strengthened collaboration between members and all levels of staff. 

From all of us at KFTC – we hope you will join us in celebrating this milestone, and join us as we push for new power and a new Kentucky where all of us can thrive. Let’s organize!

As the US Pursues Clean Energy and the Climate Goals of the Paris Agreement, Communities Dependent on the Fossil Fuel Economy Look for a Just Transition

By Judy Fahys - Inside Climate News, June 28, 2021

Perhaps the proudest achievement of Michael Kourianos’ first term as mayor of Price, Utah was helping to make the local university hub the state’s first to run entirely on clean energy. It’s a curious position for the son, brother and grandchild of coal miners who’s worked in local coal-fired power plants for 42 years.

Kourianos sees big changes on the horizon brought by shifts in world energy markets and customer demands, as well as in politics. The mines and plants that powered a bustling economy here in Carbon County and neighboring Emery County for generations are gone or winding down, and Kourianos is hoping to win reelection so he can keep stoking the entrepreneurial energy and partnerships that are moving his community forward.

“That freight train is coming at us,” he said. “You look at all the other communities that were around during the early times of coal, they’re not around.

“That’s my fear,” he said. “That’s my driving force.”

New research from Resources for the Future points out that hundreds of areas like central Utah are facing painful hardships because of the clean-energy transformation that will be necessary if the United States hopes to reach the Paris agreement’s goals to slow climate change. Lost jobs and wages, a shrinking population and an erosion of the tax base that supports roads, schools and community services—they’re all costs of the economic shift that will be paid by those whose hard work fueled American prosperity for so long. 

“If we can address those challenges by helping communities diversify, helping people find new economic growth drivers and new economic opportunities, that might lessen some of the opposition to moving forward with the ambitious climate policy that we need,” said the report’s author, Daniel Raimi, who is also a lecturer at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

Meeting the Paris agreement’s target of keeping global temperature rise “well below 2 degrees C” by the end of the century means Americans must burn 90 percent less coal over the next two decades and half as much oil and natural gas, Raimi said.

And less fossil fuel use will also affect employment, public finances and economic development region-by-region, according to Raimi. In 50 of the nation’s 3,006 counties, 25 percent or more of all wages are tied to fossil fuel energy, he notes. In 16 counties, 25 percent or more of their total jobs are related to fossil energy.

Just Transition/Transition to Justice: Power, Policy and Possibilities

By J. Mijin Cha, Manuel Pastor, Cynthia Moreno, and Matt Phillips - Equity Research Institute, June 2021

This report looks at this process of power building for just transition in four states: California, Kentucky, Louisiana, and New York. We combine an analysis of the pillars of just transition – strong governmental support, dedicated funding streams, diverse coalitions, and economic diversification – with an analysis of how to change power at a state level that focuses on the conditions that impact possibilities, the community-level capabilities that facilitate effective voice, and the arenas in which power is contested. Ultimately, the fight for a just transition is a fight for justice. And, while we know it will be hard and long, the stories we heard showed how advocates and organizers, often in the face of great odds, come together and force the change that makes people’s lives better. Building upon these efforts through supporting organizing, coalition building, and empowering communities is the blueprint for advancing a just transition. Through these channels, we can transition from a dirty polluting past to a just and healthy future.

Read the text (PDF).

The plan to turn coal country into a rare earth powerhouse

By Maddie Stone - Grist, May 26, 2021

At an abandoned coal mine just outside the city of Gillette, Wyoming, construction crews are getting ready to break ground on a 10,000-square-foot building that will house state-of-the-art laboratories and manufacturing plants. Among the projects at the facility, known as the Wyoming Innovation Center, will be a pilot plant that aims to takes coal ash — the sooty, toxic waste left behind after coal is burned for energy — and use it to extract rare earths, elements that play an essential role in everything from cell phones and LED screens to wind turbines and electric cars. 

The pilot plant in Wyoming is a critical pillar of an emerging effort led by the Department of Energy, or DOE, to convert the toxic legacy of coal mining in the United States into something of value. Similar pilot plants and research projects are also underway in states including West Virginia, North Dakota, Utah, and Kentucky. If these projects are successful, the Biden administration hopes that places like Gillette will go from being the powerhouses of the fossil fuel era to the foundation of a new domestic supply chain that will build tomorrow’s energy systems.

In an April report on revitalizing fossil fuel communities, administration officials wrote that coal country is “well-positioned” to become a leader in harvesting critical materials from the waste left behind by coal mining and coal power generation. Several days later, the DOE awarded a total of $19 million to 13 different research groups that plan to assess exactly how much rare earth material is contained in coal and coal waste, as well as explore ways to extract it. 

“We have these resources that are otherwise a problem,” said Sarma Pisupati, the director of the Center for Critical Minerals at Penn State University and one of the grant recipients. “We can use those resources to extract valuable minerals for our independence.”

Those minerals would come at a critical moment. The rare earth elements neodymium and dysprosium, in particular, are essential to the powerful magnets used in offshore wind turbines and electric vehicle motors. A recent report by the International Energy Agency projected that by 2040, the clean energy sector’s demand for these minerals could be three to seven times greater than it is today. 

Does Shale Gas Extraction Grow Jobs?

Our Time To Thrive: A Town Hall

Coal Communities Ask Biden Administration for Just Transition

By Staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, February 2021

Labor leaders, economic development groups and environmentalists from coal states recently wrote to President Joe Biden to fund a “just transition” from coal to renewable energy. They also asked the administration last week in a letter to immediately establish a White House Office of Economic Transition to work on rebuilding the economies of coal communities.

Led by the Mountain Association, an economic development group based in Eastern Kentucky, groups signing the letter included West Virginia-based Coalfield Development, Kentucky-based Appalachian Citizens Law Center, Montana-based Western Organization of Resource Council, the Colorado AFL-CIO, the Union of Concerned Scientists and two Indigenous groups: Tribe Awaken and Tó Nizhóní Ání.

Shortly thereafter President Joe Biden issued an executive order which included the establishment of an Interagency Working Group to “coordinate the identification and delivery of Federal resources to revitalize the economies of coal, oil and gas, and power plant communities” and to “assess opportunities to ensure benefits and protections for coal and power plant workers.”

Going back to the Obama era, LNS has advocated such an approach, calling for:

An interagency task force composed of US agency officials overseeing issues of employment, energy and the environment. Their first task could be to create a transition package for coal miners, utility workers, and other affected workers that would provide robust financial and training support and preferential access to the new jobs created by environmental policies. That could be combined with vigorous support for economic planning and investment in the communities affected.

National Economic Transition Platform: A Visionary Proposal for an Equitable Future

By staff - Just Transition Fund, Summer 2020

Workers and families affected by the changing coal economy are facing a profound crisis complicated by unique difficulties. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and economic decline, coal facility closures, layoffs, and cuts to vital services were devastating to people and places dependent on the coal economy—many of whom are still struggling following earlier economic declines, the loss of manufacturing jobs, or inequality and widespread poverty.

For low-income communities and communities of color already disproportionately left behind by the status quo, the need for equitable and inclusive economic growth is vital. But, now, with COVID-19, these unique challenges are exacerbated. The closure of even more coal facilities is accelerated, giving communities little time to plan for the disappearance of their largest employer and the erosion of the tax base, which provides critical funding for public services, local education, and health care systems.

Read the text (PDF).

A New Horizon: Innovative Reclamation for a Just Transition

By various - Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition, 2019

The certainty of an Appalachian transition has become self-evident. The questions that remain are “What shape will that transition take?” and “Will our region seize the opportunity to establish just and sustainable economic models that invest in our strengths and set the region up for meaningful and healthy participation in the new economy?” Foundational to our coalition’s work is the understanding that specific, targeted intervention is necessary to ensure that an equitable vision becomes reality.

Appalachia is at the threshold of a paradigm shift into the new economy, ushered in by communities that are taking their futures into their own hands like never before and implementing innovative ways to address long-standing economic issues with degraded lands. The table on page 6 shows funded projects illustrating this shift that have been supported by our coalition, ranging from ecotourism, renewable energy, arts and culture, and creative waste recycling.

This report highlights the successes achieved in 2019 from previously submitted projects and showcases a brand new round of innovative projects. We’re very excited about both the successes that have already been funded and implemented, as well as the new opportunities that are currently being considered for Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Pilot funding.

Read the report (Link).

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