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Our Time To Thrive: A Town Hall

To Save America, Help West Virginia

By Liza Featherstone - Jacobin, March 30, 2021

A Democratic swing vote in an evenly divided Senate, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin has already proved to be a significant obstacle to progressive policy. His opposition was a significant reason for Biden’s failure to raise the minimum wage to $15; Manchin also played a key role in shrinking the household stimulus checks, as well as the weekly unemployment checks. He will be a necessary and highly undependable vote as Democrats attempt to address the climate crisis, advance union organizing rights, and counter racist Republican efforts to legislate voter suppression.

However, the infrastructure bill that Biden and the Democrats are preparing to unveil, which is expected to call for $3 trillion in investment in public goods and services, presents an opportunity for West Virginians — and for all of us. Manchin has been championing this legislation, even calling for it to be funded with an increase in taxes on corporations and the wealthy. On this issue, Eric Levitz of New York magazine has convincingly argued, Manchin is actually pulling Biden to the left.

Manchin’s salience puts West Virginia in a powerful position. The state has urgent needs, given the long decline of the coal industry and the double impact of the opioid and coronavirus public health crises. Almost a third of West Virginians filed for unemployment between mid-March 2020 and the end of January 2021.

A report by University of Massachusetts economists with the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), released in late February, proposed a recovery plan for West Virginia, with good jobs and environmental sustainability at its center. The study showed how compatible these priorities really are. The state’s coal industry has spent years successfully demonizing Democrats and environmentalists as job killers. Under recent regimes of neoliberal austerity, there might been some truth to that, but with more generous investment from the federal government, West Virginia can redevelop its economy and lead the nation in fighting climate change at the same time.

PERI found that the struggling Appalachian state could reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and reach zero emissions by 2050 — the targets the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) determined in 2018 were needed in order to avoid irreversible damage to our planet and to human civilizations — while creating jobs and promoting prosperity. The UMass researchers found that $3.6 billion per year in (both public and private) investments in a clean energy program — averaged over the 2021–2030 time period — would generate about 25,000 West Virginian jobs per year. The PERI researchers also analyzed the effect of $1.6 billion a year — also over 2021–2030 — in investments in public infrastructure, manufacturing, land restoration, and agriculture, finding that these efforts would generate about 16,000 jobs per year.

In fighting for such priorities, progressives need resist the pull of what we might call “woke neoliberalism.” Woke neoliberalism functions by using charges of racism and sexism — very real problems! — against initiatives that could help the entire working class. (Remember Hillary Clinton’s, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?”) In the debate over the Biden infrastructure bill, some well-meaning people are falling into that trap, already pitting investment in care work and infrastructure against each other.

The Washington Post reported on Monday, “Some people close to the White House say they feel that the emphasis on major physical infrastructure investments reflects a dated nostalgia for a kind of White working-class male worker,” citing SEIU president Mary Kay Henry’s private admonitions to the White House not to overlook the care economy. Henry said, “We’re up against a gender and racial bias that this work is not worth as much as the rubber, steel and auto work of the last century.” Economists Heidi Shierholz, Darrick Hamilton, and Larry Katz reportedly argued to the White House that investing in care work would create more jobs than investing in infrastructure.

Let’s not do this.

Reclaiming Abandoned Mines: Turning Coal Country’s Toxic Legacy Into Assets

By Tara Lohan - The Revelator, March 29, 2021

Mined lands reclaimed for biking trails, office parks — even a winery. Efforts like these are already underway in Appalachia to reclaim the region’s toxic history, restore blighted lands, and create economic opportunities in areas where decades-old mines haven’t been properly cleaned up.

The projects are sorely needed. And so are many more. But the money to fund and enable them remains elusive.

Mining production is falling, which is good news for tackling climate change and air pollution, but Appalachia and other coal states are also feeling the economic pain that comes with it. And that loss is more acute on top of pandemic-related revenue shortfalls and the mounting bills from the industry’s environmental degradation.

Local leaders and organizations working in coal communities see a way to flip the script, though. The Revelator spoke with Rebecca Shelton, the director of policy and organizing for Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, about efforts focusing on one particular area that’s plagued coal communities for more than 50 years: cleaning up abandoned mine lands.

Shelton explains the history behind these lands, the big legislative opportunities developing in Washington, and what coal communities need to prepare for a low-carbon future.

Pipelines, Pandemics and Capital’s Death Cult: A Green Syndicalist View

By Jeff Shantz - LibCom, March 29, 2021

We can see this within any industry, within any capitalist enterprise. It is perhaps most clearly apparent, in an unadorned fashion, in extractives industries like mining, logging, or oil, where the consumption of nature (as resources) for profit leaves ecosystems ruined, where workers are forced to labor in dangerous, often deadly, conditions, and where it is all is carried out through direct dispossession, invasion, and occupation of Indigenous lands and through processes of mass killing, even genocide. And when it is all done, little remains except the traces of profit that have been extracted and taken elsewhere.

These intersections have come to the forefront with particular clarity under conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic. The death cult of capital on full display in all its variety of ways.

The Future of People Power in the Coronavirus Depression

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 25, 2021

What can we learn from the role of people power in the Great Depression and in the first year of the Coronavirus Depression? Based on the seven preceding commentaries on the New Deal and the popular movements of 2020, this commentary maintains that popular direct action can play a significant role in shaping the Biden era. It examines the emerging political context and suggests guidelines for navigating the complex landscape that lies ahead. To read this commentary, please visit this page.

Why major unions are wary of the move to wind and solar jobs

By Ella Nilsen - Vox, March 19, 2021

President Joe Biden wants to quickly move the United States toward clean energy jobs in wind and solar. But unions — some of Biden’s strongest allies — are skeptical about the transition to green energy.

Biden and congressional Democrats are poised to introduce a large infrastructure plan that is supposed to deliver on two promises: putting job creation into overdrive, and decarbonizing the economy, with an aggressive goal of powering 100 percent of America’s electricity sector with clean energy by 2035.

To achieve both goals, the administration is betting on a massive push toward wind and solar. Renewables already produced 20 percent of US electricity in 2020, and expanding them further to decarbonize the economy necessarily means phasing out fossil fuels. But even as wind and solar production has increased, wages and the rate of unionized jobs in renewables haven’t kept up with the industries they’d be replacing. In order to make more profits, many companies want to keep their costs low — which includes keeping wages low.

“The fossil fuel industries were unionized in long struggles that were classic labor stories,” said University of Rhode Island labor historian Erik Loomis. “Now, they’re in decline and you have these new industries. But a green capitalist is still a capitalist, and they don’t want a union.”

About 4 percent of solar industry workers and 6 percent of wind workers are unionized, according to the 2020 US Energy and Employment Report. The percentage of unionized workers in natural gas, nuclear, and coal power plants is about double that, around 10 to 12 percent unionized (although still not a huge amount). In transportation, distribution, and storage jobs — which exist largely in the fossil fuel sector — about 17 percent of the jobs are unionized. Still, the solar and wind unionization rates are in line with the low national rate of unionized workers in the private sector, which is about 6.3 percent.

This is one of the big reasons there’s a real hesitancy on the part of many unions and workers to transition from fossil fuel to renewable jobs: They are worried the jobs waiting for them in wind and solar won’t pay as well or have union protections. This has long been a tension point between environmental groups and labor, often exploited by the right wing. Even though alliances between the two are forming, those underlying tensions won’t vanish easily.

Workers and Communities in Transition: Report of the Just Transition Listening Project

By J. Mijin Cha, Vivian Price, Dimitris Stevis, and Todd E. Vachon, et. al. - Labor Network for Sustainability, March 17, 2021

The idea of “just transition” has recently become more mainstream in climate discourse. More environmental and climate justice advocates are recognizing the need to protect fossil-fuel workers and communities as we transition away from fossil-fuel use. Yet, as detailed in our report, transition is hardly new or limited to the energy industry. Throughout the decades, workers and communities have experienced near constant economic transitions as industries have risen and declined. And, more often than not, transition has meant loss of jobs, identities, and communities with little to no support.

While transition has been constant, the scale of the transition away from fossil fuels will be on a level not yet experienced. Fossil fuels are deeply embedded in our economy and society. Transition will not only affect the energy sector, but transportation (including passenger and freight), agriculture and others. Adding to the challenges of the energy transition, we are also transitioning to a post-COVID-19-pandemic world. As such, we cannot afford, economically or societally, to repeat the mistakes of the past that left so many workers and communities behind.

To better understand how transition impacts people, what lessons can be learned, and what practices and policies must be in place for a just transition, in the Spring of 2020 we launched the Just Transition Listening Project (JTLP). The JTLP has captured the voices of workers and community members who have experienced, are currently experiencing, or anticipate experiencing some form of economic transition.

Those who have suffered from transitions are rarely the ones whose voices are heard. Yet, no one is more able to fully understand what workers and communities need than those who have lived that experience. The JTLP is the first major effort to center these voices. In turn, the recommendations provided can make communities and workers whole. In many ways, these recommendations are common sense and fundamental to creating a just society, regardless of transition. Yet, the failure of elected officials to deliver just transition policies points to the need for wide scale movement building and organizing.

This report summarizes lessons learned and policy recommendations in three overall concepts for decision-makers: Go Big, Go Wide, and Go Far.

Read the text (PDF).

The Great Depression and the Coronavirus Depression

Why the PRO Act Is Part of a Green New Deal

By Dharna Noor - Gizmodo, March 10, 2021

On Tuesday night, the U.S. House passed an essential piece of climate policy. But the legislation makes no mention of greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, or extreme weather. Instead, it’s all about labor protections.

The Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2021, known as the PRO Act, is the most comprehensive piece of labor legislation the U.S. has seen in decades. It would make it easier for workers to organize and could move us a step closer to ensure the future clean energy economy is one that works for everyone.

“When we push for a Green New Deal, we’re pushing for a reimagining and a redesign of the economy overall with a focus on care jobs which do not contribute to our carbon footprint and jobs that are not a part of the fossil fuel industry,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman said just hours after delivering an impassioned speech in support of the bill on the House floor. “We’re talking about millions of union jobs where workers are earning a family-sustaining wage and they have a right to organize and unionize without being threatened or bullied or intimidated by employers…so this is a huge step.”

Among the PRO Act’s provisions are fines for managers who retaliate against workers who organize and requirements for employers to bargain their workers’ first union contracts in good faith. It would also effectively end so-called right-to-work laws in the nearly 30 states that have passed them and stop employers from permanently replacing workers who go on strike.

All told, the bill would make it much easier for American workers to unionize and bargain for protections. A more organized workforce means workers will have better benefits on the job and more protection when they leave a position. That would be great news for the fight for a livable planet, because it would secure crucial rights for those leaving jobs in the waning fossil fuel industry and for those in the new clean economy, too. Boosting union density could bring many new people into the fold to push for that just transition. Joining unions could also help workers in job training programs or green industries to advocate for themselves.

Only 18% of global Recovery spending in 2020 was green

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, March 10, 2021

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released Are We Building Back Better? Evidence from 2020 and Pathways for Inclusive Green Recovery Spending, on March 10. It estimates that in 2020, the world’s fifty largest economies announced USD14.6tn in fiscal measures to address the pandemic economic crisis, and states: …. “Excluding currently uncertain packages from the European Commission, 18.0% of recovery spending, and only 2.5% of total spending, is expected to enhance sustainability. The vast majority of green spending has come from a small set of high-income nations” with France, Germany and South Korea highlighted for their relatively high percentage of green recovery spending. Canada’s spending is small, with only brief references which state that we have focused on “cleaning dirty energy assets”, and have made fossil fuel investment. (no details or examples given). It is notable that the report covers 2020, so that U.S. spending is also low, though hope is expressed for the Biden/Harris administration. Notably, the report looks to the future: “….. the largest window for green spending is only now opening, as nations shift attention from short-term rescue measures to recovery. Using examples from 2020 spending, we highlight five major green investment opportunities to be prioritised in 2021: green energy, green transport, green building upgrades & energy efficiency, natural capital, and green research and development.”

Each of those topics is analyzed, with some exemplary policies highlighted. Some overarching issues: “Of particular note, despite continuing high global unemployment and widespread damage to human capital, spending on worker retraining in 2020 was small and almost exclusively non-green. Nations transitioning to a low-carbon economy must invest in human capital to enable and match future growth priorities. Structural changes in major sectors, including energy, agriculture, transport, and construction, require shifts in the structure and capabilities of the domestic labour force.”

Also, regarding “green strings”: “Although some dirty rescue-type expenditure may have been necessary to ensure that lives and livelihoods were saved, many of the largest of these policies could have included positive green attributes. For instance, airline bailouts in nations all over the world, including South Africa, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States could have included green conditions. Green conditions tied to liquidity support, like requirements to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 or mandates to increase sustainable fuel use, can ensure short term relief while also promoting investment in long-term technological development and acting as a strong guide in national efforts to meet climate targets.”

The report is supported by the United Nations UNEP, the International Monetary Fund and GIZ through the Green Fiscal Policy Network (GFPN). The data was collected by the Oxford University Economic Recovery Project and is now available through the Global Recovery Observatory, a new database which will be updated regularly (most recently at the end of February).

The report cites many other studies and reports, notably: “Will COVID-19 fiscal recovery packages accelerate or retard progress on climate change?” by Cameron Hepburn, Brian O’Callaghan, Nicholas Stern, Joseph Stiglitz, and Dimitri Zenghelis, which appeared in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy in May 2020.

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