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United Steelworkers of America (USW)

Winning Fossil Fuel Workers Over to a Just Transition

By Norman Rogers - Jacobin, March 18, 2024

This article is adapted from Power Lines: Building a Labor-Climate Justice Movement, edited by Jeff Ordower and Lindsay Zafir (The New Press, 2024).

I have a dream. I have a nightmare.

The dream is that working people find careers with good pay, good benefits, and a platform for addressing grievances with their employers. In other words, I dream that everyone gets what I got over twenty-plus years as a unionized worker in the oil industry.

The nightmare is that people who had jobs with good pay and power in the workplace watch those gains erode as the oil industry follows the lead of steel, auto, and coal mining to close plants and lay off workers. It is a nightmare rooted in witnessing the cruelties suffered by our siblings in these industries — all of whom had good-paying jobs with benefits and the apparatus to process grievances when their jobs went away.

Workers, their families, and their communities were destroyed when the manufacturing plants and coal mines shut down, with effects that linger to this day. Without worker input, I fear that communities dependent on the fossil fuel industry face a similar fate.

This nightmare is becoming a reality as refineries in Wyoming, Texas, Louisiana, California, and New Mexico have closed or have announced pending closures. Some facilities are doing the environmentally conscious thing and moving to renewable fuels. Laudable as that transition is, a much smaller workforce is needed for these processes. For many oil workers, the choice is to keep working, emissions be damned, or to save the planet and starve.

United Steelworkers (USW) Local 675 — a four-thousand-member local in Southern California, of which I am the second vice president — is helping to chart a different course, one in which our rank-and-file membership embraces a just transition and in which we take the urgent steps needed to protect both workers and the planet. Along with other California USW locals, we are fighting to ensure that the dream — not the nightmare — is the future for fossil fuel workers as we transition to renewable energy.

Labor unions are still giving Democrats climate headaches

By Alex Nieves - Politico, December 4, 2023

One of California’s most powerful unions is not loosening its grip on oil jobs.

Despite the Biden administration and California lawmakers pouring billions of dollars into new climate-friendly industries like electric vehicles, hydrogen and building electrification, a key player in state politics is still defending fossil fuel interests that provide thousands of well-paying jobs.

President Joe Biden’s investment in clean energy sectors through a pair of massive spending bills — which promise lucrative tax credits for projects that pay union wages — was supposed to speed up the labor transition away from oil and gas. That hasn’t happened in deep-blue California, home to the country’s most ambitious climate policies — and most influential labor unions.

“We believe we’re still going to be working in the oil and gas space for the foreseeable future,” said Chris Hannan, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, which represents nearly 500,000 members across dozens of local unions, from pipefitting to electrical work.

Unions’ longstanding — and well-founded — distrust of the renewable energy industry as a reliable source of labor-friendly jobs is slowing the “just transition” that Biden, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic leaders around the country have pushed.

With federal officials trying to get clean energy funding out as fast as possible ahead of the 2024 election, and California politicians cracking down on the fossil fuel industry, unions’ reluctance to relinquish fossil fuel jobs undermines Democrats’ aggressive climate targets, according to a lawmaker who serves both a union- and oil-rich area of the state.

While the union embrace of fossil fuels is unique to California — one of the few blue states with significant oil production — the struggle highlights a larger question over how states can quickly build massive amounts of clean energy infrastructure without undercutting labor.

Unions Launch California Worker Climate Bill of Rights

By Web Admin - Sunflower Alliance, October 25, 2023

California Labor for Climate Jobs (CLCJ), a coalition of California unions, has released its state policy platform, the California Worker Climate Bill of Rights, calling on the state to support a “worker-led transition to a just and climate-safe economy.”

The bill of rights calls for:

  • Protections from climate hazards
  • Safety nets for impacted workers and communities
  • Good jobs in the low-carbon economy
  • A strong public sector — adaptive services for all.

Their vision also includes:

  • Universal health care/the caring economy
  • Reliable and accessible public transportation
  • Expanded public education and job training.

California Workers’ Climate Bill of Rights

By staff - California Labor for Climate Jobs, October 2023

Climate change is forcing a massive restructuring of our economy; a worker-led transition provides a once- in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape our economy for working people and our communities while limiting climate dangers. Labor rights are a climate solution: we must increase workers’ voice on the job in all sectors through unionization, and invest in our public sector to build the democratic, clean, green economy we need. Massive investments in our infrastructure, agriculture and public sectors are moving us towards meeting California’s climate goals and can create a million new union jobs for pipefitters, carpenters, manufacturers, electricians, cable layers, public transit operators, agricultural workers and others. Expanding the public services our communities need to cope with extreme weather and climate disasters will create jobs for nurses, care workers, public sector workers and more, while providing new opportunities for workers who have been trapped in low-wage jobs.

A worker-led transition means fighting to support fossil-fuel dependent workers and communities, including wage and pension guarantees and retraining, rather than leaving it to the whims of the oil CEOs to dictate the terms of the transition. From West Virginia to Los Angeles, we have seen how unplanned closures and economic shifts have devastated workers and the communities where they live.

Transition is inevitable, but economic and racial justice are not. If labor takes the lead, we have a historic opportunity to grow the labor movement and create a cleaner, more equitable, and climate-safe economy that provides high-road, family-sustaining, union jobs.

Download a copy of this publication here (PDF).

Workers vs Heat

By Staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, August 30, 2023

UPS Workers Win Heat Protections Faced with a threatened strike – including “practice picket lines” — by its 340,000 union employees, UPS has agreed to a contract that provides major gains in wages and working conditions for its Teamsters’ members. The contract includes elimination of a “two-tier” wage rate; significant wage increases, especially for the lowest paid workers; and combining part-time jobs to provide new full-time jobs.

Sometimes lethal heat conditions have been a central issue for UPS workers. UPS has promised to equip all new package cars with air-conditioning and to install fans on older package cars. Section 14 of the contract states: 

All vans, pushbacks, fuel trucks, package cars, shifting units, and 24-foot box vans after January 2024 shall be equipped with A/C. Single fans will be installed in all package cars within 30 days of ratification and a second fan will be installed no later than June 1, 2024. Air-conditioned package cars will first be allocated to Zone 1 which is the hottest area of the country. All model year 2023 and beyond package cars and vans will be delivered with factory-installed heat shields and air induction vents for the package compartment. Within 18 months of ratification, all package cars will be retrofitted with heat shields and air induction vents. A Package Car Heat Committee will be established within 10 days of ratification for the purpose of studying methods of venting and insulating the package compartment. A decision must be made by October, 2024 or the issue will be submitted to the grievance procedure. The company will replace at least 28,000 package cars and vans during the life of the contract. 

The contract was overwhelmingly ratified by UPS union members on August 22.

How Federal Law Can Protect All Workers on Sweltering Summer Days

By Tom Conway - CounterPunch, July 17, 2023

The heat index soared to 111 degrees in Houston, Texas, but the real-feel temperature climbed even higher than that inside the heavy personal protective equipment (PPE) that John Hayes and his colleagues at Ecoservices wear on the job.

Sweat poured from the workers clad in full-body hazardous materials suits, heavy gloves, splash hoods, and steel-toed boots as they sampled and processed chemicals from huge metal containers under a searing sun.

Fortunately, as members of the United Steelworkers (USW), these workers negotiated a policy requiring the chemical treatment company to provide shade, cool-down periods, and other measures to protect them during sweltering days.

But unless all Americans have commonsense safeguards like these, workers across the country will continue to get sick and die during ever-worsening heat waves.

The USW, other unions, and advocacy groups are calling on the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to speedily enact a national standard specifying the minimum steps all employers need to take to safeguard workers from unprecedented and deadly bouts of heat.

Because of union advocacy, OSHA already has national standards that protect workers from falls, trench collapses, asbestos exposure, infectious diseases, injuries from equipment, and many other workplace hazards. It’s way past time to also protect workers from the heat waves that are growing more severe, lasting longer, and claiming more lives each year.

“Heat affects everybody. It doesn’t care about age,” observed Hayes, president of USW Local 227’s Ecoservices unit, who helped to negotiate the heat-related protections for about 70 workers in treatment services, maintenance, logistics, and other departments.

“There’s so many things they can come up with,” he said of OSHA officials.

The policy the union negotiated with Ecoservices requires low-cost, sensible measures like water, electrolytes, modified work schedules, tents and fans, and the authority to stop work when conditions become unhealthy and unsafe.

“If you start to feel dizzy or lightheaded, take your timeout,” Hayes reminds coworkers. “Don’t worry about it.”

In 2021, OSHA initiated efforts “to consider a heat-specific workplace rule.” In the meantime, states and local governments are free to make their own rules, let workers fend for themselves, or even put workers at greater risk.

Aluminum Revitalized

By Ariel Pinchot, et. al. - Blue Green Alliance, June 2023

As one of the most important metals for modern life, aluminum is all around us. From our bridges and high-rise buildings to our smartphones and kitchen appliances, this highly durable, lightweight, and conductive material is essential. It’s also a key ingredient for achieving our climate, jobs, and national security goals. As a primary component of solar panels, power lines, electric vehicles (EVs), and other clean technologies, aluminum is a building block of our clean energy solutions. At the same time, producing aluminum requires a tremendous amount of energy, and globally, the sector is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As the world produces increasing amounts of this material for the clean energy economy, we must simultaneously decrease the emissions from its production in order to achieve global climate targets.

In the United States, our growing need for aluminum already far surpasses the dwindling output from our domestic primary production. As a result, much of the aluminum we use comes from abroad, including from countries where aluminum production is much more emissions-intensive. Increasing our aluminum procurements from highly-polluting overseas producers will only push our climate justice goals further out of reach. What we need to advance these goals is a secure, domestically produced supply of clean aluminum made with high-road labor standards.

Revitalizing clean aluminum manufacturing in the U.S. will not only cut a major source of climate pollution, reduce worker and fenceline community exposure to airborne pollutants, and secure a reliable supply of an essential material for clean energy—it will also create good jobs for hard-hit workers and communities, while supporting the current workforce and retaining existing jobs. This report lays out a set of targeted recommendations for getting there. After assessing the state of the domestic industry, we outline the employment, climate, and community benefits of revitalizing clean aluminum manufacturing and present a set of policy solutions that can help create and sustain a strong, clean aluminum industry.

Download a copy of this publication here (PDF).

What a World Beyond Fossil Fuels Will Mean for Workers, Families, and Communities

Union Win at Bus Factory Electrifies Georgia

By Luis Feliz Leon - Labor Notes, May 16, 2023

After a bruising three-year fight, workers at school bus manufacturer Blue Bird in Fort Valley, Georgia, voted May 12 to join United Steelworkers (USW) Local 697.

“It’s been a long time since a manufacturing site with 1,400 people has been organized, let alone organized in the South, let alone organized with predominantly African American workers, and let alone in the auto industry,” said Maria Somma, organizing director with the USW.

“It’s not a single important win. It’s an example of what’s possible—workers wanting to organize and us being able to take advantage of a time and a policy that allowed them to clear a path to do so.”

The vote was 697 to 435 with 80 percent turnout. At two factories and a warehouse near Macon, the workers build school buses and an array of specialty buses.

Blue Bird is the second-largest bus manufacturer in the country, after Daimler Truck’s Thomas Built Buses. The Auto Workers represent workers at a Thomas Built facility in North Carolina.

The main issues in Georgia were pay and safety. Workers began organizing in earnest at the height of the pandemic in 2020 after Blue Bird workers reached out to a Steelworker organizer following a union win at a tire factory in nearby Macon. They overcame a fierce anti-union campaign in a right-to-work state where only 4.4 percent of workers are union members.

But Somma adds that workers tapped into local union networks. “People think the South is non-union, but we have a lot of members in middle Georgia,” she said.

The Steelworkers represent thousands of members in the state—at BASF, which makes chemicals used in plastics, detergent, and paper manufacturing, Anchor Glass, and the paper giant Graphic Packaging International.

The Transition to Green Energy Must Center Workers and Unions

By Tracy Scott - Newsweek, May 3, 2023

When John Bayer got the call that the Marathon Martinez oil refinery was shutting down, he was sound asleep after his graveyard shift at the facility, where he worked a union job as a health, safety and emergency response resource. For John, the phone call did more than wake him up after a night of hard work. As an employee at the Marathon refinery for nearly two decades and as the sole provider for his wife and two kids, it shook the foundation of his life and career.

John was just one of nearly 350 workers represented by United Steelworkers Local 5, the union I lead, who lost their jobs when the Marathon refinery shut down in October 2020. John's story echoes that of thousands of oil and other workers across the country who are facing an uncertain future amid the changing energy landscape.

To be clear: In California and across the country, working people support addressing climate change and transitioning to renewable energy. But when refineries like the former Marathon facility shut down without a clear plan in place that involves unions from the outset, workers and the community inevitably get left behind.

In order to guarantee that California has an economy that works for everybody, impacted workers must be at the center of planning for the ongoing transition to clean energy, and they must have access to union jobs that guarantee financial security, strong protections, and good benefits.

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