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Protecting Workers and Communities, From Below Part 2: There Ought to Be a Law

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, April 30, 2023

As key states start reducing their use of coal, oil, and gas, what will happen to the workers who produce, transport, and burn those fossil fuels? The previous Commentary, “Protecting Workers and Communities – From Below: Part 1: On the Ground” described local programs to protect workers and communities from side effects of power plant closings and other climate protection measures. This Commentary portrays state-level programs to guard workers and communities against loss of livelihoods and income from climate protection policies.

While the transition to climate-safe energy will create far more jobs than it will eliminate, that is cold comfort for those whose jobs may be threatened – after all, every job is important if it is your job. So many of those who are advocating for state policies for climate protection are also advocating protections for workers and communities that may be adversely affected by climate measures. And many of the states that are transitioning away from climate-destroying fossil fuels to climate-safe renewable energy are developing policies and programs to protect workers and communities from damaging side effects of that transition. While such provisions are still far from adequate, they provide initial experiments that can lay the groundwork for expanded protections at both state and national levels.

Talking Union, Talking Climate

By staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, April 30, 2023

How are workers around the world viewing climate change and its impact on their jobs, their labor conditions, and their industries? For a quick, revealing glimpse at the answer, take a look at the 15-minute video Talking Union, Talking Climate. It provides a dialogue among workers in California, Norway, and Nigeria about labor conditions in the fossil fuel industry, the shift to a green economy, and what a just transition might be.

The video was made by Vivian Price, a former union electrician, now professor and researcher on labor and climate change and a co-author of the LNS report Workers and Communities in Transition: Report of the Just Transition Listening Project. The three workers are Charlie Sandoval, United Steelworkers, California, Kristian Enoksen,Industri Energi, Norway, Orike Didi, PENGASSAN, Nigeria.

From Farmworkers to Land Healers

By Brooke Anderson - Yes! Magazine, April 25, 2023

Immigrant and Indigenous farmworkers in California reclaim the power of their labor.

Sandra de Leon adds branches to a burn pile in Santa Rosa, CA on December 18, 2022. Photo by Brooke Anderson

On most days, Sandra de Leon prunes grapevines in Northern California’s wealthiest vineyards. But today she is dressed head to toe in a yellow fire-resistant suit, helmet, safety goggles, and gloves, carrying a machete and drip torch. She calls out over her crackling mobile radio, “Jefe de quema: aquí Bravo, informandoles que …” (“Burn chief: Bravo unit here, informing you that …”) and then rattles off data in Spanish on the number, size, duration, and temperature of a dozen or so burn piles she is monitoring on the sun-speckled forest floor. 

De Leon is one of 25 immigrant and Indigenous farmworkers gathered on a cold December morning in Sonoma County, California, for the first-in-the-country Spanish-language intentional-burn certification program. Like de Leon, each of these firefighters-(and firelighters!)-in-training has been haunted by fire. During a massive inferno in 2017, de Leon was one of many “essential workers” escorted by vineyard managers through mandatory evacuation zones to harvest grapes while breathing in toxic fumes from nearby blazes. 

“When we arrived at work, there were patrol cars because it was an evacuation zone, but they waved us through to harvest. The skies were red and heavy smoke was in the air. They didn’t give us any protective equipment. No masks,” de Leon says. “There was so much ash on the grapes that when you’d cut the grape, it would get on your face. Our faces were black.”

While she didn’t get sick, she says her co-workers struggled with asthma. De Leon recalls harvesting like this for eight hours and getting paid just $20 per hour. 

“They should have paid us more,” de Leon says. “We risked our lives for their profits.”

Today, however, de Leon and her fellow farmworkers are here to learn about “good fire”—a controlled burn land stewards use to reduce underbrush in overgrown forests to prevent the spread of more destructive wildfires. Thanks to North Bay Jobs With Justice, de Leon and her fellow farmworkers are (re-)learning skills many of their ancestors knew well. And they are putting that know-how to work healing a fire-ravaged landscape and people. 

California public pension divestment bill building momentum; passed Senate Labor and Judiciary Committees

By Shana DeClercq - Fossil Free California, April 18, 2023

Today, SB 252 – a widely-supported bill for CalPERS and CalSTRS to phase out fossil fuel investments – passed its second Committee hearing in the California State Senate at the Senate Judiciary Committee. After an opening statement from bill author Senator Lena Gonzalez (D), Long Beach), and expert testimony from Hannah Estrada, Youth vs. Apocalypse, and Ron Rapp, Legislative Director, California Faculty Association. The Committee opened the floor to in-person and phone call public testimony. Nearly 150 Californians called in or joined in person to support SB252 yesterday. The phone lines overflowed with Central Valley community members, Bay Area youth, organizational representatives, and pension beneficiaries from across California striving to make their enthusiasm for divestment heard.

Eight Senate committee members voted Aye, and the bill has been referred to the Senate Appropriations Committee. This momentum for public pension divestment comes as Californians recover from record-shattering floods, while also girding themselves for ever-lengthening wildfire seasons in the Western U.S. – climate impacts directly caused by the extraction, transportation, and burning of fossil fuels.

Carlos Davidson, CalPERS recipient and California Faculty Association member, gave the following statement: 

“What we are seeing with SB 252 is tremendous momentum, in no small part due to the strong labor support for divestment of CalPERS and CalSTRS. Just as our pensions are the largest in the United States, our union workforce that contributes to those pensions is also a force to reckon with. Unions supporting the bill, such as the California Faculty Association, AFSCME California, the California Nurses Association, the American Federation of Teachers California, and more, together represent over 470,000 California workers.” 

What Union Pacific and the media aren’t telling you about the Baker, CA, train derailment

Chapter 11 : I Knew Nothin’ Till I Met Judi

By Steve Ongerth - From the book, Redwood Uprising: Book 1

Download a free PDF version of this chapter.

Now there’s one thing she really did for me, (did for me),
Was teach me all ‘bout labor history, (history)
So now I can relate to the workin’ slob, (workin’ slob),
Even though I never had a job.

—Lyrics excerpted from “I Knew Nothin’ Till I Met Judi”, by Darryl Cherney, ca. 1990.

Judi Bari (ne Barisciano), the second of three daughters, was born on November 7, 1949 in a working class neighborhood in a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland, where most of the nearby families were employed in the local steel mills. Bari’s mother Ruth, however, had made history by earning the first PhD ever awarded to a woman studying mathematics at Johns Hopkins University. Bari’s father, Arthur, was a diamond setter, and from him, Bari developed extremely steady hands, which later became a boon to her considerable artistic skills. Bari’s older sister, none other than Gina Kolata, became a famous science writer for the New York Times and Science (although many Earth First!ers, including Bari herself, would argue that Bari’s older sister’s “science” is distorted by corporate lenses), while her younger sister, Martha, was, by Bari’s description, “a perpetual student”. Judi Bari’s upbringing may have been “Middle Class” by most definitions, but her parents, survivors of the McCarthy era in the 1950s, passed on their closet radicalism to their receptive middle daughter, including teaching Bari old IWW songs (and admonishing Bari not to reveal her source) and lecturing all of their daughters against racial and ethnic prejudice. From the get-go, Bari had radical roots.[1]

Judi Bari, in spite of her background as a “red diaper baby”, became politically radicalized on her own accord, having at first been apolitical, even into her first years at the University of Maryland, choosing at first to follow the high school football team, even seeking dates from some of the players as her primary social activity. However, Bari soon became disillusioned with the sexist and racist culture of high school football, having been told not to date an African American player by some of the white ones, who threatened to ostracize her socially if she did. Bari gave in to this threat, an act she later regretted, though this was her first and only capitulation to the status quo. From that point onward, Bari grew increasingly radical. [2]

Heat Still Killing California Workers

By staff - Labor Network for Sustainability, April 2, 2023

Seventeen years ago California passed one of the nation’s first workplace heat stress rules. Since then California has been inundated with heat waves resulting from global warming. A new study, “Feeling the Heat: How California’s Workplace Heat Standards Can Inform Stronger Protections Nationwide,” finds that the state’s heat stress rule provides some protection, but that its coverage is limited, it is often unenforced, and that penalties are so modest that many employers simply ignore it. The study calls for expanding the rule to all California workers, increasing enforcement, and establishing a federal heat standard for all workers in the US.

The California rule requires employers to provide heat training, free drinking water, and shade to employees. It covers only outdoor workers, but the study identified heat-related cases in 463 different industries outside agriculture and construction, including janitorial services, home health care, museums, and newspaper publishers.

The study found that hundreds of businesses repeatedly violated the rule but avoided the usually higher fines meted out to repeat violators. UPS received 41 citations for violating the heat standard but was issued only one for a repeat violation.

Only Minnesota, Oregon, Colorado, and Washington have similar workplace heat stress rules. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been working for years on a national heat stress standard but none has so far been issued. Rep, Judy Chu and Sen. Alex Padilla of California and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio have introduced legislation to accelerate development of such a standard.

Fossil Fuel Industry Phase-Out: Three Critical Worker Guarantees for a Just Transition

State Building and Construction Trades Council of California opposition to AB 538

By Andrew Meredith - State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, March 16, 2023

Dear Chair Garcia and Members of the Committee:

On behalf of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, I write in strong opposition to AB 538 (Holden). While this bill has been pitched as an effort to simply increase regional cooperation among western states, in reality, AB 538 will destroy construction jobs in California while ceding significant control and oversight of our electrical grid to groups and agencies outside of our state. California has made significant commitments and investments as it relates to renewable power and should remain in control of its own destiny.

Proponents of AB 538 have argued that a regionalized organization is better prepared to deliver benefits to participating states. For nearly a decade, these proponents have failed to provide demonstrative evidence that any benefits would outweigh the significant drawbacks associated with the regionalization of our electrical grid. Even worse, they are now asking the legislature to abandon oversight of the California Independent System Operator (CA ISO), leaving the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in complete and exclusive control; this is wrong on many levels.

For the most part, CA ISO has functioned well in maintaining reliability on one of the largest power grids in the world. The success of CA ISO is rooted, though, in the direction and oversight provided by the legislature. We are confident this legislature will continue to drive progress on reliability and the deployment of renewable technologies. Allowing other states, many of whom do not share the same goals, priorities, or values, to play a role in shaping our energy future is dangerous and entirely unCalifornian.

Rooftop Solar Justice

By Howard Crystal, Roger Lin, and Jean Su - Center for Biolgical Diversity, March 2023

A war over the nation’s energy future is raging across the United States. On one side are everyday people who can benefit from clean, renewable energy through distributed-solar projects like rooftop and community solar. On the other side are for-profit electric utilities threatened by distributed solar’s impact on their lucrative, guaranteed profits. These companies are using their influence with regulators and legislators in a coordinated effort to undermine the expansion of distributed solar. They recently succeeded in California. This report addresses the environmental and economic justice of net energy metering, or NEM, and the utility industry’s false and self-serving claims against distributed-solar growth.

To combat the climate emergency and pervasive energy inequity, we need to maximize distributed solar development. NEM already exists in many states and is a key policy driver to expand distributed solar. Customers pay only for the net electricity they use each month, considering both the power going to the grid when rooftop-solar systems generate excess electricity and the power coming in from the grid (particularly at night). Net metering substantially reduces electricity bills, allowing people to recoup their distributed-solar investments.

For-profit utilities are fighting NEM on multiple fronts and in many states. In California, for example, they recently convinced regulators to gut net metering for new customers. In Florida a utility-backed bill to gut net metering passed the legislature. Utility companies fight NEM because it undermines their business model, which assumes that centralized utilities are the only legitimate makers and sellers of electricity.

As this report shows, anti-net-metering talking points are based on an outdated version of the grid, where for-profit utilities control everything. Utilities want to gut net metering to maintain control and use the proceeds to pay for rising utility costs, including the growing costs of addressing climate-fueled catastrophes and stranded assets in fossil fuel infrastructure.

Read the entire statement (PDF).

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