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Fighting California’s fires requires carceral reform and a Just Transition

By Ray Levy Uyeda - Prism, September 28, 2022

Fires fueled by climate crisis expose the intersecting injustices incarcerated people face and the comprehensive reforms needed for a Just Transition:

Fall is a tough season for Da’Ton Harris, a wildland firefighter who spends multiple weeks at a time attempting to tamp down fires without hoses. Harris and his crew of 20 other firefighters with the Urban Association of Forestry and Fire Professionals, where he’s a superintendent, are responsible for cutting down a forest to its soil so that, theoretically, there’s less fuel to burn. It’s a critical job, especially as climate change continues to dry up California’s forests and prolong the summer heat, which now overlaps with increased winds during typical fall months—creating a ripe environment for wildfire. 

Many firefighters have been at the front lines of these dangerous jobs while being incarcerated, but policies block them from being hired by municipal fire stations after their release because they have conviction and felony records, despite the growing need for more firefighters to combat intensifying wildfires.

California legislators are starting to acknowledge this reality. In 2021, a state law went into effect that may make it easier for firefighters who were trained while they were incarcerated to expunge a felony conviction from their record, which is needed to gain the required licensing to become a municipal firefighter. Harris, a staff member at Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP), which helps formerly incarcerated people find jobs, went through the expungement process this year.

“With me being able to get this off my record, I can try to head back to school to work for a paramedic license, so I can work closer to home,” Harris said. He lives in Victorville, California, with his wife and five children, and he said that he’ll be able to go to his son’s baseball games and maybe even help coach the team. The expungement, he said, will change everything.

Advocates say the change in the law is a prime example of the progress that needs to happen around felony records and removing employment restrictions for those who’ve been arrested or incarcerated. However, others warn that reforms to a system that is restrictive by design won’t bring about the justice needed to address climate change-induced wildfires or change the way a conviction record can shadow someone long after they’ve served their sentence. 

While incarcerated wildland firefighters are tasked with combating the consequences of climate change, justice-involved community leaders and grassroots activists say that the intertwined issues of climate change and retributive policies of incarceration deserve a deeper look that questions the efficacy of piecemeal solutions to systemic issues. They also echo a call for a Just Transition, a union term for shifting the workforce away from harmful industries to those that don’t risk climate and ecological balance.

Industrial Policy Without Industrial Unions

By Lee Harris - The American Prospect, September 28, 2022

In August, as President Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act, pledging to build American semiconductor factories, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker posed on the White House lawn, flanked by the chief executives of vehicle companies Ford, Lion Electric, and Rivian. Thanks to billions of dollars in federal and state investments, Pritzker said, his constituents could expect a manufacturing revival, and “good-paying, union jobs.”

Illinois is refashioning itself as a center for electric vehicle (EV) production and a cluster of related industries, such as microchips. The state just passed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, its flagship industrial-policy plan, and has passed MICRO, a complement to federal CHIPS subsidies. Pritzker is hungry for Chicago to host the upcoming Democratic convention and take a victory lap at factory openings.

But he may have to trot out non-union autoworkers at the ribbon cuttings.

Ford, a “Big Three” union automaker, boasts that the F-150 is a “legendary union-built vehicle,” but battery production is being outsourced to non-union shops. Bus producer Lion Electric is under pressure to use organized labor, but has yet to make public commitments on allowing a union election without interference. Electric-truck startup Rivian, which is 18 percent owned by Amazon, has been plagued by workplace injuries and labor violations. Illinois’s attorney general recently uncovered a scheme to renovate its downstate plant with workers brought in from Mexico, who were cheated out of overtime pay.

Democrats are giddy about the arrival of green industrial policy. With last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law, CHIPS, and the new Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), Congress has poured money into setting off green growth. The main messaging behind this policy is that government investment can create attractive jobs, and a new political base, by manufacturing the clean technologies of the future.

If you squint, you could almost mistake the IRA’s robust Buy American provisions for worker protections. They are often mentioned in the same sentence. But while new spending is likely to onshore manufacturing, it largely lacks provisions ensuring that those new jobs will adhere to high-road labor standards, let alone that they will be unionized.

Instead, the political logic of the bill is a gamble. The energy sector is still dominated by oil and gas. To accelerate the transition, it will be necessary to create large countervailing industries. After decades of offshoring, the first aim for green manufacturing is to make sure that it happens here at all. The IRA alone could produce as many as nine million jobs over the next decade, according to an analysis by University of Massachusetts Amherst and the labor-environmental coalition BlueGreen Alliance. Many of those jobs will be in old Democratic strongholds where the party is now hemorrhaging support, like mining in Nevada and auto production in the Midwest.

Supporters hope that once new green jobs are created, a mass labor coalition could follow. As Nathan Iyer, an analyst at the climate consultant RMI, told the Prospect in a recent podcast, “It’s hard to have a workers-based movement, and build workers’ power, if there are no workers.”

Workers demand labor protections at Austin Energy base rate rally

By Kali Bramble - Austin Monitor, September 27, 2022

It was an unusually lively morning outside Austin Energy Headquarters last Saturday, as a coalition of workers, environmentalists and community leaders gathered to air their grievances with the publicly owned utility.

With a potential increase to residential rates on the horizon, the Texas Climate Jobs Action Fund led the diverse group of unions and civic organizations in a demand to prioritize affordability, safe working conditions and clean energy practices. Speakers from Electrical Workers Local 520, Texas AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, PODER and the Sunrise Movement all shared the podium, with Council members Ann Kitchen and Kathie Tovo also making appearances.

“’A better future isn’t possible for working people, it’ll cut into our profits …. We can’t build a greener, more sustainable future with workers that are well compensated, well trained, have health care, who are treated with respect and can return home safely to a thriving family.’ That’s what they’re saying at Austin Energy,” Local 520 member Ryan Pollock said, to a chorus of jeers. “We’re all here today because we know that a better future is possible, that we deserve that better future, and that we’re here to fight for it.”

With plans to update its base rates for 2023, Austin Energy has come under fire for a rate proposal critics say would unfairly impact low-income consumers and run counterproductive to the city’s environmental goals. Chief concerns include a 150 percent increase to the fixed residential service fee from $10 to $25 per month, as well as a restructuring of pricing tiers that would move away from charging steeper premiums for the highest-percentile energy users.

Compounding frustrations is Austin Energy’s recent announcement of a $20 increase in pass-through rates to take effect in November.

Media Moves On, But Railroad STRIKE Negotiations Are Heating Up

Liz Truss’s Overturn of Fracking Ban in Britain Is Sparking Grassroots Resistance

By Gareth Dale - Truthout, September 21, 2022

Britain will soon see the first license to drill for shale gas issued since 2019, when the practice was banned following a Magnitude 2.9 tremor at a fracking test well near Blackpool in Lancashire.

Overturning Britain’s ban on fracking was one of the first initiatives announced this month by the incoming government under Tory leader Liz Truss. It belongs to a package of demand-and-supply interventions aimed at addressing the high price of gas.

The message from Downing Street is clear: This government will not seek to lessen the hold of fossil fuel corporations over citizens’ lives by transitioning from hydrocarbons through efficiency measures (such as building insulation), rapidly ramping up renewables, and a further windfall tax on the oil and gas industry. Instead, it will arrange payment of the full-market price for gas to the energy firms while subsidizing consumer and business bills, particularly for rich, energy-profligate households. The cost, estimated at £150 billion, will be loaded onto future taxpayers and energy consumers. It is the largest single act of U.K. state intervention outside wartime.

Given Truss’s market-fundamentalist instincts, this cannot have been easy. But she has coupled it with a laissez-faire thrust on the supply side: to tear up red tape and issue licenses to drill. The market, she believes, will resolve its problems as new supply brings prices back down.

The focus is North Sea oil, but fracking is part of the program. Fracking also offers the incoming government an opportunity to throw red meat to Tory Party members and the right-wing Daily Mail tabloid. To reactionaries, Truss’s move signals that her government intends to bash the tree-huggers, goad them into setting up camps at fracking sites where the security forces will persecute and ultimately defeat them, much as Lady Thatcher did to the feminists who peace-camped at Greenham Common.

The government’s rationale for fracking, then, has an economic and a political edge. Will either succeed?

On the economic side, the prospects are sufficiently enticing to have sent the shares of some fracking companies soaring, notably Union Jack Oil. (Its very name sets Tory hearts aflutter.) Some pundits are predicting a great British gas rush. Shale extraction, claims the Daily Mail, may begin slowly, but by 2037 could “eclipse” fossil gas output from North Sea wells. At the wilder end are predictions that Britain will enjoy a U.S.-style shale revolution, contributing to lower global prices and securing mega profits for the fossil fuel sector.

Biden's Railroad Worker Agreement DOOMED? Union Organizer Calls Proposal 'DISINGENUOUS'

Enough Is Enough! 125,000 Railworkers Want A Life: Report By Gabe Christenson Co-chair RWU

What Casey Jones Tells Us about the Past and Present of America's Railroad Workers

By Scott Huffard - History News Network, September 18, 2022

With a potential railroad strike in the news, Americans are learning quite a bit about the poor working conditions on the freight railroads that keep this country running. Railroad workers threatening to strike have complained about poor pay, dangerous working conditions, and punitive attendance policies. If Americans think about the stereotypical railroad engineer, perhaps Casey Jones comes to mind. Casey Jones, who crashes to his doom in a famous song from the Grateful Dead, a folk ballad, vaudeville hit, and countless parodies, has become the almost universal stand-in for a railroad worker in American culture. Yet despite a haze of mythology, there was a real Casey jones, and his work life tells us much about railroad work in the past and present.

As Casey Jones songs spread around the nation, engineers and their friends from across the country claimed to be the “real” Casey Jones, a fact that tells us just how universal his experience was. But most folklorists find John Luther Jones, an Illinois Central engineer who died in a 1900 train wreck near Vaughan, Mississippi, to be the most credible of these claims. While we do not know all that much about his life, we do know what it was like to be an engineer for the Illinois Central, and the story of the real Casey Jones reminds us that there is nothing new about the grievances of modern rail workers.

“30 Years in the Making”: U.S. Rail Strike Averted by Tentative Deal as Workers Decry Grueling Conditions

The Looming Rail Strike Was Years in the Making

By Noah Lanard - Mother Jones, September 14, 2022

Workers are fed up with the cost-cutting and layoffs that have left them unable to care for themselves and their families.

Rail workers across the country may be on the verge of going on strike for the first time in three decades—a decision that would immediately cripple supply chains and cause billions in economic losses per day. Workers could walk off the job, or companies could lock them out, as soon as Friday if a deal isn’t reached. 

The dispute is not about pay, but the day-to-day indignities of working in the industry. Rail workers often don’t have weekends, get no sick days, and say that taking the time to care for themselves and their families can lead to being fired. As engineer Ross Grooters puts it, workers are “just fighting for the basic right to be able to be people outside of the railroad.”

The White House has been scrambling to try to avoid a strike that would upend the country’s economy in the lead-up to the midterm elections, and President Joe Biden has been in touch with unions and railroad companies, Politico reports. A shutdown could disrupt shipments of everything from coal and lumber to food and the chlorine used to treat wastewater. Amtrak trains that rely on freight carriers’ tracks are already being canceled.

Failing to reach a deal by Friday does not guarantee a strike, since both sides could agree to extend negotiations. But administration officials are developing contingency plans to try to keep essential goods moving in the event of a shutdown, an outcome that White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has said is “not acceptable.”

Unionized workers and rail companies have been in contract negotiations for more than two years. In July, Biden established a Presidential Emergency Board tasked with providing recommendations on how to end the dispute. Last month, the board proposed pay increases of 24 percent over five years, additional bonuses, and one extra personal day a year. It also called for lifting a cap on workers’ health care premiums, and did not back workers’ calls for sick days and less-punitive attendance policies.

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