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Unions Making a Green New Deal from Below: Part 1

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, May 2022

While Washington struggles over job and climate programs, unions around the country are making their own climate-protecting, justice-promoting jobs programs.

While unions have been divided on the Green New Deal as a national policy platform, many national and local unions have initiated projects that embody the principles and goals of the Green New Deal in their own industries and locations. Indeed, some unions have been implementing the principles of the Green New Deal since long before the Green New Deal hit the headlines, developing projects that help protect the climate while creating good jobs and reducing racial, economic, and social injustice.

Even some of the unions that have been most dubious about climate protection policies are getting on the clean energy jobs bandwagon. The United Mine Workers announced in March that it will partner with energy startup SPARKZ to build an electric battery factory in West Virginia in 2022 that will employ 350 workers. The UMWA will recruit and train dislocated miners to be the factory’s first production workers. According to UMWA International Secretary-Treasurer Brian Sanson, “We need good, union jobs in the coalfields no matter what industry they are in. This is a start toward putting the tens of thousands of already-dislocated coal miners to work in decent jobs in the communities where they live.”[1]

Support the Striking UTIER Utility Workers in Puerto Rico!

By Carol Wheeler - International Workers Committee, July 4, 2021

As the Puerto Rican Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union (UTIER) celebrates its 79th year, its union members are waging a fierce battle to save Puerto Rico’s power grid from the devastating effects of privatization. 

On June 22, 2020, the public utility Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) entered into a contract with LUMA Energy Corp., a joint U.S.-Canadian private conglomerate, for the operation and maintenance of the electric power transmission and distribution system. PREPA has been a public service for over 80 years. Massive debt, deteriorating infrastructure, and finally the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017 gave the U.S. government and Big Business what they had been seeking for some time — the full privatization of the Puerto Rican power grid and PREPA. 

Now, an expected $20 billion in emergency federal funds distributed through FEMA will allow LUMA Corp. to use the Hurricane Maria disaster to enrich its stockholders while doing little to fix the problems that exist with the Puerto Rican power grid. 

The contract signed between LUMA and the Puerto Rican government destroys the collective bargaining agreement between PREPA and its 3,000-plus workers, organized in UTIER. It undermines their pensions and allows the employer to set up a “preferred workers’ representative.” 

Written behind closed doors, without the input of elected officials accountable to Puerto Ricans, the contract effectively turns a public utility into a private monopoly. It allows LUMA to unilaterally determine the type of power to inject into the grid and includes no mandates or even any incentives to comply with local and federal renewable energy objectives. 

Most egregiously, LUMA has no obligation to remain in Puerto Rico in the case of a future natural disaster. LUMA could abandon its commitments, leaving Puerto Rico without any power company at all. 

UTIER workers have been on strike for months. They have taken to the streets along with other public-and private-sector unions to demand cancellation of the contract with LUMA. They have warned that the agreement with LUMA will increase the cost of electricity and destroy the jobs and livelihood of thousands of workers and their families. They have spearheaded mass mobilizations, national days of protest, and even a 24-hour nationwide general strike. 

Puerto Rican workers: No peace if energy is privatized

By various - Workers World, June 7, 2021

On June 1, the Financial Oversight and Management Board overseeing Puerto Rico’s economy privatized the island’s public power utilities by signing a $1.3 billion contract with private consortium LUMA Energy. The contract, in effect for the next 15 years, could increase electric rates by 10 cents/kwh or more.

LUMA customers are already encountering new fees and significantly higher bills than formerly paid to the public Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority. Thousands of PREPA workers have lost their jobs. The privatization has fueled demonstrations including encampments and picket lines at plant gates. Further actions could lead to mass protests similar to those in summer 2019 that forced former Governor Pedro Rosselló to resign.

The following is a statement from unions representing thousands of Puerto Rican workers, ranging from teachers to truck drivers, in support of PREPA workers and demanding the LUMA contract be repealed.

Puerto Rico unions close ranks against LUMA Energy

By Wilmarilis Sánchez-Romeu and Edwin Ocasio Feliciano - Struggle La Lucha, June 4, 2021

Union organizations today warned Gov. Pedro Pierluisi and the Financial Oversight and Management Board that they will paralyze the country if the LUMA Energy contract that increases rates, allows the consortium to leave Puerto Rico if a hurricane strikes, and displaces thousands of workers, is not canceled.

“We are warning the attorney for the Financial Oversight and Management Board, Pedro Pierluisi, that there will be no peace in Puerto Rico if the contract is not repealed and they listen to the people who demand, not only a public and more efficient Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), but also one free of fossil fuels. 

“Right now there is a favorable atmosphere for paralyzing the country and if the governor continues to ignore the people, we will do so. We have already held several meetings to coordinate logistics and dates, and this week we will meet again to finalize details. Make no mistake, this summer will be one very similar to that of 2019,” said Carlos Rodríguez, coordinator of the Frente Amplio de Camioneros (Broad Front of Truckers).

“Today, we tell LUMA not to bother settling in our country since we will not leave them alone until they leave Puerto Rico. And the workers who they intend to bring in from abroad should know that if they cross the picket line, they will face a people willing to defend their energy sovereignty and their access to water. There is no life without water and electricity! 

What would a just transition look like for the Navajo Nation?

By staff - Grist, February 1, 2021

Two decades ago, Nicole Horseherder, a member of the Navajo Nation, coordinated a community meeting. Beneath the shade of Juniper trees at her late grandmother’s house, several dozen people gathered to find a way to protect their pristine water. The springs and wells along Black Mesa, a semi-arid, rocky mesa that overlies the Navajo Aquifer, were increasingly drying up, as tens of billions of gallons of potable water were used to extract, clean, and transport coal mined in the region.

This meeting was the start of a long struggle to safeguard the community from coal projects, which threatened the drinking water supply of both the Navajo and Hopi people. “The mining was using so much of our groundwater and making these really adverse, tremendous impacts on the water table, water quality, and pressure of the aquifers,” says Horseherder.

In 2001, Horseherder formed Tó Nizhóní Ání, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing awareness to the environmental degradation and exploitation caused by coal mining. This has involved direct action, passing tribal resolutions, and negotiating higher rates for the water and coal procured from their land. “So, that’s where we ended up as water protectors—going after the entity that was using our only potable source of water,” Horseherder says.

After decades of activism to protect the water, along with changing economic conditions in the fossil fuel industry, several key coal projects have closed. In 2005, Peabody Energy’s Black Mesa Mine was shut down, a project that drew up to 4,400 acre-feet of water per year to feed a slurry coal pipeline to a coal-fired generating station in Nevada. In 2019, the Salt River Project’s Navajo Generating Station and Peabody Energy’s Kayenta Mine, which supplied coal to the power plant, were also closed.

These projects leave behind a complex legacy: They represent both a major loss of jobs yet also an opportunity to build a new, more sustainable economy and rectify long-standing environmental injustices.

Doing It Right: Colstrip's Bright Future With Cleanup

By staff - Northern Plains Research Council and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1638, July 2018

In 2018, Northern Plains Research Council partnered with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local union 1638 to conduct a research study into the job creation potential of coal ash pond cleanup in Colstrip, Montana.

Because coal ash pond closure and associated groundwater remediation is only now becoming a priority for power plants, there are many unanswered questions about the size and nature of the workforce needed to do it right. This study aims to shed light on some of the cleanup work being done now around the country and what that might mean for the Colstrip workforce and community.

From the executive summary: Coal ash waste is polluting the groundwater in Colstrip, but cleaning it up could provide many jobs and other economic benefits while protecting community health.

This study was conducted to analyze the job-creation potential of cleaning up the groundwater in Colstrip, Montana, that has been severely contaminated from leaking impoundments meant to store the coal ash from the power plants (Colstrip Units 1, 2, 3 and 4). Unless remediated, this contamination poses a major threat to public health, livestock operations, and the environment for decades.

Communities benefit from coal ash pond cleanup but the positive impacts of cleanup can vary widely depending on the remediation approach followed. Certain strategies like excavating coal ash ponds and actively treating wastewater lead to more jobs, stabilized property values, and effective groundwater cleanup while others accomplish only the bare minimum for legal compliance.

This study demonstrates that, with the right cleanup strategies, job creation and environmental protection can go hand-in-hand, securing the future of the community as a whole.

Read the text (PDF).

East Bay Community Energy Local Development Business Plan (LDBP)

By staff - EastBay Community Energy, 2018

This plan was shaped by community organizers including several union workers and is an example of what a community and/or worker run CCA looks like.

The Local Development Business Plan (LDBP) is intended to develop a comprehensive frame-work for accelerating the development of clean energy assets within Alameda County. The LDBP explores how EBCE can contribute to fostering local economic benefits, such as job creation, customer cost- savings, and community resi-ience. The LDBP also identifies opportunities for development of local clean energy resources, explains how to achieve EBCE’s communit y benefits goals, and provides strategies for local workforce development for adoption by the EBCE Board of Directors.

Read the report (PDF).

IBEW 569 Position on Reaching 100% Renewable Energy

By staff - IBEW 569, November 3, 2017

Whether a utility, municipal program, CCA or another provider or program, providers and subcontractors shall:

  1. Energy Identification: Inform customers of the percentage of renewable, greenhouse-gas-free electricity offered. Power may be labeled as “clean” or “green” if it comes from renewable energy generated from solar, wind, geothermal and other eligible renewable energy resources in California and defined by California law in the Public Utilities Code as Category 1.
  1. Exclude RECs: Provide renewable energy from actual renewable sources customers can trust while creating union jobs in the community for local workers. Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) undermine these goals. There is no guarantee power content that includes voluntary RECs is clean or green therefore it must not be marketed as “clean” or “green” so as not to mislead the public.
  1. Communication to Consumers: Send at least three written notices to potential customers, and each notice will include a description of the percentage of the power mix that comes from California solar, wind, geothermal, small hydro-electric or other state certified green power sources.
  1. Creating Union Jobs: Procure power from union-generated sources; employ unionized customer service representatives; sign Project Labor Agreements on each Power Generation Project; sign Project Labor Agreements on Energy Efficiency Projects/Programs; agree in writing to neutrality in the event employees or subcontractor employees wish to unionize.
  1. Community Benefits: Sign Community Benefits Agreements to include local projects and local hiring and prioritizing projects, programs and actions to reduce emissions in disadvantaged communities that rank in the top 25 percent of CalEnviroScreen’s ranking for San Diego region communities.
  1. Local Project Build-Out: Emphasize development of new renewable resources from proven developers in San Diego and adjacent counties and strictly limit the use of non-renewable energy sources that are recognized under the California RPS to the amount permitted as “Qualified Renewable Resource.”
  1. Energy Efficiency: Develop a resource plan that integrates supply-side resources with programs that will help customers reduce their energy costs through improved energy efficiency and other demand-side measures. As part of this integrated resource plan, actively pursue, promote and ultimately administer a variety of customer energy efficiency programs that can cost-effectively displace supply-side resources.
  1. Workforce Impacts: Determine if the program will 1) result in negative impacts for employees of the incumbent utility (including layoffs, work hour reductions, etc.) and 2) if the wages, fringe benefits and job protections are similar to those offered by the utility to employees in comparable job classifications.

Puerto Rico Still in the Dark: the Case of Whitefish Energy and Million Dollar a Year Lineman

By Roy Morrison - CounterPunch, October 25, 2017

Lights, cell service, sewer and water treatment plants came back on quickly in Florida and Houston after hurricane Maria. But Puerto Rico still remains largely in the dark one month later, with power restored to only 20% of the island.

Mutual aid from the nation’s utilities saved the day in Texas and Florida. 5,000 utility workers rushed in to restore power. Under mutual aid, workers earn normal wages, around $1,300 a week ($70,000 a year) plus expenses for linemen, the costs to be repaid from rates collected by the local utility that was helped. The system worked spectacularly well in Houston and Florida.

But in Puerto Rico little has been accomplished so far. PREPA (Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority) rejected the offers for mutual aid stating that as a bankrupt company it could not guarantee repayment to helping utilities. Instead, PREPA signed a $300 million dollar contract with Whitefish Energy, an unknown two person firm from Whitefish Montana to restore much of Puerto Rico’s power. Whitefish Montana, by coincidence, is also the home of Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke. One of Zinke’s sons reportedly worked for Whitefish Energy as a summer flagger.

What’s most interesting are the labor rates to be charged by Whitefish for the 300 lineman it plans to bring to Puerto Rico to work as sub-contractors disclosed in a Oct. 23, Washington Post story. Lineman will be paid $319 an hour, and nightly accommodation fees of $332 a worker ,plus $80 food allowance. This should mean over one million dollars a year per lineman (if they work ten hours a day for six days a week with two weeks vacation) just for wages.This means $300 million for 300 lineman.

Mutual aid, in contrast would mean lineman would be paid $70,000 a year, plus $30,000 living allowance or $100,000 a year. $300 million should pay for 3,000 mutual aid lineman, not 300 lineman under the gold plated Whitefish Contract.

Something smells really fishy about this deal.

Meanwhile Americans in Puerto Rico remain without lights, without water, without sewage treatment, without cell service, without proper medical care while the owners of tiny Whitefish Energy become very rich men indeed.

Networked socialism: back to the future

By Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, September 23, 2016

Germany, 1888. Karl Steinmetz, a precociously smart twenty-year old student, quit the university town of Breslau with the police on his heels. Steinmetz had been caught up in the crackdown on the Social Democrats, then Europe’s largest socialist movement by far.

Soon after starting university, Steinmetz joined the socialist club, which was banned after affiliating with the Social Democrats. A previous round of arrests had hit a party newspaper, The People’s Voice, and he took over as editor. Soon afterwards, he wrote an article that was deemed inflammatory, and he had to flee arrest.

Steinmetz emigrated to the US, travelling steerage class (i.e. sleeping in the hold). He anglicised his first name to Charles, and soon found work at a small electrical firm in New York. He became an electrical engineer and by 1893, aged 28, had made a key contribution to the invention of alternating current (AC) transmission equipment, working out mathematical formulae essential to its construction.

The electrical industry was in its infancy: the world’s first power stations had been opened in London and New York eleven years before in 1882. This incredible technology made it possible to produce artificial heat and light of unprecedented quality, and to power new gadgets from irons and radios to fridges. It paved the way for automation of factories, and underpinned the communications revolution of telephone and telegraph. Within a few decades a world without it would seem unthinkable to people in the rich countries.

Steinmetz’s work on AC current was crucial to the system’s growth. With transformers and high-voltage AC transmission lines, electricity could travel long distances, and a patchwork of local networks could be unified into regional or national grids.

When the small company Steinmetz worked for, Eickemeyer, was taken over by General Electric, he moved into senior research jobs and ended up as the head of the engineering consulting department. But his glittering engineering career didn’t lead to him abandoning his socialist ideas. On the contrary, he wrote and spoke about how electricity networks would hasten the arrival of a socialist society.

Steinmetz believed that, because electricity can not be efficiently stored, the network’s expansion would inherently compel producers and consumers to cooperate collectively. This would more rapidly usher a socialist economy into being.

“Implied in this argument was a planned economy, run by technocrats who would engineer this cooperation, by deciding which utilities to interconnect and when industries should consume electricity”, wrote Ronald Kline, Steinmetz’s biographer.[1]

Like many reformist socialists, Steinmetz thought that electrical networks, properly regulated by the state, could help to turn massive capitalist industrial corporations into socialist ones.

Back in Germany, and in Britain – where the welfare of urban workers had become a battlecry for many socialists, and liberals – the “municipal socialists” saw provision of electricity, along with e.g. water and sewage services, as a way for local government to constrain the power of private corporations.

But belief in the progressive potential of technology was in no way limited to the right wing.

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