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Will offshore wind bring ‘good-paying, union jobs’? Texas workers aren’t so sure

By Emily Pontecorvo - Grist, October 14, 2022

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

The Biden administration is gearing up to turn the Gulf of Mexico, long a hub for offshore oil and gas drilling, into a new city of skyscraping offshore wind turbines. Opening up the Gulf to wind development is part of President Joe Biden’s goal to employ “tens of thousands of workers” to establish 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030. But in Texas, workers are worried that the new industry will continue the low-wage, unsafe, exploitative conditions that pervade the construction and offshore oil industries there.

For the past year, a coalition of Texas labor unions, along with their allies in Congress and in the environmental movement, have been lobbying the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“We saw the opportunity,” said Bo Delp, the executive director of the Texas Climate Jobs Project, a nonprofit that advocates for the unionization of clean energy jobs. “But we also saw the danger.”

There’s no doubt the offshore wind industry will bring a flood of jobs to communities along the Gulf. There will be jobs manufacturing wind turbines, shipping them out to sea, and installing them; building transmission lines and electrical substations; and operating and maintaining the equipment. But contrary to the White House’s promise of “good-paying, union jobs,” there’s no guarantee they will come with decent wages, benefits, or safety standards — especially in Texas.

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.

Texas Democrats, unions call on Interior to protect workers’ rights in offshore wind leasing

By Zack Budryk - The Hill, June 2, 2022

A coalition of Texas unions and members of Congress is calling on the Biden administration to ensure workers’ rights are protected in the buildout of offshore wind infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico. 

In a letter sent out Thursday morning, Democratic Reps. Al Green, Lloyd Doggett, Sylvia Garcia, Marc Veasey, Veronica Escobar, Vicente Gonzalez, Sheila Jackson-Lee and Joaquin Castro, who all represent districts in Texas, called on the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to ensure that Gulf-based wind power projects are built by union labor.

The representatives noted that due to organizing obstacles at the state level, union membership among workers is about one-third the national rate in Texas.

In the letter, the members called on BOEM to ensure that leasing terms for wind projects in the Gulf include a requirement for a project labor agreement (PLA), or a pre-hire collective bargaining agreement between construction unions and contractors. 

The members also called for the use of a community workforce agreement, a PLA with a goal of hiring low-income workers for construction projects. 

The letter follows a public comment submitted in February by the Texas Climate Jobs Project, a coalition of labor unions in the Lone Star State that aims to bridge the gap between addressing climate change and the needs of workers. The group cites what it says is endemic wage theft in the construction business in Texas, and called on BOEM to incorporate local working conditions into its environmental analysis. 

“What we’re asking for is when they do issue those leases, that those leases have requirements in there for job quality, for the ability of workers to come together … and community benefits so that even as we build this renewable capacity, we’re making sure that working people, and people who have historically been disadvantaged by the way energy has been produced in Texas, have a real seat at the table,” Rick Levy, president of the Texas AFL-CIO, said in an interview with The Hill Wednesday. 

Levy described offshore wind as the ideal project to assuage what he said was unease among parts of organized labor about renewable energy’s effect on jobs. 

Climate Change is Killing Workers, but it Doesn't Have to be This Way

By April Siese - Daily Kos, April 20, 2022

Way back when I was splitting my working time freelance writing and working live events, I signed on with an audio-visual company that provides services to hotels. It was considered the retirement gig for production folks, as there was no touring involved and very little stress. As a lighting designer, my job consisted of gussying up a ballroom in corporate colors and making sure the lights I used to illuminate a podium made presenters look good. All that gear came from a warehouse, run by a cherished coworker who used to lovingly chide me for wearing ballet flats on show days because they weren’t exactly as safe as steel-toes. He stood up for me when there did come an opportunity to work out of town and I was the only woman on the gig. And he was known for his relentless work ethic, which was just as strong as his belief in the people around him. That relentlessness may have cost him his life.

A lawsuit has been brought on behalf of this friend, who likely succumbed to heatstroke one blazing summer day in the New Orleans metro and ultimately passed away. The company claimed it was heart-related. Rumblings from his friends and colleagues made it clear: It was likely heat-related.

There’s little recourse for workers who die from extreme temperatures, which have been made much worse due to climate change. As Mother Jones notes in a recent report, median penalties for on-the-job deaths stand at just $12,144 for federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) plans. State OSHA plans typically penalize companies with median fines of just $6,899 for worker deaths. For companies like the one I worked at, with revenues in excess of $40 million, a penalty like that certainly wouldn’t inspire a whole lot of change. Not that enforcement has even come close to allowing for such penalties to be incurred in the first place: As the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) notes, underreporting of such tragedies is altogether too common.

Texas Union Activists Fight 'Microtransit' Privatization

By Joe DeManuelle-Hall - Labor Notes, March 8, 2022

When “microtransit,” the new rage in transit privatization, showed up in Denton, Texas, union activists decided to fight back.

Microtransit is a loosely defined term that combines on-demand service with flexible scheduling and routes—imagine replacing a bus system with shared Ubers. It is presented as a high-tech alternative to public transit, but in reality it’s an extension of the drive to privatize.

Some local governments around the country have already handed off operations of their public transit systems to large private operators like Keolis and MV Transportation. This move takes it one step further: dumping the buses and bus drivers altogether.

MICRO-PRIVATIZATION

Denton is a small city in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, home to two universities. The Denton County Transportation Authority operates buses and a light rail line in Denton and two neighboring cities.

The mayor and the transit agency began exploring alternatives to the existing transit system several years ago, nominally to save money. In 2020, Dallas’s transit system adopted a microtransit pilot, contracting with Uber to provide the service. Following their lead, Denton sought out microtransit and decided to go with a company called Via, a former competitor to Uber and Lyft that got iced out of the rideshare market and rebranded itself as a microtransit company. It has since chased after cities and counties, offering to supplant their public transit systems.

And that’s exactly what Via set out to do in Denton: replace all fixed-route bus service with on-demand vehicles driven by independent contractors who are hailed by an app. Drivers operate rented vehicles that they’re responsible for. For the DCTA, this comes with the benefit of getting rid of the existing unionized workforce and the capital investment that comes with maintaining and operating a bus system.

Texas’s Power Woes Are Just the Latest Reminder of the Danger of Privatization

By Donald Cohen - Truthout, February 17, 2022

Texas dodged a bullet earlier this month when its statewide power grid, operated by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), held up during a drop in temperatures. But that’s not because state leaders, particularly Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, learned anything from last year’s horrific storm.

As Truthout’s Candice Bernd reported last week, not only did 70,000 Texans still experience power and utility services outages during the recent cold snap, but fracked gas production also saw its biggest dip in production since the February 2021 grid failure, revealing the industry’s continued vulnerability to extreme weather.

Last year, Winter Storm Uri blanketed the entire state with freezing temperatures and snow for several days, causing record energy demand. This forced ERCOT to tell energy providers to cut power as they tried to avoid a total collapse of the energy system. Nearly 5 million people lost power and at least 246 died as a result of the storm.

The latest freeze was a more typical Texas cold front. Local power outages were caused mainly by downed power lines due to trees and ice. Still, Abbott is claiming that the system is more reliable and resilient than it’s ever been.

Experts disagree. “The thing about [this month’s freeze] is, we passed the test, but it was also a really easy test, and we didn’t pass it with perfect scores,” Michael Webber, Josey Centennial Professor in Energy Resources at the University of Texas, told Truthout’s Bernd. “There’s a lot of people who had problems with their power, and there was still the gas production drop, so I think we shouldn’t take away too much false confidence that we’re all good now.”

Texas’s energy system is controlled by a complex mix of public and private actors, including the nonprofit ERCOT, oil and gas companies, the Texas Railroad Commission, and others. The details don’t matter as much as what makes the state’s system unique: It’s independent; not connected to the country’s two other national grids, the Western Interconnection and the Eastern Interconnection; and not subject to federal oversight.

This has allowed it to become one of the country’s most marketized systems, according to Johanna Bozuwa, director of the Climate and Community Project. It’s heavily deregulated, designed to allow for intense competition in the retail sale of electricity. As one portfolio manager at a financial firm put it, it’s a “Wild West market design based only on short-run prices.”

The Great Texas Freeze: Lessons One Year Later

By Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, Gopal Dayaneni, and Mateo Nube - Movement Generation, February 9, 2022

The visibility of ecological crisis is increasing every day. Last year’s cold snap in Texas, and the corollary collapse of its energy infrastructure, was but one example of this fact. Humanity is up against the limits of nature’s ability to tolerate globalized industrial production.

What actions would better position Texans to navigate the next superstorm in a favorable manner? Furthermore, how can we reimagine and reconstruct energy systems around the country, so that these dance in a regenerative rhythm with our planet’s life support systems?

The clock is ticking, and we need to make new meaning out of this pivotal moment in planetary history. We can no longer tinker around the edges of an ever-expanding crisis: Tackling this reality with clarity may be the biggest and boldest challenge our species has ever faced.

Here are some important strategic frameworks, formulated by Movement Generation, that we think will help us meet the challenge:

Climate-Safe Energy Production–From Below

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, February 2022

Climate-safe energy is being produced locally all over the country in ways that also produce jobs and increase racial, social, and economic justice – fulfilling the basic principles of the Green New Deal.

Protecting the climate requires meeting the original Green New Deal proposal’s goal of 100% of national power generation from renewable sources within ten years.[1] That requires greatly expanding climate-safe sources of energy. It involves an unprecedented transformation of the energy system, and that requires national investment and planning. But much of the transformation will actually be composed of local building blocks – and those can begin right now. Indeed, hundreds of local initiatives around the country, ranging from community solar to municipal ownership to local microgrids, are already expanding renewable energy production.

Sunlight, Jobs, and Justice

Solar gardens are sprouting up all over Denver.

On November 3, 2020, Denver voters overwhelmingly approved Ballot Measure 2A, the Climate Protection Fund, to raise approximately $40 million per year dedicated to climate action. As stated in the ballot measure, the intent of this fund is to “fund programs to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution and adapt to climate change. Funding should maximize investments in communities of color, under-resourced communities and communities most vulnerable to climate change.”[2]

Community solar gardens use photovoltaic (PV) panels to produce electricity from sunlight for an entire neighborhood. Now such solar gardens are dotting sites owned and financed by the City of Denver, including rooftops, parking lots, and vacant lands. The power generated from the solar gardens will be shared between city facilities, income-qualified residents, and publicly accessible electric vehicle charging stations.

In accord with the principles of the Green New Deal, Denver’s solar garden program has a strong justice dimension. Since Denver owns the project, it can set its own standards. Ten percent of the energy generated by the solar gardens is allocated to low-income housing through the Denver Housing Authority. An additional 10 percent will be allocated to low-income households through Energy Outreach Colorado, and will be exempt from subscription fees. A paid workforce training program available to Denver residents will provide 10 percent of the city and county’s solar workforce.

The solar gardens are designed to contribute to the goal of Denver’s “80 x 50 Climate Action Plan” to transition Denver to 100 percent renewable electricity for municipal buildings by 2025; achieve 100 percent community-wide renewable electricity by 2030; and reduce Denver’s greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent, as compared to a 2005 baseline, by 2050.[3]

Exxon locked workers out of their jobs. Can workers lock Exxon out of a carbon capture deal?

By Amal Ahmed and Emily Pontecorvo - Grist, January 31, 2022

A union is warning Texas officials not to give Exxon money for carbon capture until it fixes its labor problems.

In Beaumont, Texas, working at one of Exxon Mobil’s plants has long been a way to earn steady wages and support a family in this industrial corner of the Gulf Coast. “We take care of more than just our immediate family,” said Darrell Kyle, the president of the local United Steelworkers chapter, the union representing workers at the plants. “We’re the uncles and aunts,” he said, who help “the struggling nieces or nephews who need a couple hundred dollars to get by, to pay a bill.” 

But for the past nine months, about 600 union employees at Exxon’s refinery and other plants have been struggling to pay their own bills: They have been locked out of their jobs because Exxon has been unable to come to an agreement with the union over a new contract. Kyle said that the company is refusing to honor protections for senior workers that have been in place for decades, while the union is demanding that those protections remain in place. At the end of last April, without a contract finalized and with the threat of a union strike pending, the company began escorting employees out of the complex, the Beaumont Enterprise, a local newspaper, reported. The company stated that the provisions the union was asking for were “items that would significantly increase costs and limit the company’s ability to safely and efficiently operate.”

Some workers, willing to take the deal Exxon was offering, began a campaign to decertify the union, which would end union representation at the plants. The United Steelworkers union believes that Exxon illegally assisted the campaign and has filed complaints with the National Labor Review Board. 

But in addition to using this legal channel to try to protect their union, the Steelworkers tried a different tactic. They started their own campaign to pressure Exxon into a deal — by undermining the company’s push for public money to build a $100 billion carbon capture hub in nearby Houston.

Labor is Leading: Building the Climate Jobs Movement Now!

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