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labor and environment

Suds and Socialism Forum: Workers and the Environment

Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape

By Staff - Utility Workers of America (UWUA) and Union of Concerned Scientists, May 4, 2021

The shift to a low-carbon economy has proceeded largely without thoughtful plans or preparation for the workers and communities that have sustained the US economy for more than a century. The economic upheaval resulting from the dramatic job losses in the coal industry over the last decade has uprooted families, deepened economic anxiety, and left community leaders scrambling to keep schools open and social services in place. And the trend is set to continue: many more coal workers and communities are facing the same fate without intentional policies to address these changes.

As part of this shift, the nation must support coal workers in finding new career paths and help coal communities recover from the economic losses stemming from coal’s decline (see box). This will require long-term individual supports and benefits, long-term investments in community infrastructure, empowering local leadership to drive place-based solutions, and ensuring that the legacy of coal mines and coal-fired power plants is fully remediated. These elements are critical to a fair, just, and equitable move to low-carbon energy; are urgently needed; and must be sustained over time.

Ultimately, broader changes to our energy systems will impact a larger swath of fossil fuel–dependent workers and communities as we drive toward decarbonizing the economy by 2050. This policy brief focuses on coal-dependent workers because they have faced economic disruption over the past decade and are imminently threatened by the shift to lowcarbon energy in the near term.

But fortunately, there are solutions. New analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Utility Workers Union of America finds both that it is possible to support coal workers in the transition and that these comprehensive policies are affordable. Indeed, relative to the federal response to the Great Recession in 2008–2009 and the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020–2021, as well as the scale of investments needed to decarbonize our economy by 2050, investing in the nation’s coal workers comes with a relatively small price tag. Approximately 89,875 coal workers were employed in the United States in 2019. The cost of providing a comprehensive set of supports to the portion of these workers who will face job losses before reaching retirement age represents a tiny fraction of the estimated $2.5 trillion in additional capital investments in all energy sectors by 2030 that would be needed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 (Larson et al. 2020). We estimate that the cost of these supports will range from $33 billion over 25 years to $83 billion over 15 years.

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New Analysis Estimates an Equitable Energy Economy will Require $33 Billion to $83 Billion Investment in Workers

By staff - Utility Workers Union of America, May 4, 2021

As the Biden administration considers federal resources for coal workers and their communities, the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) urge a set of comprehensive supports estimated to cost between $33 billion over 25 years to $83 billion over 15 years. The analysis, Supporting the Nation’s Coal Workers and Communities in a Changing Energy Landscape, underscores that a fair and equitable shift to a low-carbon economy requires intentional, robust, and sustained investments in coal workers, their families, and their communities.

Coal-fired electricity is down to 20 percent today from about half of the nation’s electricity generation a decade ago. With more closures on the horizon, a sustained and comprehensive set of supports is needed to ensure individuals who have powered America for generations can stay in their communities, prepare for new careers with family-sustaining wages, and can retire with dignity.

“For decades, the coal industry has simply locked its doors and forgotten the individuals and communities who rely on the coal industry and who exist in almost every state across the country,” said UWUA President James Slevin. “Approaching these closures with the right set of economic supports offers a better alternative to the chaos and devastation we’re seeing today.”

Recognizing coal and mining facilities often directly employ hundreds of individuals and many more indirectly across several counties, the economic and social infrastructure of a region undergoes lasting changes when facilities close.

“The economic upheaval resulting from the dramatic job losses in the coal industry over the last decade has uprooted families, deepened economic anxiety, and left community leaders scrambling to keep schools open and social services in place,” said report co-author Jeremy Richardson, a UCS senior energy analyst who comes from a family of coal miners. “But solutions are readily available with forward-looking and visionary action by policymakers.”

Public Forum on Empowering the Post Pandemic Working Class

Can Postal Vehicles Help Us Fight Climate Change?

By David Yao - Labor Notes, April 28, 2021

The question of whether the Postal Service acts as a business or as a public service is playing out once again—this time in the discussion over fighting climate change.

The Postal Service has more than 200,000 delivery vehicles, many of which are 30 years old and overdue for replacement. They expose workers to exhaust fumes that are a rarity elsewhere in 2021. Hundreds have caught fire, in part due to age. The question of what to replace them with has become a topic of debate.

The Postal Service has a large carbon footprint, starting with its vehicles. While it set ambitious “goals,” such as decreasing petroleum use by 20 percent from 2005 to 2015, in fact it increased petroleum use by nearly 20 percent during that period, and another 10 percent by 2018. Then there’s the contract fleet of over-the-road truckers who haul mail long distances—these trucks used three times as much gas or diesel as the Postal Service’s own fleet did.

The Biden administration’s January Executive Order on the Climate Crisis called for a transition to zero-emission vehicles for all government vehicles, including the postal fleet. But in February the Postal Service made its long-awaited decision to award the contract for replacement vehicles—accepting the proposal of military contractor Oshkosh Truck for a 90 percent gas-powered fleet, rather than the competing all-electric vehicle proposal from Workhorse Group.

The decision to stick with mainly fossil fuel-powered vans would be a missed opportunity to reduce the Postal Service’s output of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Thirteen Congressional representatives have called on the Postal Board of Governors to delay implementation of the contract until there is a full review, citing in part Biden’s call for zero-emission vehicles.

The Postal Service’s 10-year plan, released in March, states that it would need $8 billion in Congressional funding to enable the Postal Service to transition to a completely electric fleet by 2035. The Biden administration’s newly released infrastructure proposal does provide funding to electrify government vehicles, but at this point it is unclear whether a divided Congress would approve that proposal, or in what form.

Just transition needed in transit electrification, labor leaders say

By Chris Teale - Utility Dive, April 27, 2021

Dive Brief:

  • As public transit agencies electrify their bus fleets and other vehicles, they must ensure a just transition to protect workers who may be put out of work by the new technologies, transportation labor groups warned Monday.
  • In a joint policy statement, leaders of two unions that represent transportation workers — the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU), alongside the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO (TTD) — said transit agencies should be required to show the workforce impacts of buying electric vehicles (EVs), establish a national workforce training center to train current employees on those systems and guarantee that workers will be represented on task forces and committees around climate change and technology.
  • The groups cautioned that if the federal government fails to mandate worker protections as transit agencies electrify their operations, major job losses could result, while a lack of training programs could leave workers unprepared for the next generation of vehicles.

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The Impacts of Zero Emission Buses on the Transportation Workforce

By staff - Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, April 21, 2021

TTD and our affiliated unions recognize the serious impacts from climate change and the severe consequences we face if we fail to respond with responsible measures that reduce our carbon footprint. Like automation, however, discussions about reducing our carbon footprint often focus on the potential benefits from new technologies, without looking at the entire picture and taking intentional steps to ensure that the impacted industries’ workers and the communities they live in benefit from technological change.

Advocates of automation and mobility-on-demand services, for example, often tout the exciting new job opportunities created by the technologies while turning a blind eye to the impacts those technologies have on the incumbent workforce, including job loss and life-long wage suppression. TTD’s views and concerns about the impacts of those technologies are detailed in our past policy statement, Principles for the Transit Workforce in Automated Vehicle Legislation and Regulations; comments on the Trump administration’s ill-advised AV 3.0 and AV 4.0 policies, as well as its so-called Automated Vehicles Comprehensive Plan; our report on the disastrous anti-worker policies and efforts to undermine public transportation by ride-hailing companies; and testimony by former and current TTD presidents Larry Willis and Greg Regan before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Federal and local policies have long ensured that expanding public transportation access plays a key role in greenhouse gas reduction strategy. CO2 emissions per passenger mile are significantly lower on the existing fleet of diesel- and natural gas-powered bus transit vehicles than single occupancy vehicle trips. However, as the entire transportation industry seeks ways to continue reducing its carbon footprint, the move to zero-emission vehicles will continue to become a focus of federal, state, and local policies.

While the adoption of zero emission vehicles stands to make the transit sector an even stronger tool for reducing carbon emissions, years of underinvestment in workforce training combined with unfocused and sometimes non-existent policies on workforce support and training place tremendous strain on the incumbent workforce who may soon be asked to maintain complex electric infrastructure and vehicles. By way of example, at one major transit agency it was estimated that only 15% of bus mechanics have been trained to use a voltmeter, a basic diagnostic tool for electric engines. Without investment in worker training programs as a prerequisite for government support, transit agencies are likely to contract out this work leading to a large number of our existing mechanics seeing their jobs outsourced to lower-paying, lower-quality employers.

Furthermore, electric engines require fewer mechanics to maintain than their diesel and natural gas counterparts, which currently make up more than 99 percent of the domestic U.S. bus fleet. Policies that encourage or require a rapid transition to an all-electric fleet without an accompanying increase in transit service (which will serve to further reduce greenhouse gases) paired with strong labor protections will put tens of thousands of workers on the unemployment rolls.

For over 100 years, transportation workers, their unions, and their employers have worked together in the United States, bound by labor protections, to adopt and implement the extraordinary technological changes that have been the hallmark of this sector. Good, middle-class, union jobs must continue to be the focus for policymakers in the context of environmental technology, just as it has been for other innovations.

Mineworkers Union Supports Biden's Green Energy Plan

By Brian Young - ucommBlog, April 21, 2021

One of the biggest impediments to President Biden’s climate plan has done a 180 and is now supporting the plan.

The United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) announced this week that they support the President’s green energy policies in exchange for a robust transition strategy. The union hopes that this will mean more jobs for their members as it becomes clear that more industries are moving away from coal. The move by the UMWA is especially important as they have a close working relationship with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin whose support will be needed to pass any green energy plan. Manchin is also the Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The union is also calling on Congress to allocate funds to train miners for good-paying jobs with benefits in renewable energy sectors.

President Biden has proposed allocating $16 billion to reclaim abandoned mines and to plug leaking gas and oil wells. This would not only provide bridge jobs for workers in areas like West Virginia, but it would also address serious environmental issues that these abandoned mines and wells are causing.

Mineworkers President Cecil Roberts said in a live-streamed event with the National Press Club that coal jobs decreased by 7,000 last year leaving only about 34,000 active coal miners in the United States.

“Change is coming, whether we seek it or not. Too many inside and outside the coalfields have looked the other way when it comes to recognizing and addressing specifically what that change must be, but we can look away no longer,” the United Mineworkers stated. “We must act, while acting in a way that has real, positive impact on the people who are most affected by this change.”

“We have to think about the people who have already lost their jobs,” Roberts said. “I’m for any jobs that we can create that would be good-paying jobs for our brothers and sisters who have lost them in the UMWA. As we confront a next wave of energy transition, we must take steps now to ensure that things do not get worse for coal miners, their families, and communities, but in fact get better."

To help these workers through a just transition, the union is proposing significant increases in federal funding for carbon capture technology and storage research and development funding. They are also calling for building out a carbon capture infrastructure such as pipelines and injection wells. This would allow coal-fired plants to remain open, but they would have to install technology that would capture emissions and store them underground instead of in the atmosphere.

Earth Day, Labor, and Me

By Joe Uehlein - Labor Network for Sustainability, April 21, 2021

The approach of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22 provides us an opportunity to reflect on the “long, strange trip” shared by the environmental movement and the labor movement over four decades here on Spaceship Earth.

A billion people participate in Earth Day events, making it the largest secular civic event in the world. But when it was founded in 1970, according to Earth Day’s first national coordinator Denis Hayes, “Without the UAW, the first Earth Day would have likely flopped!”

Less than a week after he first announced the idea for Earth Day, Senator Gaylord Nelson presented his proposal to the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO. Walter Ruther, President of the UAW, enthusiastically donated $2000 to help kick the effort off ““ to be followed by much more. Hayes recalls:

“The UAW was by far the largest contributor to the first Earth Day, and its support went beyond the merely financial. It printed and mailed all our materials at its expense — even those critical of pollution-belching cars. Its organizers turned out workers in every city where it has a presence. And, of course, Walter then endorsed the Clear Air Act that the Big Four were doing their damnedest to kill or gut.”

Some people may be surprised to learn that a labor union played such a significant role in the emergence of the modern environmental movement. When they think of organized labor, they think of things like support for coal and nuclear power plants and opposition to auto emissions standards.

When it comes to the environment, organized labor has two hearts beating within a single breast. On the one hand, the millions of union members are people and citizens like everybody else, threatened by air and water pollution, dependent of fossil fuels, and threatened by the devastating consequences of climate change. On the other hand, unions are responsible for protecting the jobs of their members, and efforts to protect the environment sometimes may threaten workers’ jobs. First as a working class kid and then as a labor official, I’ve been dealing with the two sides of this question my whole life.

Preserving Coal Country: Keeping America’s coal miners, families and communities whole in an era of global energy transition

By staff - United Mineworkers of America, April 20, 2021

At the end of 2011, nearly 92,000 people worked in the American coal industry, the most since 1997. Coal production in the United States topped a billion tons for the 21st consecutive year. Both thermal and metallurgical coal were selling at premium prices, and companies were making record profits.

Then the bottom fell out. The global economy slowed, putting pressure on steelmaking and metallurgical coal production. Foreign competition from China, Australia, India and elsewhere cut into met coal production.

Domestically, huge increases in production from newly-tapped natural gas fields, primarily as a result of hydraulic fracturing of deep shale formations, caused the price of gas to drop below that of coal for the first time in years. As a result, utilities began switching the fuel used to generate electricity from coal to gas. An enlarging suite of environmental regulations also adversely impacted coal usage, production and employment.

By 2016, just 51,800 people were working in the coal industryii. 40,000 jobs had been
lost.

Companies went bankrupt. Retirees’ hard-won retiree health care and pensions were threatened. Active union miners saw their collective bargaining agreements – including provisions that had been negotiated over decades -- thrown out by federal bankruptcy courts. Nonunion miners had no recourse in bankruptcy courts and were forced to accept whatever scraps their employers chose to throw their way.

Since 2012, more than 60 coal companies have filed either for Chapter 11 reorganization bankruptcy or Chapter 7 liquidation. Almost no company has been immune.

In 2017 and again in 2019, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and its bipartisan allies in Congress, led by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), successfully preserved the retiree health care and pensions that the government had promised and tens of thousands of miners had earned in sweat and blood.

The UMWA was successful in preserving union recognition, our members’ jobs and reasonable levels of pay and benefits at every company as they emerged from bankruptcy, but in no case has the contract that came out of bankruptcy been the same as the one our members enjoyed when a company went into bankruptcy

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