Labor Unions Must Lead a Just Transition from Fossil Fuels to Clean Energy


David Goldman/AP Photo

A coal miner prepares to head into an underground mine in Welch, West Virginia, 2016.

The leaders of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) recently sent a letter to the co-sponsors of the Green New Deal opposing the idea. “We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families,” they wrote, even as they said they agreed that “doing nothing is not an option” on climate

The Green New Deal has the potential to unify the labor and environmental movements by creating good jobs to fight climate change. The proposal could be the most significant development in labor organizing in a generation. It could also protect workers in vulnerable industries from disruptive transitions away from fossil fuels. Yet some unions appear more concerned about preserving fossil fuel jobs than with preventing a global calamity. This is a fundamentally shortsighted choice—for workers, for organized labor, and for the planet.

The worldwide scientific consensus on climate action is quite stark. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that the world economy must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030, and eliminate them by 2050. If humans fail to act, the IPCC predicts that “several hundred million more” people will suffer food shortages, droughts, sea-level rise, severe storms, and heat-related illnesses.

The poor and the working class are already disproportionately affected by climate change worldwide and in the United States. Labor unions, which have long organized and represented struggling low-income workers, could be instrumental in supporting a just transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources.

What does a climate policy analyst know about these challenges? I spent 11 years inside the labor movement, working for the United Food and Commercial Workers. As someone with a core belief in worker organizing and experience in organized labor, I know the challenges they face, including a labor-law regime that loads the dice against workers and aggressive “union avoidance” campaigns by deep-pocketed corporations.

It’s understandable that unions must be cautious about embracing changes that could affect their members. But what good does it do to cling to a job if it comes at the price of your town being ravaged by a storm fueled by climate change? Or your children inheriting an Earth where food and fresh water are luxuries the working class can’t afford? As many people in the worldwide union movement have articulated so eloquently, “there are no jobs on a dead planet.”

Despite President Trump’s shortsighted and deceptive pledges to end “the war on beautiful, clean coal,” displacement is already happening in the coal-mining sector. Nationwide, coal-mining employment is falling, from 87,000 people in 2011 to 52,000 people in 2018. In Kentucky alone, the $114 million in excise tax revenues from mined coal in 2018 marked a 62 percent decline from their level of $303 million ten years earlier.

Revenue losses like these can have effects on public services such as public schools and firefighting services. Kentucky’s fiscal difficulties aren’t the result of environmentalist planning run amok. They’re the result of market-driven shifts toward clean-energy sources. Phasing out fossil fuel extraction methodically and with care can help prevent the adverse and unjust outcomes suffered by those in coal states like Kentucky and West Virginia.

The best way to ensure justice for extraction-dependent workers and communities is to plan for it. Robust investments in workforce retraining, building community resilience, and finding viable alternative revenue sources for local governments—all of which could feature in the Green New Deal—produce more just outcomes than an unplanned decrease “disruptively and haphazardly unleashed upon a community” by market forces, as the Stockholm Environment Institute described what could happen in U.S. coal country if the present trends continue.

Energy efficiency, solar, wind, and geothermal energy jobs together total more than 2.6 million—more than twice the 1.1 million jobs in fossil fuel extraction and fossil-powered electricity generation combined. They’re good jobs, too. As of 2017, median hourly wages for solar photovoltaic installers and wind turbine technicians were nearly $19 and $26, respectively. Energy efficiency occupations include electricians, HVAC installers, and insulation workers, who had respective median hourly wages of about $26, $23, and $19. These are competitive with median wages for refinery operators, wellhead pumpers, and derrick operators (about $33, $25, and $22, respectively).

While the median wages for fossil fuels and clean energy aren’t that far apart, the highest-paid blue-collar workers in fossil fuels do earn more. Plus, the rate of union representation for fossil fuel–dependent workers is higher. Only 3 percent of solar photovoltaic workers and 4 percent of wind energy workers are unionized, compared to 9 percent of coal-fired power generation workers and 14 percent of natural gas–fired power generation workers. (A promising exception to this is the 14 percent unionization rate of the energy efficiency workforce.)

A labor movement that’s a movement in the real sense of the term would get to work with other social movements for a just transition from fossil fuels to preserve a habitable planet for the global working class. More specifically, it would fight hard to organize the 97 percent of solar workers and the 96 percent of wind energy workers who aren’t currently unionized. But a labor movement that concludes that it must fight for the continuation of fossil fuel jobs will effectively be trading its history of organizing and struggle for the short-term futures of a dwindling number of unionized fossil fuel jobs.

The IBEW and United Auto Workers (UAW) locals in Buffalo, New York, are organizing workers at a Tesla solar-panel factory. It’s time for the national leadership of labor to recognize that struggles like the Tesla organizing drive in Buffalo are the right way to respond to the inevitable decline of fossil fuels.

None of this should be unfamiliar to labor leaders who are steeped in their own movement’s proud history of working-class struggle. After all, it was visionary labor leader Tony Mazzocchi who coined the term “just transition” in the first place. “I have been accused of being a militant,” he said. But “that’s what trade unionism is all about.”

Transitioning out of our current extractive, dirty economy could mean real pain for fossil fuel–dependent workers and communities. People may lose their jobs, and entire extraction-dependent communities could lose a sizable portion of their local economy and tax base. However, stalling and obstructing a transition away from fossil fuels to protect the jobs of fossil fuel workers actually worsens outcomes for workers in the long run. Putting off the transition until the last minute is a great way to make a messy, socially and economically destabilizing transition inevitable.

If U.S. unions sit back and complain about the decline of fossil fuels, or fight to continue business as usual, they’ll become deeply unpopular with precisely those sectors that should be their natural allies—and eventually they’ll take much of the planet down with them. The sooner labor leaders embrace a just transition away from our extractive economy, the better. It’s time for the U.S. labor movement to catch up with the rest of the world.

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