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Building back better by investing in workers and communities

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America is already in the middle of a transition to a new, cleaner economy. This evolution of our national energy systems has a lot of benefits to our nation, but not everyone is seeing them. There are communities in every state that are facing dramatic shifts to their economy for a variety of reasons. In areas around the country — from the coal mining country of West Virginia and Montana to the communities that coal plants have powered for decades — workers and communities are feeling real pain. We need Congress to step up and make sure that as we build back better we leave no one behind and that we build a better future for all.

A transition that is fair for workers and communities isn’t something that will just happen organically. We have to choose to invest in the economic diversification of communities. We have to choose to invest in workers. We have to choose to modernize and strengthen the industries and sectors at the heart of the American economy.

That’s why we’re supporting a new bill unveiled this week authored by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) called the American Energy Worker Opportunity Act. The bill needs to be part of the Build Back Better plan currently being debated in Congress. It would provide a minimum investment of $32 billion over a span of 10 years to assist workers who are laid off as the nation shifts to cleaner, cheaper renewable energy sources. This funding would provide wage replacement or supplementation, retirement contribution and health care benefits, and make available education and training grants to workers whose employment is terminated from a coal mine, coal-fired power plant, coal transport, or oil refinery. Additionally, the bill would direct educational grants for the children of dislocated workers.

This is the kind of investment that Congress can make in people and communities to build back a middle class and enable people to stay in the communities they call home.

This has to go hand-in-hand with efforts to grow and retain quality jobs across the economy — including in the clean energy sectors. Making the jobs in the clean economy good-paying, union jobs and ensuring they are located where jobs are being lost, in communities of color, and in frontline communities is pivotal. If we fail to do so, in addition to the economic pain that would result, we’re not going to sustain the political will to tackle climate change and we’ll continue to see workers and environmentalists played against each other by corporate interests and politicians.

It must also go hand-in-hand with real, robust investment in bringing our infrastructure into the 21st century, investment in clean tech manufacturing, strong job quality standards and growing workers’ rights and power, and other policies to grow good jobs. These are the kind of investments included in the Build Back Better plan and the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Both are needed and needed urgently.

As coal-fired power plants, coal mines, and oil refineries close across the country, Congress has the responsibility to ensure that the burden of meeting emissions reduction targets does not fall disproportionately on the communities who have helped to keep the lights on for generations. President Joe Biden has said we must fulfill “our obligation to workers and communities who powered our industrial revolution and decades of economic growth.”

We agree. And now Congress has the opportunity to deliver on this promise and build back better by investing in the workers and communities that need it the most. They can start by making sure that the American Energy Worker Opportunity Act is part of the budget that will build back better.

Jason Walsh is executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance.

Tags Bob Casey Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Michael Bennet Sheldon Whitehouse Sherrod Brown Tammy Baldwin Tammy Duckworth Tina Smith

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