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Labor's evolving support of a clean energy transition

Labor's evolving support of a clean energy transition
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There is long-dated precedent of labor movement support for transitioning economies to clean energy — in large part as building out renewable power, improving energy efficiency and mining critical minerals — offer the promise of creating “good” jobs and the potential to regalvanize the labor movement. 

More recently, the concepts of a “just transition” for fossil fuel workers and promoting social equity have evolved to be key tenets of labor platforms in the U.S and Europe. Support for fossil fuel projects have been the basis of dissonance among unions, but common ground is now being found at the state level for well-designed policies.

Major U.S. trade union recognition of climate change as a threat dates back at least 30 years. The United Steelworkers (USW) included it, along with air and water pollution, ozone depletion and acid rain, in its Environmental Task Force Report of 1990. Unions have been supportive of national legislation regarding climate change, for example, The BlueGreen Alliance’s  support for comprehensive cap-and-trade climate change legislation in 2009, and, more recently, the AFL-CIO’S expression of the urgency of both transitioning to a lower carbon economy and using the transition as a path to develop and keep good jobs in the U.S.

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Through the course of this history, it has been argued that unions also promoted a stronger linkage between the environment and the need for just transitions (JT). Unions appear to see themselves as key actors in achieving JT principles, primarily because they facilitate giving workers greater influence in societal transition design and administration. Not unrelated, U.S. unions have increasingly focused on using clean energy job creation as a vehicle to improve social equity. This includes supporting employment opportunities for women; according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), women held 32 percent of the global total of 11.5 million renewable energy jobs in 2019, in contrast with an estimated 22 percent of oil and gas jobs. 

The protection of fossil fuel workers through JT has now become enshrined in union demands regarding climate change policy. In fact some unions, including the AFL-CIO, that have advocated for climate change legislation, came out against the Green New Deal (GND) citing inadequate worker protections. (That said, unions appeared to have also decried that they weren’t part of the process of developing the GND.)

Another important flash point for the GND among unions was its advocacy for renewables-only energy. Some unions instead favor an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, which implies supporting fossil fuel-related jobs and investment projects (the Keystone pipeline being perhaps the most notorious recent example), as well as nuclear/hydro power generation and development of Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS). Such union advocacy has been both prescriptive —  the AFL-CIO and Energy Future Initiative’s Labor Energy Partnership recently laid out 10 specific elements — and unprescribed — arguing for market-driven policies, with the federal government setting carbon pricing and energy standards and thus allowing for non-renewable energy to find a way to meet the standards. 

If disagreements over the scope of energy transitions have aired at the national level, there has been more consensus-building among unions and successes at the state level. 

In New York, for example, a coalition of over a dozen union chapters (interestingly, without inviting environmental groups to the early discussions) developed the Climate Jobs New York plan, which targets hiring 10,000 workers related to renewables, energy efficiency and improving mass transit. The coalition has also negotiated with state officials on setting terms for wages, training facilities and labor agreements relative to the first offshore wind project.

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Also, the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs, founded in 2012, is a coalition with 33 affiliates including labor union chapters, environmental advocates and religious groups. It counts as successes campaigns that have halved utilities’ fixed charges to customers for access to electricity,  created legislation to push energy efficiency in buildings and promoted renewables development and specifically Connecticut’s 2,000MW of offshore wind.

Maine’s unions secured language in the Maine Green New Deal for the proportion of registered apprentices among workers in energy projects to rise over time — a priority to increase training commitments, which is thought to improve longer term pay and benefits for workers.

With large scale infrastructure investment increasingly part of the national dialogue, clean energy investment is positioned to play an important role. To meet any climate change goals, massive infrastructure build, along with lots of jobs, will be needed. Unions are well positioned to help shape such energy investment policy, including setting training and pay standards and offering a just transition for fossil fuel workers displaced in the energy transition.

Brad Handler is a senior fellow at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines and a former Wall Street Equity Research Analyst in the Oil & Gas sector.

Morgan Bazilian is a professor of public policy at the Colorado School of Mines and a former Lead Energy Specialist at the World Bank.