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Why Every Job in the Renewable Energy Industry Must Be a Union Job

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We need millions of union jobs that are good for both workers and the climate.

The renew­able ener­gy indus­try in the Unit­ed States is boom­ing. Pri­or to the start of the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, which has put mil­lions out of work, over 3 mil­lion peo­ple worked in clean ener­gy?—?far more than those who worked in the fos­sil fuel indus­try. And though the decline of fos­sil fuel jobs appears unstop­pable, the unions that rep­re­sent those work­ers are very pro­tec­tive of their mem­bers’ jobs. Sim­i­lar­ly, they’ve also been resis­tant to leg­is­la­tion like the Green New Deal, which would cre­ate more green jobs while also tran­si­tion­ing away from work in extrac­tive indus­tries. Envi­ron­men­tal activists believe that green jobs are the future?—?for both work­ers and our world?—?but union­iza­tion rates in the renew­able ener­gy indus­try are extreme­ly low. In order to get unions on board with green jobs, the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment will have to fight for those jobs to be union. And unions will have to loosen their grip on fos­sil fuels in an effort to embrace renewables.

Fos­sil fuel jobs can pay well (both oil rig and refin­ery work­ers can take home around $100,000 per year), but due to automa­tion and decreased demand, the num­ber of jobs is shrink­ing. And so are the unions that rep­re­sent them. At its peak, the Unit­ed Mine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca boast­ed 800,000 mem­bers, but hun­dreds of thou­sands of work­ers have been laid off in the last few decades. Now UMWA is most­ly a retirees’ orga­ni­za­tion and only orga­nizes a few thou­sand work­ers in the man­u­fac­tur­ing and health care indus­tries, as well as work­ers across the Nava­jo Nation. When a union like UMWA hem­or­rhages mem­bers, many see it as an insu­lar prob­lem that doesn’t con­cern any­body else?—?envi­ron­men­tal­ists may even cel­e­brate the clo­sure of mines and refiner­ies, poten­tial­ly pay­ing lip ser­vice to lost jobs, with­out doing much to cre­ate new ones.

“An injury to one is an injury to all” is not just a slo­gan in the labor move­ment because it sounds good, but because it’s true. When union den­si­ty is low and unions are weak, the jobs that are cre­at­ed are more like­ly to have low pay, lack ben­e­fits, and be unsafe. And because union den­si­ty in this coun­try is already so low (33.6% in the pub­lic sec­tor, 6.2% in the pri­vate), every time an employ­er of union labor out­sources or shuts down, it affects not only those new­ly unem­ployed work­ers, but all work­ers, union and not. When oil refiner­ies and oth­er fos­sil fuel employ­ers close their doors, union mem­bers and oth­er work­ers lose their jobs. And while that may feel like a win for envi­ron­men­tal­ists, it’s also a loss for all work­ing peo­ple, even those con­cerned about cli­mate change. Unions are one of the only ways work­ing peo­ple have pow­er in this coun­try?—?with­out them, there will be very few orga­ni­za­tions equipped to fight for the pro­grams and ser­vices we deserve, includ­ing ones that are tasked with fight­ing cli­mate change. These kinds of con­tra­dic­tions have caused ten­sion between both move­ments, and cor­rod­ed trust between them. And while there have been some inroads made in the last few years—includ­ing unions endors­ing the Green New Deal—there’s still a long way to go until unions eschew fos­sil fuels.

Upton Sin­clair once said that ?“it is dif­fi­cult to get a man to under­stand some­thing when his salary depends upon his not under­stand­ing it.” When you’re able to feed your fam­i­ly on wages paid for by fos­sil fuels, it’s hard to see those same fos­sil fuels as a direct threat to your life. Most of us can under­stand why fos­sil fuel work­ers want to hold onto their jobs. And we can also under­stand why a major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans want to sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce the use of fos­sil fuels.

But between these two con­flict­ing needs is a real oppor­tu­ni­ty: green jobs. The Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics pre­dicts that the two fastest grow­ing jobs through 2028 will both be in the renew­able ener­gy sec­tor. While an eco­nom­ic down­turn due to Covid-19 could slow job growth, pre-pan­dem­ic reports showed that solar installers and wind tur­bine tech­ni­cians were set to grow by 63%. None of the 20 jobs pro­ject­ed to grow over 20% in the next eight years are in the fos­sil fuel indus­try. But the open­ing cre­at­ed by the renew­able indus­try for a part­ner­ship between the envi­ron­men­tal and labor move­ments is being squan­dered: Unions aren’t engag­ing in enough new orga­niz­ing, and envi­ron­men­tal­ists aren’t encour­ag­ing them. There are, of course, some heart­en­ing exam­ples of unions and greens work­ing togeth­er, like the Revers­ing Inequal­i­ty, Com­bat­ing Cli­mate Change report out of the Work­er Insti­tute at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty, which con­vened unions and pol­i­cy experts to devel­op rec­om­men­da­tions for new union jobs which would also fight cli­mate change. But most of the green jobs being cre­at­ed are not union: Only 6% of work­ers in both wind pow­er gen­er­a­tion and solar pow­er con­cen­trat­ing sys­tem work are union­ized, and 4% of work­ers in pho­to­voltaics, which cre­ate solar cells to con­vert light to electricity.

There are cur­rent­ly near­ly 335,000 solar work­ers in the coun­try, rep­re­sent­ing a huge oppor­tu­ni­ty for the Inter­na­tion­al Broth­er­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers (IBEW), which admits that ?“a dis­turbing­ly small per­cent­age of the elec­tri­cal work­ers who install res­i­den­tial solar pan­els in North Amer­i­ca belong to a union.” Work­ers on solar farms are more like­ly to be union­ized than rooftop solar installers, who can make as lit­tle as $12 per hour doing a dan­ger­ous job and risk­ing elec­tro­cu­tion or a dead­ly fall.

In These Times spoke with a for­mer solar installer, J., at Solar States, a solar installer and edu­ca­tor in Philadel­phia. Installers there start at $16 an hour and are offered paid time off, retire­ment and health care ben­e­fits. Most are Black and brown, and accord­ing to J., there’s a man­date for 50% of installers to live in the city lim­its. Lead installers can go up to $22 to $25, but that’s about the high­est they can make on res­i­den­tial jobs. This is why, accord­ing to J., solar installers try to get com­mer­cial work on large build­ings owned by the city, state or busi­ness­es, because it pays more and the jobs are longer—and they often work along­side union members.

On a recent instal­la­tion job on a city-owned build­ing, which trig­gered the pre­vail­ing wage pro­vi­sion, Solar States installers worked next to mem­bers of IBEW Local 98, lay­ing the solar pan­els while the union elec­tri­cians wired them. J. (who still works in the indus­try and wants to remain anony­mous) told In These Times that ?“there’s a lot of bad blood with the union, but I tried to tell my co-work­ers that the only rea­son we get pre­vail­ing wage is because of them.” Accord­ing to him, the ten­sion stems from inter­per­son­al issues when they work close­ly togeth­er, and the dif­fer­ences in their wages—IBEW can mem­bers make $72 an hour. Relat­ed­ly, the union is pre­dom­i­nate­ly white, and work­ers at Solar States are most­ly peo­ple of col­or, which has also caused ten­sion between the two groups.

Accord­ing to res­i­den­tial solar installers, Local 98 also hasn’t expressed any inter­est in bring­ing these work­ers into their union. (Local 98 didn’t return a request for com­ment.) J. told In These Times, ?“They don’t care about new orga­niz­ing. They want to make sure that all the white men that have been in IBEW for­ev­er con­tin­ue to com­mand a high wage. They have nev­er once tried to reach out to us, and we work side by side!” This may be because there is no cohe­sive man­date from the inter­na­tion­al union. In fact, dif­fer­ent IBEW locals in Cal­i­for­nia have had con­flict­ing opin­ions on green jobs: Local 18 has slammed the Green New Deal, while Local 428 has embraced job oppor­tu­ni­ties in the renew­able sec­tor. And while unions strug­gle inter­nal­ly over these issues, many envi­ron­men­tal­ists remain indif­fer­ent or unin­ter­est­ed in solar work­ers’ labor con­di­tions. J. said that ?“espe­cial­ly cus­tomers who are wealthy, they don’t real­ly think about it at all. Their ques­tion is not how much installers get paid, but how much is my car­bon foot­print offset.”

If envi­ron­men­tal­ists are tru­ly con­cerned about off­set­ting car­bon foot­prints and grow­ing the renew­able sec­tor, they’ll have to fight for gov­ern­ment inter­ven­tion—and to do so suc­cess­ful­ly, they’ll need unions on their side. In Philadel­phia, a Solar States cus­tomer can pay an aver­age of any­where between $21,000 and $26,000 for solar instal­la­tion on their home. With­out rebates, tax breaks and oth­er incen­tives, res­i­den­tial solar is finan­cial­ly out of reach for most peo­ple, mak­ing it seem more like a hob­by for the wealthy and less like an impor­tant step to fight cli­mate change. The Green New Deal, which calls for ?“meet­ing 100% of the pow­er demand in the Unit­ed States through clean, renew­able, and zero-emis­sion ener­gy sources,” could close this access gap. And with more than 12.5 mil­lion mem­bers, the AFL-CIO (the country’s largest labor fed­er­a­tion) is well poised to get more mod­er­ate Democ­rats on board with the leg­is­la­tion, which, if passed, would cre­ate mil­lions of jobs and expand unions’ ranks. But most unions see the Green New Deal as an attack on union jobs, rather than an oppor­tu­ni­ty to cre­ate more. And yet if renew­able ener­gy got the same kinds of sub­si­dies fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies have, mem­bers of build­ing trades unions would be clam­or­ing to install solar pan­els or wind turbines.

In the mean­time, if there’s a shared agree­ment between both the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment and the labor move­ment that cre­at­ing mil­lions of union jobs is a pri­or­i­ty, both need to actu­al­ly pri­or­i­tize it. Jobs that are good for the envi­ron­ment aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly good for work­ers, and jobs that are good for work­ers aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly good for the envi­ron­ment. We need jobs that are good for both, and to get there we need unions and envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions fight­ing for invest­ment, incen­tives and jobs—togeth­er. This could involve tying sub­si­dies to a cer­tain per­cent­age of union jobs, or fight­ing for project labor agree­ments at every poten­tial green job site. What­ev­er form it takes, this coali­tion must begin at the premise that a loss of union jobs is detri­men­tal to all work­ing peo­ple in this coun­try—and if we want to fight cli­mate change, the labor move­ment must take the lead, before it’s too late.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on August 10, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mindy Isser works in the labor movement and lives in Philadelphia. She is a frequent contributor to Working In These Times.


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Trump’s 2016 ‘America First’ energy speech was edited and preapproved by UAE and Saudi Arabia

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During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump was set to do a speech on energy in which he was going to start pitching the phrase “America First,” but before he went onstage to talk about his plans for American energy production, one of Trump’s advisers ran the speech past officials from the United Arab Emirates. And then copies were sent to Saudi Arabia. So it was America first—so long as the UAE and Saudis are okay with that. When he finally got around to sharing the speech with Americans, some of the language in Trump’s “America First” speech actually came from the UAE.

According to ABC News, it was Trump adviser Thomas Barrack who arranged to give representatives from the UAE a preview of the speech two weeks before Trump delivered it. An associate of Barrack’s provided the speech to both Saudi and UAE representatives, still before Trump had delivered it to Americans. Finally, Barrack worked with Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort to insert revisions made by the UAE into the speech that Trump actually delivered. Manafort wrote back to Barrack confirming that the final version of the speech included the language requested by the UAE.

Why is this coming to light now? Because investigators for the House Oversight Committee—the committee chaired by Rep. Elijah Cummings—have unearthed a trove of communications featuring Manafort, Barrack, and representatives from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Though Trump’s attack on Rep. Cummings appears to have been tied to a Fox News hit piece, the idea of going after the Oversight Committee chair might very much have already been on Trump’s mind.

The recommended language from Barrack’s UAE contact at one point included suggesting that Trump directly mention Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, but that apparently didn’t mesh too well with the screw-the-world tone of the speech that included Trump’s declaration that he would withdraw from the Paris agreement. The final speech included a toned-down version of the text requested by the UAE that said that Trump wanted to “work with our Gulf allies to develop a positive energy relationship as part of our anti-terrorism strategy.”

Barrack seemed to realize that this communication between the Trump campaign and a foreign government over the future of U.S. energy policy was problematic at best. In an exchange with Manafort, he noted that the language he was proposing to add to the speech was “probably as close as I can get without crossing a lot of lines.” Whether he’s concerned about crossing U.S. law, or crossing Mohammed bin Salman, isn’t clear.

Investigators for the Oversight Committee have collected more than 60,000 documents showing “intermingling of private interests and public policy decisions” by Trump both before and after the election. Some of this information was released in a report on Monday, and follows similar information released by the House in February after whistleblowers discussed these connections between the Trump White House and foreign governments.

The request to mention Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, along with the crown prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is of great interest. At the time of Trump’s speech, Mohammed bin Salman was not the crown prince. He wouldn’t assume that position until an internal “mini-coup” in 2017, immediately following Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia. Since then, Jared Kushner has made multiple trips to visit him, delivering to him classified information to use against his enemies. Trump has issued two vetoes of bills designed to halt arms sales used in Mohammed bin Salman’s expansive war in Yemen.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on July 30, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

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Renewables are winning the economics battle against new coal and gas, stunning study shows

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A new study reveals just how stunningly rapid the clean energy transition is.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) reported on Tuesday that renewables are now the cheapest form of new electricity generation across two thirds of the world — cheaper than both new coal and new natural gas power.

Yet just five years ago, renewables were the cheapest source of new power in only 1% of the world, explains BNEF in its New Energy Outlook 2019.

Equally remarkable, BNEF projects that by 2030, wind and solar will “undercut existing coal and gas almost everywhere.”

In other words, within a decade it will be cheaper to build and operate new renewable power plants than it will be to just keep operating existing fossil fuel plants — even in the United States.

The reason for this transformation is the remarkable drop in both solar and wind power prices this decade: Since 2010, wind power has dropped 49% in cost and solar plummeted 85%.

BNEF projects prices will continue to fall for the next decade and beyond, with the cost of solar panels and wind power dropping by another third by 2030. Overall, by 2050, the cost of solar electricity is expected to drop 63% compared to today, and the cost of wind will likely drop 48%.

Because of these ongoing price drops, the world is projected to invest a whopping $4.2 trillion in solar power generation in the next three decades. The result is that solar will jump from a mere 2% of global power generation today to a remarkable 22% in 2050.

Over the same three decades, global investment in wind power will likely hit $5.3 trillion, and wind is expected to rise from 5% of global electricity today to 26% in 2050.

The result is that we are shifting from a world today where two thirds of power generation is from fossil fuels to one three decades from now where two thirds is zero carbon. As BNEF puts it, we are “ending the era of fossil fuel dominance in the power sector.”

This article appeared originally in Think Progress on June 18, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

Dr. Joe Romm is a Fellow at American Progress and is the founding editor of Climate Progress, which New York Times columnist Tom Friedman called “the indispensable blog” and Time magazine named one of the 25 “Best Blogs of 2010.” In 2009, Rolling Stone put Romm #88 on its list of 100 “people who are reinventing America.” Time named him a “Hero of the Environment? and “The Web’s most influential climate-change blogger.” Romm was acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997, where he oversaw $1 billion in R&D, demonstration, and deployment of low-carbon technology. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from MIT.

 


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