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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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Intertwined: The Labor Movement and LGBT Rights

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Through all the celebration of LGBTQ Pride this month, there’s been a valuable opportunity to reflect on the hard-fought victories, brutal setbacks, and tenacious struggles that have ultimately delivered so much for so many. And just as importantly, there has been time to think about what lies ahead in that fight for justice.

By the time I was elected president of the United Mine Workers of America in 1982, the fight for LGBTQ rights was already in full swing. Thirteen years after the Stonewall riots, activists were marching, shouting and organizing for the basic dignities they had been denied for so long. It was a groundbreaking movement for equal treatment in all the fundamental facets of life, from employment and housing to health care and personal safety.

These pioneers knew that change wasn’t simply going to be handed down from the halls of power or granted as an act of corporate benevolence. Change would only come when a diverse and united front stood together to demand it. In the face of unrepentant bigotry and blind loyalty to the status quo, grassroots organizing led the way forward.

It’s a basic principle that has always been at the heart of the labor movement. Progress, steadily gained, is fueled by the power of a mobilized community. Every victory in the fight against oppression has ultimately been achieved by that spirit of solidarity.

That’s certainly been true in the ongoing battle for justice on the job. From my first day in the coal mines of southwestern Pennsylvania, I knew that the only way to secure a brighter future was to lock arms and stand together. And that meant leaving no one behind.

That’s why we at the UMWA were so proud to help secure some of the earliest protections for same-sex couples in our members’ contracts, ensuring that all of our comrades had equal access to key benefits. We couldn’t afford to wait until it was popular.

And so unions offered a new refuge for gay workers. A place where full equality wasn’t just a mission, but an obligation.

Over the succeeding decades, LGBTQ Americans have won a flurry of progress. Public opinion shifted in favor of equality. Prominent figures, from sports to entertainment to politics, came out of the closet. Institutional disdain for the community gave way to unbending advocacy of justice. Trans rights were lifted up, the armed forces’ closet door was knocked down, and the constitutional right to marriage was unequivocally affirmed.

Perhaps no movement for social change has achieved so much so quickly. But even in a sea of rainbow flags—and even with marriage equality secured—there still remains too much of the discrimination endured by early protesters.

Today, you are free to marry who you love. But in most states, you can still be fired because of who you are. Unless, of course, you have the protection of a union contract.

The truth is that many of the fights left to be won are based on economic rights. They’re rooted in workers’ relationships with employers. The labor movement knows a thing or two about that.

The AFL-CIO’s constituency group Pride at Work continues to lead the way in advocating for the dignity of LGBTQ workers. The rights codified in so many union contracts over the years—from couples’ benefits to nondiscrimination to trans health care—have made headway that simply couldn’t have been gained otherwise.

For many LGBTQ Americans, a union card is their only form of employment protection. But more importantly, it signifies membership in a large and growing family ready to fight when it matters most.

That’s what the labor movement is all about. And it’s how the progress of tomorrow will be won.

So, here’s my ask for this Pride Month: Join a union. Check out Pride at Work and tackle the workplace challenges facing LGBTQ Americans the way this movement always has: Organize, organize, organize.

This blog was originally published at AFLCIO.org on June 26, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Richard L. Trumka is president of the 12.5-million-member AFL-CIO. An outspoken advocate for social and economic justice, Trumka is the nation’s clearest voice on the critical need to ensure that all workers have a good job and the power to determine their wages and working conditions. He heads the labor movement’s efforts to create an economy based on broadly shared prosperity and to hold elected officials and employers accountable to working families.


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Former Massey Energy CEO Indicted

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Jackie TortoraFor those of you who have been following the Massey Energy story, the Mine Workers (UMWA) passed along this news yesterday:

United States Attorney Booth Goodwin announced that a federal grand jury today returned an indictment charging Donald L. Blankenship, former Chief Executive Officer of Massey Energy Company, with four criminal offenses. The indictment charges Blankenship with conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards, conspiracy to impede federal mine safety officials, making false statements to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and securities fraud. The indictment alleges that from about Jan. 1, 2008, through about April 9, 2010, Blankenship conspired to commit and cause routine, willful violations of mandatory federal mine safety and health standards at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, located in Raleigh County, West Virginia. The indictment alleges that during this same period of time, Blankenship was part of a conspiracy to impede and hinder federal mine safety officials from carrying out their duties at Upper Big Branch by providing advance warning of federal mine safety inspection activities, so their underground operations could conceal and cover up safety violations that they routinely committed.

The indictment further alleges that after a major, fatal explosion occurred at Upper Big Branch on April 5, 2010, Blankenship made and caused to be made false statements and representations to the SEC concerning Massey Energy’s safety practices prior to the explosion. Additionally, the indictment alleges that, after this explosion, Blankenship made and caused to be made materially false statements and representations, as well as materially misleading omissions, in connection with the purchase and sale of Massey Energy stock.

The FBI and the United States Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General are in charge of the investigation. United States Attorney Booth Goodwin, Counsel to the United States Attorney Steven Ruby and Assistant United States Attorney Gabriele Wohl are handling the prosecution. The four counts charged carry a maximum combined penalty of 31 years’ imprisonment.

Click here to view a copy of the indictment. An indictment is only an allegation, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

The Massey Energy Upper Big Branch (W. Va.) deadly blast killed 29 in 2010. Families of the victims reacted to the indictment yesterday.

This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO.org on November 14, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://www.aflcio.org/Blog/Corporate-Greed/Former-Massey-Energy-CEO-Indicted

About the Author: Jackie Tortora is the blog editor and social media manager at the AFL-CIO.


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