Building a clean economy ‘on the high road’

When the U.S. House of Representatives passed the PRO Act last month, the labor movement celebrated – and for good reason. The measure would give working people a fairer shot at organizing unions, bargaining better wages and fighting back against rising income inequality.

But the PRO Act would be a win for the planet, too. That’s according to the BlueGreen Alliance (BGA), which lobbied for the PRO Act on behalf of 13 labor and environmental organizations.

Why? To address the climate crisis, the U.S. and other countries will need to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, and they will need to do it quickly. Mustering public support for that kind of massive political effort won’t happen, BGA Executive Director Jason Walsh said, unless there’s something in it for working people.

“We have to rebuild our infrastructure, we have to retool our manufacturing and we have to repower our grid with clean sources,” Walsh said in an interview for the March 2020 issue of the The Union Advocate. “That’s daunting, but it’s also an opportunity. And if we do it right, if we build this clean-energy economy on the high road, we have the ability to make this a more just and equal country and economy.”

Jason Walsh is executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance.

UA: The BGA works to advance policies that protect workers and the environment. That seems like divisive terrain right now. Where do you see potential to cut through the tension?

JW: Environmentalists and labor activists agree on much more than we disagree on. There have certainly been fights and disagreements. I’m not ignoring that. Those are hard, and they’re hard right now in places like Minnesota. But fundamentally, our labor partners and our environmental partners understand the interconnectedness of the fight for workers’ rights and environmental protection.

The PRO Act is an example of that. It’s obvious why our labor partners would support the PRO Act. Our environmental partners understand workers who are organized and empowered fight not only for their wages and benefits and job security, they also fight for things like making sure their plants don’t blow up, making sure that industries are not egregious polluters. Unions like the Steelworkers were some of the most important supporters of our bedrock environmental laws, like the Clean Air Act, because their members lived it and worked it.

UA: What does the clean-energy economy look like, and how do those jobs need to change?

JW: Not enough of the jobs created or promised are family-sustaining jobs. In 2019 only 4% of workers in solar electric power generation were union members, and only 5% of workers in wind power generation were union members. Obviously, the clean economy is much bigger than that, but those are the two fastest-growing sectors within it.

Companies within the clean-energy economy have just flat-out violated their employees’ rights to unionize. There’s Tesla, of course. There was also a solar company, Bright Power, in New York City, where workers were trying to join IBEW and were fired. And last year we saw at a company called Gestamp Wind in Texas, the company unlawfully firing and suspending employees, making threats, engaging in surveillance… It was so egregious that the National Labor Relations Board under the Trump administration ordered them to bargain with (Plumbers and Pipefitters) Local 404.

Why do those companies do that? They do it because they can, because our existing labor laws are completely toothless. That is why the PRO Act is so important as we make this monumental shift to a clean-energy economy.

UA: What’s the scope of this change our economy will need to go through?

JW: We’ve barely scratched the surface. We’ve seen a shift in the last 10 years within the power sector to renewable sources, but zero-emission power is still below 20% of the total. We have a transportation sector that is now the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. And we’ve got an industrial sector that is the fastest-growing source of emissions.

We’re going to have to shift all of them to zero-emissions sources by 2050, and we’ve never done anything at that scale before in this country.

UA: What potential is there for working people?

JW: To give a taste, just take the offshore wind industry, which is potentially enormous. There is, at this point, one offshore wind facility in this country, off of Block Island, Rhode Island, and it was built with union labor. This was just five turbines, but it created 300 jobs – electricians, welders, ironworkers, pile drivers, backhoe operators. That wind farm is now producing enough clean, local electricity to power 17,000 homes. We’ve got to do that by orders of magnitude more across the country.

There is a ton of work here, but we’re at this inflection point as to whether we’re going to continue what we’ve seen – mostly low-road, often low-quality jobs, almost exclusively nonunion – or build this economy along the high road.

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