%s1 / %s2

Playlist: Science

Compiled By: Kristen Sevier

Caption: PRX default Playlist image
No text

Climate One (Series)

Produced by Climate One

Most recent piece in this series:

2022-01-28 State of the Unions: Navigating Job Creation and Destruction

From Climate One | Part of the Climate One series | 58:57


Host: Greg Dalton


Austin Keyser, Assistant to the International President for Government Affairs at International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)

Yvette Pena-O'Sullivan, Executive Director, Office of the General President, LiUNA 

Lee Anderson, Director of Government Affairs, Utility Workers Union of America

Carol Zabin, Director, Green Economy Program, UC Berkeley Labor Center 

Norman Rogers, Second Vice President of United Steelworkers, California


Transitioning to renewable energy is an essential, and massive, part of addressing the climate emergency. But that transition will bring major disruption to the fossil fuel industry.

A large coal or nuclear power plant can employ hundreds of people, while solar or wind farms, once operational, typically employ a couple dozen or fewer. Green jobs have also typically been nonunion, paying less than fossil fuel jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for a solar installer is about $45,000 a year, while a skilled worker at a coal plant may make $82,000 a year. 

As President Biden centers his climate plans on jobs, labor unions are jockeying for position in the clean energy economy. 

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers supported Trump’s rollback of Obama’s Clean Power Plan because many members work at coal plants. But in 2020 the union endorsed candidate Joe Biden, and the union is firmly behind much of the president’s climate agenda. While recognizing that climate change is a threat, the Laborers’ International Union of North America and the Utility Workers Union of America are skeptical of promises of a just transition.

“You can’t tell someone who’s been working…over 25 years, trained to work in a [fossil fuel] plant, oh, you’re gonna go build a wind farm; it doesn’t work that way,” says Yvette Pena-O'Sullivan with the Laborers’ International Union of North America. “But I think that our policymakers and our lawmakers have really woken up to the fact that it's not that simple. It’s important to have workers at the table, to have unions at the table, the communities at the table, to see how exactly we can transition the economy and do it smartly, slowly, knowing that we’ve got climate goals that we have to achieve, because we all do care about climate change. But doing so in a way that’s not gonna hurt working families everywhere.”

As some carbon-heavy plants and industries shut down, many unions are concerned about job losses, and what follows.

“It’s not just that a job is lost, it's that maybe now you’ve got to move two states away to get another job and pretty soon your community is emptied out and there’s this diaspora of families and communities,” says Lee Anderson, director of government affairs for the Utility Workers Union of America. He says that can lead to a rise in social ills, like addiction and abuse. 

Austin Keyser with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers says the increasing frequency of climate disruptions underscores the need for a systems change, so long as workers are supported.

“There's no doubt that there’s climate change, whether it’s coastal, major storms in places like Iowa that’s just damaging crops and destroying all sorts of things and major winter storms that are more frequent. And we don’t want to continue to see that happen. But we also know there’s major infrastructure investments that have to happen here in order to defend against what’s happening,” he says. “Build Back Better is the first real industrial policy proposal that this country has seen, a comprehensive industrial policy.”

Carol Zabin, director of the Green Economy Program at the UC Berkeley Labor Center, says union support can help speed up state and federal policy development and implementation as this transition occurs.   

“As we develop the specific policies to address greenhouse gas emissions in all sectors of the economy… we really have to incorporate labor standards and labor policies that result in good jobs in those industries that we are trying to change,” Zabin says, as well as creating pathways into those good jobs for those who have been excluded to ensure racial equity. Zabin says we need to deal head-on with the displacement of fossil fuel workers by “keeping them whole” depending on the stage of their career. 

“And they have to be at the table in terms of economic diversification in their communities. They need a voice and they need to feel like they are part of this future economy and not just stuck in the old fossil fuel dependent economy,” Zabin says.

This episode was supported in part by The ClimateWorks Foundation.


Related Links:

Green Economy Program, UC Berkeley Labor Center